Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Art Books: Helen Sebidi

A flurry of new art books have been released recently; The Alexis Preller box set penned by Karel Nel and Esme Berman and, of course, Sue Williamson's book on contemporary South African art. I have recently finnished reviewing the Preller retrospective, now showing at the Standard Bank Gallery, and have been a bit dissapointed by the book, which lacks a level of objective criticality that Preller's art demands. Such was the case with the new Taxi art book on Helen Sebidi too. Perhaps it is just my allegiance to the journalistic realm but art writing in this country really lacks objectivity; authors seem to have this tendency to 'fall in love' with their subjectmatter to the point that they are willing to suppress all the uneasy truths or antinomies that their work presents. Such was the case with this book on Sebidi where the authors  were more concerned with how they represented Sebidi than actually engaging critically with her work and her status within the South African canon. It was a frustrating read, which so far has been the case with the box set on Preller. I haven't even glanced at the Williamson book yet, I really hope it is going to have a bit more meat on it than her last books, which felt like address books with their  A-Z format. Reviews of the latter and the Preller box set will follow. For now here is my review of the Sebidi book:

Mmakgabo Mmapula Mmankgato Helen Sebidi has been forgotten. In the last decade the focus has been on black male artists. For this reason alone this book, the 14th title in the Taxi Art Book series, presents a significant shift in the historiography of South African contemporary art. Its value also lies in the fact that Juliette Leeb-du Toit, the author, and the editor, Browyn Law-Viljoen, have made concerted efforts to revise the manner in which Sebidi's work has been read by historians and critics until now, who have
 situated her art within stereotypical, and often pejorative, discourses that have delineated art produced by black artists. These, as Du Toit observes, have tended to "obscure the many rich and complex" responses Africans have had to modernity.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spring Art Tour Joburg: more detailed reviews

SPRING Art Tour seems an inappropriate title for what took place in Joburg last weekend. Spring art frenzy more succinctly captures the frenetic pace of the plethora of art openings and events squeezed into the Thursday night and Saturday programme. Art lovers were spread thinly across the city, leaving many exhibitions looking under-patronised. It was a pity because most galleries delivered with aplomb, offering stimulating shows.

David Krut presented Alastair Whitton's Patmos and the War at Sea, an unconventional series of photographs presented like pages of a valuable book. Whitton reworked photographic and filmed footage from WW2 into an array of photographs that had an abstract and ambiguous quality. One had to study each image closely to perceive what they represented - a satisfying twist on the documentary genre, which usually offers no impediments in discovering visual information.

This kind of photography is supposed to offer viewers undeniable truths, the ambiguity of the imagery challenges this feature. By obfuscating the nature of his images, Whitton slows down our consumption of them and forces us to engage with their textural and abstract qualities. This has theoretical ramifications, in terms of how we digest history and how our obsessed gaze into the past, and particularly our fixation with World War 2, a predominant theme on the History Channel, often takes us beyond the events and leaves us meditating on the mode of representation. By keeping us distanced from the images, Whitton encourages us to engage with the content anew, even if it hails from a time in history that has been the subject of intense study in popular culture. Even when we are able to identify what the images represent, such as a man lying down and looking through a pair of binoculars, we are still unable to penetrate the full nature of the image. He is just barely visible and we cannot perceive the object of his gaze. This echoes our relationship with events that happened in the past; though photographs and films allow us to have some access, it is only ever partial.

The blurred and abstract forms that dominate these images impart a surreal flavour, leaving one feeling as if one has entered a dream-state over which we have no control. We are left with snatches of obscure information, which we try to decode and interpret. In this way Whitton reaches towards conjuring the experience of intense trauma, such as war. Certainly for the post-war generations, the events of those times appear senseless, so our study of the events is motivated by a desire to unravel the logic that led to such extreme loss of life and destruction. Each photographic image is teamed with a page of what appears to be Braille or some sort of coded message, which, like the photographs, resists being decoded. Printed on thick, textured paper, the artworks appear as if valuable documents or pages from a book that has been dismantled. This relates to the process of deconstructing and reconstructing history, two activities that appear to happen almost simultaneously, further obscuring the truth. In other words while we are presented with an open book, the information it contains is closed to us.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Kagiso Pat Mautloa


Kagiso Pat Mautloa has a penchant for old spades. He likes them worn, rusted and weather-beaten. To find spades at this phase of their life cycle, he pokes around in dumps. He also looks in people's yards in Alex. To persuade folk to part with their old gardening implements, he offers to replace them with new ones. Mostly, he draws puzzled looks. For those familiar with his art, it comes as no surprise: these objects that are embedded in his abstract paintings or are fashioned into sculptures are essential to his aesthetic, which articulates conceptual narratives centred on degradation, renewal and transcendence.
In the context of these themes, aged spades prove a useful leitmotif.
"They are man's tool for reconstruction," observes Mautloa, in his modest studio in the Bag Factory, a disused industrial space a stone's throw from the Oriental Plaza. There aren't any canvases in his studio. Apart from a poster advertising his solo exhibition at the Goodman Gallery last year, titled Other Presences, there aren't any indicators that this is the studio of a prominent artist. Papers, files and books cover his desk making his studio look more like an unkempt office than a place of creative contemplation.

