Installation view of Movement III, showing Sumayya Vally/Counterspace, After Image, 2021. Tinted mirror, steel. © and courtesy Sumayya Vally/Counterspace. Photographer: Graham De Lacy

Liminal Identities in the Global South at Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation

The Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) has opened Liminal Identities in the Global South; the second exhibition that forms part of its inaugural research theme. This thematic curatorial guide considers Female Identities of the Global South through the perspective of well-known and eclipsed but all seminal artistic figures from Latin America, alongside artists from the MENA region, the African diaspora and South Africa. Amalgamating musical, architectural and conceptual works from the 1960s to the present, this show allows South African audiences to experience cross-regional imaginaries and forms of practice that have influenced moments in art histories.

Pulling threads from the first exhibition, ‘Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South’, which opened in 2020, the second exhibition pairs the exploration of hybridity and hybrid figures with contemplations on resistance. This is extended with reflections on the body that strongly translate the extreme oscillation between the hypervisibility and invisibility of particular bodies. This component of the show mirrors the waves of fear, control, panic and awareness of the physicality of our existence that has come through the COVID-19 pandemic over the past eighteen months. The show features Jane Alexander, Lina Bo Bardi, Lygia Clark, Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, Kapwani Kiwanga, Ana Mendieta, Lygia Pape, Berni Searle and Counterspace led by Sumayya Vally – with some artworks and artists new to South African audiences.

Installation view of exhibition entrance and Prelude, including Lina Bo Bardi, Glass Easel, 1968, and Oswald de Andrade, Manifesto Antropófago, 1928, with Tarsila do Amaral, Abaporu, 1928, in the background. Photographer: Graham De LacyInstallation view of exhibition entrance and Prelude, including Lina Bo Bardi, Glass Easel, 1968, and Oswald de Andrade, Manifesto Antropófago, 1928, with Tarsila do Amaral, Abaporu, 1928, in the background. Photographer: Graham De Lacy

Concepts from classical music are offered as guides to navigating the exhibition spaces and the temporal and spatial locations points spread across the works present in the show. Connecting the speed at which a passage of music can be played as a kind of conceptual map, the exhibition is divided into five areas: Prelude (Andante-moderate), Requiem (Lacrimoso-tearfully), Movement I (Allegro-lively), Movement II (Lento-slowly) and finally Movement III (Grazioso-gracefully + Crescendo).

The Prelude presents an archival contemplation, a Brazilian moment, which takes at its starting point the idea of anthropophagia (cultural ‘cannibalism’ or assimilation). This refers to a devouring and digesting of foreign cultural frameworks that had been pushed into Brazil through colonisation, and the reaffirmation of Brazilian cultural identity and values. As a central component in forms of Brazilian modernism, this idea stemmed from poet Oswald de Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago (1928), which is present through display in one of architect Lina Bo Bardi’s glass easels. The easel offers a three-dimensionality to pages of the manifesto, allowing viewers to circle the text and read it in reference to the changing background made possible through this act. This introduction to the exhibition also stretches the archive, connecting this text of the 1920s to Bo Bardi’s intervention with glass easels first designed for the opening of Museo de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) at Avenida Paulista, which produced a novel approach to the museum experience. Bo Bardi’s architectural language inspired by indigenous aesthetics is seen again through Roadside Chair (1967), a wood and rope structure that too echoes the affirmative qualities of anthropophagia. This layering of temporal moments is carried throughout the exhibition.

Anthropophagia can be seen expressed visually through a reproduction of Tarsila do Amaral’s painting Abaporu (1928), the inspiration for De Andrade’s manifesto, hanging directly opposite the text. The figure shown in the painting with its oversized limbs relaxing in nature indicates a combination of Do Amaral’s European influences and local traditions; the chosen proportions and positioning of the figure point to the significance of the body and its physical experiences in epistemic investigations. The cactus, the sun and grass also highlight the importance of nature and incorporate mythological elements from the Amazonian imaginary. The intimate mirroring of ideas through visual and textual mediums creates an entrancing energy in the space between the works, animating the archive in an invisible yet lively form.

