Archive: Issue No. 25, September 1999

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Reviews
James Beckett

James Beckett first showed his black domestic interiors at the NSA.



New Reviews

JOHANNESBURG

'Natal Techikon Senior Students' at the JHB Civic
Kathryn Smith

Many of the works on this exhibition are familiar, either because they featured on the ABSA Atelier show at Pretoria's Open Window earlier this year, or because they seem to be quotations of work existing in other places, or not yet fully realised . However, this show has some introspective moments that make it worthwhile.

It's a chance to see James Beckett's black bathroom installation which in retrospect, recalls Robin Rhode's performance drawings, only in 3D. Black-painted basins, towels, light fittings, toiletries and a phone hunch menacingly along the gallery's side wall, screened off and lit with fluorescent strips. Sterility takes on an abject, perverse alter-ego, with murky spray patterns of water leaked from the basins.

A potential flipside to Beckett's bathroom threat, Shannan Taylor's series of resin panels inlayed with minutely-painted ceramic tiles is remarkably sensitive and touching. A personal, exquisitely intimate diary of her experience growing up with a Down's Syndrome sister, the variations on translucent aquatones of the resin and holographic glitter in the reworking of family photographs infuse the work with a sense of childlike fantasy. Characters from childrens' stories reappear while images of domestic activity are surrounded with Taylor's 'fairy-dust'.

The show is carried along by Leigh Jameson's buoyant soundtrack to her video Takka Takata, which features a looped sequence of painted wooden fish spinning around on a mobile. It deals with the banality of continuous, seemingly pointless action which ends up being mildly amusing. She emerges as the most present artist of the show, with a two-part installation called Social Product and Social Conduct. The former is a series of stacked cans for which Jameson has reworked identifiable brand labels: "For more product information: THINK" and "That was not the way it worked in show business". We get the picture.

What benefits the show most is that the pieces have been installed as each artist intended, which is something not always possible when entering it into competitions. Video is quite popular here which is encouraging, but in general, a more rigorous criticality is required for these works to reach full potential.

Johannesburg Civic Gallery, Loveday Street, Braamfontein. Gallery hours: Monday to Saturday, 10am to 8pm.
ph: (011) 403-3408; e-mail civic@theatrekom.co.za.

Pat Mautloa

Kagiso Pat Mautloa
Brazier series 1 1999
Photograph and light box, ed. of 5
93 x 127 cm



Pat Mautloa

Brazier series 2 1999
Photograph and light box, ed. of 5
93 x 127 cm



Pat Mautloa

Brazier series 4 1999
Photograph and light box, ed. of 5
93 x 127 cm



Pat Mautloa "Kagiso in Johannesburg" at the Goodman
Kathryn Smith

I tend to look at art in much the same way that I go shopping: I rush around in 'scan mode' until something catches my eye. With this show, nothing allowed me to be hasty: each work has its own special hook, snaring me into Kagiso Pat Mautloa's resonant and dislocating freeze-frames of inner city experience.

Favourites are his 'Braziers' series - photographs and lightboxes, and Town Scene, Letters to Home, and a much smaller piece, Face Study , all in mixed media on canvas. I correctly suspected that this show would read well alongside David Koloane's show earlier this year. Working within similar parameters Koloane, who by no means indulges in rosy-tinted outlooks, strikes me as being somewhat more celebratory in colour and style. Mautloa is more reserved, resulting in a pervading sense of alienation, transience and migration which is engaging and strangely seductive.

The work on this show is strongly figurative, often incorporating collage elements which shift the planes of reality: found landscape images and colonial architectural quotations insert themselves alongside gridded skyscrapers with quiet incongruity. Large figures move on the street below, clutching babies, shopping or simply waiting. As in Letters to Home, nothing seems to occupy the same plane of reality, formally or conceptually. Letters alludes to the importance to maintaining links with family and friends, memory and a shifting and transient understanding of 'home' so prevalent in postcolonial discourse. Monumental but strangely vacant figures stare out from a background of sketchy mapping, atmosphere and an enlarged postal stamp which could very easily make the transition from official government icon to ancient spiritual symbol.

