Housed in a former tram shed that was operational between 1906 and 1961, the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) positions itself as the antithesis to the white cube. The building is listed as a heritage site and so it was restored to maintain the original brick structure and certain fittings such as lights and doors; together with the new glass and steel a sense of the past and present exists simultaneously. Like the exterior, the gallery walls are red-brick rather than bright white and dim lights shine over the artworks in warm orange orbs. The notion that white walls are a way to maintain neutrality while viewing artworks is untrue in this case — it has an immediate appeal.
The inaugural exhibition, ‘Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South’ or ‘#CFIGS’ features Bharti Kher, Nandipha Mntambo, Wangechi Mutu, Shirin Neshat and Berni Searle, and explores their constructions of female identity. The show includes works from 1999 to 2019 and offers a contemporaneous insight into the artists’ conceptions of female identity over the 20-year period.
Over the next few years the JCAF will curate its exhibition program according to the theme ‘Female Identities in the Global South’ opening with ‘#CFIGS’ and followed by exhibitions titled ‘Performative Female Identities in the Global South’ and ‘Modernist Female Identities in the Global South’. ‘#CFIGS’ is set to run for an indeterminate period. Shaping the exhibitions as ‘in progress’ rather than as an event emphasises the desire to center women of colour in the exhibition programme over several years as a means to address ‘missing chapters’ and attempt historical redress within these spaces.
In Snow White (2001), Berni Searle sits under a stream of flour that eventually covers her brown skin turning it white. By changing the colour of her skin, Searle highlights the inherent problem with using racial categories and classification as an organising principle. Projected onto two screens and filmed from different angles, Searle finally claims her body back by wiping the flour off and onto the floor. The video concludes with the artist kneading dough on the floor, now wet with water that we hear dripping from above. Making her own body available, the work takes us through a cycle of visibility and erasure. The final act of kneading is a demonstration taking charge of her own identity by refusing erasure.
In an enclosed space in the gallery, Shirin Neshat’s Soliloquy (1999) is projected on dual screens facing one another. The artist is split across the two screens: in one she is seen journeying through Mardin, Turkey (at its border with Iran) and in the other she is in Albany, New York. This work depicts Neshat at the intersection of these two cultures. Hard to forget is the exchange between the two screens – when Neshat is animated on one side, she side stands still on the other making eye contact with herself and the viewer. When dealing with this work, the application of double-consciousness could be useful; the two-ness that Neshat experiences from the chasm between home and diaspora, belonging in neither, and the personal longing for a place she can’t return. Her works are culled from her personal life and are a reflection of an artist in exile – navigating space, occupying it and having to leave it all behind.
The intensity of the stare is also felt in Europa (2008) by Nandipha Mntambo. The photographic work shows a half-animal, half-human, hybrid creature modeled on Mntambo herself and makes references to the Greek myths of Europa and Zeus. The hybrid presence in her works is a characteristic of her practice and appears in her photography and sculpture over several bodies of work. In Mntambo’s work hybridity is a vehicle for the paradox of female beauty and ugliness, and the alluring and the repulsive. In a society where race and gender are polarised, ‘#CFIGS’ curator Clive Kellner proposes throughout the exhibition that hybridity may represent a productive line of enquiry for understanding various identity formations in a society.
The hybrid appears again Bharti Kher in Self Portrait (2017), a photographic work where the artist adds baboon features to her own portrait. Interested in the complexities of human experience, Kher uses the hybrid in this instance as a metaphor for the parallels between how society treats animals and how it marginalises people who are different. The artist was born to Indian parents in London, and now living and working in New Delhi, she is familiar with feelings of hybridity or mixedness. The hybrid in the portrait returns the gaze perhaps as a signal of resistance and the woman asserts her presence to reclaim her subjectivity. This ape hybrid is just one of the characters that appears in Kher’s cast of characters which includes cast female forms.
Wangechi Mutu’s Water Woman (2017) brings an element of mystery and mythology to this exhibition. The work is a bronze cast sculpture of a nguva, a water-woman, that exists both on land and in water. It is influenced by coastal East African mythologies of a siren, a female, fish-like creature that utilises her power to drag people, especially men, into the ocean. Mutu finds this myth powerful because in the face of traditional patriarchal cultures at the coast of Kenya, ‘it gives women the option to turn into these powerful, indefinable creatures’, she says. ‘It is such a testament to all the possibilities of what a woman can do in a place where she is not actually permitted to do much.’1 Bidouzo-Coudray, Joyce. “Wangechi Mutu Takes On Transmutation As a New Form of Existentialism”, Another Africa. 13 October 2014 The artist weaves together social reality and fiction and like Kher, she populates her practice with mythological creatures, cyborgs and hybrids.
The running theme of hybridity disrupts any notion of a pure female identity in the global South – if anything, the works show that hybridity is a strategy to transform identity. In the world of the exhibition the artists reveal female identity as negotiable and permeable. They transgress boundaries and cross borders (real and fictional) in exploration of the potentiality of their identity. Maybe it’s that exhibitions have been closed for a long time but ‘#CFIGS’ is inspiring and essential viewing for audiences in Johannesburg and visiting.