13.02 - 31.05.2021
It’s the photography that stands out – perhaps because the images are all of people unmasked and pressed together under different circumstances. And when you haven’t seen something for a while, you see it more keenly. Six of the seventeen works in ‘Mixed Company’, a group show at the Norval Foundation curated by Khanya Mashabela, are photographs. It is a small but rich offering spanning from 1942 to the present and combining important historical artists along with younger perspectives on the theme of interpersonal connection.
Jody Brand’s All that you touch you change. All that you change. Changes you. has a yearning quality. The costume-y jewelry and formal dress of the subjects imply a stilted performance of intimacy or an attempt to reconnect. A mother’s hands are folded across her fur stole, and they remain in position, their burgundy nails glistening, as her daughter reaches around to comfort her. The formality of the props and the focus on this small gesture suggests an uneasy relationship.
Three photographs by David Goldblatt document life on the mines in South Africa around 1970.
The Nightshift Prepares to Go Down is a detailed image of miners in overalls clambering atop and around metal lifts which hang from chains. Uniformed and in sync they are about to descend against a backdrop of enormous beams. These men form part of the industrial process. The stifling depths and the thunder of machinery implied here, are explicit in the second photograph; a close up of three miners, shoulder-to-shoulder in a confined space. Their lower limbs and faces are consumed by darkness. A lengthy title explains their working conditions:
Sheltering behind his shovel from a stinging gale of grit as the shaft bottom is “blown over” by a man with a compressed air hose. Before drilling of holes for explosives can commence, the bottom must be cleared of grit and pebbles that might conceal sockets containing unexploded charges from the previous round of blasting. Copper is used for the nozzle of the hose so as to avoid sparks that might detonate the explosion of a “misfire”. (1970).
Explosions are one of many potential dangers when pitting flesh and bone against the mineral anatomy of a mine. There is no question, in these situations, in these real-life photographs, that these men were expendable. They were faceless muscle. Tools for extraction. And like tools they were housed without thought for comfort or aesthetics. Goldblatt’s third photograph shows rows of small concrete bunks at an abandoned mine in Germiston. The “beds” look like scaled-up compartments of a printer’s tray. Hanging close by is Gerard Sekoto’s oil painting Workers on a Saturday from 1941, which also shows the communal sleeping arrangements of labourers, but where his brushstrokes convey the lived-in, convivial atmosphere of the dormitory, we do not see Goldblatt’s subjects off-duty. We only know their hive-like efficiency and their solemn regard for the stakes of their work. These images become harder to look at as their content becomes clearer.
Another pair of black and white photographs, larger and crisper than Goldblatt’s are by Musa N. Nxumalo. Vogue nights V is printed on cloth, its gentle ripple mirrors the silky floral gown worn by the figure at its centre. In a marquee, raised above a mingling crowd, she holds her hands in a pious pose. A flapper-esque rhinestone headdress falls against her features like a veil. In the background is a blurred figure in a white dress. The title invokes high fashion and queer dance culture.
In the second photograph the crowd has coalesced around the figure. People whoop into cupped hands, gawking, mesmerised. The performer has turned and slid the gown down to reveal a glistening black spine and the T of a leopard print thong. A drag-queen in a satiny wedding dress and tiara sings or announces the transformation. The verdict is in the title: 10! 10! 10! (2020). These images contain the DNA of the nightclub, they are heady, sweaty, brimming with excitement and sexuality. Nxumalo has joined the baton bearers for monochromatic nightclub photography, after the likes of Dianne Arbus and Billy Monk, as well as photographers such as Santu Mofokeng, whose mode of fine-art cum photo-journalism challenged conceptions of Black people by presenting them with honesty and agency.
Because of the events of 2020, many of the photographs exhibited in ‘Mixed Company’ exert a startling truth value. Their content, whether real or staged, represented a moment in time – which viewed through the lens of COVID 19 – contains latent information about how we interacted not so long ago. When history happens so quickly we become aware of the parts of our lives that might only have been of interest to historians.
Many interactions in all their newly-outlawed, virus-spreading intimacy are also catalogued in drawings by Selby Mvusi, Leonard Matsoso and Omar Badsha, as well as in Dada Khanyisa’s, An Underrated Form of Intimacy – a multimedia relief work with the instantly-accessible entertainment-value of reality TV, which shows the interactions of six stylish party-goers.
Looking more like the parents’ carpet after a house party, the aftermath of all this revelry can be seen in Kresiah Mukwazhi’s Chemical Reactions – a title that implies you wouldn’t want to see it under a black light. It is a bolt of 222 x 335cm fabric dotted with tinsel, Zimbabwean dollar bills and sequined material. Among haphazard splashes of colour are suggestions of figures. Because there isn’t a single orderly element to signal that the chaos is intentional, the work appears buckled and bedraggled and it contains a brashness at odds with the fragile connectedness many of the other works hold dear.
A set of three John Muafangejo woodcuts evoke the feeling of belonging in a crowd. The rhythmic repetition of figures transforms them into a throng with a singular purpose. Some drink together around a large vessel, some worship before a weeping priest and some admire a posse of well dressed women. The lines Muafangejo carved between the figurative elements connote the flow of attention, attraction and conversation.
Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi paints gymnasts in a huddle in Ceremony. The figures’ group-hug is a parable of solidarity in the context of an individual sport, especially gymnastics, a sport that the world didn’t associate with people of colour until Simone Biles.
Yet the subjects of these works are not the subjects of the show, which is arguably how experience changes when it is shared. The circumstances of the relationships shown in Mixed Company are secondary to the fact that they are in-person relationships. They show what happens when people share space. What happens when you work next to someone, knowing their strengths and weaknesses as they know yours, when you delegate memories to your partner, when you lock eyes with someone, when you feel the chemistry of a room heaving with people. It is also about the chemistry between the works which together paint a picture of the many forms relationships take. ‘Mixed Company’ asks us to remember ourselves as we were in company, because we will be again.