Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Various venues | Cape Town

Nicholas Hlobo, Umthubi, 2006, exotic and indigenous wood, steel, wire, ribbon, rubber inner tube, 200 x 400 x 730cm (variable)Delayed and seriously compromised by financial problems, it is all the more surprising that CAPE 07 managed to deliver a number of interesting and, in some cases, challenging exhibitions. Given the courageous decision to locate the main official exhibition at Look Out Hill in Khayelitsha, it is equally surprising that even this venue attracted fairly large numbers of visitors, many of whom probably ventured into the area for the first time in their lives. One of 10 official sites, Look Out Hill was also chosen for a fringe exhibition, ReCenter, curated by Mario Pissarra – surprisingly, this show’s title repeated that of the official programme’s exhibition. This confusion was perhaps unavoidable; by default, virtually every exhibition in the greater Cape Town area held during the time of CAPE 07’s currency was associated with this venture, among them the Goodman Gallery’s Cape Town debut. Titled Lift Off Part I, the latter show included Sam Nhlengethwa’s work Sold Out, a wonderfully playful take on notions of self/other in which the artist mimics the styles of his artist friends (among them Deborah Bell, Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge and Norman Catherine, who all exhibited too). Ironically, the ad hoc process of accumulation that characterised CAPE 07, and the chaotic uncertainty that surrounded many of the officially planned events, seems at times to have added rather than detracted from the overall success of the project. When at one stage it appeared that the entire venture might fold altogether, a number of key figures in the South African art world stepped in to provide crucial support. Linda Givon, of the Goodman Gallery, actively assisted with the participation of David Goldblatt, Lolo Veleko, Penny Siopis, Sue Williamson and Pat Ward Williams.But what is this long awaited and, as it turned out, unrealistically ambitious programme of exhibitions actually about? In the official yellow booklet sold at all participating venues (R20), the organisers describe CAPE 07 as “South Africa’s first ever major contemporary African art event”, asserting further that “it features work by the most exciting contemporary African artists from across the globe, including South Africa”. CAPE 07’s concern to position itself as African and to showcase work by African artists also encouraged the organisers of some of the fringe exhibitions to raise questions regarding the place of African artists in the global arts arena. Thus, in the case of his ReCenter show at Look Out Hill, curator (and also participating artist) Mario Pissarra urged that “African alternatives” be developed to international biennales. In keeping with this mandate, his ReCenter group of artists were invited to “engage critical issues such as inclusion and exclusion, the in/visible, the un/said and unheard, power and powerlessness” through “alternative artistic practices, discourses, structures and systems of validation”.Laudable though these concerns might be in validating African art as source of potentially distinctive and/or alternative creativity, at the end of the day, the success of the entire programme – including the fringe events – manifested itself in the thought-provoking ways many of the participating artists grapple with issues of identity. Although in a few cases this clearly involves the artist’s sense of her African-ness, by far the majority of the artists included in the CAPE 07 exhibitions are concerned with larger questions of self and other, and with the performance of sexual, social and racial identities.While it would obviously be preposterous to suggest that the entire CAPE 07 project can be collapsed into such a single theme, it is nevertheless remarkable that many of the artists who managed to get their work to Cape Town actively explored either their own, or others’ struggles (past and present) to come to terms with what it means to be African, or human, or an artist, in particular contexts at particular moments in time. Perhaps most obviously, this notion is summed up in Zimbabwean sculptor, Mambakwedza Mutasa’s bizarrely distorted image of an animated figure holding a mask-like head at arms-length, Man in a Mirror. Elsewhere in the main exhibition venue at Look Out Hill, similar questions arise: they explode in a riot of colour in Lolo Veleko’s fashion shoots; resurface in a completely different guise in Zanele Muholi’s poignantly vulnerable, fragile images of young gay men trapped in conventions that are only partly of their own making; and slowly unfold in a seductively disarming masked ball choreographed by the Ghanaian/British artist, Godfried Donkor. Although this video piece is a testament to the devastating history of (African) slavery, it also evokes a world of conspicuous consumption that is arguably as important to an understanding the role cloth plays in the articulation of social relations in contemporary Ghanaian society as it is to an understanding of the greed that fuelled the inhumanity of European slavers.In this and other explorations of (mirrored) selves, there is a powerful sense of the control the past can, and in many situations does, exercise over the present. A deeply disturbing example of this take on the history of the self as other is provided by Emile Youmbe’s video installation, The Bath, which forms part of a series of video works on display at Iziko SA National Gallery. Watching this piece it becomes gradually apparent that seemingly innocent acts of self-cleansing are often synonymous with horrifying acts of genocide. Several artists included in the CAPE 07 exhibitions reveal a similarly unnerving preoccupation with the psychological anxieties unleashed by experiences of displacement. In Marlene Dumas’ emotionally riveting The Fog of War, this anxiety is captured, not only – and quite literally – in the artist’s stark presentation of four watercolours of decapitated heads, but also in her accompanying confession that “I’ve always been afraid of dying in a foreign land”. While it would be impossible to capture the experience of viewing the CAPE 07 exhibitions in a single work or exhibition, the following anecdote provides a vivid indication of the stimulating impact intelligent (African) art can have on the viewing public. At the end of watching, spellbound, through two runs of Robin Rhode’s cleverly constructed visual drama, Colour Chart, presented at the US Art Gallery in Stellenbosch, one of my two ten-year old companions wanted to know what we were supposed to have learnt from the violent encounters in Rhode’s work, between a man carrying a white board and a series of ineffectual attackers armed with a variety of weapons. After exploring several possible solutions to this question, she concluded that the final sequence in Rhode’s work, in which the man with the white board is forced to confront his double, provided clear proof that, even though one might succeed in defeating others, one can never defeat oneself.

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