The braziers so prevalent in the inner city, sometimes burning but most often emitting acrid smoke, are photographed in the industrial wastelands of Newtown. Reminiscent of Kim Berman's simultaneously destructive and healing fires, these are so much more basic and primal, the signs of death more than life, of a disenfranchised people living a hand to mouth existence. They are spaces of absence as well as an irrefutable presence, lurking amongst litter, reminding us of things more comfortable to forget. These lightboxes mark an interesting shift from the mixed media paintings and drawings. Given the fact that Mautloa is multi-versed in contemporary modes of practice (he has produced some stunning installation work) as well as a highly competent painter and draughtsman, it is no surprise that he is one our most valued artists. This show bears testimony to that.

Exhibition closes October 2.

For more information please contact the Goodman on (011) 788 1113; fax (011) 788 9887 or email goodman@iafrica.com. 163 Jan Smuts Ave, Parkwood

Mark Coetzee

Mark Coetzee
detail (panels 1 and 2) 'Triptych' 1988-1996
Black and white photograph bonded on aluminium
1,2 X 1,794m
Acrylic on glue sized cotton duck
1,794 X 1,794m



Mark Coetzee

Mark Coetzee
'Corpus' 1988-1996
Black and white photograph 1,2 X 1,8m



Mark Coetzee

Mark Coetzee
'His Gaze Falls 1' 1988-1996
First panel: acrylic on acrylic primed linen 81cm X 54 cm



Mark Coetzee "Selected works from 1988-1997" the Market Gallery
Kathryn Smith

"Implicated by his own desire"... I found it difficult to access Mark Coetzee's work. Nothing sat comfortably. Although it is clear that this is the intention, I wasn't sure whether this was because it seemed so easy or because, although I could understand the juxtapositions of 70's-style expressionist painting with high-contrast black and white images of 'beautiful boys', it either didn't seem 'enough', or was too enforced.

In the 'short guide' to the show, we find a Derrida quote on the first page that spells it out: basically, speaking about deconstruction is virtually impossible. The same language is used to both entrench and then destabilise power relations, rendering the act impotent. It is never so cut and dried in practice though, as images carry great emotive power.

These works have enjoyed their share of controversy, but I'm sure people were not complaining about seeing grand old buildings teetering at the foundations. Had Coetzee been American and received public funding, he may have found himself in a similar position to the Maplethorpes and the Serranos. Erect penises are an equally sensitive issue for our own board of censors too. But these debates have no place in art. Coetzee's images are about power, phallic potency and iconoclasm, but the question comes up: can you make icons about iconoclasm? We know that the residues of iconoclastic acts often become icons in their own right. These contradictions and his ambivalent attitude towards monuments resonate. As far as I know, Coetzee has never worked site-specifically to the extent that he has acted 'on' these monoliths to the extent that he has caused real damage or 'defiled' them in any way. If he has, where is the evidence? He has hinted at this by using the ashes from burned books in some works but I think he should have pushed this further. Perhaps this would wrench him out of his deep erotic implication in these structures which, the psychoanalysts amongst us would argue, is what informs them from their inception To replace one phallus with another is somewhat dubious. But it seems clear (especially after 9 years of study and 8 MAFA volumes later) that he wants to indulge himself. He wants to destablise what he calls 'preferential displays of power' and we are left with his preference. "Implicated by his own desire", as Tracy Murinik wrote , we couldn't expect much more.

ends 25 September
1st floor, Market Theatre Complex, cnr Bree and Wolhuter streets, Newtown
ph: (011) 832-1641
e-mail: gallery@market.theatre.co.za

Tracy Gander

Tracy Gander
Lilly (1999)
colour photograph



CAPE TOWN

Tracy Gander's "Babes"
Sue Williamson

Traditionally, pinup photographs have been the preserve of male photographers, and the revealing or seductive photographs they take of sexually appealing women are destined for masculine titillation - and in many cases, feminine disapproval. Risking the raised eyebrows and upturned noses of the politically correct, young Cape Town photographer Tracy Gander sets this genre on its head by inviting her friends to collaborate in sessions which hark back to the golden age of pinup photography - the late forties and fifities. Clothes, props, arch poses, elaborate make-up all recall the era - but these women are clearly in charge of their own allure, and a playful spirit of collaboration and fun marks Gander's engaging images as strictly for the nineties.

