Sunday, July 25, 2010

Gimberg Nerf on Facebook

Douglas Gimberg and Christian Nerf’s project, or should one say objective, towards establishing a unified authorial identity in the world of art has reached its apogee with the entry of this “character” on Facebook. FB is the ideal place to concretise this “persona”; it is a virtual space where an identity can be invented and given credibility at the same time. Granted Gimberg Nerf is a bit of an odd looking bloke with a sort of Amish sensibility but his slightly jarring appearance seems appropriate given that he is made up of two separate people, the friction or slight incompatibility between the two should be palpable. This is such an appealing artistic gesture; it will be interesting to observe how Gimberg Nerf evolves in this social media realm.

Interview with Mary Sibande

IT IS MARY Sibande’s hands that I first study when she sits down. Weeks earlier I had been transfixed by the large hands on her alter ego, Sophie, a fibreglass replica of Sibande, in the artwork I Decline, I Refuse to Recline (2010), on show at the SPace exhibition. I thought that the large hands that reach out, in desperation, towards some invisible object, might have been part of a deliberate ploy: perhaps a way of underscoring Sophie’s avaricious pursuit of material comforts, her determination to survive and her status as a worker. It made sense; for Sibande the figure of the domestic worker isn’t a disempowered character at all, but a strong, powerful figure.
“I wanted to celebrate them (domestic workers). I think that they are heroes. It was so hard to put food on the table,” observes Sibande, looking down at her hands, which don’t look like the oversized appendages that I had seen on her sculpture.
Sophie might be a replica of Sibande’s body and Sibande might parade as this character in photographs, but their personae are nothing alike. Sibande is obviously more animated. She is garrulous, upbeat and her chatter is punctuated with laughter. And every so often she makes a poignant remark about her practice – although she confesses she isn’t good at articulating the ideas that shape her art.
“I am a sculptor, I like to make stuff. I know that I can’t talk about my work. I find it difficult to express what I want to say. Even when I speak in Swazi I have the same difficulties. It probably doesn’t help that I went to an Afrikaans school.”

Sibande was born in 1982 and grew up in Barberton, Mpumalanga, where she attended said Afrikaans school. Though she received a better education than other children in the township where she lived it kept her at a remove, forcing her into solitude.
“People thought that I thought I was better than them because I went to this other
school,” she recalls.
Sibande moved to Joburg in 2001 to study fashion; she only signed up for a degree in fine art at the University of Johannesburg because she missed the application date for the fashion course. But her fascination for fashion and clothing didn’t end; she has channelled it into her art. Sophie’s dress is the most expressive element of Sibande’s art and the fibreglass sculptures resemble mannequins. In this way Sibande is recasting, reinventing and challenging the fashion ideal.

It may seem incongruous for a young well-educated black woman to want to dress up and pose as a domestic worker; it defeats the aims and ambitious of the generation who fought for equality. Sibande suggests that by portraying a domestic worker she is stripping back the privileges that she has enjoyed and positioning herself in the long line of domestic workers from which she descends: since her great grandmother, all the women in her family have been more or less trapped by servitude.
“I wanted to put myself among these women, these maids. I am making a work out of their work,” she comments.
Sibande’s reverence for domestic workers manifests in her rendering of this figure. By situating Sophie in the realm of fantasy, by dressing her an elaborate pseudo-Victorian costume she does not emerge as a pitiful character but one with a degree of agency. It’s a twist on the conventional manner in which this persona has been cast in the public realm; under-paid and subject to the whims of fussy white madams, the domestic worker is more commonly viewed as a powerless and exploited worker who occupies the bottom echelon of our society. In other words the domestic worker was the ultimate victim of the skewed social and political system that once governed this country.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Thursday Night Art Crawl

In typical Joburg fashion there were three gallery openings all starting at 6pm on the same Thursday evening; the Brait-Everard Read Award show at Circa, a group show, entitled In Other Words at the Goodman and New African Photography at Gallery Momo. Art gluttons such as myself didn’t settle on attending one of the openings but had rather ambitiously set their sights on attending all three within the space of two hours. As I drove towards Parktown North, however, I saw that Eskom, in its usual untimely fashion, had put a spanner in the works. The suburb was in complete darkness and when I passed by Gallery Momo I saw people holding candles up to artworks – so I drove with the hope that Circa might have electricity. They did.

