Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Neither hair nor there: Nandipha Mntambo

Destinies Entwined
Much of Nandipha Mntambo’s practice has circled bullfighting. Like a matador she has tackled this topic from a variety of points of view, imagining herself as the toreador and the bull in Ukungenisa (2009) and the Praça du Touros series (2008) or studying how this tradition has manifested in stylised cultural products as in the video-work Paso Doble (2011), where she maps and subverts the gender roles in the Spanish dance of the same name. All sorts of subtexts are embedded in these works; the politics of dress, architecture even and the colonial legacy in Africa, but these works are united by one recurring action; the blurring of roles between the dominant matador and the animal that is set up as an opponent, though ultimately its fate is more or less set. At some point, Mntambo might raise a spear and lance her preoccupation with bullfighting and perhaps her new solo exhibition, Transcience, plots a path in this direction with a series of “hairy” paintings that move her practice into new territory.

The series of textured lithographs presenting abstract mounds that you encounter at the entrance to the Stevenson Gallery hint at this shift, though they only “make sense” once you have perused the second room of the gallery where one of her signature cowhide sculptures dominates. But first, it’s a new two-channel video work dubbed Marie Sara (2014) displayed on adjacent walls, pinning you between the two screens that demand your attention. The film(s) is centred on an interview with the titular subject, a female bullfighter.
It’s not an unexpected topic, but Mntambo’s approach is somewhat different here; she is no longer consumed with the fantasy of a bullfight, or assuming the role of a matador, but documenting a real-life one, though we encounter her in a calm domestic setting. This real scenario prompts a hunger to capture the details; Mntambo zooms in on her subject and the architectural details of a bullfighting venue. It is hard to believe this softly spoken blonde subject, seen stroking a cat on her lap, is a bullfighter, would do harm to an animal. Yet as she talks about her family background and we see elaborate elements of the building where a bullfight takes place it seems clear that the tradition is removed from reality; it plays out in a theatre of sorts where she gets to play someone else, though there are real consequences for doing so.

There are omissions in the English translations at the bottom of the screen and the nature of the close-ups is such that the interview itself operates as another form of theatre that seduces us with its sensual visual qualities and the ambiguous figure who explains an occupation and act that is not represented. This bloody moment of violence is always denied in Mntambo’s work, as is the tradition in Portugal where the bull is either killed or treated away from the spectators view. This off-screen death allows the animal a level of immortality - a theme that runs throughout this show.

This work encapsulates that murky territory that Mntambo has always mined; the place between the female/male, life/death, human/animal, but what is significant is that Mntambo has employed the documentary mode to do so, which interestingly allows for more ambiguity than her staged depictions. It is as if Mntambo is seeking out new ways to portray ambiguity, extending her vocabulary, which the oil paintings and lithographs achieve more overtly.

The cowhide sculpture, Destinies Entwined, doesn’t imply absent human forms, as has been the case with previous works in this material, which have been moulded on a person. They appear like a cover, a cape perhaps or the red cloth that is used to taunt the bull in a ring. They could also stand in for  a macabre renaction of bulls at the  height of their life, such as a taxidermied object. The title refers to a dramatic moment that binds the two entities, hinted at in these mirrored cowhide forms. This moment of contact may or may not refer to a bullfight; its indeterminate status is what allows it to exist as an abstract form relating to abstract ideas around life/death, animal/human or the surface (the skin) and the absent interior being or object.
Hinterlands of Devotion II 

This sense of ambiguity is  fully teased out in a series of striking “hairy paintings” surrounding the cowhide sculpture. Hair is woven into the canvases of these drip oil paintings, imparting not only texture but disrupting the flat surface and introducing “the animal” into these abstract works.
The hair could be human but it speaks of the animal; in Mntambo’s work hair has presented the meeting place between the human and the animal. The hair also implies  a living being, imparting a sense that the object is ‘alive’ and real, though ironically detached from a living being hair becomes a grotesque and haunting reminder of absence/death. These paintings, rendered in a dark palette, highlight this element of revulsion that her work has always, on purpose,  induced as well as the sense of curiosity too; it’s the hair that turns these paintings into macabre “objects” that are both alive and dead. This generates a different kind of attachment to a painting and evokes all the  baggage this medium has with regards to reality and immortality. In other words this theme is given a  different spin via painting.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Working it Out: Simon Gush

