The bare facts are this: Bella Knemeyer and Unathi Mkonto, two Cape Town artists with backgrounds in architecture, have pulled off a magic trick. Yes, I know, that word “magic” has about it the whiff of Middle Earth and Hogwarts. Best to clarify it, and quickly. Magic in art, at least for me, has little to do with sorcery or sleight of hand; rather, it infers competence with visible things. Magic is materialist and ludic. It involves transforming raw materials – papier-mâché pulp saturated with pigment for Knemeyer; pine battens, nails and industrial textiles for Mkonto – into vulnerable presences, things that are as much about their own dumb physicality as their potential to be ciphers for a constantly evanescing world.
Occupying the lobby of The Harrington, an East City office block that allows 24-hour access (hence this eccentric gallery’s name), the presentation comprises two solo exhibitions. Knemeyer, a sculpture graduate of the Michaelis School of Fine Art who holds a Master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Edinburgh, is showing six wall-hung paper constructions under the title Up Close at a Distance. Mkonto, an architecture graduate of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University who worked as an architect (notably, under Kate Otten) before studying fashion at LISOF (now STADIO), is showing three floor-based sculptures and a ceiling-hung mosaic of textiles under the framing title Enclosed Camp.
The respective titles summon notions of perspective and space, sight lines and site. Neatly laid out on fabric board and presented in glassless wooden frames, Knemeyer’s monochrome paper works are engrossing tone pieces that range in colour from charcoal and cement grey to indigo and high-viz yellow. Her works are handmade using recycled papers (a “non-primary material” in the artist’s vocabulary) and store-bought pigments and powders. Once mixed with a binding agent, the mulch is spread out on a waterproof surface, raked like soil and set aside to dry. The surface striations – which run either vertically or horizontally, never diagonally – enrich the reading of these energised and haptic pieces.
Knemeyer’s paper works originated out of material experiments she undertook with the artist collective Hoick (Claire Johnson and Dale Lawrence). They are the culmination of her search for something softer than concrete, a brittle material that formed the basis of Knemeyer’s compelling assembly of building materials and geometric forms in her student exhibition for flux sakes (2013). Her grey paper work The idea of too close (2022) is both a love poem and swan song to a material that, she now recognises, poses a significant climate burden. Knemeyer’s new works are representative of her interest in “material flows and circular economies,” an interest cultivated during her time as a researcher at the African Centre for Cities.
Over the last year, Mkonto has produced some of the most arresting pieces featured in Cape Town’s post-Covid speed dating exhibition scene. Nathalie Viruly included his work in both her group shows for Gallery-De-Move-On, notably a black work from Mkonto’s Sentence (2021) series. A larger selection of these three-dimensional drawings composed from Velcro was shown at The Fourth late in 2021. Drawing is Mkonto’s first love, and he likens the slackness and unpredictability of Velcro to ink. His use of Velcro derives from a 2018 residency at nearby A4 Arts Foundation.
Interior/Exterior Cavity (2020), a gimcrack construction made from pine battens holding together three plywood boards covered in PVC fabric, is the most arresting work. Its durability is tenuous, a visual impression that is supported by Mkonto’s stated ambition to make “fragile” and “vulnerable” objects. Seams and tacks are purposefully left visible in his works. The precarious verticality of all three floor sculptures – they include two pine-and-Velcro structures titled Extension H-Frame and Extension K-Frame (both 2022) – gesture to the provisional architecture of informal traders. As formal objects, they also recall works by Serge Alain Nitegeka and Stephen Hobbs. The oblique ambition of Vladimir Tatlinʼs tilting maquette for the unrealised Monument to the Third International (1920) also comes to mind. Mkonto, though, is more poetic: he describes these structures as objects made by a tailor using the tools of carpentry.
Knemeyer’s quietly assured works complement Mkonto’s confident, space-owning constructions, which finally and more fully announce his ambitions as an artist. The vivid luminosity of Knemeyer’s largest work, The idea of too far (2022), which features vertical contours etched into its yellow surface, unavoidably frames an encounter with Mkonto’s Extension K-Frame. Whether viewed up close or at a distance, the works by the two artists often overlap, juxtapose and spill into each other. The generous intermingling of forms and ideas does not undo the integrity of the individual presentations. Can there be such a thing as a congruent solo exhibition, one that is composed of two independent presentations? Here it is, magically revealed.