Writing Art History Since 2002

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Association of Visual Arts Cape Town

This is the kind of exhibition that initially makes an art writer want to wade, waist deep, into the discourse. The theme, conceived by Thembinkosi Goniwe, focuses on the amagents, a grouping of mostly young men who navigate and straddle the contradictory socio-economic spaces of South Africa’s urban landscape. But the term amajita also refers, of course, to South Africa’s under-20 soccer squad. Without slipping too literally into artistic ethnography the theme lent itself to a street-eye examination of issues around identity, language and marginalization, cultural or otherwise. With its impressive line-up of participants, homeboys of colour who are firmly entrenched in the nuclei of volatile debates revolving around cultural zones, the show promised to provide a platform for a provocative engagement.But disappointingly, the buzz it generated was more akin to a cacophony. Exceptions included Ekke is wys! Fluit, fluit my storie uit, a visual opus on an impoverished history of racism, by Roderick Sauls. The installation is comprised of the recreated interior of a shack, papered with posters from the nineteenth century Regent Gallery in London. Renowned for its anthropological exhibitions, the gallery served as a conduit of ethnic difference, thereby rationalising and reinforcing the paradoxes of the paternalistic relationship between colonisers and colonised. But Sauls’ installation is not simply a resurrection of nineteenth century imperialism. The shack interior includes a bookcase stacked with an extensive range of race-based literature. Each bookshelf becomes a metaphor for hierarchies of power (or the lack thereof), determined through racial taxonomy, legitimised through literature and legislation.It is an astounding work and deserving of more profound analysis, as are the flame on paper works by Garth Erasmus. Entitled Looking for Dia!Kwain, they are almost ineffable visual evocations of the San stories and songs documented from a group of /Xam prisoners by the nineteenth century German philologist Wilhelm Bleek and his sister-in-law Lucy Lloyd, and subsequently arranged into verse by Antjie Krog. Like the drawings and watercolours produced by Bleek and Lloyd for the /Xam speakers, Erasmus’ works are fragile reminders of a culture in which the lives and souls of humans and animals were inextricably intertwined. It provides a fitting counterpoint to Sauls’ installation in terms of re-visiting and re-negotiating the dialectic of culture and ideology. It also functions effectively as the end product to Vuyile Voyiya’s video, entitled To (G)art(h), which documents alchemic rituals of creativity through sound and performance, recalling the trance dances of the San. But for some artists, the process of re-negotiating cultural spaces translates into cultural recycling. For example, in his efforts to expose white liberal tokenism for the excrement it really is, Sipho Hlati’s installation has turned to Duchamp’s Fountain for inspiration. The crassness of this piece does no justice to an artist of Hlati’s stature. Another installation by Hlati consists of a table strewn with empty Black Label beer bottles and culturally specific publications, which is all pretty self-explanatory. And while Kemang wa Lehulere deftly immortalises a burning cigarette in his quirky video Lefu La Ntate (My Father’s Inheritance) it too leaves a slightly stale aftertaste.At the extreme end of the spectrum of accessibility is Randolph Hartzenberg’s Oresteia Table. While the installation is visually intriguing, Hartzenberg’s arcane use of symbolism -bandaged faucets and a horse’s skull that recalls Aeschylus’ trilogy and the Trojan War – renders it almost incomprehensible without prior knowledge of the Greek classics.There is clearly a lot of talking going on in Amajita. But it is less in the form of new conversations than well-worn soliloquy’s, which seem to have little to do with the exhibition theme and its intentions.

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