Monday, June 25, 2012

Character Forming: Athi-Patra Ruga

The last time I had encountered Athi-Patra Ruga he was seated in front of a television set in a makeshift living space in a dark basement in a disused building in Hillbrow. It was hard to read his expression as his entire upper body was obscured by party balloons. For all intents and purposes Ruga was absent. He might revel in performance, but his all-encompassing costumes, which usually obscure his facial features, negate his presence, his identity. In this instance, he appeared like a stylised cartoon character, a kind of hybrid object/ subject being, which is not unexpected given that he relishes recycling popular culture in his work –  “I like inhaling it and hurling it.”

Later he danced inside a circle of candles before drawing us into an awkward striptease act. The performance was part of the Hillbrow leg of the X-Homes project in 2010 that was engineered to mediate and explore the baggage tied to this no-go suburb of Joburg’s inner city. The act of observing “others” in these settings; the kind of touristic form of voyeurism that such explorations into these suburbs tend to generate dominated.  An encounter with Ruga’s faceless character in the bowels of this neighbourhood fed quite neatly into this theme; as an anonymous, seemingly dehumanised but curiously seductive being he presented us with the apotheosis of otherness.

Seated behind a desk meditatively working on one of his so-called Irma Stern tapestries – he has been translating her paintings into needlepoint artworks – in his new studio in Cape Town’s city centre, is the other Ruga I met last month. Dressed in a Trenery cardigan and a pair of fashionable shorts, this Ruga appears quite conventional. But he’s still performing. In-between, or perhaps to counter, some of his more serious observations about his practice and his vexed personal history that he talks around, he makes jokes and laughs. Undoubtedly, while he may only have an audience of one – me – he is performing. Interviews are a performance but, as any of his friends on Facebook will attest, his drive to entertain is one that he sustains even when the record button isn’t on. The laborious labour that needlework requires pulls him into a different place and headspace.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Mimicking the Master: Hail to the Thief Reviewed

Brett Murray could not have planned it better himself. In front of the artwork dubbed Manifesto, a scripto-visual work presenting the phrase “Promises, Promises, Promises”, Liza Essers, the owner of the Goodman and Jackson Mthembu, ANC spokesman, were seated as they announced a settlement to the media, in which the ANC agreed to withdraw its case against the gallery and City Press, if the gallery agreed not to display Murray’s contentious The Spear .

The notorious artwork might have given the impression that Murray’s Hail to the Thief II exhibition was concerned with the president’s member but, in fact, he is more concerned with words, or on a broader level propaganda, political rhetoric. In such a context, words become objects; like the enlarged gold gilded letters of the word “Promises”, which creates the illusion of meaning and importance, though the word doesn’t offer us any idea what this “promise” might be. The substance of the “promise” is clearly irrelevant, bringing to mind the adage “empty promises”. This artwork epitomises the once-fashionable “one-liner” tradition of art-making that critic and theorist Julian Stallabrass dubbed “high-art lite”, referring to a brand of art that aspires to superficiality, to lightness – it was very popular in Britain in the late Nineties.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Power Play: Nandipha Mntambo

In Michiel Heyns’s Invisible Furies he introduces a Pablo Picasso painting, Figures At The Seaside, as a touchstone for the complex dynamic between lovers. The modernist work shows atomised body parts splayed and entangled as the two identities become intermingled. Observing the artwork, a character in Heyns’s novel proposes it expresses the submission of the female, a desire for defeat, and the male compulsion to conquer.

In Nandipha Mntambo’s videowork Paso Doble we are presented with a similar motif, though in this case the male and female characters, denoted via their dress, are locked in this fiery Spanish dance. The camera is mostly trained on their lower bodies as they whip around each other as she resists being tamed by the male character, whose movements seem more certain, less lively. Is she the victim, is he the conqueror and is the dance just a game where the outcome has already been determined?

It is in the context of the paso doble or any classic male-female duet that the dynamic between the genders seems set. The woman is the beautiful, eye-catching object that flits around the stage, while the male figure is a sombre presence who gives a guiding hand to her flights of fancy, her pretence at escape. In this way gender dynamics are embedded in dance, ingrained in the movements of the body in such a way that to be male or female is written into each muscle.

Mntambo tries to unwrite these rules in Paso Doble by conflating the roles. She does this in two ways; the shadows of the two characters which occupy the foreground appear to be fused, forming this peculiar hybrid creature that is constantly changing its appearance as the dancers move across the floor together. Because they are always joined, their limbs become indistinguishable in the shadow. In this way this dark doppelganger becomes the underlying and inescapable truth that they cannot outrun.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Pulling things apart: Jan-Henri Booyens

In the course of a critic’s working life there are always those artworks or exhibitions that you can’t shake off. Your mind keeps wandering back to the work, as if possessed. Sometimes its an unanswered question that propels the fixation. Other times it’s an inexplicable emotional pull. Jan Henri Booyen’s Matt Sparkle, which showed at the now-defunct Premises Gallery in Joburg in 2008, has been one such exhibition. The paintings were bleak and bold, presenting dark and brooding landscapes rendered in a stylised quasi-abstract mode that articulated a kind of future-lessness that was haunting – and seductive.

Over time I realised, however, that my desire to keep returning to his work wasn’t simply because I had fallen under its visual spell but because I done a disservice to the work in my review of it and that it was a forerunner of a new kind of formalism in local art. The main reason for my misreading was because I had encountered Zander Blom’s (solo) work before Booyens’s. I had assumed that as the two artists had been collaborators in the Avant Car Guard collective, their work sprung from the same well. As such, I had read Booyens work through a filter shaped by Blom’s then nihilistic obsession with high modernism and the abstract expressionist vocabulary and in particular, how this movement announced the “end” of painting.
I assumed that Booyens was also preoccupied with painting’s demise. It was only when I perused Blom’s solo exhibition, New Paintings, at Stevenson Joburg late last year that the penny dropped. I finally twigged that Booyens was at a more advanced stage in his practice than Blom, who was now only starting to experiment with form while dispensing with a conceptualist impulse, where the work’s value would no longer  rest  with the ideas underpinning it. Make no mistake, the ideas Blom used to frame the photographs of his early  paintings on the ceiling of his home was ingenious. But as he recently admitted, the ideas and presenting photographs rather than paintings was a way of lessening the risk.
“You can’t hide mistakes in a painting,” he observed.