Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Asha Zero; Nelisiwe Xaba; Beth Armstrong; Maja Marx




left – right Asha Zero, Tork Textrik, 2009, acrylic on board, 120 x 100cm; Asha Zero, M S T H, 2009, acrylic on board, 45 x 45cm; Asha Zero, Tiac, 2009, acrylic on board, 80 x 70cm.

Chosen for its ring of ambiguity, the artist Asha Zero selected his name while skateboarding in 1999, somewhere near the Johannesburg airport. Since then, this artist (who stays away from his own openings) has maintained a cloak of anonymity that has been the object of critical discussion, conjecture, and fascination. Certainly the influence of Duchamp and Dada figured significantly in assuming this incognito posture, as did the anonymity practised by graffiti and street artists. But most of all, the guise of Asha Zero was intended as a response to a society where, increasingly, the identity of the individual is defined, altered and negated through the growing omnipresence of a digitised culture. Shane de Lange, a close friend and astute observer of the artist put it this way: “[Asha] Zero delivers a perspective of a downloaded reality in the midst of a smouldering consumerist society… where the individual merely becomes a cipher in a buzz of cellular automata.”

A master of the ironic reversal, Asha Zero meticulously paints fragments from popular, commercial, and street culture, which he fashions into what appears very convincingly to be collages. The clipped nature of his staccato acrylic compositions is one that evokes the abbreviated response of a culture accustomed to communicating via text message, voicemail, email and the like. Slow and thorough, Asha Zero conversely goes to great lengths to render the scraps and bits of pop culture that form his trompe l’oeil collages. For Asha Zero nothing is what it seems in the age of information overload, where the personal becomes the impersonal, and the impersonal becomes the personal. It is these ongoing contradictions that prompted him to turn to illusionism so as to intentionally reverse the very nature of the collage – a medium born of the modernist rejection of illusionism. This pursuit, of intentionally confusing the issue, lies at the heart of Asha Zero’s artistic exploration, and the significance of his work is in its ability to effect ironic reversals of this nature.

Critic Miranthe Staden-Garbett recognised this as early as 2004, when she observed, “Asha Zero has the element of surprise on his side”. In response to the first exhibition of his trompe l’oeil collage paintings at Pretoria’s Outlet Gallery, StadenGarbett wrote in the Pretoria News that a “pseudo-authentic cult status hovers coyly on the horizon” for Asha Zero. By 2006, when this former Pretoria resident began regularly showing throughout South Africa, he had already made a name for himself as “an artist of shifting identity”, this according to Cape Times critic Melvyn Minnaar, who singled him out among others for bringing “the most clever edge” to The Collage Show at Cape Town’s Whatiftheworld Gallery in November 2006. It was also at this time that dealers Andries Loots and Fred de Jager, of Cape Town gallery 34Long, began to regularly show his work.

Asha Zero: say for me , the artists first solo outing at 34Long, comprised 14 major paintings and quickly sold out. Interest came from far and wide, particularly London, where there is a growing Asha Zero following among street art circles. In late November 2008, London’s Black Rat Press, a gallery with an emphasis on street art, included three trompe l’oeil collage paintings in the group exhibition, White Noise, which opened five weeks after the artist’s Assorted Bystander II (2008) fetched £2,880 – four times its estimate – at a Bonhams’ auction. This sequence of events has ignited an ongoing buzz among London-based street art websites.

Black Rat Press wasted no time in scheduling a 2009 solo, and Asha Zero, intent on moving away from his easel-sized compositions toward large format works, spent a year preparing for his London exhibition (schedule for October 9, 2009). When the show, macro soda text hits, previewed briefly at 34Long in September, the new larger panels revealed quite a different effect. The increased scale shifted the viewer’s focus away from the play of trompe l’oeil, while delivering more of a pop impact. But London’s street art aficionados did not get to experience this change. Seventeen of the exhibition’s 20 works sold out within two days of the opening, resulting in the London show being cancelled. His London debut has been moved forward to a date, still to be announced, in 2010.

But is this street art? Although Asha Zero’s work is informed by graffiti and street art, he remains a traditionally trained studio painter recognised for his gallery exhibitions – not artwork on the street. In a catalogue accompanying his latest exhibition, Antoinette du Plessis is quite clear about this.

“…despite the plentiful references to street art in Asha Zero’s work, and his early forays into the street that associate him with the genre visually, his chosen medium of traditional paint positions him as an outsider [to streetart] conceptually”. Clearly street art is an important influence here, but is Asha Zero not depicting street art rather than creating it?

