Mexico’s first-ever showcase of South African art

Hacer Noche/Crossing Night

Shortly after his country’s independence from France in 1960, Senegal’s charismatic first president, Léopold Senghor, began mooting plans for a museum celebrating black achievement. The project gained focus after Senghor visited Mexico in 1974, where he encountered the Pedro Ramirez Vazquez-designed National Museum of Anthropology, a jaw-dropping piece of architecture that celebrates the former Spanish colony’s pre-Columbian heritage. It is what Senghor did next that connects – tangentially, but in an embodied way – with ‘Hacer Noche/Crossing Night’, a multi-form art project that in 2018 profiled southern African artists in the bio-diverse, politically volatile and art-interested southern state of Oaxaca, principally in the city sharing the same name.

 

‘Hacer Noche/Crossing Night’, wallpaper at the entrance to the exhibition with logo designed by Peet Pienaar.‘Hacer Noche/Crossing Night’, wallpaper at the entrance to the exhibition with the logo designed by Peet Pienaar.

 

In 1975, Senghor despatched Dakar-born artist Ery Camara to Mexico to study restoration. One of three associate curators of ‘Crossing Night’, Camara spent his early years in Mexico strategizing with Senghor on the new museum before forging a successful career as a curator. Camara was a key intermediary between Senghor and Ramirez Vazquez, who agreed to design the UNESCO-backed museum (the plans ultimately came undone). In 1979, the museum project still vaguely on track, Mexico City’s Palace of Fine Arts hosted an exhibition of more than 40 Senegalese artists that included Camara. This exhibition remains significant for being one of the earliest cultural exchanges between a post-colonial African state and its equivalent in the Americas.

‘Crossing Night’, which comprised five exhibitions, as well as artist residencies, workshops and an eccentric if generally insightful symposium, is now part of this history of Afro-Mexican encounter. The nearly 40-year gap between the Senegalese and South African exhibitions is explicable. South Africa only broke with its colonial past in 1994, two years after French-born Italian collector Jean Pigozzi presented his collection of contemporary African art in Mexico City’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In the decades before 1994 Mexico was a particularly vocal critic of South Africa, none more so than Ramirez Vazquez. The Mexican state only installed an ambassador in Pretoria in 1994 – he is the father of luminous Mexican author Valeria Luiselli.

 

Haroon Gunn-Salie in collaboration with James Matthews, Amongst Men, 2014. Installation view. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.Haroon Gunn-Salie in collaboration with James Matthews, Amongst Men, 2014. Installation view. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.

 

Street graphics in Oaxaca. Photographer: Sean O’Toole.Street graphics in Oaxaca. Photographer: Sean O’Toole.

 

Cultural exchanges between the two countries have, in the main, been low-key affairs. ‘Crossing Night’ aimed to remedy this. Conceived by Francisco Berzunza, a former Mexican cultural attaché whose second Master’s degree from the University of Cape Town focused on architect Pancho Guedes, ‘Crossing Night’ was initially pitched as an exploration of the correspondences between Mexico and southern Africa’s shared colonial histories. Attractive as a proposition, the plan was, however, largely deferred in the displays introducing Mexican audiences to artists from Angola, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The broadly national focus of Berzunza’s project revived an older model of exhibition making in Mexico linked to Fernando Gamboa. Described by Octavio Paz as the “inventor of Mexican museography,” Gamboa’s country-focussed exhibitions were once a popular draw. Poo-pooed by curators in the 1990s, Berzunza wondered if it was possible to use Gamboa’s orthodox approach, but dispense with the “stereotypes”. Along with Camara, whose curatorial chops include exhibitions for Anni and Josef Albers, Francis Alÿs and Vik Muñiz, as well as engagements with Catherine David for Documenta X (1997) and Harald Szeemann on his 2001 Venice Biennale, Berzunza persuaded designer Peet Pienaar, now resident in Mexico City, and South Africa-based curators Anthea Buys and Josh Ginsburg to test out his idea in practice.

