Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

João Ferreira Gallery Cape Town

It was difficult to distance myself from the soundtrack of expatriate Zimbabwean Dan Halter’s main video piece in his debut solo exhibition Take Me to your Leader. An untitled work parenthetically labelled as Zimbabwean Queen of Rave, the refrain of Rozilla’s classic rave song Everybody’s Free (to feel good) triggered almost-forgotten scenes of sweaty smiles and zombie eyes dancing away on a Sunday morning, waiting for the inevitable comedown to set in. Though I may have been too young to be truly part of the heyday of rave culture, these lyrics were a hymn to a group of kids trying to create a new reality away from a society they were powerless to incite this kind of change in – or maybe just too apathetic. Spliced together with scenes of angry protesters, the visuals of euphoric white kids dancing in Halter’s Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave) proved doubly unsettling, Halter’s video a disquieting meditation on freedom.The work Stone Tablets/Bitter Pills shows what appear to be ten giant ecstasy pills carved out of sandstone. Grouped quietly on the floor, these smooth, pastel coloured disks are imprinted with seemingly benign icons of pop culture, and yet they are decidedly disquieting. These stone tablets, sculpted from a definitively Zimbabwean natural resource, are like Moses’ cracked commandments, forbearers of sin, death and decay.The pivotal moment in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) comes when the Seven Commandments of the new philosophy of Animalism, written on the wall of a barn, are eventually replaced by a single text: “ALL ANIMALS ARE CREATED EQUAL. BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.” In his work I don’t know what to believe anymore Halter weaves maps of Zimbabwean farming areas with pages from Orwell’s text, forming the words of the piece’s title. This motif, then, of the dangers inherent in a radical new order, is implicit in much of Halter’s show. The comparison of Zimbabwe’s current leadership to a doomed and dangerous subculture, couple with Orwell’s critique on Stalinism, suggest the heft of the intelligent and dark critique underlying his show. In a work titled Exchange, a pool table sits in the middle of the room, surrounded by an oasis of 10,000 Zimbabwean 20c pieces. The monetary equivalent of R2, these coin are capable of substituting for our local currency in South African pool machines, this due to the Zimbabwean coin’s identical weight and shape. Only a black and a white ball sit on the table; you either win, or lose, in one quick, fierce shot. The doorway to Halter’s show was decorated with scores of phone cards, the title of this work explaining that these cards had been used by the artist to phone his parents in Zimbabwe. The floor of exhibition housed a collection of plastic Zhingzhong Mother and Child sculptures, while a nearby wall was adorned with a set of unlimited edition prints, till slips from a Zimbabwean supermarket, the one set of slips for only white items bought, the other for black ones. Though visually and materially disparate, Halter’s first solo show harbours a conceptual unity. It asks tough questions about value, race and the artist’s identity as a Zimbabwean refugee in South Africa.

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