Installation view of Requiem, from left: Paulus Fürst, Doctor Schnabel von Rom, Kleidung wider den Tod zu Rom, 1656; Artist unrecorded, Lonely Soul Ex-Voto, 19th century. Photographer: Graham De LacyInstallation view of Requiem, from left: Paulus Fürst, Doctor Schnabel von Rom, Kleidung wider den Tod zu Rom, 1656; Artist unrecorded, Lonely Soul Ex-Voto, 19th century. Photographer: Graham De Lacy

Moving to the second section of the exhibition, Requiem, the past and the present smash together. Our current realities and uncomfortable liminality produced through the COVID-19 pandemic intermingle with the imagery and sonic reflections on previous pandemics, particularly the bubonic plague (Black Death) and influenza (Spanish Flu). The bright red of the wall invokes a sense of urgency, coupled with Reuban Tholakele Caluza’s Influenza 1918, there is an air of sombreness. Recorded in London in 1930, this piece portrays the destruction of the Spanish Flu epidemic on the black population of South Africa. The eerie feeling generated through the choral music is mimicked by the reproduction of Paulus Fürst’s Doctor Schnabel von Rom (Doctor Beaky from Rome) (1656). The image of the plague doctor with their beak-like mask filled with herbs, wide-brimmed hat, gloves, boots and a cane with which to point at the ill, becomes evermore haunting today, with the mask a familiar attire and a wariness over the diseased body, the pandemic body. Drawing attention to the 19th century retablo painting Lonely Soul Ex-Voto, two figures are portrayed seeking divine intervention for an ill person. As a form of popular art from the post-Mexican independence period, an ex-voto was offered in fulfillment of a promise made to receive that which can only be given by the godly realm. This historical layering of previous pandemics together with religious objects and suspicion of the body point to the contemplation of the work of Lygia Clark.

Installation view of Movement I, from left: Lygia Clark, Máscaras Sensoriais (Sensorial Masks), 1967, replicas 2021. © and courtesy Associação Cultural Lygia Clark. Photographer: Graham De Lacy. Lygia Clark, O Eu e o Tu (The I and the You), 1967, replicas 2021. © and courtesy Associação Cultural Lygia Clark. Photographer: Graham De LacyInstallation view of Movement I, from left: Lygia Clark, Máscaras Sensoriais (Sensorial Masks), 1967, replicas 2021. © and courtesy Associação Cultural Lygia Clark. Photographer: Graham De Lacy. Lygia Clark, O Eu e o Tu (The I and the You), 1967, replicas 2021. © and courtesy Associação Cultural Lygia Clark. Photographer: Graham De Lacy

Movement I takes the curatorial thread of the pandemic body and continues this interrogation with Clarks artworks O Eu e o Tu (The I and the You) (1967, replicas 2021) and Máscaras Sensoriais (Sensorial Masks) (1967, replicas 2021). The masks of Máscaras Sensoriais were originally proposed as experiments in sensory perception and breathing. The series of coloured masks combine optical, aural and olfactory sensations and limitations which would allow viewers a light-hearted exploration of their senses. When read through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic, the masks are absorbed into our current experiences of mask-wearing and breathability, fear of the body and forms of control. The mask can also be seen as a kind of anonymising shield through Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and other acts of resistance that have come to be since the beginning of 2020. O Eu e o Tu, would offer an exploratory interaction between two participants who would put on the two leather overalls joined by a tube. Unable to see each other through the hoods of the overalls, participants would be encouraged to investigate the crevices of their own and their partner’s suit, an interaction that would ignite ponderings on feelings of our own identity, the possibilities of giving of ourselves as a form of interpersonal dialogue and discovery through touch. These spooky yet playful outfits get transformed in our current moment, with images of hazmat suits filtering engagement with the work.

