Monday, May 27, 2013

Rural Art Party: Winter Sculpture Fair

Serge Nitgeka's  Father and Son
pic by Mary Corrigall

It's a luxury car pile-up. Something you might expect in a private school parking lot - not in the idyllic country setting of the Cradle of Humankind. Designer 4x4s built for city living line Kromdraai Road leading to Nirox Foundation and its sculpture park. It's optimistic to think that Joburg's well-heeled are flocking to see art in this rambling rural park, in particular a contemporary sculpture exhibition dubbed After the Rainbow that is part of the inaugural Winter Sculpture Fair.

It's more likely the promise of a day out with top nosh and wine from Franschhoek has caused this absurd rural traffic jam. Joburgers might covet T-shirts boasting their city's skyline but they jump at a chance to see it in their rear-view mirror. Especially if the outing entails a consumerist twist. With flags and signs bearing the MasterCard logo dotted everywhere, the Winter Sculpture Fair's corporate ties are boldly stated. This is not a makeshift rural market fair, not by any stretch. There are no old tannies peddling home-made jam. Nor is there an array of sentimental oil landscapes leaning against trees. Nor is this some sort of DIY hipster organic food market. As you enter the park, you find yourself in a sophisticated stand resplendent with all the creature comforts. There are long elegant suites to lounge on. You can pick up a cappuccino or sample or buy whisky. This isn't roughing it in the countryside.

The manicured lawns of Nirox Park allow Joburgers to be in the bush without actually being in the bush. It's a lush green oasis and the dark brown thorny vegetation that defines the area is kept at a safe distance. The temporary architecture for the fair is uberstylish without being garish. We quaff wine from glasses. There isn't a plastic plate or cup in sight. And the portable loos are hidden from view until you need them.

Good taste might be a negotiable or shifting quality in Joburg, but Artlogic, the organisers, seem to have their handle on what it might constitute and have established themselves as its arbiters. Alternative shopping experiences with a high-art edge seem to be their bag. Headed by Ross Douglas and Cobi Labuschagne, they started with the Joburg Art Fair at the Sandton Convention Centre, added the Food Wine Design experience on the roof of Hyde Park shopping centre, and now are clearly setting out to branch beyond the mall space - they are also looking into a rural cycling lifestyle event.

At lunchtime, long queues protrude from tents. There doesn't seem to be enough posh nosh to go around - on the Saturday there was none left by 2pm and most of the offerings on blackboard menus have been rubbed out. The cuisine and wine hails from Franschhoek - where else? The uber foodie haven Le Quartier Francaise have a stand, but it's hidden behind a hungry crowd. It's a long enough wait for food anywhere and the portions are small and overpriced. This is a bit of a hallmark of Artlogic events; style comes with a price-tag.

As with the Food Wine Design fair, the wine is more accessible, more available than the food. It's a good strategy; people are less discerning about what they buy and how much they spend with a few good glasses under their belt. They probably have a better time, too. Most of the wares - the sculptures - start at R50 000, so they aren't exactly the kind of products you would snap up on a whim, though some of them could only be whimsical wine-fuelled purchases. Like Barend de Wet's Red Rooster and Mellow Yellow, two blob-like structures that seem to incongruously translate daubs of colour into uncompromising steel designs. There are other designer wares for sale; a bit of pottery, some design/art books. Everything is desirable, designer.

Richard Forbes Vortex I is a hit with kids
Dotted around the undulating park are the sculptures, but it takes time to get to them and around them.
Nirox Park might be the ideal location for an outdoor sculpture show, but it's a good picnicking spot, too. And the event presents the middle-class desire for "a good family day out". Some of the children mistake sculptures for elaborate jungle gyms. Richard Forbes's Vortex I, a large red construction of lines configured around a hole, is a huge hit with the kids. There is little parents can do to pry them away from it - they want to enter the "vortex". It's disturbing and amusing that some of the works are seen as playthings, but this is what happens to art when you detach it from the gallery setting; it becomes something else. Certainly, the supposed sacredness attached to it is partly eroded. This has positive and negative spin-offs. It's good children are interacting with art, but it's not so good if they don't know it is art.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Packaging a life: Gerard Sekoto

