Iziko South African National Gallery
09.04 - 30.09.2021
It was so good to see them: those remarkable artworks by Moshekwa Langa and Senzeni Marasela from the ISANG permanent collection. Having become almost mythical in their reputation, and elusive in their exhibition footprint, they appear again in ‘Territories Between Us,’ an exhibition curated by Tšhegofatšo Mabaso currently on at the Iziko South African National Gallery. Just like old friends that you both know, and possibly don’t know any longer, after years of distance and photos sent back and forth, after snippets of conversation picked up and dropped, you wonder if the seductive sweetness of nostalgia might have tinted your memory. Walking through the temple-like entrance of the Gallery, greeted by the peeling wall paint of its still-graceful façade, I could not shake off the nagging thought: would they still be as good as I remembered them to be?
They certainly were. I was grateful for the opportunity to relive the moments of joy and revelation, recognition and wonder, as I navigated the sparsely curated spaces that make up the show, which brings together these celebrated works held in the permanent collection with new acquisitions by Donna Kukama and Zyma Amien, as well as a few loans from young contemporary artists with more recent reputations like Teresa Firmino, Nykallo Maleke, Helena Uambembe and Bronwyn Katz.1 The show also includes works by Simnikiwe Buhlungu which were not fully installed or accessible during my visit to the exhibition. The curatorial conversations, spread through the four rooms, intend to discuss, among many other things, the role of the national collection in writing the history of South African art. It evokes its successes and its failures, the heavy burden of European colonial history and its near impossible mandated mission to represent a nation that still struggles over its own identity.
The question that hovers in the still air of the dark halls, hidden deep within the hard-to-access academic jargon of the curatorial statement, resonates beyond the walls of the gallery. How does one create a meaningful conversation between parties that constantly run the risk of speaking past each other, whose memories and histories, though intertwined, have also been forced to the opposite sides of the fence? Is there a way to escape the predetermined pattern of this conversation and step outside the grid?
So it is fences and barriers, exclusions and attempts at bridging the divides, of making sense of self and the other within and beyond this diabolical dance of the past and the present, that permeate the show. Helena Uambembe’s installation, Those We Left Behind (2021), ushers the viewer into this discussion with the neat lightness of its wire fence, carefully placed on a rectangle of brown soil, reinforcing the gravity of the questions posed. The space of the gallery becomes a territory to traverse but also a space of encounter with one another and with the archive where, to use Rory Bester’s words, ‘remembering rather than just being the antonym of forgetting, takes on the value of justice.’
Bester’s quote comes from the catalog essay he wrote about Senzeni Marasela’s body of work, made during her Fresh residency in 2001, a successful and forward-looking collaboration between the National Gallery and Marlene Dumas that gave a platform to several artists, including Marasela and Langa, to create work and for the National Gallery to acquire some important pieces by these young, rising stars. Questions of remembering, justice, and the archive are central to Senzeni Marasela’s work, which anchors one of the rooms of the show. Her Colonial Tray Cloths (1997), exhibited as Untitled, use transferred images from Peter Magubane and are hand-embellished with delicate lace. They are presented on silver-plated trays encased in glass tables as relics whispering softly of the pretty ordinariness of evil and are juxtaposed with the piercing collaged crudeness of Teresa Firmino’s four unflinching canvases. Her interior scenes are constructed as a conscious re-ordering of history and the archive, personal and public, meant to unsettle neat accounts of the past through the compromised integrity of the bodies that populate its spaces.
The second room of the show introduces us to some of the most recent acquisitions by the National Gallery, whose acquisition policy has been financially constrained throughout its history. Both Zyma Amien’s magnificent tapestry Collective (2019), and Donna Kukama’s subversively illusive For those of us who live through the holes in your concrete (2019) deal with the imperative to record, to give some physical form to memory, while avoiding memorialisation. Kukama’s repetitive application of words to canvas, which act as poetic conduits to other worlds and temporalities, and Amien’s collective making that serves as a living archive of the textile industry labourers, are strategies that exist in very different registers, yet their visual echoes seem to effortlessly cross the space of the room towards one another.