 

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Crossing Night street procession, Oaxaca. Photographer: Sean O’Toole. Participating artists and curatorial team. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo. Crossing Night street procession, Oaxaca. Photographer: Sean O’Toole. Francisco Berzunza, responsible for the conceiving of ‘Crossing Night’. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Crossing Night street procession, Oaxaca. Photographer: Sean O’Toole. Participating artists and curatorial team. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo. Crossing Night street procession, Oaxaca. Photographer: Sean O’Toole. Francisco Berzunza, responsible for the conceiving of ‘Crossing Night’. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.

 

Camara’s hand was most evident in ‘Crossing Night’’s two large-scale presentations in Santo Domingo and San Pablo, former Dominican monasteries founded in the 16th century now functioning as art centres. The larger of the two venues, Santo Domingo was repurposed as an art centre in the late 1990s following the intervention of famed local artist Francisco Toledo. An ethnic Zapotec, one of Mexico’s indigenous pre-Columbian peoples, Toledo has played a key role in transforming numerous buildings in Oaxaca into public cultural institutions. They include the Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photography Centre, where Pieter Hugo and Jo Ractliffe held accomplished solo exhibits, and the San Agustín Arts Centre (CaSa), a sprawling exhibition venue and residency space located in the mountain village of Etla.

 

Simphiwe Ndzube, The Rain Prayers, 2016-2018, on the back wall is a painting by Portia Zvavahera and Cinga Samson on the right. Photographer: Jalil Olmeda. Simphiwe Ndzube, The Rain Prayers, 2016-2018, on the back wall is a painting by Portia Zvavahera and Cinga Samson on the right. Photographer: Jalil Olmeda.

 

The walls are the publishers of the poor

– Eduardo Galeano

 

This former textile mill was, in many ways, a fitting venue for William Kentridge’s elegiac video installation, More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015). For one, its main exhibition hall comfortably accommodated the lateral sprawl of Kentridge’s eight-channel projection, which presents a life-size procession of brass band and various actors bearing flags and heavy loads. During the run of Kentridge’s exhibition ‘CaSa’ hosted a parallel exhibition profiling Oaxaca’s rich heritage of graphic arts. Although not part of ‘Crossing Night’, the presented suggested profitable intersections between Oaxaca’s energetic woodblock print culture – the city has more than 20 active printmaking studios – and South Africa’s own woodblock and linocut print tradition, of which Kentridge is a devotee.

 

Instllation view of William Kentridge’s eight-channel video, More Sweetly Play the Dance, 2015. Photographer: Sean O’Toole.Installation view of William Kentridge’s eight-channel video, More Sweetly Plays the Dance, 2015. Photographer: Sean O’Toole.

 

Street posters including for William Kentridge, Oaxa. Photographer: Sean O’Toole.Street posters including for William Kentridge, Oaxaca. Photographer: Sean O’Toole.

 

Among the more striking contributions to the graphics show was Dario Castillejos’s Trampa transgénica (2016), a xylograph portraying a Soho Eckstein-like figure holding a corn-shaped cage with a peasant farmer trapped in it. Yamilet Asilem’s ornate wood engraving Los mitos de una realidad dormida (2018) depicts a bestiary of fantastic creatures; while referencing indigenous motifs her technically accomplished work also recalls the frenetic compositions of English illustrators Savage Pencil and Zeke Clough. The most exciting contribution was by local collective La Unión Revolucionaria de Trabajadores del Arte (URTARTE, or The Revolutionary Union of Art Workers). The display gathered their agit-prop engravings, many of which are exhibited as street posters across Oaxaca. They included an allegorical study of a corpulent overlord who, in appearance, resembled Kentridge’s melancholy industrialist Eckstein. URTARTE’s presentation included a quote by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who said: “The walls are the publishers of the poor.”

 

LEFT TO RIGHT: Nelson Mukhuba, Skeleton, 1985. Carved wood. Photographer: Jelil Olmedo. William Kentridge, 30% of Life (film still), 2018. Digital film with sound. Courtesy of the artist.LEFT TO RIGHT: Nelson Mukhuba, Skeleton, 1985. Carved wood. Photographer: Jelil Olmedo. William Kentridge, 30% of Life (film still), 2018. Digital film with sound. Courtesy of the artist.

