Monday, January 26, 2015

Best of 2014

AS ALWAYS the artworks that grabbed the headlines in 2014 were those that were "rejected" or opposed by a segment of society. Brett Bailey's Exhibit B, which showed at the Edinburgh International Arts Festival as part of the SA-UK Seasons, a cultural accord between the two countries, caused controversy and was prevented from being staged in London at the Barbican due to protests from people that deemed it "racist" and "offensive". Interestingly, when it was staged in South Africa during the 2012 National Arts Festival, it barely raised an eyebrow.  No one in the arts sector was silent, however, when Michael Elion's Perception was installed along the promenade in Sea Point in Cape Town. This strip has been home to some of the worst public art and, even though empty public art statements are more the norm than the exception, Elion had crossed a line - it also didn't help that he insulted his detractors and then played the victim of a paranoid conspiracy.
Unfortunately, the artworks, installations and performances that were interesting and presented quieter leaps for artists or the arts scene didn't generate much attention. Hopefully, this "best of 2014" will remedy this and prove that work worth celebrating often goes under the radar if it isn't deemed offensive or is badly conceived.

Best Artwork/Series: 

Kay Hassan: My Father's Music Room (Where do I end and you begin? City Art Centre, Edinburgh). I first saw this installation at the Joburg Art Gallery in 2008.
Its iteration in this group exhibition, however, had a stronger impact on me. This may have been because it has grown exponentially, or the space where it was installed.
Nevertheless, when I stepped into it, I felt as if I had entered into another world - rather than passing through or observing an installation. The sheer volume of old record covers that fill the shelves of this fictional "room" is quite overwhelming as is the intimate and collective histories it evokes.
Music is the one mode that truly allows us to step back in time and erases boundaries between the present and the past, but here in this installation the objects, the records (now anachronistic objects), the covers, make clear that while the past haunts us, it is gone. Nostalgia, loss, sadness and even joy and wonder marked my experience of this unpretentious but rich installation.

Athi Patra Ruga: Approved Model of the New Azania (Uncertain Terms - Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town). All eyes have been on Ruga since he won the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Performance Art and this sculpture which extends his practice and his renderings of his Azanian fantasy  show he will rise to the occasion next year in Grahamstown. He could easily have won this award in the visual arts category given more recently his tapestries and sculptures have dominated his artistic output.
Sculpture is actually a new area for the artist, it was at his solo exhibition at Whatiftheworld at the end of 2013 that the first flowered figure appeared. What is significant about the sculpture is the way in which it advances his efforts to make Azania and its fluid citizens 'real' and hypervisualised, despite them appearing completely OTT, adorned in faux flowers, which render them the ultimate subject/objects.

Brother Moves On live performance with Willis's filmic installation.
Pic by Anthea Pokroy

Hank Willis Thomas: Righteous Space (Goodman Gallery, Joburg) The African-American artist Hank Willis Thomas debuted the work in South Africa at a Brothers Move On concert at the Alexander Theatre, but it was at the exhibition, with the accompaniment of music (Makeba) and political speeches that it was at its most interesting. This interactive filmic work presents loaded symbols embodying state-sanctioned racism, such as the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) insignia, the Nazi-like swastika, which evolve into geometric patterns based on the voice patterns. In this way Thomas attempted to deconstruct the symbols, deplete them of meaning, while songs - the voice - would reactivate the symbols. So clever. He showed how efforts to counter loaded political symbols works at reinforcing their meaning but also disturbs it.

Dan Halter: Plenty Sits Still Hunger is a Wanderer (Whatiftheworld, Joburg Art Fair). There is something thoroughly pleasing about Halter's woven web pages, empty web pages, that is, that summon displacement graphically. This works on every level - the weaving mode somehow captures pixellation accurately as well as evoking the way digitial tools and the language they facilitate can render displacement in ways never possible before.
Nandipha Mntambo

Best solo exhibitions: 

Nandipha Mntambo: Transcience (Stevenson, Joburg). It has been exciting to watch the abstraction turn evolve in South African art, and more particularly among artists such as Nandipha whose work centred on identity, gender politics.  This exhibition presented a transition, though it also showed how this artist has to some degree always been working with abstraction and exploiting it to communicate the sense of ambiguity that has always been a characteristic of her work. The "hairy" oil paintings, with animal hair sewn into the canvas, resulted in macabre objects that were "alive and dead".