They seem to defy the more disconsolate mood of the central piece: the impressive fifteen-metre-long drawing installation To be given back distorted: code switching duologue (2021) by Nyakallo Maleke. The embroidered markings that cling tenuously to the base of wax paper appear as attempts at making sense of the world encased in linguistic and ideological certainties. They flow through space as a stream of visual utterances and remind me of Sarat Maharaj’s famous essay from 1994 that examined the idea of the untranslatability of the other.
The politics of language and artwork titles bring me to the final space of the show and, if I am honest, the most compelling reason for me, personally, to see it despite the craziness of the third wave of the pandemic lapping at our feet. Accessing it was not easy, I was having to push my mind through another difficult-to-read text blocking the entrance and manoeuvre my body through the artwork that drew me to this exhibition in the first place. I was forced to greet the installation Untitled (Skins) (1995) by Moshekwa Langa from the back, upsetting the image I have carried in my mind all these years. But, perhaps, the removal of familiar orientation points is justified. The show forces the viewers to approach the artworks, and the National Gallery itself, with a mindset that is not shaped by long-held views and familiar expectations, however justified they may have seemed in the past.
Langa’s installation has attracted so many different readings since it was first shown at the Market Theatre Gallery space in Johannesburg in 1995 and later at the National Gallery in 2004. It became known as Skins in reference to the animal hide-like appearance of the large fragments of multi-layered industrial paper cement bags. The artist suspended them from his grandmother’s washing line in her home in KwaMhlanga smeared with household materials like candle wax, beetroot, soap and disinfectant fluid. Stripped of the details of their original context, their appearance within a gallery setting caused great excitement and declarations of a new conceptual movement coming from the heart of rural South Africa as the new democracy dawned, from a self-taught artist who was set to rejuvenate the stale paradigms of the art world. Offered by one of the art critics, the title Skins seemed to fit the prevailing desire at the time (and possibly since) to define, if not to bracket, the enormous poetic talent of this artist, to position it firmly on the time/space grid and inside the familiar tropes applied to art from the African continent.
And yet, Untitled has successfully defied any attempts to tie it down. I was fortunate to see the archive of photographs of the now-famous backyard in KwaMhlanga with the work in its original setting surrounded by other pieces, offering glimpses into the future of Langa’s practice: expansive, meditative, resisting definitions, intensely personal in its emotional footprint, oozing poetry through every mark, object or image, and connecting deeply to our shared humanity. Then and now, the work strikes me as existing outside time and place, yet connected to both through its intense materiality. Its being in the world points to the way of existence beyond grids, definitions and supposed art movements. The fact that it found its home within the National Gallery’s collection, together with the artist’s archive, reminds us of how important and gratifying the work of the national art institution could be, as this is, undoubtedly, one of its collecting successes.
The exhibition’s final note, that travels through Langa’s installation and all the way back to its start, is provided by the soundtrack of Wees Gegroet (2016), a digital video piece by Bronwyn Katz. Its gestural performance of repetitive movements and the Afrikaans rendition of the opening words of Hail Mary evoke the entanglement of rituals that shape the artist’s relationship with her own history and the ancestral world. But it is the visual frame of red earth under the artist’s feet that fills the rectangle of the screen and reverberates throughout the whole show; it reflects off the rough brown earth-coloured surfaces of Langa’s installation and circles back to the earth rectangle of Helena Uambembe’s piece in the first room.
Earth, soil, land: rootedness, and rootlessness, dislocation and dispossession. This is the beginning and the end of the complex, thoughtful conversation that this show provokes; perhaps, its bottom line. It does not offer answers but suggests other ways of existing in the face of the gravity of history. It may struggle with its own question of access (to spaces, to texts, to academic discourse), but it opens up the National Gallery’s collections to allow the artworks to live again and to grant us a chance to imagine a way of being in the world that is a little less scripted and caught up in other people’s ideas of who we are.