Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Rocking Religion: Chiurai & Smith

A still from Kudzanai Chiurai's Moyo

It’s paradise for fashion bloggers; lots of young men and women in sassy street-style get-ups. Tuxedo jackets and skinnys. This is the crowd that Kudzanai Chiurai always pulls: Jozi’s hip party people. Part of the attraction behind his exhibition, 16SNLV, is the venue: a makeshift industrial space on Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, Newtown. It’s been updated, sanitised with white paint. Chiurai likes showing here rather than at the Goodman Gallery to which he is aligned.

His practice is embedded in Joburg life, so it makes sense that his exhibition openings tend to be a prelude to a party. Yet the mood is elegiac when you step into the space. It’s the music that has set this ambience. It’s something akin to what you might hear in a Methodist church during a funeral. It’s part of the video work Moyo, which is projected on a large screen. It’s a mother and child motif, recalling the Pietà by Michaelangelo. A female figure in costume is mourning the death of her (adult) progeny, lying bloodied across her lap. The work brings to mind Chiurai’s rendition of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which was part of the State of the Nation show at this venue a few years ago.

That video work was animated, too – he enjoys animating paintings, translating them into choreographed mise en scènes with costumed people.  Africanising these stock scenes is an important aspect, prompting us to question what makes them undeniably "African." The animations or gestures are so slow and subtle, you have to watch closely to see them evolve - he almost denies the medium's function.  Presumably he employs this device to sustain our attention and thwart our expectation that his images can be consumed immediately. That work was also supported by music on the opening night when Thandiswa Mazwai performed a live set in front of a screen where the work was projected.

This performance took place on the street, but the spectacle and the mobilisation of imagery and music recalled a church scene; everyone was enraptured by the gradually evolving scene. His static, conventional paintings exude the urban texture of Joburg’s layered urban palimpsest, but in his video works he relies on the symbolic realm of religious iconography.

It is in his subversion of Western religious parables from the canon of art history that he draws attention to the seemingly unnatural turn of events, that besets life (politics) in Africa and how these patterns are rooted in western culture. The tension in his work is rooted in the juxtaposition and overlap between the West and Africa. Afropessism (rooted in reality) and (European) cliches about the continent rub up against each other. One painting - untitled -  parodies the ubiquitous African safari, mocking conceptions about the continent – yet another, The English Garden, features an African holding up an Uzi. He doesn't deliver stark realities, he simply reworks existing motifs, signs. So, even though Moyo is, according to the publicity material, designed to address the phenomenon of violence in our society, it is a stylised representation, an overstated metaphor.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Making Plans: Stephen Hobbs

The Standard
 The work at Stephen Hobbs’s new show doesn’t come as a surprise. It bears all the markers of his practice, both visual and ideological, that he has been driving for some time – perhaps since the Low Voltage/High Voltage installation at the Substation at Wits in 2009, where he quite firmly established his idiosyncratic urban assemblage sculpture that is characterised by his fixation with scaffolding, which he alludes to with the use of dowel sticks. The scaffolding motif has served as a shorthand for progress and flux, articulating Hobbs’s fascination for the mechanics of Joburg’s regeneration, which he has played a role in through his work at the Trinity Session, managing public art projects.

In Be Careful in the Working Radius, the title of the show, this recognisable aesthetic, motif, remains ever present; while some prints are supported by dowel stick frames, others are prints of representations of scaffolding structures layered over each other. This creates the impression that Hobbs has, simply, distilled or reduced his aesthetic, his motifs, to suit the printmaking medium, arriving at more conventional and consumable art products for a commercial show.

Ordinarily this observation would imply that a compromise had been reached or perhaps even that Hobbs’s practice hasn’t evolved much, yet something interesting is developing through his engagement with printmaking at David Krut. This medium and process it entails seems to have cultivated a more sensitive awareness of form that has engendered a body of work that is the most aesthetically pleasing Hobbs has produced. He seems less preoccupied with making smart, conceptual statements and has allowed himself to be seduced by this medium. It has forced him to become more invested in the art object.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Politics of the Penis

Thabiso Pule and Hector Thami Manekehla perform Penis Politics

WE can't look directly at them, but we can't look away either. Thabiso Pule and Hector Thami Manekehla are metres away from the front row and are swinging their naked penises from side to side. It's the only part of their bodies on display; they're kitted out in black suits and are wearing black balaclavas, which add a threatening edge. They're like this male menace confronting, inflicting and boasting about their core masculinity, waving it in our faces, though through their exaggerated swagger of the male gait, they are similarly parodying the way men embody power.

They move sharp and tightly like action heroes, forcing their waving penises to slap across their thighs. We giggle nervously and shuffle along the floor of the small room in the Cape Town City Hall that has temporarily been taken over by the Live Art Festival.