Installation view of Movement I, from left: Jane Alexander, Harbinger in correctional uniform, 2006. Installation. Private collection. © Jane Alexander and DALRO. Lygia Pape, Divisor (Divider), 1968. Video of performance at Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 2010. © Projeto Lygia Pape. Courtesy Projeto Lygia Pape and Hauser & Wirth. Photographer: Graham De LacyInstallation view of Movement I, from left: Jane Alexander, Harbinger in correctional uniform, 2006. Installation. Private collection. © Jane Alexander and DALRO. Lygia Pape, Divisor (Divider), 1968. Video of performance at Museu de Arte Moderna, Rio de Janeiro, 2010. © Projeto Lygia Pape. Courtesy Projeto Lygia Pape and Hauser & Wirth. Photographer: Graham De Lacy

Jane Alexander’s installation Harbinger in correctional uniform (2006) plays as a kind of contemporary plague doctor with the oversized pre-democracy prisoners’ overalls, the stick in hand and the gemsbok muzzle and horns resembling the attire seen in Doctor Schnabel von Rom. The red gloves piled beneath the harbinger mirror the red wall of Requiem, pulling the emotive shadows across this section of the show. This prophetic hybrid figure foretells gloomy events and highlights the persistence of the past, made particularly poignant though the shackles and chains that restrict the figures hands and feet. Alexander’s photomontages Convoy (2008) and Harbinger with rainbow (2004) emphasise this point, extending reflections to the process and causes of migration through the portrayed figures’ presence in different landscapes.

Lygia Pape closes off this section with her exploration of the relationship between the body and space. Divisor (Divider) (1968) produced during military rule in Brazil, sees a reoccupying of public space in a poetic way while underscoring the thread of resistance that exists throughout the exhibition. In this recorded performance one sees a collective of people moving and dancing in one direction connected through a white sheet with their heads poking out, but not touching. This work ignites contemplation on individual agency within the collective, powerfully seen through the importance of individual movement in allowing the collective to progress forward within this public space portrayed on screen.

Installation view of Movement II, from left: Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, The Dinner Table with embroidered Cloth, 1974, Kapwani Kiwanga, Flowers for Africa: showing Nigeria, 2014, Tunisia, 2015 and Ivory Coast, 2014. Photographer: Graham De LacyInstallation view of Movement II, from left: Kamala Ibrahim Ishag, The Dinner Table with embroidered Cloth, 1974, Kapwani Kiwanga, Flowers for Africa: showing Nigeria, 2014, Tunisia, 2015 and Ivory Coast, 2014. Photographer: Graham De Lacy

The show moves viewers towards considering the precarity of our existence once again in the section Movement II. Here a sense of time passing, death, burial and ritual amalgamate with works by Ana Mendieta, Kapwani Kiwanga and Kamala Ibrahim Ishag. An overtone relation is present between the works from these artists through floral elements. They operate as feminising objects, observers of history and reflections on the passing of time in Kiwanga’s Flowers for Africa: Nigeria (2014), Flowers for Africa: Ivory Coast (2014) and Flowers for Africa: Tunisia (2015). As visual meditations on the artist’s research on independence ceremonies across Africa, these reconstructions of flower displays point to their ephemeral nature while considering institutional and cultural structures of memory and symbolism. The decaying flowers again awaken thoughts on the pandemic, both on the body and the deterioration of the environment and world systems.

Ishag considers ritual practice too, particularly the zār ritual practiced in Sudan for the exorcising of evil spirits. Her paintings explore the hidden characteristics of women’s lives and spirituality. The Dinner Table with embroidered Cloth (1974) shows a group of women around a table as if about to perform or speak to a ritual practice that solidifies their collectivity as women, as well as speaks to their inner lives.

Installation view of Movement II, showing Ana Mendieta, Untitled: Silueta Series, Mexico from Silueta Works in Mexico, 1973–1977, 1976/1991. Colour photographs, framed. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS) and DALROInstallation view of Movement II, showing Ana Mendieta, Untitled: Silueta Series, Mexico from Silueta Works in Mexico, 1973–1977, 1976/1991. Colour photographs, framed. © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC. Courtesy Galerie Lelong & Co. Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS) and DALRO

Mendieta’s Silueta Series, Mexico (1973-7), sees silhouettes of the artist’s body part of the landscape through grave-like impressions. The viewer feels part of a burial of some sort, with an unsettled position on the bodily impressions as ceremonial presentations of permanence or absence. Flowers and other plants are present here too, as coverings for the body or as growing in the earth. The ritualistic approach to these works offer a kind of autobiographical inscription of the self into a place; a point made more poignant through Mendieta’s own migratory journey as a young child having to move from Cuba to the US.

