Writing Art History Since 2002

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Michael Stevenson | Cape Town

The theme of the afterlife is perforce nebulous, and while the inevitability of death and the mystery of what comes after must necessarily occupy our thoughts and inform our actions, it remains a topic that is too often associated with New Age kitsch or adolescent angst. Curator Sophie Perryer avoids the extremes of banal mysticism and lurid existentialism by approaching afterlife as a metaphor for liminality and the uncanny. Of all the artists showcased, only James Webb and Samson Mudzunga deal with death and the afterlife overtly; the rest tackle the theme more obliquely. Mudzunga again references the Venda drum as coffin and instrument of rebirth and spiritual regeneration, but also as an object of communication between the living and the dead (and, incidentally, between traditionalist cultural practices and modern creativity). I found Webb’s Autohagiography (2006) – the title may be read as a reference to the controversial occultist Aleister Crowley’s ‘confessions’ – the most exciting piece on the show. The black leather chaise longue is a powerfully iconic presence in the exhibition: the work’s stark simplicity not only confronts one with evocations of psychoanalytic unburdening and catharsis, but the hypnotic murmurings emanating from it colour one’s experience of other pieces in the room.Speakers cut into the headrest of the sofa broadcast audio recordings of a deeply hypnotized Webb narrating what might be memories of past-life experiences, or (the artist leaves this to the listener to decide) elaborate subconscious fantasies and dream states. It is fascinating and, yes, hypnotic, to listen to Webb’s uncannily convincing retellings of experiences across a wide spectrum of historic and geographic locations. The intimate proximity of Webb’s voice, recorded during years of intensive hypnotherapy, awakens in the listener an unsuspected susceptibility and elicits tantalising questions about reincarnation. Webb’s thought provoking work engages all the senses (there are few smells more evocative than leather upholstery), titillates the imagination, and satisfies the voyeur in all of us. The ghostly, subterranean sound of Webb’s voice is in eerie counterpoint to Moshekwa Langa’s unsettling paintings. Langa’s figures, awash in murky earth tones and rendered alternately in translucent washes and thick, crudely applied paint, are stark and confrontational spectres from the netherworld of the subconscious. The cumulative effect of the staring eyes, mirthless grimaces, and strange ectoplasmic shapes is acutely disturbing. We sense that we apprehend these figures through the eyes of a medium or psychic. Oppressive auras or haloes – more storm cloud than evanescent light – squat atop some of these spectres’ heads. Another series of note is Penny Siopis’ Feral Fables, which continues her concern with monstrous and uncanny ‘strangers’ that defy normative categories. While each of these paintings explores particular case studies, ranging from ‘freak show’ exhibits to feral children, it is the material application of colour and texture that keeps one enthralled. Siopis’ use of glue and reddish-pinkish pigment creates a viscous effect much like blood and mucus. Applied alternately as thin washes that soak the paper, or as thick, gelatinous goo, these paint-effects evoke a painful admixture of violence and lyricism, the grotesque and the beautiful.In Cape Town Film Festival: A Woman Like Polley (2003), Angela Ferreira explores the concept of afterlife as the impact a person of substance can have even after death. This homage to the defrocked priest and activist, James Aubrey Polley, who founded and directed the Cape Town International Film Festival during the years of apartheid isolation, takes the form of a slow and measured video performance by Ferreira, who gradually assumes the appearance and persona of Polley. This literal enactment of his enduring influence, and her invitation to the viewer to read about the films that expanded her aesthetic and intellectual horizons, render afterlife as the ever-spiralling consequence of ethical actions in times of ignorance and violence. Minnette Vari’s Vigil (2007) testifies to the artist’s growing technical accomplishments, and makes for an exhilarating viewing experience. The historic interaction between successive waves of peoples and geographical terrain is visualized as a dizzying kaleidoscopic motion of constantly morphing scenes, situated within a cartouche that also keeps shape shifting. Elusive glimpses of primordial, forested landscapes, interspersed with spinning views of telegraph poles and Ferris wheels represent history as a vortex in which space and time is compressed and accelerated. Perryer’s selection of artists and materials is liberally heterogeneous, which makes for a textured viewing experience. Her metaphoric treatment of the risky subject of the metaphysical allows for a broad and varied range of approaches, and an altogether challenging exhibition.

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