Marcus Neustetter: Defining Lines (Art on Paper, Joburg).
Neustetter's work has often displayed an abstract veneer, but in this show he was able to arrive at an abstract language without the usual optical barriers he has employed in the past (such as not allowing himself to see what he is doing). I suppose that rather strange process allowed him to arrive at the point he is now: a bolder place where he is able to confront and consider his mark. The result was a show with large-scale works that were aesthetically pleasing yet still continued his fixation with maps and probing the liminal - this time the ambiguity of borders between countries and how they are conceived visually.

Best Group Exhibitions:

Uncertain Terms - Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town. Without a doubt this was the one group show that made me slightly giddy with excitement and scribbling in my black Moleskin. The main reason is that this show unwittingly (the gallery/curator seemed not to put their finger on the magic of this show) exposed the pop-ish turn in SA Art that is particular to Cape Town based artists. Or perhaps it is best described as Pop-ish abstraction. The work on this exhibition, by a host of young (and I would say hot) artists from Daniella Mooney to Nico Krijino to Moffat Takadiwaand Chloe Hugo-Hamman are all coming from the same place, well at least superficially or visually. This is a stream or strain veering off from the abstraction that has been on display at Stevenson and Blank Projects, as largely these artists are all cannabilising popular culture whether self-consciously or not. I will be writing more on this show shortly, so if you are confused, wait... all will be revealed.

Rise and Fall of Apartheid (Museum Africa) - curated by Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester. There may well have been some behind-the-scenes politics in the curating of this show, but that did little to detract from its importance. There was some resentment that it took a Nigerian curator to "write" our photographic history of apartheid but perhaps the scale of such an endeavour could not be fully taken on by a local one, who might be too close to the material.  The breadth of this show was astounding and, aside from all the known images, it was interesting to peruse those in juxtaposition with lesser known ones. It also |drove home the fact that the struggle to dismantle apartheid was one centred on aesthetics and visual gestures of solidarity. "Apartheid was camera-ready," observed Enwezor.

Where do I end and you begin? (City Art Centre, Edinburgh) - Thembinkosi Goniwe in collaboration with Richard Hylton, Aaron Kreisler, Kathleen Ritter and Viya Shivadas. Putting five curators in a room with the hope of putting up a cohesive group show sounds like an impossibility, but this initiative that debuted at the Edinburgh Art Festival proved the contrary. It makes sense for an international exhibition encompassing work from different countries (in this case from the Commonwealth) to be directed by curators intimately familiar with the expression in their respective countries. Goniwe may have selected his favourite local artists - Mary Sibande and Kay Hassan - but their works were standouts and fitted in with the rich conversation between all the other diverse works on the exhibition, which probed the identity politics of the "common wealth" . There was a lot of good work on this show. Spent hours at the venue. It is such a pity it went unnoticed, while Brett Bailey stole the limelight with his Exhibit B.

Best filmic works:

Yinka Shonibare Addio del Passato (So Closes my Sad Story) (Looking Back, Zeitz Mocca, Cape Town, curated by Mark Coetzee).
This filmic work, which first showed in the context of an exhibition of series of photographs dubbed The Fake Death Pictures, is linked to theatricalised representations of death, which are said to be metaphors for the collapse of imperialism, colonialism and more recently the economic woes that have gripped the West.
The film shows the character Frances Nisbet, Lord Nelson's estranged wife, singing the eponymous aria from the last act of Verdi's opera, where she mourns the loss of the relationship. There is no conclusion to the film, she remains locked in this state, where mourning becomes a way of being rather than a response to an event. She is trapped in victimhood, or the show of it.

