Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Beast at Home: Bonita Alice at AOP

IT IS easy to spot the "beast" referred to in the title of Bonita Alice's new exhibition. In all of her circular artworks a dark black amorphous mass dominates. Though it is a solid mass with defined borders it is like a shape shifter as it morphs into different configurations. Thus it is an unpredictable and ever-changing phenomenon that eludes description and can never be fully apprehended. This menacing black beast is always pictured in relationship to a land mass, a territory: in one image it is pictured between what appears to be a cliff. In another it is curled into a tight ball, with protrusions like limbs extended into the air as it is seen hurtling towards land.

Like the depiction of the black beast, the land or territories that appear in each image are clean stylised renderings. These territories are defined by jagged edges, underpinning their uneven borders and the manner in which they subtly infiltrate space. In some instances these shapes are colonised by irregular lines, denoting rivers or territorial borders.

So it is that Alice's artworks appear like maps. No ordinary maps as they chart the confluence of physical territory and internal processes. The land masses obviously referring to physical landscapes and the black beast articulating an internal phenomenon, an ambiguous emotional and psychological entity that hovers at the fringes of the consciousness, haunting the mind, the soul.In this way Alice gives expression to the manner in which the inner consciousness and external, physical phenomena interact and collide. The tension and dynamics between the two. Most importantly, she points to the ways in which physical or geographical connections manifest internally.
In other words, how one's affiliation to a place conjures an indescribable and almost irrational psychological condition. Certainly at work here is the artist's relationship to Joburg. The negative connotations attached to the city complicates people's attachment to it; hence writers, filmmakers, photographers and artists are constantly grappling to reconcile their affiliation, make peace with the push-pull dynamic.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Die Antwoord

NINJA and Yolandi look just like their web incarnations when they take to the stage at the Alexander Theatre in Joburg. Ninja is sporting his signature brush-cut last seen on churlish Afrikaners in the eighties. A pair of boxer shorts bearing the artwork from Pink Floyd’s 1973 album, Dark Side of The Moon, hangs loosely on his emaciated frame. His bony, bare chest is colonised by tattoos some of which display the names of notorious Cape Flats gangs. In other words, he is every bit an eighties-throwback with a Cape coloured flavour. He is like an impoverished protagonist, whose hybrid look is both a result of creative invention as it is born of necessity.

Yolandi may be petite, childlike, even a touch delicate looking with her wispy ashen-blonde hair, but her svelte frame covered in a gold body suit is subject to angry, sharp movements. She darts around the stage like a pugilist warming up for a fight. She’s the antithesis of the retiring pretty “Afrikaanse meisie”. Their lyrics are a conflation of languages and accents, echoing their mongrel status. They are also crass and full of expletives - they would even make a Bergie blush. DJ Hitek, said to be the music powerhouse behind the band, recedes into the background. This is not the “real” DJ HiTek, just someone standing in for him, his public stand-in – apparently the real figure doesn’t want public exposure. Maybe he is a pimpled teen churning out hardcore beats from his bedroom. Maybe he is already in the public eye – aligned to another band or brand of music.
“DJ Hitek is a concept,” posits Roelof Van Wyk, an artist who is friendly with Die Antwoord.
Monochromatic child-like drawings flicker on screens positioned around the stage. They are haunting stylised representations of human faces inspired by the naïve doodles that appear in Roger Ballen’s photographs of impoverished Afrikaners living on the fringes our society. The visual association isn’t superficial; Ninja and Yolandi look like the kind of couple that well-heeled suburbanites would only encounter if their car broke down while traversing through a no-go neighbourhood on the periphery of Cape Town, in suburbs where the boundaries between impoverished whites and coloureds are loosely defined.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Michael MacGarry at Brodie/Stevenson

On the day I entered the Brodie/Stevenson gallery to view Michael MacGarry’s exhibition I wasn’t in the mood to view art. I had terrible sinus, had been working straight for eight days and really just wanted to cower under a duvet. I was blown away. MacGarry’s work was just the injection I needed to wake me up from my mental and physical slumber. I know it is probably too early to say but I have a feeling that this will be one of the hottest exhibitions I will see this year – unless MacGarry happens to top it with his Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition at the National Arts Festival. My review, which will follow, only concentrates on two works at the exhibition but there were other artworks that could have been just as satisfying to write about. People always talk about the artist’s artist; I think MacGarry could be the art critic’s artist; for the simple fact that when an art critic views his work their fingers start itching to hit the keys on their laptop.  