Until October 9

Bang the Gallery is at 92 Bree Street.
ph: (021) 422 1477.
or check out the website at www.bangthegallery.co.za

Jean Brundrit

Jean Brundrit's "Lavender Menace"






"Lavender Menace" at the AVA
Sue Williamson

It is hard not to warm to Jean Brundrit's disarming exhibition invitation with her double portrait of herself as a somewhat dowdy handbag-toting housewife out for the evening next to a much cooler self dressed in man's clothing. It is equally difficult to view her series "Does your lifestyle depress your mother?" without responding to the friendly pairs of women playing pool, or going about their daily tasks. Demystifying lesbianism, showing quite simply and clearly that women who choose women are exercising a very basic right, and are not particularly interested in threatening anyone else, Brundrit's photos are clearly destined to put the minds of everyone's mother at rest. Brundrit is a seasoned photographer, and formally, these works have all the rich black and white tonal values that we have come to expect from her.

Until September 18

AVA, 35 Church Street.
ph: (021) 424-7436; fax 423-2637
e-mail: avaart@iafrica.com.
Gallery hours: Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm; Saturday, 10am to 1pm.
Website: www.ava.co.za.

Veronique Malherbe

Photograph of Chantine Veldsman
collaged onto view of Malherbe's installation "Gangbang"






"Gangbang" at Portland Church, Mitchells Plain
Sue Williamson

A newspaper report led Father Matt Esau of Mitchells Plain to view Veronique Malherbe's installation "Gangbang" at the Idasa Gallery, part of the "Pisces into Aquarius" show. The piece was based on the death of little Chantine Veldsman, executed within walking distance of Father Esau's church. Malherbe was subsequently invited to install the piece in the church in time for a memorial service for Chantine and other children who have died, a service held on Sunday, August 22, two days after what would have been Chantine's birthday.

Malherbe's tough piece reproduced the child's bedroom with her bed with floral duvet, her toys, her clothes. Headphones allowed churchgoers viewers to hear a shocking aural impression of the killing of the child. Unasked, Chantine's mother brought extra contributions to the church installation in the form of toys, photo albums and framed photos, and after the service, people spent several hours talking about Chantine and the other children. In this way, Malherbe's installation moved out of the confines of the gallery and assumed an important role as the focus for the mourning of the community.

The installation remains on view at the Portland Church, Wall Street, Mitchells Plain until September 14.
Viewing hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
ph: (021) 32 2850 and 32 9877.

Walter Oltman

Walter Oltman
Silverfish
metal




Jo Ractcliffe

Jo Ractcliffe
'End of Time' billboard, January 1999
in situ at Nieu Bethesda,




DURBAN

MORTIFYING MEDITATIONS - Wits Staff at the NSA
Lola Frost

Images stalked by death? And if so, why? This September (closed 16th), the N.S.A. in Durban hosted "Wedge", an exhibition of recent works by Wits Fine Art Department staff members, which could largely, although not exclusively, be understood as an attempt to deal with the anxieties of a particular class of South Africans . Walter Oltman's Flowers and Bugs revives the 17th century still life, which moralized on the transience of life through images which signified both abundance and decay. Oltman's sculptural, contemporary and loud South African version of this presents lurid orange flowers in an oppressive black vase threatened by oversize insects. No redeeming allegory here.

This clamorous image, with the exception of Clive van den Berg's burning eroticism, stands out from the other exhibits which are mostly quiet and thoughtful. Jo Ractliffe's photographs of a dead dog and a dead donkey and snapshots the N1 taken every 100 kilometres, go beyond obvious pathos into a meditation of being/not being and produce a compassionate and little knowing gaze.

