06.07 – 27.07.2019
Stellenbosch – a town that systematically washes itself of the aesthetic trace of the Khoi-Khoi, Cape Malay or Muslims slaves sailed in on Spice Route Voyages – is haunted in the church-turned Gallery of the University of Stellenbosch (GUS) through the multimedia exhibition ‘Portals’ by Scott Eric Williams and Friends. The exhibition facilitates a trans-era, spatial dialogue that empowers by making visible those who are disempowered and rendered invisible.
The conversation framed by ‘Portals’ ties in different time periods where the past, present and future confront each other in a shared gallery space. The tension of confrontation is rife in this exhibition, achieved through references to slave ships, construction-worker-turned-superheroes, a gratified building in a township, and early Cape Malay children; which are all stories reconciled with recognition into a space that negates them in the broader sense.
Upon venturing across the smooth mahogany wooden floors, one is confronted by Access and Trade which is the gateway interlinking the “then” to the “now”. Access and Trade is a white shoelace woven sculpture: shaped in resemblance of two Dutch-styled concrete gate pillars that are coming undone from the bottom. Suspended from the center of the gallery ceiling, these pillars are firm, yet flow from a process of self-dismantling. Woven in white, this sculpture hangs in harmony with the aesthetics of the white-walled gallery space and Stellenbosch as a whole. The religiosity behind maintaining the whiteness of town walls reminds the public to whom the town belongs to and whom it does not recognize. Thus, this artwork references the 1913 and 1960 Land Acts which are perpetuated through (physical and symbolic) gatekeeping mechanisms that prevent the social inclusion of brown bodies and their access of both spaces and the wealth of such a town. The shoelaces that once gave form to the pillars but are now devolving the structure in order to reconstruct a fresh narrative that recognizes urban street culture and an array of systematically forgotten identities.
Transitional Space is discovered in the next room. A wheat-paste graffiti composition of juxtapositions filled with enigma. The boldly black-and-white Moroccan mosaic door floats besides the ghost of a Cape Malay teenage girl whose vibrance is drained from her face, seemingly by the saintly white robe she wears. Poignant in her appearance: the girl’s stare travels yonder, haunting the present back into the past, as her gaze traces the slave ship that later brought us here (to quote Blackstar’s Astronomy (8th light)). On either side of her face are stickers that read “wanted-a blesser 021-808-3489”- a contemporary and colloquial indicator of her socio-economic standings. The mosaic portal transported a historical Cape Malay female figure who appears stripped from her homeland, white-washed by coloniality and then delivered into the present. The urban wall on which she resides contrasts her translucent pitiful appearance.
‘Portals’ stretches beyond the “then” and “now” conversations by dancing into a world of fun possibilities. In subversion of the social hierarchies that make the everyday construction workers invisible, the video slideshow Pniel Open showcases Thandiwe Mqokeli as a Sci-Fi/Afro-Futuristic dancing wonder-woman located in different landscapes and settings. Complimented by a fitting royal-blue superhero costume dress (created by Lesiba Mabitsela), accentuated by an orange-and-yellow reflector vest which indeed recalls the uniform of a construction worker.
In Activate 1, Mqokeli is captured in dynamic movement as she steps barefoot onto the cement floor, leaning into an elegant diagonally downward swoop and is about to lift off into the next step of her dance. Framed in an abandoned building with nothing but the grey of cement wall that features scribbled writings- there also appears, once again- the portal directly behind the dancer. Untitled Image 2 is shot in the green scenery landscape of Pniel, catching Mqokeli in the motions of her choreography.
Mqokeli’s depiction in Pniel Open is reminiscent of Mary Sibande’s sculptural installations of Sophie who, as a a domestic worker in post-apartheid South Africa, finds refuge and solace in dreams. Untitled 1 makes me think of Sibande’s Reign installation where Sophie queers the social hierarchy and its binaries that presuppose who is “empowered” or “disempowered”; “master” or “slave”, a “superhero” or “ordinary black woman”. Untitled 2 echoes Mary Sibande’s Caught in Rapture where Sophie is caught in a spider web dream- except with Mqokeli, we see dance in liberation from all social confines prescribed narratives of what role a black woman is designated in society. In power and pose, she probes a rhetorical question: “you know who else is a black star (who?) ME”.
Scott Eric Williams and Friend’s ‘Portals’ engages time, space, people and their stories into a single exhibition that provokes the past into the present. It subverts social hierarchies by reflecting back visibility. Poignant, yet playful, old yet new- this exhibition provokes with food for thought.