A replica of the Mercedes-Benz that was gifted by the company's East London
Plant in the late nineties. pic by Masimba Sasa
Confirming South Africa’s supposed status as the “protest capital of the world” is a Wikipedia page dedicated to the culture of protest in post-apartheid South Africa. The physical, material, economic and political conditions that have prompted strikes in this era are well documented, but what of the psychic and cultural conditions?

At a very basic level, protests and strikes afford workers a form of visibility in the public realm that is usually denied to them. This theme of invisibility/visibility in relation to workers is articulated in Simon Gush’s 2013 filmic work Iseeyou, a survey of statues of miners around Joburg. Muscle-rippled arms of male workers (women are obviously excluded) reach towards the heavens, situating these figures as heroes. This is despite the fact that after 20 years of democracy workers and miners remain  to be perceived as disenfranchised and powerless, though violent and destructive post-apartheid protests have slightly muddied their “victim” status. The title of Gush’s work plays with their position; the public statue is an overstatement of visibility, despite workers’ supposed invisibility.

Despite Gush’s interest in workers and the cultural value of strikes in his latest exhibition, Red, at the Goethe-Institut gallery, his recent work has been focused on the absence of workers. Films such as After Hours, Sunday Light and the After the Work Stopped series, examine empty offices, façades of industrial buildings and city streets during the weekend, when most people are not working. In this way, Gush’s interest is directed towards the physical spaces where work takes place, which allows him to tease out what “work” might actually be, in a philosophical sense.

Paradoxically, this can only be done when people are not working – removing the activity itself to highlight its worth – hence he surveys vacated spaces, which seem so banal and meaningless without workers. Interestingly, this creates the impression that these anodyne interiors and exteriors exist for workers, rather than the popular perception that workers are dependent on these spaces to generate an income, find a sense of purpose, etcetera. These spaces also help demarcate and regulate when work takes place and the kind of personas people adopt inside and outside work – in other words, the spaces also regulate the vicissitudes of our identities. And in this country, they are the sites upon which we negotiate and test our citizenship. This is an important point, given his latest body of work, which directs our attention to positive and negative battles within the workplace.

Gush’s interest in quantifying work is part of an objective to discover where working and not-working might overlap. Not-working is obviously a key component of a strike, but this is also an interesting theme for an artist to discover – artists and society often embrace the illusion their work isn’t work; though it may be labour intensive, art is not considered regular work and it sometimes “undoes” our notion of work, challenges what work is, its role – Gush’s practice falls into this category.

In Red, Gush grapples to express what work is and isn’t in a more quantifiable way. Instead of presenting viewers with the absence of workers or the results of their work, he has exhibited an end-product of labour; a Mercedes-Benz that is partly disassembled; the body, the frame is intact; the bonnet and doors are displayed on adjacent walls.

This is an ordinary and extraordinary Mercedes-Benz as it is a replica of a 500SE model that was built as a gift for Mandela in the early 1990s by the staff at the company’s East London plant. In a documentary that is part of the display, senior union members at the plant explain how, following Madiba’s release, their members decided to approach management and negotiate a way to realise this gesture. Management eventually conceded and donated the parts, while the workers donated an hour of labour from their daily shifts to manufacture the car.
A speculative installation of the beds the workers
may have made during the sleep-in strike.
picture by Masimba Sasa

It is not unexpected that Gush is fixated by this gesture; for beyond its feel-good factor – warring workers and management “working” together for a common good – that echoes the late Madiba’s magnanimous and reconciliatory ethos, it shows workers employing their labour towards a symbolic gesture.

