As Autumn slows down Cape Town for Winter’s halt, Southern Guild hosts a walkabout of their latest group exhibition, Spring Awakening led by curator Lindsey Raymond. She is joined by a handful of the artists at the helm of the impressive collection. Mutability underscores the presentation’s introduction, and various stages of emotion emerge through seasonal themes of flux. Borrowing its title from German dramatist Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, “which tackles the fervent sexual desire and angst of four teenagers as they wrestle with the difficulties of abortion, depression, rape, suicide and queerness,” the show’s preface also reads that “the play is acknowledged for the macabre spirit of comedy which underpins its tragedy: the ‘tickle’ before combustion.” Here, polarity reveals instead interconnectedness. This in turn drives the tether weaving through the sculptures, paintings, textiles, sonic pieces, photographs, wearable art and ceramics on display, inviting visitors to forgo limitations through the overarching theme – Spring – that Raymond describes as “a [period] of intense ecological, physical and psychological change.”
Walking inside the space for the first time, I am immediately thrown by the light and shape of the gallery itself, the current of colour that casts itself across the large rooms. The silver gleam of Ghada Amer’s stainless steel piece, The Heart (2021), is the first to catch my eye before the vivid greens and blues of Rich Mnisi’s Nwa-Mulamula’s Chaise – Vutomi (Life) (2022) directs my gaze to Githan Coopoo’s equally colourful contribution, My First Urn (2022). Amer’s work, which continues her ongoing investigation into cultural and religious norms and ideations of the self, moves fluidly into Mnisi’s notions of personal revelation and purging of the self. The two pieces communicate through individual use of colour, cast and shape, a mutual absolution of traditional form that provides evidence of an ephemeral state. Lizanne Viviers’ But-a-body (2021) and Neither/Nor (2021) thrives well in this proverbial limbo. Both works make reference to Bhuto, an artform described as being “known to resist fixity.” Common features of Bhuto include “playful and grotesque imagery, taboo topics, extreme or absurd environments performed in white body make-up with slow, hyper-controlled motion.” Viviers carries this spirit into both artworks, readdressing the body, its urges and impulses using the expressive qualities of abstraction.
Lingering in the atrium of the gallery, I take time to appreciate the visual chemistry of the first installment of the collection. My eye returns to Githan Coopoo’s clay and acrylic work. The self-taught sculptor works specifically with air-drying clay, and describes the realisation of this latest piece:
Lindsey explained that [the exhibition] was based on a play, and I went straight to that as my point of departure. There are a couple of really [gruesome] deaths that happen [to characters] all between the ages of twelve and sixteen, and it made me really think about what my interpretation of death has been, moving through my life. [With My First Urn], I wanted to approach the notion of what is the most traditional form of a mortal symbol and vessel of death, being the urn, and [then] hybridise that with really beautiful, bright colours.
About the inlaid text which reads: “good fortune inside,” Coopoo goes on to say:
The actual text itself is engaged with the idea that we’re living in a world where things are meant to, or are made to, exist once, and under capitalism I think that we believe that of ourselves as well. We hold this very ‘used and done’ formula over our lives, and there’s so much more interest – for me, personally – in how that notion of the finite-ness, or the dead-end-ed-ness of it influences the ways in which we are in life, and in our living time. I wanted to position that question for the audience: this idea that inside the urn [is] your good fortune: your departure from this earth… How [does] this make you think about your time while you’re living?
As we’re led through the space, participating artists that are present offer insight and detail to their presentations. “I approach my ceramics the same way I approach my paintings. They all start as drawings. They are all drawings,” Jeanne Hoffman says of her contribution to the collection. Speaking with her hands, she contemplates the textures of her various pieces, trying to phrase how her mind construes them, dissolving ideas of difference. “You’re taking a line for a walk.” Standing in front of the four large cotton panels of her site-specific acrylic works made in reference to the gallery’s interior, the artist describes an ongoing process of engagement across the span of an artwork’s creation. “Paintings are windows, and I want to give you enough energy points and create as many links [as possible] to open the space enough, to bring you in.” With my own affinity for theatre, the artist’s work resonates with me. I enjoy the simultaneousness of creation and experience, how the works provide evidence to the very many ways mediums such as theatre and painting are already melded. Hoffman emphasises the role of the stage and the window saying, “My works are a kind of fragment gardening, a collection of my own experiences and encounters, my understanding of disintegration and becoming, which leans into how we as humans have a combination of encounters which build our experiences and our images that we share together.”
Considering how encounters, images and experiences are shared, Text me when you get home (2022) Talia Ramkilawan’s wool and cloth artwork, is described by Raymond as a “hyper-exploration of the modern woman.” The rippling texture from the deft pulling, pinning, stitching and weaving adds to the aura that enamours. This work seems to embody the act of embodiment proposed by the exhibition. Between the work’s title, the contents spilling from the handbag on the table and the woman’s body language as the ‘selfie’ is taken, there is a familiar feeling of multiplicity: the figure is busy, she’s horny, she’s scared. The many forces that rule how a woman must contain or express her body culminate in the selfie: this proof of life: an image to say I’m here, I’m okay, I’m home, I’m me.
Even as winter beckons, it is feeding into the flux of spring’s testimony: while there is rot, there is also rebirth. There must always be room for the rotting, the mourning, the malice and mire. Drama, euphoria, delirium, even duress add dimension to the experience of Spring’s evocation. Ideas expand through experiencing the exhibition, and a generative interplay weaves itself between the variety of mediums, their physical and conceptual proximity to each other, and the language of expression offered by the collection’s vibrant and visceral theme.