Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation
03.08 - 26.02.2022
In the face of this crisis, the…idea emerges: the universe is at once finite and infinite; things have dual natures…there are no isolated phenomena and…the Crystalist school is nothing other than a negation of the objectification of objects.
So begins the 1976 Crystalist Manifesto, written first in Arabic by Sudanese artists Hassan Abdallah, Hashim Ibrahim, Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq, Muhammad Hamid Shaddad, and Naiyla Al Tayib.
I encounter this manifesto while looking at Kamala Ibrahim Ishaq’s 1974 painting of The Dinner Table with Embroidered Cloth at the Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation’s (JCAF) current exhibition: Liminal Identities in the Global South.
This painting depicts a group of women – both saint-like and haunting – gathered around a table with floral embroidered tablecloth. The women appear to be gathered in the ritual exorcism of a zár – an evil spirit believed to afflict women. A reading of Kamala’s piece describes it as illustrative of “the intangible experiences of women’s lives…” Intangible to whom?
This is the question that brings the entire exhibition into sharp relief for me: a woman looking at art by women, about women.
I look around: it’s just me, my guide Siyabonga Hlatshwayo, and a guard in the shadows whose job, it seems, is to ensure I do not run away with the Foundation’s iPad (on which I’m receiving information about the exhibition through beacon location technology).
My mind still on the intangibility of our womanly experiences, Canadian artist Kapwani Kiwanga’s Flowers for Africa continue dying on pedestals in front me. I learn that what began as fresh, impressive flower installations at the start of the exhibition in August 2021 were left to live out their days. It is now February 2022, and the flowers are fast-approaching an afterlife as potpourri.
In this work, Kapwani reconstructs flower displays used in various African independence ceremonies, inviting us to consider the role of floral objects as witnesses to history and carriers of their own contexts.
I accept the invitation – to think of these flowers as a metaphor for the real hands rendered invisible in the realisation of African independence. These flowers might also be a metaphor for women’s bodies as coveted objects in the furnishing of a man’s ‘free’ world. What happens to flowers after ceremony? This is Kapwani’s follow-up question. What happens to me? is the subtext.
Here, for me, everything is at once manifesto, manifested, and metaphor.
I imagine Kapwani and Kamala in conversation with each other around Kamala’s Dinner Table painting. They are joined by fellow women artists who make up the exhibition: South Africa’s Berni Searle, Sumayya Valley/Counterspace and Jane Alexander; Brazil’s Lina Bo Bardi, Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, and Tarsila do Amaral; and Cuba’s Ana Mendieta.
What would these artists make of this occasion: The second of three exhibitions exploring “Female Identities in the Global South,” in Johannesburg 2022, as the world transitions to life in a pandemic that continues to collapse time? These artists – some whose works have never met a South African audience – gathered across generations and histories by invitation of invisible hands.
How do their works echo, amplify, or challenge each other? How do their manifestos – so similar, yet conceived in very unique circumstances – relate to the cultural hybridity and resistance behind each artist’s practice? What is the collective noun for defiance?
Perhaps they would laugh at this veiled desperation for taxonomy – for “objective” measurements. Lina Bo Bardi would say, as she has before, that “time is not linear: it is a marvellous entanglement where…points can be chosen and solutions invented without beginning and end.”
And in place of words or timelines to navigate us, they would sing a song. Which is exactly what they do.
The exhibition becomes a song called Liminal Identities in the Global South.
It has five parts:
- Prelude: Andante (moderate),
- Requiem: Lacrimoso (tearfully),
- Movement I: Allegro (lively),
- Movement II: Lento (slowly), and
- Movement III: Grazioso (gracefully) and Crescendo
In Prelude, Tarsila do Amaral’s painting of a disproportionately bodied figure, Abaporu (Man who eats people) (1928) leads us to her then-husband Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago, together laying out the concept of anthropophagia (cultural cannibalism or assimilation). Lina Bo Bardi, with an ethos to cultivate “poor” architecture, amplifies this: placing the manifesto in Glass Easel (1968). Her Roadside Chair (1967), constructed out of indigenous wood, looks on.
To my post-apartheid, post-Fees Must Fall senses, an echo of decolonisation is felt in the concept and presentation of the anthropophagic movement. I resist the South African urge to conflate the two. This song has only just begun.
The Requiem ushers us into a moment of silent reflection. Against a blood-red wall hang two artefacts: Lonely Soul Ex-Voto, a 19th-Century retablo painting made during the Spanish Flu, and Doctor Schnabel von Rom (1656), a print of a doctor on the front lines of the Bubonic Plague. Like a sombre interlude from an elder, South African Reuben Tholakele Caluza’s Influenza plays overhead, singing of the devastation of the Spanish Flu on our Black population.
The parallels between then and now no longer exist. We have converged.
Movement I serves as a bridge, with Lygia Clark cloaking us in her collective work, Body Nostalgia (1967). It is made up of rubberised bodysuits in O Eu e o Tu: roupa/corpo/roupa (the I and the You: clothing/body/clothing) and sensory deprivation masks in Máscaras Sensoriais (sensorial masks). If it wasn’t for our Covid-era familiarity with PPE gear, Clark’s work may require a greater stretch of the imagination.
Celebrated contemporary artist Jane Alexander amplifies Clark with her part-beast, part-human figures, Harbingers: in Correctional Uniform, with Rainbow and Convoy. I imagine Clark returning, this time asking: ‘Who is the I and who is the You?’ Before anyone can answer, Lygia Pape marches through with her 1968 Divisor (divider), offering not one, but thousands of human faces, connected, but unable to touch.
This moves us into Movement II, in which Cuban artist Ana Mendieta constructs herself out of flowers, berries, sticks, pigments, fire and sand. This is the only portion of the show that cannot be photographed by the public, I am told. It may have something to do with her untimely death in 1985. It occurs to me that Ana’s self-portraits sit on the other side of Requiem’s pandemic-filled wall, and in that way, Lina Bo Bardi’s Glass Easel manifests to show us two sides of Death’s coin: Death as both deeply personal and collectively experienced..
There is life after both grief and death, which is what Berni Searle and Sumayya Vally/Counterspace declare in the the show’s final piece, Movement III. That life is not necessarily brighter, they warn.
First is Berni’s Mantle I (2021), an image of a veiled figure – maybe Catholic, Muslim, or both (like Berni); maybe advancing, retreating, or ascending – quietly mocks all attempts to define life after death.
Sumayya Vally/Counterspace’s After Image (2021) takes the floor. Light hits the oval sculpture’s three segments and fractures into blues, oranges and violets. These are no ordinary mirrors, I’m told. They are made with the same mine-dust that is believed to tint Johannesburg’s skies. In this way, they hold up a mirror to the idea that the brilliance of our sunsets is directly proportional to the brutality of our relationship to our land and its people.
After Image calls to attention the very site we’re occupying. The JCAF, located in Johannesburg’s Forrest Town, is built in a former electrical tram shed and substation that formed part of a network that ran from 1906 to 1961. Questions of “whose heritage” and “what gets memorialised” are inescapable.
Berni Searle’s Shimmer (2012–13) marks the show’s eventual Crescendo. Here, Belgium, The Congo, people, elephants, and bones are assembled in a black room – washed in gold and facing one another as if called to Judgement.
And it is here – if we listen closely – that we may hear the women, the colonised, and the cannibalised chant the unwritten manifesto of the invisible hand that has been at play all through Prelude’s Anthropophagia to Movement’s Crystalism: ‘We are worth more after use, in death, than in life.’
On that note, I retrace my steps, re-gathering the collective resistance of the women artists assembled.