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'Thresholds'

Moshekwa Langa at Goodman Gallery

By Anthea Buys
26 November - 18 December. 0 Comment(s)
Untitled

Moshekwa Langa
Untitled, 2008/9. mixed media on paper 140x100cm.

Moshekwa Langa has a reputation for being unpredictable in exhibitions. Generally not, however, because of occasional wavering in the success of his works, but because he tends to skip between media with the agility of a mountain goat. He is known best by some for his abstract painted fields of text and collage and by others for his installations of industrial cotton reels and empty bottles. The latter manifested in the 53rd Venice Biennale as a reincarnation of a work first produced for the second Johannesburg Biennale, ‘Graft’ (1997-8) titled Temporal Distance (With Criminal Intent) You Will Find Us in the Best Places.

In 'Thresholds', Langa’s recent offering at the Johannesburg Goodman Gallery, the artist delivers his most unprecedented curveball yet, a body of photographic and video ‘documentary’ material of three kinds of traditional ceremonies practiced in his hometown of Bakenberg in Limpopo Province. In addition to the dozens of portraits of young men in traditional garb that populated the walls of the gallery, Langa shows us – without our really knowing what we are being shown – video footage of male and female ceremonies of induction into adulthood, and a funerary ceremony. These pieces are interspersed with large abstract works on paper and, in one corner, an improvised shrine to a lover recently killed in a car accident. None of these works have been titled, captioned or in any other way prefaced, which leaves us, the viewers, to scrounge for meaning in a bewildering field of equivalences as if we were trying to make sense of the patterns of flotsam on a temperamental beach.

The premise of 'Thresholds', as told in a short introductory text concocted by the Goodman Gallery, is Langa’s return to his home as an observer, after having left Bakenberg at the age of thirteen.The exhibition is an assembly of traces recording 'a modern man observing the traditional rituals of his birthplace'.

What emerges from this utterance is that two matters and their related problems are, wittingly or not, of central importance in this exhibition: firstly, the potential overlap between biography and autobiography and the necessity in both cases for legibility, and secondly, the relationship between observation and interpretation.

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Langa’s extensive series of untitled portraits of the people of Bakenberg appropriates the appearance of biography – that is, pictorial ciphers for stories of the lives of others – as autobiography. His subjects pose individually or in groups alongside small rural homes and gardens, presumably their own. Occasionally they are caught in action, walking in procession or lounging with companions. These moments of direction look as if they may be related to a cultural ritual, although this is not made explicit. Moreover, Langa’s own attachment to any of the rituals he portrays is unclear, and upon scrutiny, the attachment of his subjects to these rituals is almost equally unclear. The ostensible narratives implied by the pictures tacked onto the walls in cardboard mounts never fully develop sequentially, we find no differential character development, and Langa’s personal connection to his subjects remains hidden (although one assumes that, given his habitation ‘between’ Paris and Amsterdam, this connection is not intimate).

Even if we give Langa the benefit of the doubt and imagine that what underpins this work is a deep personal meditation, we are left with a more profound difficulty: What are exhibition-goers meant to do with this fact when it is so unapparent in the exhibition itself? How does a viewer respond to an artist’s personal view of a particular subject when the viewer is not invited, through curatorial tactics, to empathise with that view? And we may take the problem one step further: Does the infusion of a work with personal material – particularly when this material is of an intimate or traumatic nature -  immunise the work against critique? It seems to me that in practice, in South Africa at least, it often does. For instance, what can a viewer say in response to Langa’s evidently slapdash monument to his deceased lover, other than that it is perhaps generally saddening, without sounding like a tyrant? The monument comprised two large-scale snapshots of Langa’s lover displayed alongside a black candle burning away on a clear Perspex plinth. The photographs of the poor soul were tacked to the wall at the last minute* with the equivalent of drawing pins, but to point this out - which is implicitly to question Langa’s sincerity and work ethic - would, no doubt, strike many in our art bubble as insensitive. However, it seems to me that as long as Langa’s shrine occupies the corner of an art gallery, it should hold its own in at least some terms other than its sentimental significance for Langa. Or even if it doesn’t manage this, outsiders should, legitimately, have latitude to subject it to evaluative criteria other than its meaning for the artist (such as its technical execution, its relationship to other works on the show, or its visual or conceptual content, for example). 

We encounter similar trouble with Langa’s documentary photographs and video of initiation and funerary ceremonies. As an outsider looking at these works, presented without a title to speak of, let alone supplementary contextual information, how can one respond to these works other than with the entirely banal conclusion, aided by the framing text produced by the gallery, that these works are pictures of people from the town of Bakenberg in Limpopo Province? What the writers tend to do in these desperate circumstances is feather our reviews with biographical scraps, contextual fluff – bits of soft matter that help line the nest the local art scene creates for average, lazy or shoot-from-the-hip artists who know too well that they can get away with selling half-baked ideas. But even if I wanted to do this, I wouldn’t be able to, because short of being from Bakenberg myself or extracting a worthwhile sentence from the blubbering Langa on his opening night, neither of which options proved viable, I have no way of gaining information about life in the particular cluster of homes in Bakenberg that Langa has chosen to document. 

These nameless subjects, these ethnic curios, say nothing about themselves or Langa or the idea of home or even about looking and being looked at. And what is particularly insulting to anyone of at least mean intelligence, never mind the interchangeable subjects, is that these portraits are passed off in the exhibition statement as 'confrontational portraits that compel the viewer to engage with the gaze of the subjects', when in fact they do this no more than any tourist shop postcard of a traditional African subject does. Exhibition-goers are being thumped over the heads with the bluntest piece of ‘Discourse’ lying around, in a last ditch attempt to anaesthetise them to what actually hangs before them.

It is a great pity that Langa’s foray into documentary was as wholly awful as it was, because many of his works on paper were quite compelling. A comparatively small series of untitled vertical works striated by horizontal bands of bright oil pastel, paint, and masking tape, seemed to suggest the formation of a subjective topography, the interpretive and intuitive mapping of the evanescent qualities of a place with personal resonance. If the connections between these works and the Bakenberg series had been more clearly signalled – and this might have been achieved through refining the Backenberg project – 'Thresholds' might have held together more convincingly.

 

*In his opening address, Langa revealed that the entire exhibition had been hung that afternoon by Linda Givon (Director Liza Essers was abroad), after Langa delivered the works to the gallery at 2pm.