A self-portrait of Sekoto

It shouldn’t be the case, but of all the images that lingers it is a snapshot of the entrance of a pedestrian Parisian bar. You can’t see much of the interior; a faux wooden bar counter tapers off into a dark abyss. Gerard Sekoto stepped into that void almost daily, during his last days.
“He drank from 12 to 12,” observes Barabara Lindop matter-of-factly as she flashes the photograph in front of me, before flitting across to another glass case where other documents alluding to the complex puzzle that was Sekoto’s life are on display.

It is now under scrutiny again in Song for Sekoto, a centenary – he was born in 1913 – retrospective at the Wits Art Museum (Wam). This particular vision of Sekoto is guided by Lindop, a trustee of the Gerard Sekoto foundation, who has compiled the catalogue and the archival material, and Mary-Jane Darroll who curated the art.

The women may be united in their obsession with Sekoto but for each it is sustained by different perspectives; Lindop is concerned with the details of Sekoto’s life and Darroll the “aesthetics of his work”. The two embody the different points of view from which an artist’s legacy is deconstructed and, in the context of a large show such as this, reconstructed.

The picture of Sekoto that emerges from Song for Sekoto is a familiar one. There are no revelations. What sets this exhibition apart from the 1989 retrospective held at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (Jag) and the 2006 show at the Standard Bank Gallery, which concentrated on the Paris years, is that this is the most comprehensive with more than 200 of his key artworks on show; including some of the Paris works, and a sizeable collection of documents that haven’t been available to the public.

Predictably, the tale of Sekoto’s life that emerges from the documents and artworks has a tragic bite. In a journal article for Presence Africaine in 1957 he details the difficulties of becoming an artist in apartheid South Africa, where he was barred from access to formal art education. The hand-written draft is displayed inside a glass case in the gallery, yet the surrounding artworks from the most prolific or admired periods of his career – the Sophiatown period from 1938 to 1942 and the Eastwood period from 1945 to 1947 – suggest that despite the limitations the state placed on his life and career he flourished and excelled. This may be part of the romance of Sekoto’s oeuvre; though during these periods he documented township life, subtly commenting on living conditions in a ghetto environment, the magnificence of the works themselves transcends the confines of the settings.

In other words the works don’t appear to be products of the places from which they hail. Yet, of course, because the paintings from these destinations are aesthetically pleasing there is a sense that he unwittingly romanticises township life. For it is clear from the development and character of the paintings from this era that while Sekoto was driven by social issues, his subject matter was a vehicle for formal experimentation.

He was clearly playing with chiaroscuro in works such as Four Figures at a Table (1941-2), which shows four card players gathered around a candle that bathes the scene in warm tones that contrast with the dark areas untouched by its glow. For Darroll this painting, which echoes similar scenes that Cezanne and Caravaggio rendered, shows Sekoto’s awareness of art history. The restrained socio-political undertones are vital for her too.
“He wasn’t just this domestic interior painter,” she says.
Generally, the value of work from the apartheid years is measured against its political content.  Sekoto wasn’t quite the protest artist, though after Sharpeville in 1960 he attempted a rendering of that horrific massacre from afar while living in Paris.

In his renderings of township conditions he didn’t relay strife and hardship through contorted or distorted bodies in the expressionist manner that Dumile Feni embraced – artists would only arrive at that approach much later and it is one that hasn’t completely avoided criticism. Police appear in a few of Sekoto’s paintings, most notably in The Roundup (1939), but they are not involved in violent skirmishes. Sekoto seems largely to be registering their presence rather than the impact it may have had.
The matter-of-factness that defines his work evokes the documentary photographer’s mode, though he obviously surrendered to the pleasures of painterly flourishes.