Asha Zero paints trompe l’oeil depictions of street art in much the same way that the American artists John Frederick Peto (1854-1907) and John Haberle (1856-1933) painted trompe l’oeil representations of casual arrangements of photos, playing cards, tickets, newspaper clippings, and other scraps from popular culture. But for aficionados of the genre, Asha Zero, who is said to have a “street art ethos”, is likely to remain part of the “Banksy block”. Either way his pursuit of intentionally confusing the issue is sure to be unaffected.

Sanford S. Shaman is a curator, art critic and fine arts consultant based in Cape Town.

About Asha Zero: Born in Kempton Park (1975), the artist is a graduate of Technikon Pretoria, now Tshwane University of Technology where he obtained a National Diploma in Fine Art with majors in drawing, printmaking and photography (1994-1997). Formerly an assistant to artists Willem Boshoff (2003) and Abrie Fourie (1997), Asha Zero has held four solo exhibitions: Winner in Hawaii, at Pretoria’s Outlet Gallery (2004); Pet names in reverse, at Pretoria’s 26 A Gallery (2005); and say for me (2008) and macro soda text hits (2009), both at Cape Town’s 34Long gallery. His work is held in the Sanlam Art Collection, Graskop Hotel Art Collection and Jack Ginsberg Collection, amongst others. Asha Zero is the artist’s legal name, while his birth name remains a secret. Other known aliases include Broop Nook and Whatsnibble.




top – bottom Nelisiwe Xaba performing Robyn Orlin’s Daddy, I have seen this piece six
times before and I still don’t know why they are hurting each other
, FNB Dance Umbrella,
1999. Photo: John Hogg; Nelisiwe Xaba, promotional photo for Black!…White?, 2009. Photo:
Nadine Hutton.

Price tags swung from the cheeky acid yellow panties and the ethnic showgirl high heels. That black dancing body was clearly for sale. But at what price? This is just one of the images produced by dancer-choreographer Nelisiwe Xaba and director Carlo Gibson in They look at me and that’s all they think (2006). This full-length solo tackled the issue of the exploitation and exportation of African dancers dating back to 1810, when Sarah Baartman was shipped from the Cape to London to be displayed as an exotic freak. In another creative tieup, Xaba collaborated with the equally iconoclastic Haiti-born Mali resident Kettly Noël for their Correspondances (2008) in which their own biographies – as classically-trained contemporary African dancers – merge with histories of any black performer who experiences voyeuristic exploitation.

To merely describe Nelisiwe Xaba as a dancer, choreographer or teacher, is to deny her interrogative ability. There’s a good reason for that. When the Dube, Soweto teenager first encountered the strictly codified world of the ballet barre and the tutu, everything was wrong. Especially her African body shape, not to mention her skin tones. As it turned out, everything was perfectly right for a performing artist who has developed a body of playfully surrealistic solos and significant collaborations.

Xaba has broken countless rules and preconceptions of what an African female dancer can do and be, on many continents. “God is Black and Nelisiwe Xaba is Queen” proclaimed the arts blog Critical Spectacle in a review of her work Plasticization at the 2007 edition of Toulouse International Festival. Of late, this performer with a seditious sense of humour has become an artist in her own right. In 2008, nine French choreographic centres commissioned her Black! White?, directed by Toni Morkel, which is programmed for the 2010 FNB Dance Umbrella (February 27 – March 14, 2010). Meeting at the Market Theatre, where she was appearing with poet Lesego Rampolokeng in the aesthetically adventurous Bantu Ghost (a Bobby Rodwell-directed staging of Rampolokeng’s tribute to Steve Bantu Biko), I start with an irresistible question.

Have you always been interested in the avant-garde?

Coming from Soweto and training at the Johannesburg Dance Foundation (JDF) in the late 1980s was a culture shock. After JDF I was asking myself if I was doing an art form which is actually not African. Also understanding that after 1994 doing classical was not cool. Being African was cool. Today I still question myself: is contemporary dance a Eurocentric or African art form? What makes what I do Eurocentric or African?

Would you agree that Rodney Place’s installation Couch Dancing (1998), a fictional biography of Sigmund Freud (with choreography by Robyn Orlin), was a major turning point in your career?

