December 2008

Art South Africa Volume 7: Issue 02
Stuart Bird; Latifa Echakhch; Dada Masilo; Blk Jks

DICK, DICK, DICK, DICK!

STUART BIRD’S OBJECTS CAN SOMETIMES BE HARD TO LOOK AT, VISUALLY AGGRESSIVE, TRAMPING A FINE LINE BETWEEN THE CONTROVERSIAL AND OFFENSIVE, WRITES ROBERT SLOON.

top – bottom Stuart Bird, Dead Wrong, 2008, neon;
Stuart Bird, Heart to Heart, 2006, carved imbuia, fish hook;
Stuart Bird, Traditional Weapons (detail), 2008, carved wood,
steel, dimensions variable.

Stuart Bird is a sculptor, but accomplished in a variety of media; his work trades in visual puns and sight gags with bleak punchlines. Indeed, the idea of a punch is quite significant as his jokes are almost always about the intersection of masculinity, sex, violence and politics. Like a good punch, his objects can sometimes be hard to look at, visually aggressive, tramping a fine line between the controversial and offensive. Like a good comedian, it’s a fine place to operate. His particular aesthetic is encapsulated in his painted bronze series Zuma Biscuits (2007), which received widespread attention in the national press after it was first displayed on a group exhibition in early 2007.

“Do we have to talk about that one?” he asks. “No,” I lie. Nevertheless, Zuma Biscuits’s black humour and slick presentation are a good introduction. The work parodies a well known biscuit, Baker’s Iced Zoo, substituting its children friendly icons of animals with symbols – an AK-47, traditional Zulu shield, skirt and shower – representing contentious views expressed by Jacob Zuma around the time of his rape trial, in 2006.

Bird, who is completing his Masters degree at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, says he choose the biscuit because of its popularity amongst children, “as a ground for highlighting the seductive nature of his rhetoric and his position of influence as a politician of the people.” Unlike his Zuma Biscuits, the majority of Bird’s production takes a more general, if tougher, look at masculine sexuality and violence. Traditional Weapons (2008) is a series of wood penises resembling knobkerries (or baseball bats). Dick as truncheon is an old joke, long established in psychology, but the twist is in the weapons taking a ‘traditional’ form. The joke has become normalized, part of our heritage, and violence against women by men has become incredibly widespread. However, owing to the form, the work can be seen as culturally specific.

Says Bird: “It seeks to situate the habitualised and normalised violence against woman and children firmly
within enforced hegemonic culture. The work seeks to be culturally inclusive in
its indictment through the tonal range found in the phalluses. The allusion to the club, or specifically in the South African context, the knobkerrie, functions to ground the work in the local, however the cultural specificity implied is undercut by the tonal range.”

Heart to Heart (2006), shown on his degree show at the Michaelis Gallery, takes this notion of ingrained sexual violence further. Two heart shaped plaques, one baby pink, the other powder blue, face each other. The male plaque has a fishhook protruding from it, while the female version is gouged into a vagina shape. The child-like, genderspecific colours imply indoctrination of these values from a young age.

Bird’s puns can be more complex, as in Grapes of Wrath, in which blue balaclavas hang ominously from the ceiling. Referencing John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, in which the clashing of old values with modern capitalism dehumanises people and breeds crime, the work reflects desperation and poverty in South Africa. Resembling strange fruit (in the Billie Holliday sense), they look pointedly at both the current situation, of a growing wealth gap, and the past, where rapid urbanization mixed with apartheid cities and racist policies have created a bitter wine.

While Bird’s one-liners can be simple, didactic even, they venture into complex territory where many other artists pull back. He is not afraid of laughing at himself either. In Lost That One, he built a display cabinet around his own tooth, knocked out in a fight. It is a shrine to masculine violence, but at the same time personal and regretful, a memorial to the futility of the punch.

Robert Sloon is the online alias for a Cape Town based artist and founder of http://artheat.net.