For all sense in purposes, in this instance they functioned as artists – artists are engaged in work that is geared towards making symbolic statements. This act also allowed, or allows us, to view their labour as something that can be “given” and shared rather than taken – it has abstract value.

In this way rather than the product, the car, being the object that is exchanged, the labour – the work – itself, is the commodity and it also, like the art object, can have symbolic (abstract) value, depending on its given objective. As such, Gush isn’t only interested in the space between work and non-work but the work/art dichotomy, prompting perennial questions about what art is – what is the art factor?

Can Gush’s display be considered art; when the end-product, the “work” being the Mercedes, was manufactured by other people?  The ‘art’ comes in the form of two sets of objects/installations that visually realise this murky space between life and art. These objects pertain to a prolonged strike that took place in the same factory in the same year that the red Mercedes was being produced for Madiba. During this strike, the workers inhabited the factory. An installation presents the makeshift “beds” from car seats that the workers might have used to sleep on and a collection of sculptural works by Mokotjo Mohulo, a fashion designer, stylist, artist (he works at boundaries), present workers’ outfits fashioned from materials used in the manufacture of cars.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A sense of belonging: Zanele Muholi

Ayanda Moremi & Abakhaphi II. Kwanele Park, Katlehong, 9 November, 2013
By Zanele Muholi
It is not unusual for the subjects of photographs or artworks to attend the opening nights of the exhibitions where their portraits are hanging on the walls. A certain cachet is attached to being selected as subject-matter for an artist, such as achieving some kind of immortality, if only in the realm of art history.
At the opening of Zanele Muholi's exhibition, Of Love & Loss, at the Stevenson Gallery, and the prize-giving at the Wits Art Museum (WAM) earlier that evening, where Muholi was presented with the Prince Claus Fund Award, the venues were packed with people who have stood in front of Muholi's camera, or may do in the future; black lesbians in ties, and young men in high heels.

There was a palatable buzz of excitement that had little to do with vanity. With cheers, yells, singing and dancing, the crowd seemed to revel in occupying the (public) space that Muholi has staked out through her photographic practice that has found a foothold in the art world. The international award, and two galleries boasting Muholi's photographs, affirmed a status that seems to have been denied. It was clear from Muholi's speech that this was only the beginning of a larger revolution - "we must infiltrate the mainstream", she said.

Galleries have provided Muholi with a platform for the black lesbians in her images to "out" themselves and publicly claim their identity which, in the context of seemingly widespread homophobia and attacks on lesbians in townships, can be perceived as an act of defiance. Simply standing in front of Muholi's camera lens is subversive, regardless of what you do in front of it, though, interestingly or perhaps paradoxically, the uniformity of her treatment of her subjects somehow reduces the space she opens up as one to express individuality.

This is particularly the case in a large suite of cropped portraits of women on display in Queer and Trans Art-iculations: Collaborative art for social change (Muholi and Garielle le Roux) at WAM. Uniformity is articulated through the subjects' poses - they engage directly with the viewer as if to announce themselves - and their largely androgynous appearances.

Sameness is important to Muholi's expression; strength and unity not only in a visual sense but a psychic one too, is how her subjects derive a sense of power as it allows them to counter "being different".
This approach, highlighted in the manner in which the images are displayed - closely in groups - all work at articulating a sense of community and a hard line of defiance - "together we stand".

It is not surprising that the art world has provided Muholi with an environment to challenge and locate a community she claims as "hers" through her art; it has always been a gay-friendly if not gay-dominated one. However, does her activism carry any potency in this context?
"I have never seen her work in townships. It is easy doing it here," observes one young woman at the prize giving, "but you can't blame her, she is human."

The politics of apolitical fashion

David Tlale's fashionable take on a public protest pic by Simon Deiner
Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton is an odd phenomenon. Not only is it an architectural or spatial peculiarity with all its nods to fallen European empires, but the odd mix between functioning as a shopping mecca and tourist hub, guaranteed by the ugliest tribute to Nelson Mandela in the form of a grotesque oversized statue, somehow captures the worst aspect of our culture or society. It embodies our hubristic reimagining of who we are as a nation, which is somehow realised in a tasteless confluence of misleading visual iconography.