Yes. It introduced me to my own solo work. It was the most powerful performance of creation I ever did. I didn’t understand Rodney, but after talking to people who have worked with Rodney I realised I was not stupid! I was naive. I just opened myself. I still do. I’ve always followed visual art. I never thought I could be a visual artist but thanks to multimedia these days you don’t have to make steps or movements, only to express yourself. You can mix and match to get your point across. I like surrealism. At one point I really was in love with Salvador Dali. He took me somewhere I haven’t been.

In your inventive solos such as Plasticization and They look at me… your body isn’t always visible, it is often masked. Would you say you use your body as an art work?

Yes. I also investigate my body like a surgeon would. I want to know what it can do besides walking and standing. I always want to push my body somewhere. As you get older – that’s another story.

You are very interested in politics of the body.

Yes, of the female black body. The Black Consciousness Movement existed because there was racism. So if I didn’t perform a lot in Europe, and only in Soweto, it wouldn’t be a question… If your work mainly gets seen in Europe it is important to acknowledge that consciously. Who is consuming what you are doing? You can either play with it or feed the consumer what they want. Oh, yes, I am seen as exotic there. But I didn’t do my work to sell my body. I could stand at the traffic lights in South Africa and just sell it. My body is an instrument. That’s why Correspondances is what it is. What does it mean to be naked? In Europe it doesn’t mean anything. For a black body to be naked means another thing.

You obviously create performance you like to see yourself, art which is imaginative, provocative, political and visual.

Yes. Dance at some point was very boring. I had to find other ways to interact with the audience. Even though what I do is in entertainment, I don’t want to call myself an entertainer. My work is about interrogation, political criticism and gender politics.

Adrienne Sichel is a theatre and dance writer, and a founder member of the annual Dance Umbrella.

About Nelisiwe Xaba: Born in Soweto and trained at the Johannesburg Dance Foundation, in 1995 Xaba received a scholarship to Ballet Rambert, a contemporary dance company based in Chiswick, London. Her now historic collaboration with Robyn Orlin began in 1997 with the Vita Art Prize installation, Keep the home fires burning. Xaba first caught international attention as the pin-up in the tutu in Orlin’s Daddy, I’ve seen this piece six times before and I still don’t know why they are hurting each other (1999). Since 2001, Xaba has choreographed many of her own pieces, including Dazed And Confused, Talent search for new rainbow nation dance company, No String Attached 1 & 2, Be My Wife (BMW) and Plasticization. A frequent collaborator, earlier this year she presented Black!…White? – with Carlo Gibson and Lukasz Pater – at the performance art festival IN TRANSIT 09, held in Berlin.




left – right Beth Armstrong, Tortoise-woman, 2007, crystal-cal, polyurethane expandable foam (flexible), silicone, dimensions variable. Photo: Paul Mills; Beth Armstrong,
Untitled, 2009, welded 4mm wire, dimensions variable; Beth Armstrong, Untitled, 2009, welded 4mm wire, dimensions variable. Photo: Mark Hipper.

Beth Armstrong’s current work marks a seismic crack-up in South African sculpture. Neither mortar nor figure – the staples of sculpture – Armstrong introduces not only a new philosophy of making and meaning, but its solution. Diagrammatic and volumetric, her metal works challenge the stolidity and essentiality of the three-dimensional figure, and, so doing, broach the crackup of being which we, in South Africa, have been incapable of addressing effectively. Sculpture to date remains Apollonian, an ode to fullness, beauty, and its reactive counter, ugliness. Consequently, sculpture – as it is practiced here – remains nominal, explanatory, caught in the tedious warp of thingness.

We have learnt nothing from the Futurists who eviscerated substance, instituted speed, and broke the barrier of objecthood. In the fall-out of a traumatic world war, Futurism recognised that speed was the future, dissolution the new given, and becoming rather than being the state of human play. Why, one is compelled to ask, has South African sculpture resisted the inevitable for so long? The answer lies in the psychic wiring of the country. If South Africa still needs the figure, barely moving beyond its deconstruction, this is because it remains a society and a culture narcissistically preoccupied with damage and its reparation. Here sculpture has played a decisive but reactionary role. And yet, ironically, it is sculpture which is best suited to reveal the contemporary moment, precisely because it is a medium far more flexible than it purports to be. The delusory pathos of its substantiveness lends itself to the fragility and ephemerality of new media. Deemed analogical, sculpture best embraces the digital because, while maintaining its illusory fullness, it curiously allows for flux. Bernini recognised this ages ago; the Futurist movement capped the obvious. Still, there has been precious little experimentation here that could explain the fact that objecthood is a belated fetish; being is always trumped by becoming, the noun by the verb.