 

Etla worked as an exhibition venue for another reason. The village is reputedly one of the best places to experience Mexico’s energetic Day of the Dead festivities. During this three-day pause from normality, which kicks-off annually on 31 October, Etla locals dress up in ghoulish costumes festooned with bells and mirrors. Fortified with mescal, they dance and parade to fast-paced brass melodies throughout the night. Underpinning the febrile mood of the festivities is a clear-sighted focus on death. ‘Crossing Night’ was similarly attentive to the subject of death.

“Those who are dead are never gone,” wrote Senegalese poet Birago Diop in 1960. “They are there in the thickening shadow… in the tree that rustles… in the wood that groans… in the water that sleeps.” An excerpt of his poem, which points to shared cultural attitudes to death on opposite ends of the Atlantic, appeared at the entrance of the Santo Domingo iteration of ‘Crossing Night’. Occupying a series of vaulted rooms, the exhibition was introduced by a textile designed by Pienaar. It featured a recurring motif of corncob, snake and dog, proxies for life, death and the afterlife, and heralds of the show’s content.

 

Mural announcing Day of the Dead festivities. Photographer: Sean O’Toole.Mural announcing Day of the Dead festivities. Photographer: Sean O’Toole.

 

Kemang wa Lehulere, Cosmic Interluded Orbit, 2016, installation (detail). Photographer: Sean O’Toole.Kemang Wa Lehulere, Cosmic Interluded Orbit, 2016, installation (detail). Photographer: Sean O’Toole.

 

The first work in the maze-like display was Dan Halter’s The Revenge of 400 Years is Losing its Baby Teeth (2018), a vitrine display of desiccated corncob and five teeth inscribed with part of work’s title, a reference to an Italian proverb. Dogs and skeletons outnumbered corn on the two-part group exhibition, which managed to capture something of South Africa’s habitual melancholy and pensiveness. They included dogs by Georgina Gratrix and David Koloane and charcoal-drawn skeletons by Kentridge, whose single-channel film 30% of Life (2018) features the artist in his trademark white shirt dancing with his creations. Kentridge’s film attempts whimsy, but the visual offering feels incidental; it was one of the weaker contributions to the group survey.

Highlights from the Santo Domingo leg included a room with works by Kemang Wa Lehulere, Ernest Mancoba and Robin Rhode. Installed in an alcove, Mancoba’s untitled 1955 canvas painting of a geometric form emerging from a faceted ground of diverse colours suggested the lineage of Lehulere and Rhode’s post-painterly mysticism. Lehulere’s installation Cosmic Interluded Orbit (2016) elaborates on his interest in African conceptions of the cosmos and features black and gold porcelain dogs, some placed on school desks functioning as plinths, appraising five partially erased chalk drawings. The latter elements dialogued well with Rhode’s three-minute digital animation Harvest (2005) in which the artist, using his graffiti-inspired technique, cultivates painted white grass on a black wall, which he then harvests to make a bed.

 

Georgina Gratrix, Marigolds, 2018. Oil on canvas (installation view), produced after a month-long residency at the Centro de las Artes Augustín (CASA). Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.Georgina Gratrix, Marigolds, 2018. Oil on canvas (installation view), produced after a month-long residency at the Centro de las Artes Augustín (CASA). Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.

 

Berzunza’s decision to ultimately focus his project on the theme of death was propitious. It enabled him to establish lines of affinity between internationally overlooked sculptors like Jackson Hlungwani, Nelson Mukhuba, and Johannes Segogela, all on view at Santo Domingo, and better-known artists like Kentridge, Lehulere and Rhode. Mukhuba’s emaciated wood figure, Skeleton (1985), was a potent addition, as was Hlungwani’s three-legged dog with porcine ears from 1993. In a city defined by its abundant Catholic iconography, Segogela’s macabre sculptural tableaux Satan’s Fresh Meat Market (1993) struck a chord with visitors. This painted wood sculpture presents demons consuming human figures outside a green-roofed butchery.