About Stuart Bird: Born in Durban (1977), Cape Town-based Bird worked as church interior decorator and restorer before enrolling at Michaelis, where he completed his BA(FA) in 2004 – with a distinction in sculpture. His work has appeared on a numberof group exhibitions, including Come Again: New Work by Michaelis Masters Students (2008), at the Substation Gallery; Ready Made (2008), curated by Bettina Malcomess for Durban’s Kizo Gallery; and Ballsports (2007), curated by Kirsty Cockerill for the Association of Visual Arts, Cape Town. His work Zuma Biscuits is in the collection of Iziko South African National Gallery.


LANGUAGE WITHOUT WORDS

 

LATIFA ECHAKHCH’S WORK NOT ONLY ABOUT THE SUBTLETIES OF LANGUAGE, IT MAINTAINS A POETIC EQUILIBRIUM BETWEEN THE ALLUSIVE AND THE REFERENTIAL, WRITES BEN BORTHWICK.

Latifa Echakhch, A Chaque Stencil une Révolution (“For Each Stencil A Revolution”), 2007,
carbon paper, paint thinners, sitespecific installation. Photo: Ryan O’Toole.

Like many of the best French artists of the last two decades, Latifa Echakhch’s practice is deeply grounded in the traditions of conceptual art and characterised by an intense focus on the subtleties, vicissitudes and historical force of language. Materials undergo the minimum necessary transformation, resulting in a specific materiality that is crucial to the construction of its meaning. Connections between the elements can be at once necessary and arbitrary, resonating with each other in logical and lateral ways. Born in Morocco but raised and educated in France, Echakhch’s practice fits as comfortably into an exhibition of her peers, whose work is saturated in forms – and the form – of literary knowledge, as it does into an exhibition examining post-colonial subjectivity. Instead of dwelling on an abstracted sense of the power of language, Echahkch denaturalises the language of power with an infusion of the surreal assertions of immigration bureaucracy, while her reflection on post-colonial subjectivity benefits from a deft subtlety that bypasses the heavy-handed treatment this subject often receives.

A key strength of her work is that it can operate in these normally mutually exclusive domains, while refusing to be limited to singular readings by unsettling their respective endgames.

One such example of the use of ‘found’ language is Hospitalité (2006). The sentence “Espace a Remplir Par l’Etranger” (“Space to be Filled by the Foreigner”), appropriated from the French immigration form, is crudely carved out of the gallery wall. At the end of the exhibition, the etched cavity must be made good, the kind of construction work usually done by the same immigrants whose labour keeps wages low yet are ineligible for unemployment benefits during a recession. Even if this space is perfectly filled and made invisible by a coat of paint, the sentence will remain, an unseen scar beneath the gallery wall. Echakhch has previously worked with culturally specific materials like couscous and prayer mats, but she refuses any essentialising link between her subjectivity and such materials. “They are as strange to me as any Westerner,” she has said. “I can identify them as part of my own culture and, at the same time, they are completely alien to me. There are no tea glasses in my home.” Consequently, a work like Erratum (2004), in which thousands of Moroccan tea glasses are individually thrown against the wall, scarring its surface and falling in broken shards to the floor, is at once a violent articulation of the dynamics mapped by the above quote, but also a ruthless rejection of complacent assumptions that ‘we’ might know the person usually described as “Latifa Echakhch (born 1974, El Khnansa, Morocco)”.

As important as the materials is how they materialise in the space. Each installation retains the possible readings of the materials’ sources, but simultaneously offers a series of alternatives, including art historical connections. The shimmering glass shards of Erratum bind together disparate formal and historical practices to map (in three dimensions) the visual complexity of Colourfield painting, the melancholic abstract portraiture of Felix GonzalezTorres’ candy wrapper ‘carpets’, even the temporal and physical qualities of Richard Serra’s Throwing Lead (1969). I recently curated Echakhch’s exhibition Speaker’s Corner at Tate Modern. Composed of two contrasting installations, it examines different articulations of state power and forms of dissent via materials rather than language. The first installation, A Chaque Stencil Une Révolution (2007), is an environment with walls covered in sheets of blank carbon paper, the obsolete material of Kafkaesque administration that was also used by students in 1968 to duplicate radical tracts and manifestoes. The walls were doused with highly flammable paint thinners that leached the colour from the carbon paper into pools of dried pigment on the floor, implying this ‘blueprint’ for revolution is drained of possibilities.

