Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sabelo Mlangeni at Brodie/Stevenson

At a recent colloquium held at Rhodes University, writer and academic, Ashraf Jamal admonished South African artists for their dour palettes and monochromatic art works. In his view the absence of bold colour in the South African art canon is a manifestation of a state of mind that pervades South African art (and literature), in which moral seriousness overrides a playful form of expression, which he likened to a kind of "wakefulness". Jamal suggested such choices are not stylistically determined but are ideologically and culturally motivated, reflecting a vexed and existentialist relationship with the South African landscape and society.

Within this context it appears as if Sabelo Mlangeni is continuing this legacy with this latest photographic exhibition which presents two bodies of work in a monochromatic palette. He too seems caught within this staid artistic tradition that Jamal believes suffocates imaginative engagement with the present.

Without a doubt Mlangeni's art is propelled by a degree of moral seriousness; while one body of work documents visits to his hometown, Driefontein near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga, articulating this fixation with place that Jamal lambastes, the other features the poor living conditions at a men's hostel on the East Rand. One can suppose that Mlangeni's documentary mode of expression motivated his decision to shoot in black and white (or perhaps he drained the images of colour in Photoshop afterwards): this stark, no-nonsense palette is the language of the objective documenter. Colour, which is aligned with emotional responses, introduces subjectivity into the art making.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Nicholas Hlobo at Standard Bank Gallery

It's the pervasive smell of rubber that hits you first. And as your eyes adjust to the pink light, which discreetly enforces a boundary between the installation and the rest of the gallery, one is confronted with six large anamorphic black sculptural figures fashioned from rubber. With multiple limbs stretching out along the floor these disembodied creatures appear like underwater beings or plant life with tentacles used to probe the world around them. They are indeterminate, nebulous creatures that have no distinct identity, which links up with the title of the artworks, Izithunizi (Xhosa for "shadows").

In the catalogue Mark Gevisser suggests that these rubber sculptures represent blankets which conceal human subjects engaged in forbidden sexual acts. Certainly the brightly coloured stitching that runs along the edges of these semi-sculptural artworks recalls a traditional "blanket" stitch that edges old fashioned blankets, which are used in Xhosa initiation ceremonies. Referencing Xhosa tradition is a predominant characteristic of Nicholas Hlobo's work.

The title of the exhibition, Umshotsho, refers to a Xhosa coming-of-age tradition which allows teens to explore their sexuality and sexual fantasies under the guidance of a mentor and in a safe context - boys are encouraged to practice non-penetrative "thigh sex". The amorphous rubber sculptures quite succinctly operate as a metaphor for this stage in a young person's life. Out of the top of one of these sculptures is a protrusion that appears like the bud of a flower. Thus there is a sense that these indistinct beings are at the brink of blossoming, their bodies stirring with the first undeniable urges of sexual desire. It is at this time that people have yet to grasp the rules of sexual appropriateness. For many young men and women their sexual identity seems fluid and unresolved at this time as they begin to discover who they are. It's also a period when the rules that govern and determine gender identity have yet to be fully grasped.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Colour Colloquium

While William Kentridge was being feted by New York society – apparently he has become a fixture on the New York dinner party circuit – on the other side of the globe in a small South African village (Grahamstown) where a group of artists, writers and academics had gathered for a colloquium on Colour, writer and academic Ashraf Jamal was questioning and challenging Kentridge’s status in the canon of South African art. Not that this is unprecedented; within South African art circles I have noted a growing weariness around Kentridge’s art  propelled by overexposure and hype around his work.  I will always prize his charcoal animations but I have come to view his recent  appropriation of dated visual modes – such as the stereoscopic drawings or the Russian constructivist vocabulary – as gimmicks employed to amuse and create the illusion that his art is constantly evolving - which it is and it isn’t. 
Singling out the work of Kentridge and Cecil Skotnes Jamal articulated concern with the absence of colour in these artists work which he views as a manifestation of a state of mind that pervades South African art, in which moral seriousness overrides a playful form of expression, which he likened to a kind of “wakefulness” (drawn from a Foucault quote). Interestingly, it is noted in an article about Kentridge which recently appeared in the Financial Times that he chose not to use paint as his medium of expression because it would involve using colour. So really Kentridge is as colour-shy as Jamal proposes. Jamal suggested that such choices are not stylistically determined but are ideologically motivated to reflect a well-trodden discourse in South African culture that is centred on reconciling the self with the African landscape and culture – a continuing crisis centred on the ‘politics of place’. He proposed that the muted, earthy palette that characterises Skotnes’ art was evidence of his romanticised notion of the African landscape as an arid, dry and harsh terrain where survival would be tough.   In contrast he argued that Kentridge’s art, which features mines and the Joburg landscape, was evidence of an existentialist crisis fuelled by the artist’s battle to locate himself within a highly contested and politicised territory.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Joburg Art Fair 2010

Art Fairs are to art critics what zoos are to animal-rights activists - an assault on their belief system. It all comes down to the setting and the politics of the display. You see, just as animal lovers do not relish viewing leopards through bars or watching these prized beasts circling cramped cages, art critics recoil from art hung randomly on makeshift walls on a trade floor. For, in such a context, the art critic's nebulous set of skills, which allows them to retrieve the curious matrix of ideas that shape contemporary art, is really not required. Hence the relationship between art critics and art fairs has historically been a vexed one.
"Art fairs reduce complexity and diversity to sameness. They encourage vacuous glancing," observed Peter Suchin, the British critic.
Jerry Stalz of New York's Village Voice was equally disparaging.
"Organisers claim art fairs are "important" and that they're "forums". In reality, they're adrenaline-addled spectacles for a kind of buying and selling where intimacy, conviction, patience, and focused looking are essentially nonexistent. They are places where commerce has replaced epistemology."
Speaking at the Joburg Art Fair this year, Klaus Biesenbach, director of the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Centre at the MoMA gallery in New York, apparently also urged that fairs were nothing less than malls for art.
In fact, so widespread has the dislike of art fairs among art critics and the art intelligentsia been, that the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Arts) in London held a talk in 2007 titled "Why we love to hate art fairs".

Certainly Ross Douglas, head of Art Logic, the company that stages the Joburg Art Fair, has some inkling about this actuality - hence this year he only extended invitations to members of the press or art critics who he felt certain would turn in flowery reports.