Colin Richards' Almost non-white, White headstone, Almost white, is perhaps the most accomplished image on this show. Like Ractliffe's photographs, these beautiful drawings are introspective and quiet, but here the centre of these images is structured by presence. It could be argued that Richards acknowledges a European and male subject position, yet problematizes this position. The central image of this triptych is a representation of a European headstone, whose stony surface and expression have been refigured, so that this stone becomes flesh and this male headstone comes alive so to speak, figured as if in ecstasy. This central panel is offset by the emptiness of the adjacent panels which are almost white and almost non-white. This set of images operates on both a visual level where the whitish silhouette of a head is offset by the blackish background, and vice versa, as well as on a conceptual level where racial amalgamation is both proposed and contested. This slippage between proposal and contestation is echoed throughout the image, but could perhaps be read in terms of a larger theoretical context, in which the male subject position, normally seen as the site of masculine and colonial dominations, is reformulated in terms of a continuously dis-assembling and ecstatic subjectivity.

Clive van den Berg's Frontier Love and Men Loving are part of a larger project, Memorials without Facts, which maps discrimination against homosexual erotic love in the history of South Africa. Men Loving is a video installation which is largely structured by an erotic narrative in which a camera tracks a beautiful, naked, European, male body running through the veld. This pleasure is interrupted by scenes of a dead male body being dragged out of water, inflamed veld and burning representations of abodes, and we are asked to consider the deathly consequences that homosexual erotic love has had in the history of this country.

Penny Siopis likewise impugns dominating power relations in South African history in her video, as well as in the two wall pieces, SADF SCARF, and Transvaal.Scottish. The impact of these images is both sensuous and didactic, for they knowingly privilege feminine histories over masculine foundations. Neither Joni Bremmer's Recollect; Reconnect nor Natasha Christopher's Prox-e-nia are about death either. These artists puzzle about the possibilities of new female voices speaking through older artistic forms: in the case of Bremmer, of painting conceptually framed, and in Christopher's photographs of some limnal space between memory and representation. Tracey Rose's Ongetitled is a meditative and ritualistic shearing of all her body hair and these manoeuvres stage a confrontation between the male gaze and its voyeuristic and fetishistic powers, and Rose's playing to, yet refusal of, this power relation, by enacting a ritualized change of identity. David Andrew, in Making Sense of Small Things by contrast avoids all these identity politics and retreats into making ineffable and banal marks on children's school slates. Whether these silences are signifiers of authentic feeling beyond the loud straining of positionality, remains something of a mystery, if not a form of politics itself.

Lastly, both Peter Schutz and Alan Crump have platters in mind. Crump's meaty visions in Plate and Fillet like Schutz's Salome cynically satirize contemporary South African life. Salome, which displays a black man carrying the decapitated head of the American statue of liberty, bleakly and mischievously, talks of the lack of freedom in the new South Africa.

Are these various mortifications, as in J.M.Coetzee's most recent novel, Disgrace, in which Professor David Lurie's journey culminates in being the person who takes dead dogs to the crematorium, the symbolic reworkings of a middleclass white and post-apartheid mentality? If they are, as in Disgrace, they are not only useful mirrors to that audience, but they have also been made into very fine art.

- Lola Frost is a lecturer in the Fine Art Department of the Technikon Natal

Mustafa Maluka

Mustafa Maluka
Afro-Chic 1999
Mixed media on canvas
5.25 x 4.5 inches



INTERNATIONAL

New York Times reviews 'Postcards From South Africa'

Axis Gallery was started two years ago by Lisa Brittan and the art historian Gary van Wyk, both of whom are from South Africa. In June they sent out an open call through schools, newspapers and primarily black community art centers in South Africa for submissions of work for a New York show. To provide as broad a spectrum of contemporary work as possible within a small gallery space, they stipulated that the entries should be postcard-size, and limited each artist to five works.

From hundreds of responses, some 175 pieces by 80 artists have been selected for the show and hung salon style in broad thematic clusters. The styles and subjects vary widely, from figural to abstract, conceptual work to historical narrative, with references to South African politics and culture, past and present, serving as a binder.

The issue of racism is never far away. It is the focus of the opening selection of pieces executed on actual postcards, beginning with Wilson Mgobhozi's watercolor cartoon figure of a black man grinning, his dreadlocks in flames, as he waves frantically above the words "Hello America (From South Africa)." The greeting, from one socially unquiet country to another, has a distinctly ambivalent edge, as does much of what follows.