Beth Armstrong, therefore, ushers forth a logic of sculptural art that not only bypasses a bankrupt adoration of things, but, in reconfiguring the figure, in emptying its toxic freightage, allows for a new ozone, a new lightness, spillage and movement. Gehry’s Bilbao is rightly recognised as architecture’s future; Escher’s demystification of depth and the giddiness of structure is its precedent, as is Duchamp’s cubistic/ futuristic woman descending the staircase. What Armstrong does is not make sculptures move, but make them rethink what they were in the first place: always already Heraclitian, properties of flux. Volumetric yet diagrammatic, Armstrong’s non-figures challenge our vainglorious belief in substance and invite our nascent sense that we are incomplete and amorphous.

This challenge is a vital one for South African art, especially now that it has cashed in on the unethical postapartheid circus, instituted a new false canon, and left younger artists stranded. All of which, incidentally, is a good thing, because now South African art needs to finally prove itself as a product, not of global guilt and stupidity, but as the sum of an eternally recurrent innovation. In celebrating Armstrong’s work – a work in process, since she is completing her MFA at Rhodes – my point is not to assert that she is the new order, but to remind the reader that we have come to the end of the fetish of order. Sculpture in all its forms will prevail, but our misperception of what it is must change. Armstrong invites this change, and does so because of her conceptual rigour and openness. To my knowledge no “bright young thing” has thus far addressed the Apollonian dead-end in sculpture, a dead-end that signals the failure of South African aesthetics. The reason for this failure lies in the fact that South African artists are rarely philosophers or abstract-expressionists, preferring common global sense or tedious literalness. That said, we are at a fresh point in art, one which the younger artists of this thankful recession will benefit from because, denied the dubious privilege a post-apartheid liberation, and the sordid canon it has generated, they are thrust into the abyss of contemporary uncertainty, compelled to make art without recourse to national trauma.

Products of the transnation, they are, compelled – in the words of Nicolas Bourriaud – to invent “protocols of use for all existing modes of representation and all formal structures”. What matters the more in these expedient and uncertain days is “seizing all the codes of the culture, all forms of everyday life, the works of the global patrimony, and making them function”. It is this seizure and reconfiguration which proves the lesson of the current moment, for as Bourriaud concludes, “to learn how to use forms… is above all to know how to make them one’s own, to inhabit them”. Beth Armstrong’s warping of the sculpture paradigm makes way for new applications, new figurations, for shiftless and unsettled habitations.

Ashraf Jamal teaches Art History and Visual Culture at Rhodes University.

About Beth Armstrong: Born in Nelspruit (1985), Armstrong completed her BFA, with distinction in both art history and visual culture and studio practice, at Rhodes University in 2007. Her fourth year final exhibition, held at Grahamstown’s Gallery in the Round, was titled Hibernation (2007). Currently a MFA candidate at the same institution, she has shown work on the Absa L’atelier competition (2007 & 2008) and was twice a recipient of the Andrew Mellon Mentor Scholarship, in 2008 and 2009.




top – bottom Maja Marx with 26’10 South Architects, Optic Garden, 2009, 195 chevron
signs and gum poles, drawing in reflective tape, Houghton Drive, after St. Andrews Road,
Johannesburg; Maja Marx, Zonderwater 4, 2006, digital pigment print on cotton rag, 90.4 x
66.4cm. Aerial image of the removed letter “Z” in the Zonderwater text taken at
Zonderwater Correctional Service, Cullinan.

In a recent interview with artist Maja Marx, she claimed to situate the manifestations of her working process “outside of art, in the world”. An initial examination of three closely related works, located tenuously on, under and over the universal fold – of the ‘natural’ and constructed matter that engulfs the globe – shows this statement to be accurate on many levels. Her work probes and exposes ambiguous relationships between symbolic and physical notions of surface and depth. Zonderwater 4 (2006), an ironic postcolonial word-tussle, stands out as a pivotal work. Installed on the mountainside of a farm in Cullinan, the work employs chalked stone to spell out the word “Zonderwater” (Dutch for without water). By concealing the letter “Z”, a ‘taking back’ of the mountainside in which the word is inscribed takes place. Removing a single letter results in a syntactical flooding of the local landscape, as “Zonderwater” becomes “onderwater” (Afrikaans for under water). The red earth used to cover and hide the letter “Z” achieves a similar constructed and topological aesthetic to the famously engineered Dutch dykes, which (mostly) hold the pressing ocean at bay. The ‘flooding’ of the local text, on much higher ground than that of the Dutch polder landscape, could be conceptually read as an equalising gesture for all the one-sidedness of the colonialist project and retroactively redresses the ‘balance’ between the previous coloniser and formerly colonised.

