25.10 - 22.02.2023
Bridges are thresholds to other realities, archetypal, primal symbols of shifting consciousness. They are passageways, conduits, and connectors that connote transitioning, crossing borders, and changing perspectives. Bridges span liminal spaces between worlds, spaces I call nepantla, a Nahuatl word meaning ‘tierra entre medio’.
Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987)
Over the last three years, the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) — a foundation and hybrid institution dedicated to research, technology and arts — has embarked on a mission to profile femme artists with the aim to reposition art (its practice and history) though the lens of the “Global South” (a geo-politically and socio-culturally contested and obscure term itself).
The final and definitive exhibition in this series, titled Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South, opened to the public on 25 October 2022. It is the culmination of four years of research, travel and loan negotiations. This final exhibition was preceded by a show called Liminal Identities in the Global South, which sought to explore hybridity and resistance in the artistic practices of seminal women artists from Latin America, alongside artists from the MENA region (Middle East/North Africa), the African diaspora and South Africa. Its exploration took shape through heterogeneous forms of expression across art, architecture and music from the 1960s to the present.
Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South is curated in three parts. Each brings into its fold issues of the macro and the micro, the personal and of the political. Part I introduces the sociopolitics that gave texture to the three individual artists’s lives and practices. Part II – with a curatorial sensibility anchored in what I call ‘the politics and poetics of the intimate’ – introduces archival materials – photographs, films, personal diaries and objects – that situate each artist’s practice within their respective personal contexts. The final part of the show consists of a painting by each artist, each contained within its own individually designed space: Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Hummingbird on Thorn Necklace (1940), Amrita Sher Gil’s Three Girls (1935) and Irma Stern’s Watussi Women in Red (1946).
James Baldwin once said, “All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique.” A sentiment that is at once dizzying and resolute. A collision point — in words — where the shame that often enshrouds confession meets the opacity of art. With Baldwin as the introduction to my thinking-through JCAF’s final exhibition, I find myself asking, “What confession(s) move in and through the material and thematic sites/sights of Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South, and why have these three specific artists been drawn together in the final iteration of the series? What do they and their work have to say about modernity, identity and the points where they meet?”
To consider modernism and modernity, as Tim Armstrong states in his book, Modernism: A Cultural History (2005), it is:
Thus necessarily to engage with culture defined in terms of an interconnected field of activity in which hierarchy and even causality is problematic; in which agreed boundaries are replaced by permeability and relatedness – in which economic thought is readily seen as influenced by ideas about the body; or literature might seem akin to science; or politics might become aesthetics. It is also to deal with the notion of modernity as a series of epistemic shifts in systematic regimes of knowledge, communication and perception, as proposed by writers such as Michel Foucault, Friedrich Kittler and Jonathan Crary.
In thinking about modernity, both within and outside of the exhibition space, I relate to it as a condition and as a process. A process and condition that are at once historical, socio-political, cultural and affective, with aesthetic implications in favour of the experimental and avant-garde. I think of modernity as being constituted by a sense of opacity: alienation as a product of industrialisation, and liminality as a product of globalisation. This sense of alienation and liminality breathes in Kahlo, Sher-Gil and Stern’s works. Each of the artists uses the material space of her canvases to question ideas of ‘the Self’ and its construction. Where Kahlo and Sher-Gil are concerned, they construct a new collective ‘Self’ by imagining the political and socio-cultural future of Mexico and India respectively.
Speaking about the exhibition, its curator and JCAF’s Executive Director Clive Kellner shares:
The exhibition asks how these three pioneering artists explore multiplicity in portraits of themselves and others. Kahlo, Sher-Gil and Stern all construct a self through an imagined identification with indigenous women. Drawing from aspects of traditional cultures, they created modern hybrid identities against the backdrop of evolving nationalisms across three continents in the Global South. These were not artists who reacted against the world through direct political commentary. Instead, they sought to express personal experience as a representation of political realties.