In Chrisman Stander's Long Walk From Freedom (the words are a play on the title of Nelson Mandela's autobiography), an African hunter peers across a dust-dry landscape to a Coca-Cola billboard. Aren Damiani inserts Mr. Mandela's face into Grant Wood's American Gothic, while Rudolph Vosser adds the American flag to voyeuristic tourist postcards of bare-breasted "natives". Mustafa Maluka overpaints photographs to create similarly exotic female stereotypes, as does Alwyn Petersen in a graphically polished digital print. A specific history of discrimination and violence is encapsulated in Gael Neke's South African Identity, based on the passport-type cards that blacks were once required to carry. And it is presented with unnerving charm in a painting by Paul Stopforth, where the name of the notorious apartheid-era interrogation center, Vlakplaas, is spelled out in bright, stippled paint.

Other works, like Ben Dreyer's text pieces stitched from colored beads and Bridget Baker's little pillows equipped with maps and logos of airplanes, refer to movement and healing. Their work has real presence, and, in general, the reduced size (and possibly the short deadline) imposed by the gallery has encouraged concentrated inventiveness in every medium. Such is the case in sculpture (Merryn Singer's open-work postcards woven from raffia and copper wire, Dumisani Sibisi's relief-like scenes of street life) and in painting (David Kuijers's miniature image of a single crushed can, Bhekisani Manyoni's watercolor of Zulu people on the move, and the surreal landscapes of Ian Calder, Louis Jansen van Vuuren and Isabella Quattrochi).

Collage adapts naturally to a postcard format, as very different work by Lize Hugo, Theo Kleynhans (gay liberation meets Abraham Lincoln here), Kathryn Smith and Jennifer Mary Ord suggest. The same is true of photography, of which there is a good amount, from Brent Stirton's documentary-style shot of white prisoners on death row in Pretoria, to the near abstract pictures of sky and sea by Jo Ractliffe and Tracy Lindner Gander. In short, this is a show to spend time with. By no means all the work is equally interesting, but together it packs a lot of information, visual and otherwise. It is one more piece of evidence of the immense wealth and variety of art being produced in Africa. And it whets the appetite to see the larger scale works promised when the Museum for African Art in SoHo opens its South African show on Sept 17.

'Postcards from South Africa' is at the Axis Gallery, 453 West 17th Street, Chelsea, New York, until October 2.

- This is a reprint of a review by Holland Cotter, which appeared in the New York Times on Friday, September 10, 1999, p.E36 (Weekend section, Art in Review)

Claiming art / Relaiming Space

Poster for Claiming Art / Reclaiming Space
at the Smithsonian



Smithsonian Institute

The exterior of the Smithsonian Museum for African Art



Phokela

Johannes Phokela Cuts
1990
Acrylic on Canvas with string



Nemasetoni

Rudzani Nemasetoni
Apartheid Scrolls pp 12-13
1995
Photo etching on paper.



Wafer

Jeremy Wafer African Form I - IV
1995
Plaster, wax, pigment



CLAIMING ART / RECLAIMING SPACE
Post-Apartheid Art from South Africa

Siemon Allen

The National Museum of African Art in Washington DC is a recent addition to the collection of architecturally diverse Smithsonian Institution buildings that line a broad rectangular green lawn of open space at the center of the city's museum and government district. Founded in 1964 as a private organisation and becoming part of the Smithsonian in 1979, it was born with the self-proclaimed mission to be "a leading research and reference center for the visual arts of Africa". This marked not only the developing commitment (at that time) to address the importance of 'non western art', but came with the somewhat self-conscious, yet politically significant acknowledgement that "25 million Americans trace their heritage to the cultures and traditions of Africa".