Circa’s exterior is impressive but it is not really a functional piece of architecture; the exhibition spaces feel cramped – particularly the space downstairs - and the space upstairs, which is meant to function as the primary exhibition area, feels like an entrance space that should lead onto something grander. Nevertheless because the venue does offer two disconnected spaces it is ideal for showcasing two bodies of work that are not interrelated, such as the work of the winners of this year’s Brait Everard Read Award: Carmen Sober and Gabrielle Goliath. 

I rarely miss viewing the Brait-Everard Read Award exhibition – the work is usually challenging and fresh. And this year’s winners didn’t disappoint, well, not completely. Both Goliath and Sober are pushing the limits of photography by destabilising the accuracy or veracity of the documentary mode as a purveyor of any fixed truths. Granted, not a new idea but they approached this objective quite differently. Goliath’s exhibition was an extension of her preoccupation with identity politics. Multiple portraits of young coloured women in identical outfits rendered in a sort of Pieter Hugo style (pervasive light illuminating the subject’s face) all functioned as portraits of someone called “Bernice.” Adjacent to this line of portraits was video footage revealing the “real” identities of these women, thus propelling a search for the actual Bernice, a name the artist also assumed. I wasn’t particularly enthralled – mostly because I felt that it was simply a reversal of the modus operandi she employed in Ek is 'n Kimberley Coloured.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The 'Grey Areas' debate 14 years later

No essays were feverishly penned. No impassioned articles or e-mails were quickly dispatched. There were no public declarations of outrage. Nor did groups of art students flock to view the “offending” artworks. It seemed in the days that followed the opening of the In Context exhibition at the Arts on Main complex last month that the display of Candice Breitz’s Ghost series (1994-1996) had gone without much notice.

Had the 14 years that had passed dulled the works’ hard transgressive edges? Certainly it seemed as if the white figures that dominate in this series of artworks had truly become spectral characters, withholding the secrets from South Africa’s vexed past. More than a decade ago the Ghost series and Breitz’s Rainbow series were anything but unobtrusive; not only were they at the centre of an explosive polemic that rocked the citadels of art academia, but when the debate moved into the public domain, it posed the most fundamental questions that plagued post-apartheid identity: could white people identify with black people and did anyone have the right to represent another?

Answers to these questions weren’t easy to identify, causing the debate to rage for years, finally culminating in the publication of Grey Areas, a collection of essays. Does the fact that the Ghost series has not caused any waves a second time indicate that the discourse has become irrelevant? Breitz, who has since been settled in Germany for some time, was keen to find out.
“I have no idea what to expect. I was curious as to what it would be like to insert these works into this context at this moment in time. The recent fiasco at Constitution Hill (with Lulu Xingwana) made me wonder whether this particular dialogue remains relevant. For as long as the history of apartheid and questions of race continue to play a central role in our understanding of who we are, such conversations need to continue,” observes the artist.
So while the dust may have settled on the “Grey Areas” debate, Breitz obviously remains haunted by it. Certainly all spheres of cultural production in South Africa were implicated and affected by the debate; issues of representation are as pertinent to literature as they are to journalism.

Ironically, few involved in the debate had actually seen Breitz’s Ghost series – it was exhibited at the Chicago Project Room in 1998 but has never been shown on South African soil until now. As with her Rainbow series, the Ghost series was created by manipulating existing imagery. Breitz took ethnographic postcards of black women in traditional garb, of the kind one would find in a tourist shop, and with the use of Tipp-Ex she transformed the women’s bodies, turning the black women “white” – hence the ghost alluded to in the title of the series, which also referred to women’s lack of status.
“I wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t already been said at that moment in time. African women have largely been represented in the public sphere through their absence. “What those works did was to very simply make the absence visible and to project the presence of the represented women as an absence. These kinds of images of black women (that I presented) are ultimately less about the women portrayed than they are about the white photographers who sell the imagery to white tourists with their particular ideas about Africa.”

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Reflecting on the Soccer Art Frenzy

GIANT body parts are scattered all over the workroom. A colossal woman’s head is balanced on a stick while an artist bends over her, pushing her plastic eyes into place. Massive sets of hands sit on a tabletop. The fingertips have yet to be covered by tan masking tape, so you can see the plastic bottles that have been used in their construction. Long strands of coarse rope, which will be used as hair, cascade down a spiral staircase in the corner of the workroom. The artists barely look up when we enter. With over 30 giant puppets, or grand personnes as the French participants in the Giant Match project call them, to complete before
the World Cup starts, there isn’t time to indulge curiosity. This room is one of many workrooms that colonise the 20-storey Wits University corner building. Over 100 puppet makers have been toiling in these rooms and in the theatre across the road since mid-April. Their frenzied creative work is emblematic of the heightened artistic activities that have been manifesting all around the city of Joburg in the run-up to the landmark sporting event. Artists, actors, dancers, curators, choreographers and theatre producers have within the last year been focused on creating artistic products to complement or coincide with the event. Never have the two contrasting fields of sport and art shared such synergy. Given the amount and variety of cultural products that have been designed to be staged during this international soccer extravaganza, it would be easy to think that it’s not just a sporting event but a huge cultural festival.