Someone dubbed Pule and Manekehla's production Penis Politics, as a masculine rendition of the Vagina Monologues, though predictably in male fashion it doesn't include talking and sharing. This is a non-verbal performance and up for scrutiny are limp genitals. So, it isn't about celebrating masculine prowess but questioning its shaky foundations and the penis itself as the defining characteristic of male identity - or black male identity.

This isn't our first glimpse of male nudity at the Live Art Festival; a few nights earlier, we entered a makeshift theatre to find Tebogo Munyai balanced on his head wearing little other than a lit candle in his rear. It's an unforgettable scene and the liberal artsy crowd who fill the room are almost stunned into silence: his body is magnificent, ideal. We're also unaccustomed to seeing the male body on display, it appearing as a vessel. The piece is called Qina ke Qawe, and the only part of his body that is beyond our prying gaze is his penis, wrapped in white bandages. It's as if it has been injured. The effort to conceal it only serves to emphasise its presence and the politics attached to that.

Themba Mbuli's Dark Cell is a dance work revisiting the indignities the black male body was subjected to during the apartheid era; he dances in front of Ernest Cole's seminal photograph, Mine Recruitment, which shows a row of naked men lining up to be inspected. His performance ends with him in the buff. It appears as if he is trying to reclaim the naked black body from the past.

Male nudity and displays of the penis aren't confined to this event. The limp penises belonging to Ed Young's hyperreal self-portrait My Gallerist made me do it and the middle-aged white men posing in Pieter Hugo's series of unforgiving portraits for the Pirelli Special Project, were talking points at last year's Joburg Art Fair. Male nudity carries weight; it is a taboo across cultures. This is perhaps why performance artists like Steven Cohen have made their naked bodies part of their performative language - it pushes buttons.

The tone of Pule and Manekehla's piece is also confrontational and transgressive. In the wake of the Brett Murray/The Spear debacle, their work and gestures could superficially be read as a response to the president's vehement rejection of a stylised self-portrait in which his member was unveiled. The official line the government took at the time implied this action was disrespectful and (ironically) an affront to his masculine pride and dignity.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Art of Abstraction: Rhodes and Hlobo

A still from Robin Rhodes A Day in May

It’s a pleasing surprise. The so-called “eye” of Nicholas Hlobo’s winding rubber sculpture Tyaphaka greets you on the stairs before the entrance to the Stevenson’s Braamfontein gallery, creating this sense that the work cannot be contained. It’s like an amorphous beast, an alien being that keeps multiplying. You half expect to return to the area to find that this black rubber mass has encroached upon Juta Street. This work belongs on the street. It’s exterior fashioned from rubber tyres, incongruently sutured with ribbons, forms this disused blob that would blend into Joburg’s urban landscape. It appears displaced in the pristine white gallery setting, exploding in its largest room, filling the air with the aroma of rubber – a signature of Hlobo’s sculptural work.

The presentation of this rambling sculptural work in this location has lent it new readings. It debuted at the Biennale of Sydney in 2011 before featuring at the Stevenson’s Cape Town gallery in Woodstock in the group show titled Fiction as Fiction (or A Ninth Johannesburg Biennale), where I first encountered it. In that setting, it was buried inside the gallery and the “eye” was on a plinth, thus giving it significance. I was fixated with its relationship to the body; the large mass was like intestines, human entrails. In the Braamfontein setting, it seems detached from any corporeal or real object. It’s a complete abstraction, that invites all manner of metaphors to become attached to it.

Uthwalisiwe by Hlobo
Hlobo’s work probably hasn’t been connected to the body for some time; he stopped doing performance works and evoking the body through both his sculptural works and the motifs sewn on to pristine white canvases, that read like the skin what with inner cavities and external protrusions. Such works evoked the the friction between the exterior and interior – identity politics. Abstraction and formalism are the new buzz words in South African art and they seem to have relieved artists of this initial post-apartheid  preoccupation.
This has given way to a focus on production, the medium, taking it to its logical conclusion. Hlobo’s “beached whale” of a rubber sculpture is in some ways just an extreme, excessive conclusion of what he was doing when he was still interested in the cultural hybridity of the South African identity – part Xhosa, part English etc – and the relationship between tradition and contemporary notions of masculinity.

There is no narrative or political logic driving the work in this exhibition – not in any obvious way at least. This doesn’t read as a glaring absence, perhaps because the work superficially appears to extend from his identity-laden work – it’s the rubber-ribbon vocabulary that secures this idea. And in truth as his work is born from cultural and linguistic faultlines, ambiguity has always been its defining feature. Of course, now it may be lost in its own ambiguity.