Saturday, January 29, 2011

Top 10 Cultural Highlights of 2010

A bit belated nevertheless here it is, in no particular order:

1. Paintings by Nicholas Hlobo at Brodie-Stevenson Gallery:
Hlobo is the country’s rising art star. Since showing solo exhibitions at the prestigious ICA in Boston, Massachusetts, and at the Tate Gallery in London in 2008, he has secured an enviable international profile, which has been further cemented since scooping the Rolex Visual Arts Protégé for 2010/11, which will see Anish Kapoor mentoring him.
But it is not these achievements that garnered him a place on this list: it’s the extraordinary so-called “paintings” - a collection of canvases boasting intricate three-dimensional embroidery - he exhibited in 2010.
In them he upturns the notion of the painted canvas, transforming the traditional western art medium into a sculptural form that straddles the realm of craft.
So far the artist has focused on the exterior embellishments that conceal human forms but, in this remarkable series, he attempts to peel back the surface layers as he explores interiority and the interplay between the two.
This presents an interesting shift for the artist and one that suggests that the fixation with identity that has gripped visual arts production in this country is moving in a new direction.

2. Foreplay, written and directed by Mpumelelo-Paul Grootboom at the Market Theatre:
This was the second run of this play, an adaptation of Arthur Reitzinger’s Der Reigen (The Circle). Grootboom is an uncompromising playwright who is unwilling to pander to commercial concerns or bourgeois sensibilities. In this play he offers uncensored views into the darkest parts of the South African consciousness by probing sexual desire, utilising it |as a metaphor for an insatiable hunger for power and dominance, the two driving forces that have defined our history and have set the conditions for the current political climate.
This idea crystallises in a long, drawn-out rape scene where the perpetrator is a top government official. Though many audience members found the scene unbearable, part of Grootboom’s talent as a theatre-maker is his ability to force audiences to confront the harsh realities of a society that has lost its moral compass.
In Foreplay he softens these truths by infusing humour, music and stylisation in such a way that the pain and horror is aesthetisised, though it remains palatable and haunting.

3. Time of the Berries by Peter Van Heerden and Sello Pesa: the 2010 Dance Umbrella:
Ever interested in dismantling the boundaries between performers and audiences, Van Heerden and Pesa created a performance in which the spaces these two occupy were almost completely blurred.
Not just physically but ideologically too, as they appealed to the audience to engage in a political discussion. They also achieved this by making it unclear when they were performing and when they weren’t.
Though these strategies and objectives are nothing new – particularly within the world of performance art – they exploited these ideas in the creation of a work which aimed to challenge not just the passivity of the |audience but to probe the politics of passivity, particularly in a racially charged environment where acts of violence and abuse continue to play out. They related this idea to the Reitz Four by enacting scenes from this case, where four young white men abused black cleaners at the University of the Free State.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Déjà vu: Pieter Hugo's precursor

This might appear like a photograph from Pieter Hugo’s recent exhibition at Brodie/Stevenson called Permanent Error but it is not. It is a photograph taken by Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo from Burkino Faso. For some the most pertinent fact is that Ouedraogo took this photograph and others at, the now famous, Agbogbloshie Market in Accra, Ghana in 2008 – before Hugo. An anonymous commentator on my blog drew my attention to this photograph and others by Ouedraogo, which were nominated for the Prix Pictet photographic award, view the link here.

The anonymous commentator asks whether Hugo had seen this image (and presumably the others) before he had taken his own photographs. I would like to think that he had, as I believe he built on the potential that this photograph promised. I also have an inkling that Ouedraogo wasn’t the first person to photograph this site and the extraordinary phenomenon that exists there: it is such an evocative location that it is easy to imagine that photographers make a pilgrimage to it. 

The post of my review of Hugo’s exhibition attracted a number of comments by people who felt compelled to demonstrate his ‘unoriginality’ by listing a number of potential predecessors (who were all deemed more superior).  I found this particularly interesting but also a futile activity as every artist has a slew of precursors - even those rare individuals deemed to have set art on a completely new course. I am not defending Hugo’s work – but the principles at stake here. I suppose because photography and its potential within the art realm is only just being explored in this country, there is this expectation of the new – that each photographer/artist is compelled to employ it in a distinctive and original way (albeit that the evolution of photography has already played out elsewhere in the world).

This is a particularly difficult objective for those who straddle the social documentary genre, such as Hugo, as off-beat or shocking social phenomenon attract a particular brand of photographer like flies. When I was a judge for the Bonani Africa Photographic competition last year this actuality came sharply into focus.   Of course, there is a distinction between subject-matter and its treatment thereof. In light of this I would argue that Hugo’s series in Ghana is completely different to Ouedraogo’s – even the portrait with the smoke. Hugo is more concerned with the subjects (and portraiture) who inhabit this post-apocalyptic territory, whereas Ouedraogo seems to be giving a broader perspective, encompassing different aspects of this phenomenon and its impact on the landscape: such as the photograph of a bridge over a river of electronic waste.

Because this site evokes quite an obvious discourse centred on unequal power relations between the West and Africa, I suppose the question should be: are Hugo and Ouedraogo saying the same thing? What do you think?

BTW: Just one last little, ironic point: Ouedraogo is so averse to his images being copied in any way that I had to call in an IT expert to help link the above image from his website (he has code in place to ensure that you can’t even do a screengrab) onto this page. I suppose he might be outraged to see Hugo’s series.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Brett Murray's angry retort falls short

Anger often bypasses reason as it circulates around the mind, gathering energy to force an explosion. Hail to the Thief is just such an explosion. It is not that Brett Murray’s anger is unreasonable: like many South Africans he is enraged by the pervasive level of corruption that has permeated the ruling party. Certainly, it is an inescapable phenomenon of our times. One cannot open a newspaper without being confronted with another story detailing how government or ANC members have exploited their position to line their own pockets. That few individuals are ever held accountable has compounded the sense of outrage that so many justifiably experience.

This perhaps might explain why Murray says the same thing over and over again in this exhibition: he is paralysed by an overwhelming sense of disbelief and powerlessness. An ANC logo is emblazoned with the phrase “For Sale”. “Cash is King” is a slogan that appears below a stylised rendition of Zuma, rendered to resemble a famous poster of Vladmir Lenin, the first leader of the communist Soviet Union. “Join the Tender Party” is the phrase that emblazons a wooden sculpture that is designed to appear like a poster. Like the former artwork Murray draws its language from communist visual and textual rhetoric. In another work Murray borrows the title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, Tender is the Night, except here the word “tender” is repeated over and over.

By repeatedly stating the phenomenon Murray evokes or replicates the habitual nature of the corrupt behaviour that all these morally twisted politicos and their collaborators engage in. Consequently this exhibition is almost as excessive as the behaviour it critiques. Certainly some of the visual forms that Murray uses, such as the oversized gold leaf and aluminium coat of arms that dominate walls around the gallery, suggest that he has assumed a mode of expression that mimics the opulent lifestyles which either drive such widespread corruption among the country’s new elite or is a manifestation of extreme wealth.