Another work by the artist, executed shortly before the Zonderwater 4 intervention, precariously floats on a frozen lake and is also destined for ‘drowning’. In I am the World on which I Walk (2006), Marx uses her performative body to ‘write’ herself onto and across a frozen body of water. The sublime leaning of the setting – a clearing in one of Europe’s oldest forests – is exacerbated by one’s imaginings of the fate of the artist’s body: carrying the additional weight of rocks, re-moved from elsewhere, over a frozen surface the thickness of which is impossible to gauge. Compared with the tidal quality of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), Marx’s piece exudes a gentleness and mystery. This comes from the clear knowledge that her ‘walked’ sentence will have submerged by now – thanks to gravity – to the bed of the Swiss lake, the surface of which it used as its stage of enactment. Such potent “exscriptions”, as Marx calls them, place the artist’s work nearer to the softer and more ephemeral interventions of British artists, such as Richard Long, than the monumentality of Smithson.

This sensitivity is extended into the dense urban-scape of Johannesburg’s original CBD, in a series entitled Pedestrian Poetry (2007). Leaning on De Certeau’s notion of a textual city, Marx appropriates the hot asphalt of the inner city as her surface of contextual negotiation through text. Assuming the language of zebra crossings disguised as text, her considered textual responses, such as Two Worlds, thicken the ostensibly superficial surfaces of urban movement into carriers of projected meaning. These painted ‘bridges’ are occasionally found by some users of the urban fabric and lost, over time, with the same certainty that brought about the ‘disappearance’ of I am the World on which I Walk under shape-shifting Swiss ice.

Marx also collaborates. Optic Garden (2009) is the embodiment of a work rigorously conceived and executed with Johannesburg-based 26’10 South Architects. The intervention constitutes a man-made garden of 195 red chevron signs placed on a traffic island along the fold of Houghton Drive, south of the Desmond and Leah Tutu Bridge. The columnar grouping, confusing from all vantage points except one, represents a congregation of nonsensical traffic signs. The red boards display conventional white reflective tape. Seen singularly and from the ‘wrong’ angle, these signs are senseless; however, from one strategic point they cohere as an image of a football field. The symbol of the field acts as a shared cultural and inter-national code, a symbolic equaliser in its ideal, ‘locked’ form. The ambivalent quality of this optical intervention is what allows it to hold the moving viewer captive. For all its optic sophistication, the strength of this intervention is its ambiguity: as quickly as the field image crystallises it disappears into a diffuse and abstract code.

Optic Garden asserts the ongoing cartographic fascination underlying so much of Marx’s practice, an attraction which uses a patiently calculated and conceptually applied ‘archaeological’ approach to uncover and understand. Even in very recent works – encompassing a more private space – a cartographic conversation occurs. In this case the dialogue is a loaded one between two surfaces: a precisely calculated network of finely gridded thread and the gently undulating paper stretching beneath it. It seems that the space of tension which exists – between the taut, hovering grid of thread and the unruly waves of paper onto which the threads cast their shadows – is the embodiment of a practice which places great importance on notions of measurement, delineation and allocation. These constructions, under the aesthetic guise of an Annie Albers and Agnes Martin duet, have resulted in series of works, an example of which is Horizon: Sectional (2008). Although small, their size is deceptive. They are in fact commentaries without scale, but with great reach. Oscillating between the specific and the universal, they remark on land, demarcation, ownership and power.

Alexander Opper is an architect and senior lecturer in the Department of Architecture, University of Johannesburg.

About Maja Marx: Johannesburg based Marx presented her debut solo show, As far as the eye can touch, at The Premises gallery in late 2007. A former curator of the Gordon Schachat Collection, she is a past fellow of the Ampersand Foundation and a participant on the MAPS (Master of Art in the Public Sphere) exchange between Wits School of the Arts and Ecole Cantonale d’art du Valais, Sierre, Switzerland. She hosts a monthly radio talk show, Oogtaal, on RSG.

First published in Art South Africa Volume 8: Issue 02

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