Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
13.03 – 16.04.2019
We live in a contaminated time in which, because of a heightened collective consciousness, zeitgeist, or ‘group think’, we find ourselves more in agreement than not. I doubt this is a good thing – living and thinking in packs – but we like it like that.
On occasion, however, it is good to find shared expressions, especially among artists who are so radically dissimilar. Stephané E. Conradie and Thania Petersen, who exhibited their shows in adjacent galleries, MOMO and WHATIFTHEWORLD, on Buiten Street in Cape Town’s CBD, is an example of a non-predictive confluence. Both artists address compromised belief systems, desecrated homes (literal and psychological), and both find in everyday objects the angle into understanding the vulnerability of received allegiances and taste. All importantly, however, both artists refuse to be wholly defined by the ideology or view-point which informs their work. Rather, it is the materiality of the thing-in-itself, matter, that matters. For art – like material culture or religion – cannot be reduced to statement.
If the home as a place of rest, containment, order, or hope, is under siege in both Conradie and Petersen’s works this is because, like Santu Mofokeng, both artists realise the “home is an appropriated space; it does not exist objectively in reality“, but as “a fiction we create out of a need to belong“.
The home, then, is another ideological zone. In South Africa, however, that zone, subject to rezoning and forced removals, has meant that communities have never wholly experienced settlement or rootedness. Existing, rather, in turmoil and corrosive uncertainty, people and the homes they occupy have never been truly places of settlement, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual.
It is in this regard that Stephané E. Conradie’s show – ‘Domestic Lives, Nomadic Belongings’ – assumes its greatest traction. More about displacement than settlement, Conradie’s works focus on the objects, small and mobile, which we collect, and which we can carry with us when forced to move on. For her domesticity is shaped by the things we collect – most notably in the artist’s case the cheap porcelain bric-a-brac with which we – the relatively poor or working class – decorate our bedside tables and counters.
Inexpensive treasures, these porcelain figurines are not merely the tropes for an incorrectly maligned ‘kitsch’ taste, but the attractors of small and consoling pleasures. Their worth, prior to being salvaged and reconfigured by Conradie, lies not in their monetary value but in their capacity to bind us when we feel most fragile and desolate. The American ethnographer, James Clifford, agrees. Collecting, he says, is about making the world ‘one’s own’, it’s about ‘channeling obsession’.
Collecting, then, is never an idle activity. And neither is it as innocent as some suppose. In ‘The Morality of Things’, Bruce Chatwin reminds us that “The true collector is a compulsive voyeur in life, protected by a stuffing of possessions from those he would like to love, possessed of the tenderest emotions for things and glacial emotions for people“.
This, however, is not the disease which afflicts Conradie. While she recognises a dysfunctionality intrinsic to home-making in a besieged country, she nevertheless also recognises the consolation generated through things. It is therefore the tension between dysfunction and function, placelessness and place, the nomadic and sedentary, which gives her reassembled and salvaged works their force.
Raised in Namibia and South Africa, the daughter of an interracial marriage deemed impermissible, Conradie well understands what it means to be ‘born a crime’. But it is not a historically misconstrued illegitimacy that moves her. Her works are not centred on a psycho-pathological fetish – the complex of bloodstain-degeneration – but on quite another illegitimacy: the illegitimacy of things, of bought and found objects, the discarded fall-out of lost or shrunken lives, the residual traces of memories now forgotten or remembered fleetingly in passing. For objects, or things, change in the minds of people. Unchangeable – except when damaged or broken – they are, in truth, never the same, never a single thing.
By reassembling the objects which she has gathered from homes and second-hand stores, where things go to die or be reincarnated, Conradie gives them a second life. However, her found objects are also wholly redefined and re-contextualised. For it is what Conradie does with the things she amasses which is of particular relevance here. Reliquaries spring to mind, as do funerary displays and the morbid history of Dutch still-life painting.
But there is also a rejuvenated sense that the past – or the things that represent that past – is not over, and that the memory of that past need not be something bad or morbid. It is precisely this tendency which Stephanie Tilenius – speaking about the proliferation of online secondhand clothing startups – highlights in the September 2014 issue of Wired magazine: ‘Millenials don’t want to own things, they want to rotate; they want the experience of new stuff – novelty-as-re-tread’.
Conradie traffics between past and present, death and reincarnation, novelty as re-tread. She is a mongo, a rag-picker, whose domain is not a landfill but peoples’ homes. Hers is an intimate archaeology, for what Conradie, after Marcel Maus, recognises acutely is that “Souls are mixed with things, things with souls”. For her a contamination and a blessing are interchangeable, as is waste and grace. What matters is how we re-orchestrate our lives and the lives of others. The past is never another country.