Dada Masilo in Kentridge's Refusal of Time

William Kentridge: Refusal of Time (Joburg Art Gallery). I first saw this work at Documenta13 in Kassel, Germany but only came to appreciate it in Joburg, where there were no other distractions and it could hold my entire attention for a morning. It is as much a sensory experience as it is an intellectual one. With the "breathing machine" installed in the gallery, seemingly keeping time going or drawing our attention to its fragility, you find yourself completely absorbed by the action that takes place on five screens, where it is repeated, evolves from one screen to the next, or shows different time zones. The films are like animated clocks. It's a pity it is installed at the back entrance of the gallery, where workers and visitors plod through.Sigh.

Aryan Kaganof: Night is Coming: Threnody for victims of Marikana. Characteristically, Kaganof reworks documentary material into a full-length filmic artwork that delves into representations of Marikana and then, more broadly, into the landscape and how this theme remains important to the country's growing disenfranchised. He boldly implies that visuals cannot sufficiently engage with this topic, echoing Enwezor's observation that aestheticisation or representation obfuscates the truth. Ultimately, he appeals to music and sound as a vehicle to evoke the massacre at Marikana.

Best Painting exhibitions: 

Sam Nhlengethwa: Final Tributes (Goodman Gallery).
Like Kaganof, Nhlengethwa makes art about art. In this instance he presents a series of paintings of the final destinations for artworks - the domestic settings, where in isolation of other artworks and out-of-the-gallery context they are both ordinary and overlooked perhaps and extraordinary. His interest appears to be in exposing art's "low life" existence in domesticity and how works activate space and evoke worlds, existences beyond the space.
Tom Cullberg

Tom Cullberg: Tower (Brundyn +, Cape Town). I'm probably biased when it comes to the work for this show as I spent a fair amount of time studying it in Cullberg's studio in preparation for a catalogue essay and I never got to see it installed in the gallery, which may have shifted my reading of it.  It takes balls to fill canvas after canvas with lines and that is probably what attracts me to his abstract works; not just the boldness but the ambiguity. This work makes me curious: I want to know how he arrives at that aesthetic and how each journey to that point starts out differently. His work is like candy for a writer such as myself as it presents a puzzle that can never be unlocked because it is wired to be unopened or is perpetually open.

Michael Taylor: I Was Born Yesterday (Whatiftheworld Gallery, Cape Town). This show made me smile.
With its fashion illustrative qualities, camp humour - boys in sailor suits - and amusing titles and scenes capturing people on what appears to me to be a dress-up booze cruise (in fact he is depicting seafaring races), the paintings parade as light and fun. However, for me they also exemplify a blinkered Cape Town naivety. Disaster is imminent for these happy party people. In one painting they wear life jackets, and his mode of rendering lends an air of instability and uncertainty.

Best Performance Art:

Donna Kukama: Museum of Non-Permanence (Monument, National Arts Festival, Grahamstown) Performance art is very thin on the ground and the fact that the highlight each year seems to be a work that debuts at this festival as part of the Standard Bank Young Artist platform implies it is only when artists are given free rein and financial support that they can truly "perform". Kukama's work was quirky, intimate and clever. She only saw a handful of audiences-cum-participants, who queued for hours outside her booth. Once inside she quizzed you about your life, issued certificates, took your hair, nails and gave something of herself - in my instance a vial of blood, which we buried as a monument.

Happy Dhlame: Land of Milk and Honey (Joburg). Wearing a balaclava and suit, Dhlame dragged one of those large bags full of recycled objects around Joburg between different voting stations on election day. He attached signboards to the bundle which echoed the colours of the ANC and boasted the phrase: "Land of milk and honey." It was a brave work that was oddly overlooked by IEC delegates.

Artists I will be watching in 2015: Daniella Mooney, Igshaan Adams, Bogosi Sekhukuni, Chad Roussow

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