Situated in an intimate formal garden, the Museum's aboveground entrance, a small copper domed sand-coloured structure, leads to an unexpectedly expansive belowground space of sky lit foyers and cool green gallery rooms. There is something decidedly, and perhaps unavoidably 'anthropological' about the experience as one encounters dramatically spot-lit objects collected from sub-Saharan Africa, each displayed to aesthetic advantage, but with the recognition through extensive photographs and maps, that each is far removed from its original geographical/cultural context. There is also something disorientating about emerging from these hushed carpeted elegant chambers, feeling somehow outside time, to enter a bright white space, and the exhibition of contemporary South African Art - Claiming Art / Reclaiming Space, curated by Lydia Puccinelli.

I was initially puzzled by the curatorial intention behind the grouping of this particular selection of works, it seemed like a kind of uneven 'sampler'. And indeed it is connected and held together by a most tenuous thread - all are acquisitions by the museum of works from South Africa, produced during a particular period of time loosely referred to as "post apartheid". It is a commendable curatorial gesture, but perhaps not solid enough a foundation on which to build an exhibition with any thematic coherence.

Exhibited are examples of artistic practice in South Africa that seem relatively current - in dialogue with 'international' contemporary art. Johannes Phokela's Cuts speaks through and yet critiques the language of abstract geometric painting with layered patterns and physical gashes that become 'wounds' in his canvas. Jeremy Wafer's African Forms subtly intrude on the museum's anthropological zone. Identically sized ovoid reliefs, these minimalist objects are 'encoded' with references to scarification marks or patterns in traditional Zulu pottery. A despised artifact collides with 'beauty' in Rudzani Nemasetoni's Apartheid Scrolls, a series of sepia coloured photo etchings that show faded copies of his father's passbook. Also operating through highly charged found material is Sue Williamson's Cold Turkey: Stories of Truth and Reconciliation. Mechanically reproduced images from newspapers are presented like specimens of evidence in harshly lit light boxes. The compelling film work of the ubiquitous William Kentridge is represented here with a showing that includes earlier less seen works, Mine and Monument.

Yet, as a South African one cannot help but be struck with the notion that but for these and a few exceptions the exhibition seems dated. It's as if one were suddenly transported back to a CapeTown Triennial in the late 80s.

This is not to say that there are not presentations of work with historical importance. Prints from the Rorke's Drift Art Center are shown with an accompanying text that tells the story of both the center and it's artists, including Azaria Mbatha, Cyprian Shilakoe, Joel Sibisi and Vuminkosi Zulu. There is an example of a collaborative book from the Artist's Proof Studio, effectively presented with a colour photocopy replica that allows the viewer to interact with what becomes a cadavre exquis.

But other examples, in the exhibition, such as an etching by Judy Woodbourne, handsome as it may be, or two works by Georgie Papageorge give a certain sense of 'arbitrariness' to the selection. One cannot help but be sorely conscious of the exhibition's gaping holes, not only in terms of the 'historically' important South African artists who are missing, but also the need to bring to audiences abroad works that more fully reflect current artistic practice in transitional South Africa.

One gets the sense that perhaps the National Gallery of African Art's commitment to the collecting of contemporary work from Africa is also in transition. There is great merit in its declaration that African art is not a thing of the past, but "reflects and confronts the realities of the contemporary world", and in the bringing to an American audience information about apartheid through the lens of cultural production. But contemporary South African art produced (and being produced) in a post apartheid period is much richer and more diverse than the Museum's acquisitions and in turn this exhibition reflect. It lands somewhere between an informed look at contemporary South African art and a kind of archival display of "artifacts" from another cultural context, still only partially understood, a fragment of the thing represented.

Exhibitors: Willie Bester, Emandulo Re-Creation (collaborative artist book organised by Robbin Silverberg and Kim Berman), Garth Erasmus, Kay Hassan, Gavin Jantjies, William Kentridge, David Koloane, Ezrom Legae, Louis Maqhubela, Azaria Mbatha, Karel Nel, Rudzani Nemasetoni, Georgie Papageorge, Johannes Phokela, Winston Saoli, Cyprian Shilakoe, Joel Sibisi, Durant Sihlali, Jeremy Wafer, Sue Williamson, Judy Woodbourne, Vuminkosi Zulu.

Website: www.si.edu/nmafa/exhibits/SAsite/topshock.htm

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
Washington

- Siemon Allen is a South African artist living and working in Washington. His work was last seen in this country on the Vita Awards Show at the Sandton Civic Gallery in 1998.