In the final section of the exhibition the sound from Berni Searle’s Shimmer (2012-13) installation, a sound that can be heard softly throughout most of the show, becomes more prominent, adding a layer to the ritualistic memorialising, remembering and reconstructing presented in the previous section. Movement III includes Searle’s Mantle I (2021) from the Interlaced series, which depicts a figure draped in gold cloth standing in the aisle at the Gothic Chamber of the Bruges town hall in Belgium. This figure conjures religious images of the Madonna in Christianity or the burqa in Islam. The gold signifies the colonial pillaging and abuse enacted by Belgium in the Congo Free State (now Democratic Republic of Congo). This figure takes on the position of a liminal figure; between life and death, between human and heavenly being, between virtuous and a representation of exploitation. Read through the lens of the pandemic, the covered figure connects to covered bodies – for protection and out of respect for those who have passed on.

Installation view of Movement III, showing Berni Searle, Shimmer, 2012–13. Installation (5 HD video projections and gold-leafed elephant bones). Southern: a Contemporary Collection. © Berni Searle. Photo Graham De LacyInstallation view of Movement III, showing Berni Searle, Shimmer, 2012–13. Installation (5 HD video projections and gold-leafed elephant bones). Southern: a Contemporary Collection. © Berni Searle. Photo Graham De Lacy

Shimmer, also part of Interlaced, continues this reference to the atrocities inflicted in the Congo. Elephant bones covered in gold paint to the decimation of the landscape and the people, as well as the accumulation of wealth by Belgium under King Leopold II through this process. The bones also reference forms of offering, reinviting the feeling presented by Lonely Soul Ex-Voto and the works in Movement II. Ritualistic practice is also put forward through the bones, bringing to mind the throwing of the bones to interpret a situation or predict an outcome. Here the thought of Jane Alexander’s harbinger lurks in the shadow of the mind. The videos part of the installation echo the gold of the bones, with intimate filmic poetry containing gold-covered feet, statues, skulls and a silhouette landscape of the Congo. Encased within this area of the exhibition, the impact of colonial history and human action weighs heavy.

Installation view of Movement III, showing Sumayya Vally/Counterspace, After Image, 2021. Tinted mirror, steel. © and courtesy Sumayya Vally/Counterspace. Photographer: Graham De LacyInstallation view of Movement III, showing Sumayya Vally/Counterspace, After Image, 2021. Tinted mirror, steel. © and courtesy Sumayya Vally/Counterspace. Photographer: Graham De Lacy

Sumayya Vally/Counterspace’s After Image (2021), a reflective circular structure that assembles a snapshot of Johannesburg’s atmosphere, solidifies this idea of human impact on the earth and in relation to specific groups in society. Based on the myth about the opalescent or iridescence of the Johannesburg’s skies connected to the idea that the intensity of the light is heightened by the presence of the city’s mine dump dust, as well as Vally’s research on mine runoff pigment, this installation operates as an archive of materiality, of the urban landscape, of an imaginary and of the consequences of extraction and exploitation. The reflective surface of this work allows for a moment to take in the thematic threads pulled across the exhibition, and also makes one aware of their presence within the space and their possible presence within the narratives of resistance, migration, coloniality, ritual, and the body.

‘Liminal Identities in the Global South’ as the JCAF’s second show builds on the foundation established in their first exhibition. The investigations in identity, colonial histories and reflections on the archive continue, with contemplative extensions including resistance moments and methods, ritualistic practice and the body as read through the original context of works and the COVID-19 pandemic. Temporality is explored through the individual and collective works, through the lens of the current pandemic as well as through navigational guides indicated by the titles for each section of the show. The many layers presented in the show definitely require multiple visits to the space.

JCAF is an academic research institute, a platform for museum exhibitions and an innovative technology laboratory. ‘Liminal Identities in the Global South’ will be on view from the 3rd of August 2021 until the 29th of January 2022.

Christa Dee is a writer, researcher and emerging curator based in Johannesburg. As a writer, she focuses on art, urban studies, digital culture, speculative futures, identity politics, and the relationship between these categories.