SMITH Studio, Cape Town
10.04 – 04.05.2019
Both Michaelis graduates, Thandiwe Msebenzi and Bert Pauw celebrate their first solo shows with SMITH Gallery in tandem. ‘Utata Undiphotha Inwele’, or ‘my father plaits my hair’ is an ongoing conversation that has travelled with Msebenzi since her collection titled Awundiboni. In Awundiboni, or ‘you don’t see me’, Msebenzi began to dissect the manner with which patriarchy was projected onto and affected her, while now, she chooses to focus on the perspective of its effects on the men in the circumference of her life, her youth and her understanding of her father. “I saw some young men that grew up violent, but at the same time I was blown away by other men around me who grew up in the very same violent environment, but never became violent themselves,” the artist relates.
The narrative of her work unabashedly swarms around the debates of toxic masculinity, the womanhood that thrives amongst it, community, culture and all the elements that arise from the intersections between. Perhaps in particular how there would be moments that called for the reversal of what was considered the norm; shown with Qula and Ndilindile whereby her grandmother defended her livestock by challenging a man to fight, or more intimately, when her father began to plait her hair. Thandiwe believes that art allows for more intuitive expressions and fluidity that help break out of these simplistic binaries of what it means to be a man or a woman, according to SMITH’s encapsulation of her exhibition.
Moving between what consists mostly of self-portraits, these cumulative conversations take shape specifically as a reflection of the artist herself, nuancing the metaphor. “I’m using my own body to talk about others’ stories” she says. Msebenzi hones in on the ways in which these experiences shaped her, and holds up the reflection to the audience. ‘Look here’ she says with Utata Undiphota Inwele I and Utata Undiphota Inwele, how the girl is cradled and safe, entombed in a moment of utter disregard for whatever ideas others may shape of her father, or men like him. Again, the eye is guided to her series Egwaveni I, II and III, where the shape, colour and intensity hold fast the audience’s attention. The simplicity of the execution can be misleading, as introspection is almost assumed in order to partake.
While Msebenzi didn’t start the conversations coalescing around the global debate of gender, masculinity, or femininity; she certainly adds a vital outlook that marks clearly where we have been failed by the concept of the binary, still reeling with the after-effects closer to home. “Violence is not innate, otherwise everyone that I grew up with would be violent,” she told SMITH; drawing from the nexus of her work the bottom line between what lies on the surface and years of hapless perpetuation on our part to uphold ideals we’ve long disproved through our own experience. The beauty birthed in the quiet rebellion of ‘role reversal’ or a community of black boys simply being as they are is what lingers long after stepping into the world of Thandiwe Msebenzi. A sort of hopefulness that weaves itself in as carefully and purposefully as a black man braiding his child’s hair.
Moving along with the obligation that guides an artist into introspection and creation, Bert Pauw’s work aims to focus on the process of art-making itself; its curation of mediums and styles, its exploration, and alleviation. Titled ‘Rescue Remedy’, Pauw utilises a number of mediums in the formation of his ode to the mundane. He tackled the age old adage between form and function; as he brings forth a platform upon which these functional objects are removed from their purpose, and instead presented in a singular capacity to be consumed anew. Pauw aims to subvert the very production of these objects, such as plastic bags, cans and cereal boxes by celebrating them and not what was inside of them, drifting closely to the realm of debate regarding ethical consumption. Referring to his work as ‘anti-opulence’, Pauw defends his use of every-day, accessible materials, condemning the excess and reckless scale with which some other artists create.
His works inhabit a space that is difficult to immerse yourself in, simply as the world has set the bar too high in terms of what deserves our attention. It almost seems wasteful staring at a can, a hollow one at that, and then it seems strikingly arrogant what needs to be done to afford our gaze. How we can manage to be so reductive and presumptuous. The scale Pauw spoke of, the sensationalism, the aggressively out-of-reach impression left on every price tag of art shipped the world over begins to settle differently on the tongue.
Perhaps here lies another career parallel between Pauw and Msebenzi; the intensity of their introspection presented with an uncanny simplicity. They gift the audience with the tools needed to do more than insert themselves in the art, but rather to ask where the art can insert itself in the audience. In Pauw’s case, this would be a matter of not only holding these immoderate artists accountable, but the audience bred in their stead as well. His works, and their intention volley swiftly between what is, what should be, and ultimately what is left behind once we have what we want. Yet there is more than resentment or resignation that lingers. Here lies another hopefulness; that something beautiful can be made, and can be said (to spite/despite) it all.