Writing Art History Since 2002

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Unwel’olude, Gabi’s Ngcobo’s second solo exhibition is a courageous offering given the depth of issues the work attempts to raise around a collective black South African identity.

Using a simple vocabulary of the mundane in The Big Five (2007) Ngcobo’s stencil like “paintings” of a coke bottle, bible, gun, TV and an erect penis, while somewhat clich√© pop icons, speak about a black experience tainted by alcoholism, consumerism, gangsters, illicit sex and religious propaganda. For Ngcobo notions of blackness have become morally bankrupt and have been rudely reduced to bestial and barbaric acts making us untamed animals; the exhibition represents the artist’s unapologetic interest in skewed social realism and her honest response thereof. By inserting into her discourse pieces of her own shaven hair – “a visible stigmata of blackness,” as Kobena Mercer described it in 1994 – along with hair borrowed from friends and family, the artist maintains a connection with her previous exhibition Homecoming. While largely speaking for a broader context, the exhibition remains profoundly personal.Ah, but this land is beautiful (2005-2007) reads like a large linocut, making direct reference to a work by JH Pierneef. Constructing her composition with old pieces of dreadlocks and shaven hair carefully glued onto a painted canvas resembling rich African soils, Ngcobo attempts to reappropriate the landscape and take ownership of a history her forefathers were conveniently excluded from. Typical of Pierneef, the scenic landscape depicts homesteads devoid of subjects and expanses of ‘virgin’ land. Interestingly this composition echoes a similar nostalgic longing Ngcobo has for a black identity far from the harmful interventions of western culture. Ironically products of a fair amount of manipulation by the human hand, dreadlocks as they are used in Ngcobo’s work reveal the artist’s awareness of the limitations of attaining a ‘virgin’ black identity-it rather something that must be carefully considered and developed. While Pierneef’s creative process saw him excavate portions of lino to render his composition, Ngcobo offers a reciprocal performance when she adds material to the canvas. This offering challenges viewers emerging from a history where black voices and experience was repeatedly erased and silenced, to consider what necessary correctives they too must make to claim their social capital and visibility in contemporary South Africa.In B.E.E. 2007) a triptych of ties of varying shapes and individual designs, Ngcobo questions the viability of Black Economic Empowerment as an economic corrective in a legacy of apartheid. Rotate the image of the ties 180 degrees and they become ominous nooses – a warning against greed, senseless ambition and materialism.An installation of gilded vuvuzelas positioned around the paintings directs the viewer into an awkward choreography around the work-despite the uncomfortable limitations of the exhibition space, the artist attempts to make the presence of her subjects felt. Ngcobo locates the viewer on a mini soccer pitch- the excitement and buzz of a forthcoming 2010 World cup is epitomised in the solitary impression of a soccer ball, The Big One (2007).Characteristically noisy, festive horns placed during soccer matches, the inverted vuvuzelas become silenced sculptures that create a tension in the atmosphere. Ngcobo demands the viewer move away from the clamour of superficial success and riches that have sought to suffocate the identity of many urban black people, and quietly consider what we have allowed ourselves to become. Linked with chains made of human hair the vuvuzelas not only become an installation reminding us of social and economic bondage, but they also ironically serve as the very posts that guard the tenants of a black heritage as we have been taught to celebrate. The artist’s skill lies in her ability to contextualise the work through carefully chosen proverbs and quotes in captions that open up further reading into the work. “I discovered that which discovered me, and then made it my God, mistakenly,” quoted from Saul Williams in the artist’s brief, tells of Ngcobo’s acknowledgement that there is no essential black experience or identity that proceeds western hegemony-our collective experience includes various references. Conflating hair donated by both white and black friends and families from across the continent into these links, one could argue on a superficial level that Ngcobo communicates a sense of unity, or as Okwui Enwezor phrases it, a “falsely mediated sisterhood” between black and white identities, claiming to give the black identity similar visibility and power with its white counterpart. I would rather argue that the artist advocates for dialogical encounters across culture and ethnicity to encourage new possibilities of identification to emerge resulting in a more mature, dynamic black experience in South Africa. Ngcobo appears to say that although currently wounded, the black South African psyche can find redemption by drawing from the varied voices, memories and experiences of the ‘other’. Alone the individual links are vulnerable but in solidarity they remain strong. Maintaining an intimate balance of optimism and cynicism Unwel’olude sees Gabi Ngcobo extend her best wishes to black South Africa as continual attempts are made to negotiate our identity in the next ten years.

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