Mautloa evinces an understated intelligence; perhaps, after decades of interest from the press, he is no longer in a rush to relay his artistic ethos. Now in his late fifties, a degree of nostalgia for his youth has set in. Not an overt sense of longing; nothing that Mautloa does is overstated. Even the socio-political subject-matter in his art is subtly addressed. Instead of depicting the dispossessed, he shows their tools of toil; the green-matted patina operating as a metaphor for the scars of time and the constant battle to survive.

Mautloa associates spades with hardship and toil, but he also associates these prosaic objects with his childhood. Back to a time when he used to roam the township looking for a "bob a job". (A "bob" was a shilling, then about 10 cents.) Now Mautloa only picks up a spade when it is no longer fit for any purpose. "I like to get them at that point because one can read the history from them."
He is intrigued that these mass produced objects take on individualised qualities as they age.
"We can all buy the same pair of shoes, but they take on a different look depending on how often each person wears them and how they walk in them."

Friday, October 9, 2009

Spring Art Tour Joburg: Quickies

WTF? There were ten art openings in Joburg last night: I nearly wore my kitten heels into the ground dashing from one gallery and skidding into the next. Next time Artlogic really need to ensure that the openings are staggered – I can cope with three a night. Not that Artlogic are keen to take advice from moi! I would also suggest that they dump Grolsch – does anyone drink the stuff? Besides beer and art just aren’t a hot combo. Beer and Rugby: Yes. Beer and Art: No.  Art is best paired with wine or spirits – according to one gallerist I spoke to last night they quite like the Art & Collinson’s combo: “you can make great little cocktails with the stuff.”
A Grolsch bottle is only good when its empty and you can use it to put salad dressing inside. But I digress: most of the art last night was great. Will go into more detail with my grande review, which is in the process of being knocked into shape but here are a view quickie reviews of the top three shows:

Coming in at Number 1: Colin Richards at AOP:  this show kind of denies and encourages the art of quickie reviews. In one sentence: it reaches towards the rematerialisation of the object and the marginalisation of ideas. A reverse of the  conceptualist mode while still being conceptual: it’s a self-reflexive probe of conceptualism. The images are obsessively detailed and are breathtaking… what a clever, clever man

Number 2: Patmos and The War at Sea by Alistair Whitton: blurred photos from WWII teamed up with what appears to be Braille or a coded communication.  The images like the code need decoding not just semantically but visually.  The images are abstract, surreal and require an effort to grasp. He meditates on how we consume the past and the manner in which the past is always just beyond our grasp.  There’s a lot more to this, read my proper full length review to come…

Also Number 2: Gabrielle Goliath’s Murder on 7th Street at Momo Gallery: this could be Joburg’s version of Kathryn Smith’s exhibition at Goodman Cape with Margie Orford. Would have been interesting to compare the two. In this twist on the whodunit genre Goliath relates it to the crime phenomenon. Photographs of would-be victims or suspects are displayed on CCTV-type fixtures. Below each subject is a square of carpet, wood or tiling denoting their position in the domestic home – a nod to Cluedo. An amusing video artwork features a compendium of whodunits from CSI to Angela Lansbury, wryly commenting on our consumption of the genre.

Check out Robert Sloon's take on Spring Art Tour Cape Town: here

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Us" at JAG

Ever keen to probe the unseen forces that shape our collective consciousness, artists are continuing to explore the factors that led to the xenophobic attacks that took place around the country last year. This exhibition owes its genesis to the attacks but is largely an effort towards unpacking the dynamics that bind communities, that give them a sense of togetherness. It is these properties that in turn become agents of exclusion.
During the attacks on foreigners the mass media focused their attention on the victims; this exhibition redirects the spotlight on the social forces that feed political and social dominance. As the title suggests, the focus is on the “us”, a dominant social entity, rather than the “them”, which is typically the marginalised and unwanted ”other”.
It’s a nice reversal but one that obviously has resonance for Africans, who have habitually found themselves marginalised to the fringes of a Western-dominated world. The title also recalls an abbreviation of United States, a powerful cultural and economic authority that has in its foreign and domestic policies displayed a degree of paranoia and rejection of the unfamiliar or strangeness of others.
But of course, the attacks on foreigners in South Africa proved that these power dynamics play out at micro levels too. All these factors contribute towards making the exhibition highly relevant but this aspect similarly renders it a little expected.
Some of the artworks on the exhibition are predictable too: such as Dan Halter’s Space Invader (2009), which was an obvious choice with its depictions of those large plastic carrier bags that migrants use to transport their worldly goods. In one image Halter configures them to resemble the characteristic icon from the Space Invaders video game. These same bags are pictured outside a barbed wire fence in a photograph by Mikhael Subotzky. Such obvious references to the ways in which migrant communities have been excluded in South Africa are few; mostly, the artworks delve into the phenomenon in more abstract ways.
An interesting dialogue is elicited through the works of Subotzky, Tracey Derrick and Laurence Bonvin, who all in various ways display how communities are defined and define themselves via geographic, environmental and architectural states. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

