Writing Art History Since 2002

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Churchill Madikida I Michael Stevenson I Cape Town

On entering Churchill Madikida’s exhibition Status I encountered three coffins. One of them contained an adult-sized figure made out of lights; another a child’s coffin, its lid barely ajar; a third, its lid shut, with a plaster cast face peering out through a glass window. The installation resembled a shrine. Burning candles, rose petals and red ribbons lay scattered across the floor. Two heavy curtains, of maroon-coloured velvet, enclosed the installation, further emphasising the solemn atmosphere.Suspended on a wall a short distance adjacent the coffins, 18 casts of human faces. One of them is Madikida’s sister, all of them people with HIV/Aids. An activist with the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Madikida’s sister lived with HIV/Aids for nine years before passing away in April 2005. Madikida started the work for this show, his third solo exhibition, during the frequent visits he made to the hospice where his sister spent her last days. The show, which records his personal response to her death, was also presented as an act of solidarity with the TAC’s social activism.Madikida’s work is known for the way it confronts socio-cultural issues. In a previous work he interrogated uLwaluko, the male circumcision ritual practiced by Xhosa boys during their passage to manhood. Status moves a step further, touching on fears and realities relevant to all South Africans. The exhibition’s title is skilfully handled, and denotes more than just social standing, the word also implying whether one of is HIV infected or not.In South Africa HIV/Aids is most common amongst black women, many who find themselves emotionally and economically dependant upon men. This is exacerbated by a growing mythology around the disease, particularly as it relates to the rape of children and young girls. One in four South African girls faces the prospect of being raped before the age of 16 according to the child support group, Childline. The majority of the victims are 12 years old or younger. One possible reason for this has to do with a commonplace myth that sex with a child or baby will rid a man of HIV or Aids.Madikida’s two-minute video Nemesis (2005) references this trend. The title is derived from Nemesis, the Greek goddess of just punishment or vengeance, a rather ambiguous title given the shocking and unforgivable nature of the practice. The video shows a man covered in red clay or blood holding a doll, which he smears with blood. The video’s soundtrack, a song that comments on people judging others, was recorded in a prison. As a viewer, I could not fathom Madikida’s stance – as a man, an artist and a member of society – towards the controversial and disturbing ritual portrayed in his video.By contrast, Madikida’s other video piece, Virus, was a more attractive work, both conceptually and technically. It portrays a man hunched in a foetal position. As the video progresses his image disintegrates until there is nothing left but abstractions. The optical effects were captivating and the video is beautiful to look at. The audio, a song sung by the artist’s late sister, is equally entrancing. Her words nostalgically remark on a place lost but remembered and yearned for: “Sengikhumuli’khaya labazali bam abangishiya ngisemncane.” (I remember the home of my parents who left me when I was young.) When the video is completed and it loops back to the start, it is as if one is seeing it anew. Virus is an elegant comment on the way statistics are generated by research and reported through the media.During the month-long staging of his exhibition, it was announced that Madikida is the 2006 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year. Status is an important exhibition for the artist. At times beautiful and haunting, it is a brave endeavour that confronts viewers with South Africa’s pressing realities. It is not without fault, although rather than this negate his achievements they bear out Brenton Maart’s remarks (in ASA 3.2) about the difficulties confronting South African artists attempting to deal with the subject of HIV/Aids, that “… speaking the unspeakable is often a double-edged sword, a tool for constructive surgical splicing and destructive dismemberment”

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