Michaelis Galleries recently staged their first speculative inquiry in the form of a survey of abstraction. This exhibition seeks to investigate abstraction through the practices of living black women artists working outside of traditional mediums of painting and sculpture.
In her 2014 text, Postcinematic Essays After the Future, filmmaker Hito Steyerl speaks of two types of speculation; firmative and affirmative. The former is speculation in the service of control and it is rooted in the need to predict and manage the future. The latter is speculation that sabotages the exploitation of a potential quick profit and ‘concern[s] itself with uncertainty that must not be reduced to manageable quantities’– a type of unpredictable and unexpected knowledge found in practices of speculative living.
Affirmative speculation creates space for a potential opening, allowing us to expand the landscape of what is possible. This type of speculation allows for a sense of comfort with unknowing. When we think about this in relation to processes of artmaking we know that Western standards insist on rooting the West as the centre, with an exploitative organising logic that renders difference as other, tribal, oriental, hidden and therefore ‘discoverable’. What is unknown is the extent to which the terrain of abstraction can be stretched. This inquiry explores that terrain.
The exhibition is cross-generational and brings together a myriad of artists creating across different times and mediums – depicting things not as they appear around us but rather through shape and form. Philiswa Lila’s love letters are constructed from beads to create a suspended tapestry of lines and rectangles in white, blue, orange and red. Nabeeha Mohamed’s watercolour on paper forms arches, clear and precise. One image, in particular, triggers a chilling effect; the combination of a dark blue hue against a bed of green conjure up feelings of a nightmare like being left alone in the dark as a child. Faatimah Mohamed-Luke’s ordering of plastic blocks adhered to Plexiglas (Decolournie white and Decolournie black) present a compositional style of foregrounding where subjects are placed against a white or black background with a formal balance of regularity and repetition. The images are dynamic and seem to move with depth and coherence.
What is most refreshing about the show is the deliberate and compelling use of material by the artists within their practices. Consideration of transitions between different stages of matter and the hybridisation of materials results in powerful constructions: Turiya Magadlela’s cotton and nylon pantihose (Sugar and spice I, 2019), Brownyn Katz’s salvaged bedsprings and wool (rooi spoor i, 2018), Senzeni Marasela’s recto and wool on shawl (Failing 4, 2019) and Nokuphila Gwala’s acrylic paint, ink, bitumen and glue on toilet paper (Skin, 2018). This is abstraction unbound by the flatness of a surface where tactility is embraced. Our sense of touch is triggered, the calming texture of nylon and cotton, the controlled elasticity of the bedspring, the smooth and hairy consistency of soft wool and the surprising durability of toilet paper suspended from the ceiling. What happens when materiality becomes the basis for the aesthetic experience of the abstracted?
Although the work is abstracted and seems to follow the inherent attractiveness of arrangements of form and colour, it remains deeply personal. We see this through Lizette Chirrime’s use of textiles and printed fabrics in a practice of healing through restitching. In her work UNtitled 2 the complexities of life – emotional experiences, intimate relationships and the haunting past – are captured through strong composition with appendages protruding and grasping, floating in water.
‘Speculative Inquiry #1 (On abstraction)’ offers us space to (re) consider ‘women’s work.’ Women have been making abstract works as early as 1905 with the likes of Swedish painter Hilma AF Klint. Of course, formal records of Black women making abstract work are largely absent but we have the likes of Alma Woodsey Thomas and Sylvia Snowden as models within the contemporary fine art discourse. The past and the future are brought closer together through speculation. We look back at history and untangle knots as a way to understand. Speculation becomes a mode to collapse time; beginning with a single mark to create lines, shapes, harmony and movement. Gestures of reflection, shadow, refraction and diffusion are made possible and visible through simple geometric forms.
Within this exhibition, there is a lot to take in: delicate lines, careful stitchings, hatchings and cross hatchings, an ordering and disordering assembled into a coherent whole. Abstraction becomes a way to fabulate stories and new realities where the vision and voice of the artist creates new languages through careful placement of repeated elements in a work.