4th World Summit Arts and Culture

The arts matter. When one stripped back the ideas raised at many of the discussions at the 4th World Summit on Arts and Culture, one inevitably arrived back at the underlying communication driving this summit, and perhaps all the previous summits: the arts matter as never before. Marginalised by governments, civil society and business, particularly on the African continent, the arts community clearly needs to create spaces where it can assert the value and worth of creative endeavours and be surrounded, albeit briefly, by those who do not need reminding of this fact. So, of course, it was a bit like preaching to the converted; no doubt all of the 450 delegates that congregated at the Africa Museum in Joburg for the summit already had committed their bodies and souls to this sometimes trying sector.

In selecting topics which probed the role the arts play in intercultural exchange, or how the arts could facilitate world peace (or conflict) or whether the arts should be conscripted in propagating national interests, Mike van Graan, the programme director, cunningly and irrefutably established, whatever the outcome of these discussions, the arts as a powerful social weapon thus underpinning their value not only to the broader public but to political entities too. Of course, one could ask why it is necessary for art's worth to be tied to its ability to advance social agendas. In South Africa we may have a history of co-opting the arts to further political ideals but is it necessary for art to have any purpose? In the realms of the visual arts such objective-outcomes-based art is rarely ever taken seriously, it is usually an adjunct to a more serious oeuvre that is more concerned with rallying against art history than government policies.

Brett Bailey and Gregory Maqoma's 3 Colours production, which was presented at the grand opening night of the summit at the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein, was a good example of how the arts in this country is co-opted to tackle social objectives - and employed to address a particular political agenda. Though the performance started out as a bewitching abstract piece with a host of "birds" in flowing white costumes emerging from a seemingly solid mass, it quickly became a didactic piece showing how one dominant, pure group of beings were intolerant of the new arrivals (read migrants) to their country. A violent battle ensued between the two groups until a third, enrobed in outfits fashioned from rubbish bags, piled onto the stage, further complicating the conflict and implying that migrants were a fact of life. By the end of the performance, facts about migrants were projected onto a screen behind the dancers, driving the message home with a hammer.

One of the most startling figures was regarding South Africa, where it was said that 89 percent of residents would like to see stiffer laws put in place to prevent migrants from settling in the country. Locals in the audience recoiled with embarrassment. Nevertheless this unpleasant statistic did remind the audience that given the xenophobic attacks last year, South Africa probably wasn't the ideal place to stage a summit geared to come to grips with the dynamics of intercultural exchanges. But perhaps the performance needed to air our dirty laundry before the summit, thereby fixing in the minds of delegates that South Africans owned up to their failings in this area and that the arts fraternity as a whole were seeking ways of trying to shift attitudes about foreigners. Of course, the fact that the National Arts Council (NAC), the main sponsor of the event, does not provide funding to those artists toiling in our country who hail from different parts of the continent, remained a moot point. And at the concluding media conference, Annabel Lebethe, the CEO of the NAC, made it clear that her organisation wasn't in any hurry to reappraise this policy.

In Professor Njabulo Ndebele's keynote address, he attempted to probe the barriers that hamper intercultural exchanges. He suggested that intercultural contact is about "being exposed to the unfamiliar and then having to decide to accommodate the new experience or to resist it. There are threats and opportunities both ways."
He distinguished between strangeness and difference, asserting that "strangeness is not necessarily about difference. It is about figuring out new experience; the uncertainties that accompany our encounter with what is unusual. Strangeness invites curiosity. It engages. It accepts the lack of prior knowledge and engages without judgement. It works with open-mindedness."
He warned against the efforts put forward by South Africa's new democracy to "celebrate difference", implying that it led to a false sense of harmony. "The different entities being celebrated for their difference really still remain separate, despite any political intention to suggest otherwise. The risk in this situation is that unity and solidarity are more evoked than experienced."
He implied that for "celebrating difference" to have any constructive meaning it requires "engaging with the strangeness that can sometimes result in the perception not only of difference, but also of familiarity, or even similarity. What is experienced as strange is not always different. Thus the celebration of difference or diversity, without a prior process of engagement with the experience of strangeness, may lead to the appearance of bridge-building, and restore, by another name, the past divisions it was intended to overcome."
Ultimately Ndbele's intention was to discover how best art could be harnessed so as to bring about change in society. He recommended that arts and culture institutions should identify opportunities for artworks to be vehicles of learning.
"It is about situating oneself in the time lag between the absorption of the impact of the artwork and the reaction that may follow from that impact. That is the space of planning, of designing school curricula, of holding festivals, of engaging communities in communal artistic activity designed to enable them to encounter the strangeness in their midst," observed Ndbele.