My review:

THERE were high expectations for this exhibition: having scooped the prestigious Standard Bank Young Artist Award towards the close of last year all eyes would be on Michael MacGarry’s next solo exhibition.
Awards aren’t always reliable markers of brilliance and they have been known to induce a state of creative paralysis. MacGarry certainly doesn’t appear to be a victim of the latter; this new solo exhibition presents some of his strongest work to date, demonstrating that this artist is only just getting into his stride. So often contemporary art tends to engage with abstract or metaphysical subject-matter or takes art itself as subject, cutting the man in the street out of its insular conversations, and while MacGarry’s exhibition could hardly be described as “accessible” the themes that it addresses are tangible and pertinent to our society. There is nothing ambiguous about this exhibition from its bold, straightforward title, placed in upper-case for maximum effect, THIS IS YOUR WORLD IN WHICH WE GROW, AND WE WILL GROW TO HATE YOU, to its conceptual underpinnings, which are centred on the economic policies on the continent. If one had to sum up his concerns in a single word it would be “neo-colonialism”. In other words he is addressing the manner in which Africans are being exploited by their own governments and Western and Eastern (Chinese) authorities.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


What's the difference between a performance artist and a madman? It was a rhetorical question posed by none other than Guillermo Gómez-Peña, the renowned Mexican born-San Francisco-based performance artist, to a small audience gathered inside UCT's appropriately titled Little Theatre.

"The difference is, is that the performance artist has an audience," answered Gómez-Peña. His punchline was met with roars of laughter from an audience mostly made up of delegates from Pre-Post-Per-Form, a colloquium hosted by the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) at UCT, which was designed to survey performance art in South Africa and give artists, curators, choreographers and writers insight into the different ways in which interdisciplinary works are manifesting in different realms of the arts.

Gómez-Peña's performance was one of the most awaited events of the colloquium. Some members of the audience, who associate performance art with physical movement, might have been surprised by his static performance, which played out behind a lectern. The performance art jokes kept coming.
"How many performance artists does it take to change a light-bulb?" piped Gómez-Peña.
"No one knows because no one stayed around long enough to see," he exclaimed. Though it might have sounded like a betrayal by poking fun at performance art Gómez-Peña performed the ultimate anarchistic act. His comedy routine was also a self-reflexive study of performance art that addressed the central query that plagues performance art: How does one define an art form whose most prominent characteristic has been the absence of any fixed character?

Gómez-Peña revealed his musings on the topic when he recollected a conversation he had with a nurse in which he tried to explain to her what it was that he did for a living. He told the nurse that it was an activity that imparted ideas. But ultimately it was his unconventional performance itself which gave audiences insight into how he is constantly renegotiating and redefining his notions of performance art.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Market Photo Workshop

The Market Photo Workshop certainly hasn't allowed their 20th anniversary to go by unnoticed. Last year this institution, which provides basic photography education, marked the occasion with the exhibition Short Change and in the last couple of weeks two further exhibitions, I am not Afraid and Considering the Documentary, have opened, further contributing to the celebration. All three exhibitions have made different statements. Primarily, Short Change aimed to map the social changes, or lack thereof, that have occurred in the country since the advent of democracy. It was a disappointing exhibition that promised to approach the subject of transformation in a non-literal sense but fell into an expected discourse on social inequity. These two new exhibitions more comprehensively represent the institution and are more tightly curated. They also evince a self-reflective tone; in that they survey not only some of the best work that has come out of the institution but bring to the fore the mechanics of the social documentary genre itself, the graduates predominant vocabulary.

There is no overwhelming mandate behind Christine Frisinghelli and Walter Seidl's (both of the renowned photographic magazine, Camera Austria) curation of I am not Afraid; they have simply presented a number of bodies of work by a variety of photographers - both professional and amateur. The tone of the I am Not Afraid exhibition might to some degree be read as slightly self-congratulatory in the sense that it primarily presents the work from all of the institutions' top graduates, such as Sabelo Mlangeni, Zanele Muholi, Nontsikelelo Veleko and Jodi Bieber, who have all gone on to win awards and exhibit their work quite extensively here and abroad. That the bulk of these photographers are fairly recent graduates suggests that the Market Photo Workshop has only really come into its own lately. These photographers' early bodies of work on this exhibition have been exhibited and seen extensively so they are not a revelation, but in an effort to get a handle on the Market Photo Workshop brand of photography it is perhaps interesting to note the similarities they share.

The amateurs' photography is the result of outreach programmes run by the organisation that are designed to arm disenfranchised folk with a means of expression that will allow them to voice their lives, their concerns and perhaps, even, make sense of their communities. They may not be compositionally thrilling but they are, in a way, more interesting than the professionals' work because they offer an unedited view into lives on the periphery. Such works obviously appease viewers' voyeuristic impulses, but they also offer a level of intimacy with their subject-matter that a professional/outsider cannot manufacture. In this way the banality of the images - a couple lying in bed, an empty plot of land - have a certain gravitas.