Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Various venues | Cape Town

El Loko, Africa am boten, 2007, site-specific installation, dimension variable The heart of Cape 07’s X-Cape circuit, the ReCenter exhibition in Khayelisha, focused on the politics of space and identity. Works that found a tight focus tended to engage most deeply. Togolese artist El Loko’s 5 x 4-metre floor-installation, Africa Am Boden (L’Afrique a Terre / Africa Down), blocks the exhibition’s entryway, forcing viewers to walk on African faces, flags and political leaders that appear on cards laid on the floor in a grid. Some viewers shifted their body weight awkwardly while others stepped only on cards with flags. El Loko uses space to evoke the psychology of near and far, also to explore psychic aspects of political perception. In 1968, El Loko left a textile design job in Ghana to study at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf where he encountered the mystical tradition of Joseph Beuys, who became a friend and mentor. Viewers disrupted a pile of cutouts at the end of the grid, matching them to the faces of political leaders on the cards, treating the installation like a puzzle. Clad in a wide-brimmed hat, suede vest and spiritually protective amulets, the artist (El Loko) quietly reformed the pile and then watched curiously as it was picked apart again. Zanele Muholi’s photographs feature earnest gay men posed in stark surroundings, empowered, humanised, with a voice. In Black Beulah, a lean man with a blond mohawk stands in a field with one hand on his hip, holding a string of pink beads. Romantic, but also sassy, the pose suggests irony. Pink beads declare subject, but seem incidental. These tensions reveal striking ambiguities but hinder the humanising intentions. Photographic projects that aim to humanise marginalized groups, since there are so many of them, face an especially daunting task in finding a distinctive aesthetic language. Marlene Dumas’ lithographs, The Fog of War, offer a characteristic bundle of beauty and torment. Titus Moteyane’s seven metre city maps are compelling, quirky and oddly inspiring. David Goldblatt’s photographs depict various locations within South Africa. The captions to these photographs include a recurring clause at the end, “… in the time of AIDS,” further animating the vacant spaces in each elegant composition. In Zimbabwean artist Mambakwedza Mutasa’s visceral sculpture Spiritual Warfare, steel mimics shredded flesh to expose a carved wooden figure beneath.Throughout the Cape 07 exhibitions, several artists spoke about exploring links between Africa and Europe, navigating identity and investigating colonial history. Important projects, no doubt. But these dictums have begun to abuse the reality they seek to describe. Too vague to be useful, they restrict artistic inquiry to postcolonial studies. Combating stereotypes in the context of contemporary art, for example, can quickly become a self-congratulatory exercise in preaching to the choir. Cape 07’s participating artists succeeded where they avoided didactic identity politics. Nicholas Hlobo’s Umthubi (The Kraal) was a fine example. Pink ribbon forms a roof-like covering over circular stick fencing that leans outward. Without hints of the livestock, people, or lifestyle associated with a kraal, the structure’s pink ribbon, rubber inner tube and wobbly sticks suggest a fragile place, where dark comedy unfolds. Tough and smart, this piece allows viewers space to use their imaginations.

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