Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Putter and Preller, who would have thought it?

When I saw this image of Andrew Putter’s, entitled Joao the Portuguese from his recent African Hospitality series, I immediately thought of Alexis Preller and his latest retrospective now showing at the Standard Bank Gallery in Joburg. Putter and Preller have almost zip in common but for me this photograph quite succinctly articulates Preller’s superficial desire to connect with Africanness. Or at least curator Karel Nel believes that Preller’s art is a manifestation of a compulsion to claim his African identity. Here is a review I wrote of Preller’s exhibition, which might better bring to light the relationship I see between the exhibition and Putter’s wry image, which actually also makes me think of Johnny Clegg and that famous cross-cultural band Evoid.

ALEXIS Preller's art was due for a re-reading. Or so asserts Clive Kellner in the new box set published to coincide with this retrospective - the last was staged in 1972. Pegged as sharing close ties with the Symbolism, Surrealism and other western art movements it is suggested that Preller's art should no longer be viewed through a Modernist (European) lens.Kellner and Karel Nel, co-author of the book and curator of the exhibition, furthermore suggest that, if anything, Preller was a "pre-postmodernist" because he forged a unique vernacular that rallied against "dominant colonial orthodoxy".

It all sounds good and in their text Kellner and Nel make a fairly good case, using terms such as "appropriated" and quoting from the likes of Rasheed Araeen, the recalcitrant English artist and writer who has made a habit of challenging western hegemony. But, unfortunately, Preller's paintings tell another story. One that, regrettably, appears to confirm a primitivist impulse at work. In other words there isn't too much difference between his outlook and that of Modernists, such as Pablo Picasso, who also took their cue from African culture. Without a doubt Preller's motives for employing an African idiom diverged quite considerably from European Modernists, who were mainly interested in the formal qualities implicit in African cultural products - and, of course, their own projections of what African culture embodied.