The painterliness of this space again brings to mind the Colourfield painters, particularly Morris Louis’ pour canvases and Clyfford Still’s large blue abstract painting 1953 (1953), which these artists regarded as closely related to their own radical politics. But Chaque Stencil’s use of colour and immersive form also points to one of the great precursors of large scale abstraction, the blue ceiling of Giotto’s Arena Chapel (1302-06). (I am equally tempted to associate the carbon paper grid with the colour spectrum of Touareg textiles, but perhaps a better association is the infinite blues of Moorish tiling.)

The ambition and range of these possible interpretations reveal the potentials of Echakhch’s practice, whether or not the artist is aware of, or even agrees with them. Her work maintains a poetic equilibrium between the allusive and the referential, wherein each project is at once anchored in the specific, but opens up a wide range of poetic connections. In this respect, it offers an insight into the role of the political in lived experience, constantly shifting between the conscious to the unconscious, alluding to the historical as a way of informing us about the present. These readings may not be immediately obvious but are clearly identifiable if you choose to see them, although look harder still and they will make you question the certainties they initially seemed to promise.

Ben Borthwick is Assistant Curator at Tate Modern and Co-Director of Butcher’s, a project space in London. He recently curated Latifa Echakhch: Speaker’s Corner at Tate Modern.

About Latifa Echakhch: Born in El Khnansa, Morocco (1974), Echakhch is based in Paris and Zurich. An accomplished long-distance runner before she was a practicing artist, her solo exhibitions include Interface 2007, Dijon; Promesse (2006), at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Valence; Désert (2005), at Show Room, Paris. Select group exhibitions include Flow (2008), at Studio Museum, New York, and Global Feminism (2007), at Brooklyn Museum, New York. Curator Hou Hanrou has praised the “subtle, peaceful sensibility” she displays in her “artistic and intellectual projects that evoke a powerful engagement with the reality of postcolonialism and globalisation”.


5-6-7-8, 5-6-7-8 … AH, FUCKIT!

 

DANCER DADA MASILO IS HOT PROPERTY, HER PRODUCTIONS OF CANONICAL WORK UNDERSCORED BY A RESPECTFUL ICONOCLASM THAT DRAWS FROM AN INTIMATE KNOWLEDGE OF THE MATERIAL. BY ROBYN SASSEN.

top – bottom Dada Masilo leading the dance
session. Photos: John Hogg; Dada Masilo in the
title role of Romeo and Juliet, National Arts Festival,
Grahamstown. Every week Dada Masilo teaches
dance to a group of children aged eight and older.

“I’d like to die by spontaneous combustion”, says Dada Masilo. This is hardly conventional sentiment for a classical ballerina, but Masilo, who danced in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite as a child and often trains at sessions with SA Ballet Theatre, is no conventional dancer. At age 23 she is something of a draw card at local and international dance venues, her work with choreographer PJ Sabbagha pushing the envelope completely out of shape. Three years ago Masilo exploded onto the contemporary dance scene with a hot-headed engagement with European classical tradition that made critics sit up and take notice. In her final exam at Anne Theresa de Keersmaeker’s Performing Arts Research and Training Studios, a Brussels-based school for contemporary dance, she was told to be more vulnerable on stage. Masilo responded by dancing dying, dying, dead, from composer Camille SaintSaëns’s most famous work The Swan –written for cello and first performed in 1886. Masilo’s footwork was impeccable. As for her engaging with her teacher’s criticism: she went topless. But Masilo doesn’t do things for publicity. She argues against the value of prettiness in dance, this Johannesburg resident pointing out that the contemporary world far from emulates that.