Kahlo transformed her own pain and suffering by representing herself as an indigenous icon while Sher-Gil located her identity in the poor and silenced, but in the process helped formulate Indian modernist painting. Stern, on the other hand, evoked the Black body as translation of her improvised self-image but at the same time created a space for herself as a pioneer of South African modernism.
I think about this in relation to something said in one of the exhibition’s preceding lectures I attended at JCAF titled Frida Kahlo: A ribbon around a bomb (an extract of which was also published in in New Frame). In it, Helena Chávez Mac Gregor asserted, “The self-portrait has been a substantial space in art not only to be seen but to present how we see, feel and find ourselves. A double not only implying an externalised interiority but that can also be the presentation of historical conditioning, ruptures and desires.”
I keep them close yet hold them separately as individuals and artists — Kahlo, Sher-Gil and Stern — as I mull over Kellner’s words. Attempting to swallow them, they get stuck in the back of my throat. The liminal space where (re)constructions of the Self in relation to this “imagined identification with indigenous women” converge with Sher-Gil and Kahlo is, for me, easier to digest than where Stern is concerned, born Schweizer-Reneke (in the then Transvaal) to immigrant German-Jewish Parents, yes, yet still firmly positioned within whiteness.
The eyes that avert one’s gaze when viewing Stern’s Watussi Women in Red (1946) as opposed to Sher Gil’s Three Girls (1935) are not the same. In Stern’s, I experience an aversion in the eyes of the subject. Her gaze says more about how whiteness has constructed blackness in its own imaginary. Like Ralph Ellison writes in Invisible Man:
I am an invisible man….I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except for me… That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come in contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes.
Although Sher-Gil’s own subjectivity is not devoid of privilege — being born to an aristocratic Sikh Indian father and a Hungarian-Jewish mother — there is something in the three subjects’ averted eyes that makes one feel like they looking at a painting of autonomous subjects, rendered in such a way that holds space for their individual humanity and complexity, while simultaneously signaling towards their interconnectedness via compositional construction. This portrait is a political declaration that speaks of a modern India, rooted in collectivity that does not erase the importance of particularity.
In the same way that there are a million entry points with which to enter into and engage with H/history, so too are the possible entry points of engaging with and thinking through/with Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South. As a piece titled Not the only Modernist in Town: The Zanzibar Years: Irma Stern declares “we are all made up of many parts” and so too is this exhibition. After viewing the show at the media preview, and going again after it opened to the public, what I found myself hungrily yearning for was something akin to the curatorial thread JCAF had underpinning their Liminal Identities in the Global South exhibition: one that spoke directly to the cultural, aesthetic and political nuances represented by the triangulation of Sher-Gil, Kahlo and Stern.. What binds them together? What are the tensions in that bind?For instance, if it was not just a coincidence that all three women chosen were of Jewish heritage, perhaps the curators could have explored Judaism in relation to Self-(re)construction in the context of modernity? Especially thinking about how Kahlo and Stern lived long enough to see Israel weaponise identity formation in the name of occupation and violence.
While there is a lot to be savoured in Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South, what isn’t accounted for in its curation also make parts of it hard to chew through. Perhaps, being left with more questions than answers isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps, this is where you pick up the work yourself as a viewer. The curators want us to (re)construct our own ideas and feelings about Kahlo, Sher-Gil and Stern – what they have to say about the worlds that make us, the worlds we inherit. But it still does not mitigate the frustration of being left with more questions than answers and attempting to account for those curatorial silences.
They say death makes saints of us all. Is there an attempt by Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South, whether consciously or sub-consciously, to recuperate Stern from the problematic parts of her legacy? Has our ‘deifying’ of artists such as Kahlo led to our own shortcomings where being able to engage with their legacies from a place of critical objectivity? Can we recognise their masterful contributions to art while also scutinising the less easy to digest parts of their story? The answers to these questions I cannot know for sure, so I leave the exhibition running in circles.