A new wind blowing

For the last ten years I have lived in Port Elizabeth, where the
highlight of my cultural calendar has always been the annual
exhibition of work by graduate students at the local university. I
balk at calling it the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU).

Renaming everything after Nelson Mandela has always seemed a bit
Simpsonian to me, calling to mind that episode of The Simpsons where
Springfield is voted worst town in America. Marge’s sisters propose
a radical solution: “The easiest way to be popular is to leach off
the popularity of others. So we propose changing the name Springfield
… to … SEINFELD!”

Nevertheless, the fine art students at this university are every
year responsible for giving me hope that fresh and exciting art is
alive and well in this city. Blank stares would greet the work of
these young artists were it to be seen by any other than the tiny
handful of attendees, but perhaps if they were fawned over and
patronised, as young artists tend to in the bigger cities, their work
would lose most of its power and integrity. Powerful artworks? Who
makes such things any more? Nuance, ambiguity and either a kind of
hip, disaffected irony, or else a terribly dour seriousness of
character are the trademarks of most young artists in the bigger
cities. You will find subtlety and nuance here amongst these young
artists, but it is almost always a trap: it lures you in and then
detonates.

Every year, there are undercurrents of Dada on this show. NMMU is
a school where Dada and Marcel Duchamp are hailed as giants of
Modernism, where knowledge of artists is seen as much more important
than knowledge of French postmodernists, where ‘elitist’ notions
of technical prowess have not been abandoned so that everyone can be
chopped off at the knees so that everything is nice and equal. This
is a school with Modernist hang-ups, and it is all the stronger for
it, the work all the more vital.

Speaking to Professor Cleonie Cull, who until last year was at the
helm of the department for some 20 years, I realised that some would
view her as a throwback. She speaks of talking to the students
recently about Russian poetry. “I wanted them to become aware that
art can be dangerous,” she told them. “It can be dangerous to
power, just as those Russian poets like Osip Mandelstam in the 1930s
were dangerous and got sent off to Siberia.” Mandelstam’s crime
was simply refusing to write in praise of the State.

Hugh Masekela has recently articulated similar thoughts about the
power of music.

When we consider that 48 out of 53 African countries have insult
laws which prevent anybody from criticising the corruption and human
rights abuses of their leaders, then perhaps statements such as these
are grounded in more than just some romantic, modernist narrative
about the power of art and words.

Not to imply that what is on evidence here bears no resemblance to
the postmodern cultural landscape. Many of the works on the recent
graduate show deal with the big issues of gender and identity.

However, the young artists here tend to deal with these issues in
a slightly different way. The first Port Elizabeth artist I noticed
confronting gender — both as a construct and a role — was Amanda
Snyman. That was in the 1990s. (Snyman is now a lecturer in the Fine
Art department at NMMU.) I was struck, quite forcibly, by the
visceral brutality of her work. There was a lot of anger in it,
lucid, detailed anger. It was protest as opposed to mere complaint.

The inheritors of Snyman’s protest this year are Anva Chiazzari
and Gcobisa Zomelele. In her paintings Zomelele subjects the female
form to strange and cruel metamorphoses. The torso is morphed with an
eggbeater, or made to resemble some strange, lurid kind of inflatable
toy, or constrained with a strap. She seems, within her Xhosa
culture, to inhabit a body that is seen by men as a plaything, an
object with prosaic functions: clean this, cook that.

To enter Chiazzari’s installation in a darkened room is to enter
the emotional space that these gender constraints impose, and in so
doing one experiences what poet and literary critic TS Elliot termed
“objective co-relatives”. A looped DVD projection, displayed on a
mirror, shows Chiazzari applying make-up. As Cull points out: “This
is not how people apply make-up today. She has a frantic element to
her movements. This is how our grandmothers applied their make-up.”
The installation incorporates two-dimensional works as well: the
accoutrements of applied vanity, such as false eyelashes, are fixed
within Victorian-like frames. Chiazzari is open about the fact that
there is a “private narrative at the centre of the work”, one
where she confronts her own “feelings of vanity”.

Almost all the work on this show, from those confronting the fears
residing in the subconscious, to works dealing with the loss of loved
ones, is cathartic, and almost all of it is very dark, without being
sentimental or lapsing into gothic kitsch.

“Our lives are concerned with very elemental things: living and
dying,” says Ethna Frankenfeld, a printmaking lecturer. “I think
the students live very close to their raw emotions.

Crime, violence in their families, stresses that parents are under
… this is the stuff they live with. And yet you cannot
sentimentalise these things. You have to be objective.” In the
absence of functional rites of passage through white society, Joanne
Reen uses her installation of a memory chamber to deal with the death
of her grandmother and her passage into the spirit world. Rosalyn
Dorfling deals with the mental disintegration of her grandmother’s
identity due to schizophrenia. Other students use their work to
address the fears of the subconscious. Linkha Minne’s giant rats
are forms she created from the stuff of her nightmares. Peter
Ragadu’s deeply unsettling circular sequence of charcoal drawings
deal with the same, in a way reminiscent of the photographer Duane
Michals, while Vusumzi Ntayiya’s disturbing installation dealing
with the symbols and ritualistic objects of Xhosa witchcraft
prompted, in his lecturer David Jones, something of a paradigm shift.

To enter the space these works occupy is to leave the safe
environment of the cosmopolitan South African art academy and its
predictable deconstructions of gender, memory, desire and identity,
and be transported into the uncertain netherworld of the collective
unconscious, in this country populated by horrific mutilations of the
human and animal form. Here you will find that the dogs given form by
artists like Jane Alexander and Jo Ractliffe in the 1980s have by no
means been tamed. They have instead (conscious of his debt to these
artists) been revisited and transformed by Ian Surridge into
grotesque creatures that feast on barbed wire.

“In a country that has fought so hard for equality and freedom,
to see the beasts of crime and corruption run wild, with no concern
for the law or constitution, is ironic,” Surridge writes in his
artist’s statement.

Jayd Card is another whose work responds to our country’s high
levels of brutality. Her charcoal drawings of dolls, presented in
grid-like formations, developed out of her “emotional response to
the anecdotal evidence in the press of the everincreasing incidences
of violence against

children, and the harsh realities that surround child abuse”. At
first glance her works seem to be dark drawings of dolls. But on
closer examination one notices an arm that seems to have been burned,
the skin melted, an eye that has been disfigured.

To call such work of this nature refreshing may seem puzzling to
some, but one is unlikely to find, anywhere in South Africa I would
venture, a show so untainted by the dictates of conservatism, a
malaise evident in both cosmopolitan academia and corporate-sponsored
art competitions. The students at NMMU produce their work almost
entirely free of constraints, and they are told by the staff from day
one that almost no-one in Port Elizabeth will buy their work. This
results in a freedom that even surf legend Ben Decker would admire.

Tim Hopwood is an artist, musician and occasional stool pigeon for
the Eastern Cape academy