Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Zwelethu Mthethwa: Power to the Poor

ZWELETHU Mthethwa only enforces one rule on his sitters: they must not smile. It’s the antithesis of what one would expect a photographer to demand. This idea is founded in Mthethwa’s belief that smiles are rarely genuine. They’re a knee-jerk response to awkwardness, he suggests.
“I see the smile as a façade, as a mask. When we are not sure what to do, we smile. So for me as an artist smiling becomes some kind of a blockage.”

This ethos has contributed towards an extensive oeuvre of portraiture offering authentic views into the lives of marginalised South Africans. Though he has painted too, it’s his photographs that have caught the world’s attention – he regularly exhibits on international  exhibitions and a new monograph was published by the Aperture Foundation last year.

You could argue that his images of impoverished subjects satiates stereotypical notions of Africa. Undoubtedly the fact that they don’tsmile might underscore their dejection. However, Mthethwa employs a number of devices to foreground the inventive ways in which they respond to difficult circumstances. In fact Mthethwa likens the subjects to artists, and is challenged and inspired by their tenaciousness.

Mthethwa is relieved to be talking about his work; he has a new exhibition on at Cape Town’s iArt Gallery, and has grown weary of discussing his involvement in South Africa’s stand at the Venice Biennale. There has been much controversy around South Africa’s participation in this exhibition because of the manner in which the Department of Arts and Culture failed to follow proper protocol and appointed a commercial dealer, Monna Mokoena, as commissioner.

Mthethwa laughs nervously when I raise the issue. I explain that at this juncture it’s a prerequisite to any conversation with him but suggest he could use the opportunity to clear up any misconceptions. It seems there is one. It was widely reported that Mthethwa refused to participate because of the circumstances around Mokoena’s appointment, but as he explains the back-and-forth negotiations between them, it becomes clear that his withdrawal from what must be the biggest and most important internationalart exhibitions, had to do with a lack transparency and disorganisation.
“No one seemed to know what the budget was. I print my photographs in New York so I needed advance warning.”
When Mthethwa finally received a contract from Mokoena, it was too late and the budget was far too meagre.
“There was not enough time to reproduce the work. I pulled out because I didn’t want to appear to be a clown.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Roger Ballen's Dorps: book review

Nostalgia is a recurring theme in Roger Ballen’s photography. Mementoes from the past, such as threadbare teddy bears, aged family photographs and other disused items from bygone eras have become common motifs in his inimitable brand of photography, which evokes a haunting liminal territory suspended not only between fact and fiction but in time too. His fascination for items that have been degraded by time is linked to his desire to retrieve a lost sense of innocence that one senses has always been sullied or corrupt.

In Dorps: Small Towns in South Africa, which was first published in 1986, one is able to trace the beginnings of Ballen’s fixation with the abandoned, the obsolete. It is an interest which manifests in a photographic study of small towns, dorps, where dilapidated Victorian buildings, empty streets and wall displays of dated imagery conjure up a lost culture. The black and white photographs of these overlooked and unpopulated rural towns, mostly taken in the mid-1980s, have an almost post-apocalyptic quality in the sense that they are caught in what appears to be a spiral of degeneration. Windows are cracked or broken, paint has chipped off the exteriors, signs are faded and corrugated iron roofs have rusted and buckled. The numerous vacant streets and abandoned buildings that feature in this photographic essay hint at a defunct society that has been exterminated. Of course, this offers a politicised reading, which posits these ghost towns as metaphors for a conservative white community that is on the decline.

But this is an oversimplified purview, particularly if one considers this early body of work in relation to his more recent oeuvres, which suggest that Ballen’s interest in entropy is part of an aesthetic designed to challenge the temporal character of photography.Ballen has always tried to undermine the properties of photography. Consequently, while the photographs in this glossy book appear to be the documentation of a society or culture in South Africa circa the mid-1980s, they in fact are quite detached from that era. The architecture, inhabitants’ dress and shop displays hark from a variety of epochs. In this way Ballen presents us with a world in which time has collapsed. Much of the architecture evokes a pseudo-European culture. This connection and the other stylistic throwbacks are motivated by an aspiration which Ballen describes as a “yearning for magnificence”.

Friday, June 3, 2011

'Edgy Watercolour Paintings' Should be an Oxymoron

Watercolour paintings are rarely described as complex. It is not the translucency of the medium that has contributed to this, but the fact that it has long been associated with hobbyist painters.Of course, this is a generalisation: several professional artists have exploited watercolour to great effect, most notably Marlene Dumas and Durant Sihlali.But certainly watercolour landscapes have become the fare of shopping mall art galleries and Sunday art markets.

Perhaps this is why the late Alan Crump’s watercolours come as such a surprise.They are edgy, ironic and intricate and leave you distinctly uneasy, which seems almost incongruent with the medium. We expect watercolour landscapes to orientate and order the natural world in a pleasing manner, highlighting its beauty. The composition of Crump’s landscapes, in particular the series of aerial paintings of mines, is dense and claustrophobic. Every inch of the paper is covered in a dark palette. There is no white space, no reprieve, no lightness. Crump depicts everyday scenes, but there is an implicit violence lurking. Under Crump’s hand the world appears chaotic and in disarray. The angles of his subjects, the absence of focal points, and the multidirectional patterns all work towards drawing you into a dark and frenzied world.

Open Cast Coal Mines, Newcastle, 1994, best illustrates Crump’s modus operandi. In this striking work he presents what appears to be an atomised object. It’s as if the ground has exploded and its insides have been scattered on the surface of the landscape. It’s a crude description of mining, a recurring motif in Crump’s art. His palette is always muted, except for the use of red, such as in Red Giant (1994), a painting of a large building excavation site, or in Earthworks (1997), which presents a tunnel inside the mine. Red streaks line the inside of the shaft before scattering in the interior like pools of blood in the wake of an attack. As Karin Skawran observes in the catalogue, Crump depicts the landscape like a human body. Undoubtedly in Red Giant the red earth reads like bruised and exposed flesh. It is not just Crump’s keen awareness of the environment and its vulnerability that compels this metaphor, but the history of exploitation and domination in this country, which most obviously manifested through the mining industry.