Although the Department of Arts and Culture’s promise of R150 million to fund tournament-related cultural projects didn’t materialise in the way that it should have, the art community forged ahead with the aid of foreign cultural agencies such as the Goethe Institute and the French Institute of South Africa, (Ifas), and other government bodies such as the City of Joburg and the Gauteng Provincial Government. That such a diverse cultural programme will run alongside the World Cup is testament to this robust and determined community, accustomed to fighting tooth and nail to survive without national government support and their keenness to exploit the opportunity the event has presented to showcase cultural products.

Undoubtedly, such efforts evince that the arts are not only relevant, in the sense that this sphere is able to engage with sporting activities, but have an equally important role to play in major events. Almost every sphere of the arts is presenting work during the World Cup: there is the African Film Festival at Africa Museum, musical and theatrical productions such as The Boys in the Photographs, but primarily it is large visual arts displays that dominate, including In Context, a multi-media multi-venue art exhibition, Without Masks, a large Afro-Cuban exhibition at the Joburg Art Gallery, SPace, a Pan-African exhibition
at Africa Museum, the aptly titled This is Our Time, an exhibition spread across Joburg and Cape Town venues (Brodie-Stevenson Gallery and Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town), Halakasha!, a soccer-themed exhibition showing at the Standard Bank Gallery, Harun Farocki’s Deep Play, also at Joburg Art Gallery, and the bi-national Brazilian/South African exhibition called The Eleven Football and Art – Africa 2010 x Brazil 2014.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

SPace at Museum Africa

MINISTER of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana cast a dark shadow over the art community when she expressed her disapproval and aimed to censor Zanele Muholi’s photographs of lesbians and Nandipha Mntambo’s contentious Rape Of Europa last year at the opening of Bongi Bengu’s Innovative Women: Ten Contemporary Black Women Artists. While her prejudice against homosexuals was troubling, it was the threat of artistic censorship that really rattled this community. Thus her association with this exhibition, SPace, immediately established a sense of unease. Had the curators submitted to a form of self-censorship in an effort to appease Xingwana’s narrow views on art?

Was the absence of Muholi’s works significant? Would Mntambo’s striking Rape of Europa have made another appearance if Xingwana and the government and/or City of Joburg weren’t funding this event?
Fortunately for Thembinkosi Goniwe and Melissa Mboweni, the curators of this large-scale exhibition, Xingwana did not live up to her promise to open the exhibition and thus indirectly her personality and attitudes were distanced from the show. It also gave Goniwe the chance to slip in a disparaging remark about Xingwana on the opening night, which seemed to confirm that her uninformed presumptions about contemporary South African art might not have had any impact on their curatorial vision.

And a grand vision it was: not only is this mega-Pan-African exhibition supposed to give tourists visiting this country within the next month a taste of contemporary African art, but Goniwe suggested that their mandate was to reposition negative, stereotypical attitudes around the continent. In this way ideas underpinning
this exhibition echo the sentiments that were driving Simon Njami’s Africa Remix, which showed at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2007. And as such all the self-same criticisms that Africa Remix attracted. The main one being, of course, that  challenging attitudes about Africa with an exhibition that implies that the continent is a united, single entity is self-defeating as it immediately conforms to western notions that Africa is a single homogeneous destination.

It’s a conundrum for sure: how do you redefine Africa without referencing Africa?
The title of the exhibition, SPace, (the upper-case “P” is meant to draw your attention to the word “pace”, too, which operates as a sort of submotif) directly addresses the complexities of reframing an imaginative and physical position. Given the rather awkward exhibition space at MuseumAfrika, where this exhibition is staged, you can’t help thinking that it also makes reference to the difficulties of actually placing and displaying art in museums and the conventions that underpin this activity. Certainly Goniwe and Mboweni have aimed to challenge some of those traditions by ensuring that the themes and subthemes of the exhibition – pleasure, beauty and intimacy – do not overburden the art, in the sense that the artworks’ connections to these themes are subtle. But the connections are far too subtle; so much so that in some instances even if you stretch the meaning of a work you still struggle to fit it with any of the themes – this also isn’t helped by the fact that there is no signage demarcating which subthemes are in play where.