Jo Ractliffe

Jo Ractliffe
Love, Death, Sacrifice and So Forth
video installation



Minnette Vari

Minnette Vari
Oracle
1999
Video installation



Isaac Khanyile

Isaac Khanyile
Oh my country, my people, my life, my children's child
1999
Mixed media installation



Zweletu Mthethwa

Zweletu Mthethwa
Untitled
Colour photograph



Still on show

JOHANNESBURG

Vita Art Prize 1999
Kathryn Smith

Congratulations to Jo Ractliffe for her triumph at this year's Vita Art Prize. I have had a week to process and internalise thoughts (and commentary picked up in the ether) on this year's Vita Art Prize, and I still maintain my first impressions of elegance, sophistication and truly excellent work, over and above all the 'stuff' that goes with competitions. This is rare, perhaps because the agenda is explicit, few artists selected and work is commissioned and curated. Apparently cut-and-dried. All the artists commissioned produced work that is world-class, with that extra intangible 'edge' that makes (most) South African contemporary art so compelling. Having said that, there are a couple of things that don't sit too well.

Competitions seem to be the flavour of the last few months and quite frankly, I'm bored. This one seems different for reasons already mentioned, as well as the fact that this is probably the most anticipated event on the annual arts calendar. But is it fair to judge Robert Hodgins' stunning paintings alongside Minnette Vari's visceral video work? It cannot be doubted that he is probably South Africa's most important painter, but can painting effectively compete within the framework of what is considered to be 'legitimate' globally? This argument is tautological and perhaps not worth the time, but competitions beg these questions. Hodgins has produced work that is sensuous, seductive and challenging and although the language remains the same, he demonstrates an ability to extend himself in terms of subject and continually break new ground.

The same cannot be said of Kendell Geers' video work White Man's Burden. Its initially provocative appeal gives way to irritation - this looped sequence of Harvey Keitel clutching his head in his hands at a church altar (appropriated from the film Bad Lieutenant) is unchallenging, simply because we've seen it before. It presses all the right 'guilt' buttons as the soundtrack worms its way into our gut. The installation is suitably raw and subtle at the same time - a small rectangle of cloth functions as a two-way screen such that the image is projected not on it, but through it. A tangle of wires and electronic equipment mounted on speakers houses the rest.

Zwelethu Mthethwa's exploration of the traditional roles of (black) men has been realised in gorgeous, sepia-tinted prints on canvas. Taking all the cliches we associate with the 'place' of men in capitalist society, he attempts to undercut that which we assume to be 'natural' from what appears to be a largely heterosexual standpoint. It is clear that he is working intimately and subjectively, but only one image (that of the hairdresser's) really manages to pull this off in that it is more subtly nuanced than the others of a labourer, men embracing and a butcher. It throws open many of the essential questions he hopes to unpack without being overly laboured or predictable. Set against Geers' piece, we begin to realise that these very subjective inquiries into the roles of men are worthy of more attention. It is refreshing to note that these roles are vulnerable and not as easy to assume as we think.

Although working closely with questions of identity too, Isaac Khanyile's work is increasingly informed by the spiritual and ephemeral. In Oh my country, my people, my life, my childrens' child, he confronts and embraces his position as a type of shaman, asking essential questions about ancestral lineage and 'roots' that manage to translate into an arresting and powerful floor installation. He incorporates traditional 'language' (beadwork, weaving and various herbs used in divination and healing) with western ethnographic systems of labelling and classification. He seems to assume an educative role as well, encouraging cross-cultural dialogue and communication in a way that does not seem trite and full of postcolonial catchphrases.

The sheer force of Minnette Vari's media-saturated-but-never-satiated Oracle devours everything in its wake. A clean-shaven, fluke-like Vari gnaws and binges on what appears to be a piece of flesh, while current affairs footage assumes the place of this flesh and spills out in a pool behind her feral form. The soundtrack is eerily beautiful and plays off Vari's abject confrontation that is presented on three monitors mounted one on top of another, forming a media totem pole with Vari as our self-proclaimed spokesperson. It will leave you speechless.

