I had forgotten that Brett Murray used to have a sense of humour. Perhaps he never lost it; maybe we did. Standing in front of Murray’s 2002 work I must Learn to speak Xhosa brings to mind his sharp brand of satire, the laughter his approach once provoked. It’s a painted metal sculpture depicting an old (white) man kneeling in front of a bed, praying. The title of the work appears in a speech bubble below.
The work marks a time when Murray was still mocking the old guard and, in the context of the Art of Banking: Celebrating through Collections, it is used to visually map the mood of the 1990s, a time when white people presumably became acutely aware of the errors of their position, or at least felt their vulnerability in the face of an about-turn in the political and social status quo. Norman Catherine’s Endangered Species, a 2001 work consisting of a wooden cabinet populated by hybrid figures and objects, such as a bottle of “stay alive pills”, is also co-opted in service of articulating this sentiment.
It’s a curious process; using works from one time frame to illustrate another period. But largely this is how this exhibition has been constructed by Barbara Freemantle of the Standard Bank Gallery. The show isn’t simply an exercise in showing off works from this institution’s substantial art collection but, in celebration of its 150th anniversary, the works have been used to gloss over the country’s history from the 1860s. Given this fairly unexciting objective, I expected a dry, if not dull exhibition. This jumbling of time frames has certainly allowed Freemantle to animate this history in a different way; the contemporary works that illustrate this period simultaneously undermine or question some of the events that have been selected to define it. This engenders a sort of parallel story or powerful subtext.
But this modus operandi presents problems, too. For example, it allows a kind of hindsight that was not available at the time of these events. Murray and Catherine’s works were made almost a decade after the time frame that they are meant to capture, so can they really relate to prevailing sentiments in the 1990s? This kind of fast-forwarding to future conditions or mindsets makes the artworks operate as a screen that projects a more politically correct reality, though many are juxtaposed with works from the actual era they are meant to depict. Murray and Catherine’s works are shown near Penny Siopis’s diptych Always Something New out of Africa, made in 1990. Contrasting with their works, the latter suggests it may have been a time when white artists identified with the political struggle. In the late 1990s, when the so-called Grey Areas debate dominated local discourse on art, Siopis was criticised for her level of identification with black subjects and/or representation thereof.
Always Something New out of Africa presents a naked black woman holding a sheet to her body; she appears like an artists’ model. Behind her are densely packed drawings of violent battles – presumably the country’s history. The white sheet, which can also function as an artists’ canvas, opens space between the present and the past and mediates it in different ways. The painting also deals with violence to the female body and other gendered debates, but, in the context of this exhibition, it articulates art’s relationship to history. Unwittingly it also brings to mind how art can be used as a tool of misdirection – this can have both positive and negative ramifications.
The chronological narrative of this exhibition does pivot on the art, rather than history. An Irma Stern still life, Gardenias (1940), for example, doesn’t link up with any important event, other than itself and the fact that it is part of the Standard Bank collection. It’s not an insignificant collection; it consists of works by the who’s who of bankable artists from Gerard Sekoto to Sam Nhlengethwa, William Kentridge, David Goldblatt, Wim Botha and Marcus Neustetter. The list goes on and on. We have seen the French masters (in the last exhibition), now it’s time to roll out local 'masters'.
Artworks are historical documents of a different kind; they are not factual and are more vulnerable to new readings because of their ambiguity. Natasha Christopher’s Limn (2007) is used to depict the establishment of Joburg. It is the composition of a confluence of natural and unnatural elements at the centre of the photograph that facilitates this reading, though it is such an arbitrary moment and setting. In a way this work is about attaching significance to the ordinary, though it is a formal celebration of things that lack monumentality.
The juxtaposition between painting and photography vis-à-vis their varying approaches to depicting the landscape dominate this show. It serves to contrast how historical idealistic notions of the land contrast with the dystopian view embraced now by the likes of Guy Tillim and Goldblatt. With its luscious pink and green brush strokes, Edward Wolfe’s Struben’s Farm (1956) is in stark contrast to the dry barren landscape in Tillim’s Stanley’s Stoep (2003).
Township scenes are another recurring motif. David Mogano’s Alexandra Fire (1998), Durant Sihlali’s Kliptown Floods (1977) and Sam Nhlengethwa’s remarkable work, Baragwanath Bridge (2006) all present views of these settings from street level and are offered as defining signatures of the 1940s and the 1950s. Sihlali’s acrylic work is more satisfying than his watercolours; it’s a treat to be able to compare it to his 1991 rendition of Freedom Square, Kliptown, and view the shifting politics underlying the difference in how they have been rendered. The 1970s work was all about recording the weight of the dire living conditions.
Nhlengethwa’s photographic composite of the Sowetan landmark is a constructed truth, displaying the iconic aspects of the place in such a way that it seems whole, capturing the larger-than- life details of the place, yet, at the same time, speaking of fragmentation. This work is used to evoke the 1940s, though Nhlengethwa fast-forwards us to the recent present. In this way, Soweto’s history is overwritten, evoking a sense of denial and triumph – history has been transcended.
This overlayering of time produces interesting ironies, as with Diane Victor’s Monument II, which shows a destroyed monument, in the time frame when the Voortrekker monument was built. It’s as if the regime it memorialises, was instilled with the seed of its decay from the outset.
The pointed recontextualisations of artworks in this exhibition can be quite simplistic, glib and incongruent, like two works by the Essop brothers that are meant to tie in with the Arab Spring.
Johannes Phokela’s The Bean Feast (undated) is detached from its post-colonial thrust, coming to signify the rise of conspicuous consumerism thought to have been the driver behind the recent economic crisis in Europe and the US. This new twist works; this traditional painted tableaux depicting a group of people caught up in an orgy of food and drink shows how Western greed has caused its own implosion, but would Phokela be thrilled with this new reading?
Ultimately, this exhibition inserts some great artworks back into our consciousness, and into new sets of discussions that the artists could not have predicted. - published in The Sunday Independent, October 28, 2012. Image is Goldblatt's Boorgat is Die Antwoord.