Two works at Santo Domingo established unusual dialogues with their Mexican context. During a brief residency in Oaxaca, Penny Siopis painted with cochineal, a red pigment extracted from the dried husk a scale insect that feeds on prickly pear cacti. Like gold in Johannesburg, cochineal was once a source of great prosperity for Oaxaca. “For much of the colonial period, cochineal was, after silver, Mexico’s most valuable export, a commodity so highly in demand in Europe that it virtually guaranteed its seller a handsome profit,” writes Jeremy Baskes in his book Indians, Merchants and Markets (2000). Oaxaca was at the centre of this vigorous trade, which summarily ended after Mexican independence in 1821. Made on a horizontal work surface using lime as alum, Siopis’s Cochineal (2018) invokes this history of colonial boom and post-independence bust through a canvas of speckled red. Matter in her abstract work is also history.

 

Penny Siopis, Cochineal (detail), 2018. Cochineal pigment on canvas. Penny Siopis, Cochineal (detail), 2018. Cochineal pigment on canvas.

 

Pieter Hugos’ exhibition at Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.Pieter Hugos’ exhibition at Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.

 

Jared Ginsberg did not set out to examine contemporary Mexican society in his soft sculpture Legs (2013). Installed in a courtyard with fragrant frangipani trees, he nonetheless achieved this when he flipped the work over from its usual supine position. A spontaneous gesture, it greatly shifted the work’s visual meaning. Some visitors likened it to a murder scene. Violent death is unavoidably part of the Mexican zeitgeist: in 2018 Mexico experienced its highest-ever murder rate, with over 33,000 violent deaths. In a public conversation with art historian Tamar Garb, at San Pablo, photographer Pieter Hugo, who spent a month in Oaxaca photographing, spoke about images of “narco murders” as somehow defining Mexico in the foreign mind. His compelling portraits of working-class actors, transgender sex workers and a naked man posed atop a donkey shun this reality. Hugo’s method is visceral and bodily. His new work embraces gaudy flamboyance.

 

Jared Ginsburg, Legs, 2013. Installation view at Santo Domingo. Photographer: Jelil Olmedo. Jared Ginsburg, Legs, 2013. Installation view at Santo Domingo. Photographer: Jelil Olmedo.

 

The Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, in his belatedly published dissertation Rabelais and His World (1962), called this the “carnival spirit”. Tracey Rose has long deployed its attitude of mockery and laughter to confront enduring issues of gender and race. It suffuses her 42-minute video projection Die Wit Man (2015), shown in San Pablo. This noisy work offers a nearly synchronous account of a 7km walk undertaken by the artist in 2015 from WIELS, a contemporary art centre in Brussels, to the Church of Our Lady of Laeken where Belgium’s royal family are interred in a crypt. Dressed as a freakish clown, Rose chanted the name of Congo’s murdered president, Patrice Lumumba, into an improvised loudhailer. Her work was an indispensable contribution to ‘Crossing Night’.

Also vital was photographer Jo Ractliffe’s idiosyncratic survey of her practice since 1986 at the photography centre named for modernist photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo and formally Francisco Toledo’s home. Titled Hay tiempo, no hay tiempo (There is time, there is no time), after an inscription above the door of Álvarez Bravo’s studio, the show took as its starting point a 1934 photo he took of a dead striking worker. “Such violence, such beauty,” writes Ractliffe of the image, which is displayed in her Cape Town studio. “It pierces me still”. Ractliffe’s own photographs included works from apartheid-wracked South Africa and post-war Angola. Animals, ciphers of wonder and estrangement, abound. Intimations of death and ruined colonial splendour abound in her photographs of peripheral urbanism and war-ravaged landscapes.

 

Jo Ractliffe’s’ exhibition at Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.Jo Ractliffe’s’ exhibition at Centro Fotográfico Álvarez Bravo. Photographer: Jalil Olmedo.

 

In post-cochineal Oaxaca, where striking teachers in 2006 precipitated an insurrection that continues to inform the angry mood of the city’s street art, the fatigued world in the process of reinvention in Ractliffe’s photographs have resonance. Perhaps Berzunza’s eccentric project didn’t really defer its central ambition, of exploring correspondences between Mexico and southern African colonial histories; it chooses instead to only hint at it, lightly and deftly, in a sober yet luminous photo exhibition that marked the energetic end destination of ‘Crossing Night’s’ opening day festivities.

Sean O’Toole is a writer and editor living in Cape Town.