This isn’t a new thought. Yet it buries itself prominently in my mind while waiting for David Tlale’s show to start in the square. Tlale’s shows are always one of the highly anticipated ones at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Joburg. He always has a surprise up his sleeve; whether it is arriving on the ramp on a Harley-Davidson, minting collector gold coins bearing his effigy or bombarding us with a hundred fashion looks paraded on the bodies of opera singers and actors. What would Tlale do next?
I turn my gaze to the blue sky, imagining him parachuting on to the square or arriving by helicopter.
The anticipation of a fashion show is not only part of the ritual but can sometimes be the most entertaining aspect. The fashionistas milling about in their neon and polka dot socks (a must-have) look slightly lost and out of place in this setting; without front row seats to perch on and goody bags to keep us entertained with an assortment of useless swag to pass on to lesser folk as mementoes of the high life, we had no idea where to locate ourselves. We were displaced.
Where was the ramp?

Democratising access to the fashion experience isn’t something you would immediately expect from Tlale, though he has pursued many diffusion-line products from shoes to bags, and affordable ranges for large retailers so that everyone can enjoy a piece of his design genius.
The Saturday shoppers and tourists floating about with cameras and backpacks seem unaware of what kind of experience they are in for and probably do not know of the historical significance of the square in the history of fashion weeks – the first SA Fashion Week took place in a tent on this location in the late Nineties.
Those were different times. There wasn’t a media frenzy around it, designers produced OTT collections (they didn’t have businesses to support), the dressing culture that street style bloggers have cultivated didn’t exist, and people watched the shows with their eyes rather than through the filter of smartphones.
Most of these changes have been positive or have simply shifted the way the fashion show spectacle is consumed. Tlale is perhaps one of the few designers who has an innate talent for understanding and delivering on a fashion spectacle; it may have taken him some time, and many OTT froufrou lace numbers, but he seems to have twigged that it’s not only about the clothes; the drama is linked to the presentation, not just the styling of the garments. For this reason he advances his persona as an indelible part of his brand and shows.

It is not unexpected therefore that his show commences with him leading a group of quasi “protesters” on to the square, with some fashion models in pseudo Herero women’s wear trailing behind him. The pictures that emerge after the show reveal that the procession began inside the mall, past his shop.
Processions are a popular motif in our culture; this stylised one brings to mind those in William Kentridge’s works like Shadow Procession or others where silhouetted figures are collaged on to yellowed texts. Athi-Patra Ruga’s White Women of Azania processions that conclude with him bursting his ballooned outfits also come to mind. This leitmotif in Kentridge’s work collapsed forced migrancy with a culture of protest that bared strong references to black silhouetted figures in Russian constructivist posters. But, of course, this motif has renewed significance in our post-apartheid culture with spates of protest marches taking place regularly in city centres and townships.
No doubt this is what Tlale is responding to; however, the slogans on the signboards – “Fashion on the rise” and “The Mother land” – imply that the designer’s pseudo fashion protest is more in support of an entity such as African fashion (does anyone disfavour it?) rather than against one. Peculiarly, the procession concludes with the designer leading his models towards a row of luxury Mercedes-Benz cars, the sponsor of the show. Juxtaposed with real-life protests that fill our streets, or the tragic Marikana one that remains ever-present, which are linked to poverty and exploitation, Tlale’s display is unwittingly in bad taste, as he parades and celebrates symbols of wealth – luxury cars and upmarket clothing. Presumably, Tlale intended to convey an alternate image of “Africa”, countering the stereotypical ones depicting poverty as flogged by the West, but his performance evinced a lack of political sensitivity. Perhaps he was offering escapism, a kind of parallel fashionable reworking of a staple public spectacle that has become a growing cause of distress, even among the middle classes who fear being unseated by this burgeoning mass of angry poor people.