Saturday, September 6, 2008

Dispelling myths about dad

With Pippa Skotnes curating this exhibition, there was never any chance that it would be a run-of-the-mill showing of Cecil Skotnes's art. It's not just that, as his daughter, she has a more intimate relationship with his work, but she is known for pushing the envelope in her approach to curating. However, she has managed to create a novel exhibition that seeks to challenge the myth-making that surrounds artists of Cecil's calibre.

Charged with influencing and shaping the careers of many of South Africa's top black artists such as Sydney Kumalo, Ezrom Legae and Durant Sihali during his years at the helm of the Polly Street Art Centre during the apartheid era, Cecil's status in the local art scene has been high. His own oeuvre, with its characteristic melding of African and modernist aesthetics, has also secured him an iconic standing in South African art history.

But these are all defining qualities of his public persona. With this exhibition, Pippa and Thomas Cartwright, her co-curator from the University of Cape Town's Centre for Curating the Archive, are intent on bringing Cecil's private and seldom-seen character into focus. This is driven by a desire to demystify the artist, posits a pamphlet.

To achieve this end, all kinds of memorabilia and personal objects are displayed with artworks that have not been seen in public. Dirty paintbrushes, palettes crusted thick with the colours of the rainbow and knick-knacks from Cecil's studio are presented in one glass cabinet while another houses his collection of bow ties and a number of empty wine bottles bearing labels designed by the artist.

The glass cabinets that exhibit this quirky assortment of memorabilia conjure up more of a museum-like approach to presentation, positing these ordinary objects as valuable and collectable items.

This seems at odds with the curators' objective of bringing Cecil down from his pedestal. The disused wine bottles or bow ties are deemed to be of value only because they belong to Cecil. So although we have a window into Cecil's intimate world, learning that he collects bow ties or that he has a watercolour that he painted for his wife hanging in his studio, the value of these ordinary objects is rooted in his status as a "genius artist".

Perhaps this contradiction can be attributed to the familial connection Pippa shares with him. Like most daughters, she is able to maintain two seemingly incongruous images of her father; while she knows him to be a flawed and everyday person, she simultaneously views him as a master of his craft. This is all conjecture, however.

This exhibition also has another curious feature. Across one wall is a giant collage of photographs (taken by Paul Weinberg) of Cecil's home. They are not documentary-style photographs, rather they appear like highly styled images that depict particular features of a room, such as the ornamentation on a wall or on a coffee table. They do make for a pleasing montage, but mostly they do not foster any intimacy with the artist.

A photograph of his bookshelf and one of Cecil staring out from his sunny balcony does give one a glimpse into his habits but the others parade a fashionable faade that wouldn't look amiss in a glossy decor magazine.

Cecil's ornaments all exude an African vibe, which are not unexpected or revealing; they are quite consistent with the strong African flavour that characterises his art.

This does suggest that his appropriation of African forms wasn't a passing phase or part of a superficial connection to a culture motivated by a desire to forge a new idiom.

And, as such, Cecil certainly didn't conceal his work's link to an African visual syntax. The collection of artworks on this exhibition shows him to be most fascinated and inspired by the configuration of the African mask.

He is obviously interested in the mask's formal qualities but he also seems concerned with its ideological significance. In a watercolour drawing from the 1980s (few of the works are titled), he shows a puppeteer controlling a number of masks that cover the faces of a group of people. The puppeteer doesn't wear a mask, allowing his grotesque features to be viewed but, with two wooden legs, it is suggested that he is also reliant on artificial appendages.

One can't help thinking that Cecil was undermining Western perceptions of African objects, especially the African mask which, with its distorted and supposedly terrifying features, was perceived to be the avatar of primitiveness.

Cecil doesn't seem to view the mask as a device to conceal. His appropriation of its form, with the large colour-blocked composition, is able to reveal the layers that lie beneath the human skin. In Pale Prisoners (1975) in which the human form is portrayed as a series of interlocking bands of colour, it's as if the artist has pulled back the skin, exposing the body's inner workings.

The extensive collection of letters, which have been laminated and can be handled instead of being shown inside a glass cabinet, do allow one an insider's view into Cecil's world.

One handwritten letter by him gives us a glimpse into how he perceived himself. He undermines his role in the careers of black artists when he writes: "Whatever achievements have been registered by the black artists are monuments to their natural ability and their desire to create art in the face of the most astonishing difficulties."

· Cecil Skotnes: A Private View is showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg until September 6

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