Last year, the youngest of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winners, she wowed National Arts Festival audiences in Grahamstown with her production of Romeo and Juliet. Assisted by PJ Sabbagha and Gregory Maqoma, critics were astounded by Masilo’s performance as Juliet, claiming if you saw this festivalopening production, you might as well go home: it established a standard that wouldn’t be surpassed. They were right. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Masilo, bluntness overriding modesty. “I’m never satisfied with my work. When I was 14, I was told by a teacher that you are only ever as good as your last performance; this has always stuck with me.”

At 17, she shaved her scalp, messing with notions of what a classical ballet dancer should look like. Her blackness is not an issue to her. “Half the time, I don’t remember I’m black. I am Dada first. In Russia, we danced in a small town called Kostroma. People spat at me but they were also fascinated to see that the colour doesn’t come off,” she smirks. “I prefer dancing to choreographing,” this independent dancer archly states. “PJ Sabbagha abuses me!” She laughs. “I get bashed and bruised by the work. PJ’s work operates emotionally. There are no steps involved; it’s a question of responding to the work.”

Masilo’s repertoire is diverse. She engages the classical canon with a respectful iconoclasm that draws from her intimate knowledge of the material that far belies her youth, as she engages with the emotions depicted. Using music as a palette, as she does gesture, she takes unique ownership of the work. Romeo and Juliet, for instance, begins with the Prokofiev overture – “to get that over with”, she explains. Then she melds a combination of music not created for dance, ranging from Vivaldi and Bach to Phillip Glass.

She debuted her production The World, My Butt and Other Big, Round Things, a journey through feminism, with music by Meredith Monk and contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, in 2005. “I did it because I was angry,” she says of the project, which is a palimpsest of 2005 group and 2007 solo works. It’s a confrontational piece, dealing with preconceptions of women in society. “You are always made to be aware of yourself. You don’t have the freedom to be.” The construction of solos is an ordeal for her, she admits: “Suddenly I am very shy.” Masilo laughs, offering bravado to cover any suggestion of vulnerability. “I get lonely on stage.” Coming from a dancer who has the ability to grab your attention, whether she is alone onstage or dancing with an ensemble of 50 dancers, this is interesting. It is a point not missed by this exciting young dancer. “It is about confrontation – with yourself.”

Robyn Sassen is Arts Editor of the SA Jewish Report.

About Dada Masilo: Born in Johannesburg, Masilo matriculated at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, in 2002, majoring in ballet. In 2003, she danced for Jazzart Dance Theatre in Cape Town, under Alfred Hinkel. She won a scholarship to study for two years at the Performing Arts Research and Training Studios in Brussels. In 2008, she was the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance. She is currently working on a piece for the Dance Umbrella in February 2009; the work aims to “unravel” Bizet’s Carmen.


AFRO-AVANT-NOISE-ROCK-GRRRRRRR!

 

THE BLK JKS ARE A JOBURG FOUR-PIECE WITH AN UNCLASSIFIABLE SOUND. THEY’RE GOOD, SO GOOD IN FACT THAT THEY ALREADY HAVE A MYTHOLOGY ABOUT THEM. BY FRED DE VRIES.

top – bottom Mpumi Mcata en route Blk Jks vocalist Linda
Butelezi’s house in Spruitview, Johannesburg; Mpumi Mcata
grooving; The Blk Jks (from left to right) Tsepang Ramoba,
Linda Buthelezi, Mpumi Mcata and Molefi Makananise. Photos:
Michael MacGarry, August 2007, August 2007.

Can a rock band still excite when it feels that all has been done before, and everything is mechanically formatted and targeted? When spontaneity seems like a swear word. The Joburg fourpiece Blk Jks still possess some of that ancient magic. It’s in the way their fingers effortlessly connect with the strings, that natural power that you can also see in latter day Jimi Hendrix videos. It gives you a shivery, electrical sensation, the realisation that you’re watching something special. It’s also in the way the guitars and rhythm section merge like strokes of paint on a canvas, with patterns and colours that refuse to follow rules and defy categorisation.