Jo Ractliffe's Love, Death, Sacrifice and so forth is the perfect panacea to Vari's excess, simply because it makes something out of nothing. Where Vari inserts herself with force, Ractliffe's images provoke, prick and soothe, yet the final result is almost as unsure in the sense that nothing is concrete and everything is at risk - she rejects context and its accompanying narratives; accepted photographic codes ('truths') are displaced and fugitive, and meaning is left up to us to make.

This apparent 'relinquishing of responsibility' on the part of the artist may be frustrating to some, liberating to others. Either way, it forces us to take on more as viewers, which is one thing the FNB Vita seeks to encourage. This year's show is inspiring. Where Steven Cohen restored our faith in new liberalism (however heinous this sounds) on the part of corporates (and challenged our subjectivities on more basic levels), Jo Ractliffe's victory - while being well-deserved and long-awaited recognition - sets up FNB as an international spokesperson for contemporary South African expression. Viva Vita.

Exhibition closes September 11

Find the Sandton Civic on the Corner West Street and Rivonia Road, Sandton.
ph: 881-6432/1

See News: Kendell Geers withdraws work for Vitas

Africa Meets Africa Power figure
Kongo, lower Congo
height 25cm
donated 1892



Africa Meets Africa Trade carving
Bembe, Congo-Brazzaville
height 111cm
donated 1887



CAPE TOWN

Africa Meets Africa
Sue Williamson

As one of the power figures was removed from its crate for installation on the "Africa Meets Africa" exhibition at the South African National Gallery one evening last week, all the lights went out, and the gallery was plunged into darkness for several hours.

It is not hard to believe that, removed by decades and half a continent from the act of obeisance and creativity which brought them into being, the power figures retain the ability to demonstrate a fierce act of spiritual authority. Carved from wood, painted, decorated with beads, cord, cowrie shells, pierced with nails, some with glass fronted body cavities containing symbolic objects, the power figures are formidable; authentic icons of the indescribably rich culture of Africa.

"The exhibition 'Africa Meets Africa' does not merely intend to confront the viewer with a collection", writes curator Erna Beumers in a catalogue essay, "but also with a conference as it were, of African art objects, that whisper stories to one another about their 'former lives' and how they came to be here. And in this way the exhibition and this book wish to be a monument: a monument to the African artists that have made the beautiful and fascinating objects, a monument to the life in which rhe objects participarted, and a monument to the collectors who opened the eyes of Westerners to the beauty and significance of African art."

Beumers has realised her 'conference' idea with the greatest success. Alongside the power figures stands "one of the first pieces of African tourist art", says Beumers. Made more than a hundred years ago, the piece was collected in Bembe, Congo-Brazzaville, probably commissioned by a colonialist wishing to take home a souvenir of the hardships encountered in travelling through Africa. Two sturdy figures shoulder a long pole with a hammock suspended from it in which reclines a behatted and suited white man. In contrast to the robust handling of the carriers, the carver has commented on the effeteness of the traveller by rendering his legs without muscles: his limbs hang like flaccid hosepipe from the hammock.

The exhibition does not limit itself to objects from the past: the Rotterdam Museum of Ethnology from whence the show emanates continues to add to its collection with contemporary work from Africa, and has sent work from artists like Owen Ndou from Venda, the Ivory Coast sculptor Emile Gbeli, and the coffin maker Paa Joe of Ghana. There are also exquisite masks, headrests and all manner of small domestic objects. The catalogue is an art piece in itself, retaining the same spirit of curatorial freedom which informs the exhibition. Instead of each object being photographed in its entirety and placed centre page, as is standard practice for this kind of publication, the beautifully lit and photographed pieces are often cropped to show detail in extreme closeup, infusing liveliness and vigour.

It is indeed rare that a show of this quality is seen outside Europe and the United States: African museums, with their limited budgets and facilities are considered to be somewhat risky venues. The curator Erna Beumers, the Rotterdam Museum and the sponsors, which include the Government of the Netherlands and the South African Embassy in the Netherlands, are to be thanked for their leap of faith.

The exhibition closes September 11.

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