It’s impossible to label the Blk Jks. ‘Rock’ doesn’t suffice. So let’s canonise them. Let’s draw a line that stretches from Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix, via Parliament, King Tubby and Steel Pulse, through Living Colour and Basement 5 to Bad Brains and Tricky. Which still doesn’t give you the complete picture, because somewhere down the line chunks of kwaito and township jive have been added to the mix.

Prediction: Joburg won’t keep the Blk Jks. They’re like your stunning new girlfriend that you know you’re going to lose pretty soon. Those of us who saw them will cherish that memory, and will recount the experience the same way people talk about seeing the Sex Pistols, Prince or the Velvet Underground. We won’t keep the Blk Jks because they’ll be seduced by London or New York, and they’ll be heralded as the next great thing from Africa. They’re already halfway there, after performing at Austin’s SXSW and recording in New York’s seminal Electric Lady Studios, originally built for Jimi Hendrix in 1969. Not bad for a bunch of guys who grew up in Spruitview and Soweto and take an hour to tune up when they play in Brixton’s House of Ntsako. Even this soundcheck turns into an ambient jam, where you’re not sure if this is a song or just getting the pitch right. It is a bit of a disappointment then, when after this endless noodling, the sound is decidedly kak.

Not so on their two 10-inch vinyl EPs. The first one, released in 2007, in a limited edition of 500, had two songs: Lakeside and the lugubriously catchy One Must Die. It came wrapped in a rough brown paper cover with a stamp reading, “BLK JKS”. The second release, with a hazy picture of the silhouette of five fishermen treading through water, seen through the reeds, has four tracks. It’s an everchanging kaleidoscope of sounds and rhythms, with a catchy chorus thrown in for good measure and the distinct possibility of some 5FM radio play.

The sound of Joburg? It would be too facile to see the music as a trip through the metropolis, let’s say from Spruitview via Soweto to Killarney, past derelict buildings, broken dreams and empty soccer fields to security complexes
with private swimming pools. Too facile, because it’s all in the mind as well. That’s the place of the endless possibilities, where visions emerge through clouds of sweet smoke, translating into a musical space where a drone and a melody battle it out, without a clear winner.

But what lingers is that fleeting moment in the House of Ntsako, when guitarist Linda Buthelezi, dressed in black, curled his fingers around the neck of his instrument and struck those first feedback-drenched chords. This went beyond cool, sexy or funky. It didn’t last long, but for a brief instant it suggested a oneness, a kind of hybrid futuristic man-guitar thing that was in touch with the astral cloud where Sun Ra, Coltrane and Hendrix reside. Deep down in dark Brixton, the small stage of House of Ntsako became the spaceship, piloted by the Blk Jks, we the disciples, drifting through the murk, deliriously seasick in the ears.

Fred De Vries is a journalist and author of the book Club Risiko (2006), an account of the European underground music scene of the 1980s.

About Blk Jks: Formed in early 2000 by Mpumi Mcata (guitar) and Linda Buthelezi (vocals), childhood friends from Spruitview on the East Rand, the band was formalised when Tshepang Ramoba (drums) and Molefi Makananise (bass), both from Soweto, were recruited as the band’s rhythm section. After releasing a self-titled debut EP (2007), pressed for a performance at the Apartheid Museum, the band was talent scouted by ex-FADER magazine editor Knox Robinson, followed by an offer from the Mad Decent label, distribution of a collector’s 10-inch of Lakeside to Other Music (New York) and Rough Trade (London), and invitations to gig in Europe and the US (including New York’s New Museum). The band appeared on the cover of the Spring 2008 edition of FADER. Their sound, which blends musical references as diverse as township jazz, Fela Kuti’s highlife groove and reggae with early 1970s metal, has concisely been described as “Afro avant noise rock”