Writing Art History Since 2002

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Various Venues Grahamstown

Various exhibitions at this year’s National Arts Festival were framed as examinations of the self, with the suggestion that self-representation liberates one from the influence of politics. The self, however, is inextricably bound up with one’s relationship with others – parents, community members, ancestors – and it is these often-threadbare connections with others that define who one really is. The individualistic concept of “self” bears little weight in an African context, as self-examination always implicates one’s broader interactions. Three particularly compelling exhibitions explore the intimacies of connecting the self to family, community and the spiritual world: Churchill Madikida’s Like Father Like Son? (Grahamstown Foundation Art Gallery), Zola Toyi’s Ancestral Voices/ Ilizwi Leminyanya (Fine Line Press) and Figuring Faith: Images of Belief in Africa (Albany Museum), curated by Fiona Rankin-Smith. In all three exhibitions varied notions of personal conviction come to the fore, as artists interrogate the complexities of society’s faith in family, cultural beliefs, and religion. The driving force behind Madikida’s video installation is his desire to find and connect with the biological father that he never knew. When one approaches the gallery one is met with a buzz of conversation, but upon entering, one finds oneself alone. The disjuncture between self and others is immediately felt. The conversations emit from a number of video projections entitled Sins of the Father, referring to the biblical notion of a parent’s sins being passed on for seven generations. Madikida’s father, Joseph Mokhele, bears the name of the biblical father who, not the biological father of Christ, assumed the role of an earthly parent.This notion of assuming a role is significant to Madikida’s definition of self. According to the artist, he created his own father figure in his head, after having lived with two non-biological fathers that he describes as Xhosa and “Coloured”. Although derogatorily labelled as “lawu” by one and “kaffir” by the other, Madikida says that he “hijacked” the identity of a black male, assuming the cultural aspects of being Xhosa, only to discover that his biological father is Sotho. As Madikida grapples with the painful discovery of why his father abandoned him, he reflects upon the multiple layers of connection and the inevitable slippage between self and others. Two large screens and a number of televisions reveal conversations that the artist had with both his known and unknown family. Subtitles slip across the screens, sometimes out of synch with the speakers, and the portrait of one person blurs into another, destabilising the concept of the singular self. Although on a personal quest, Madikida reveals the communal and even national facets of his story: not only are his physical features reflected in the faces of nine unknown brothers, but statistically he is reflected in millions of fatherless children who bore the brunt of apartheid’s migration policies. Broader, political reflections of cathartic confession were not lost on Joseph Mokhela who, after awkwardly twisting the truth before the camera apparently asked, “Are we done with the TRC?” In Ancestral Voices, Zola Toyi explores the importance of connecting with one’s ancestors in the cultural traditions of Nguni-speaking people. In 14 stunning drypoint engravings, Toyi, a healer-in-training, unravels the process of spiritual communion as a goat is slaughtered in the ritual space of ubuhlanti, the cattle kraal. In Exhantini (Pole with horns), Toyi depicts himself, the student, bringing a goat and bucket of herbs (isilawu) to the healer (igqirha), who stands barefoot in the sacred kraal. The pole covered with horns used in previous rituals is the centrepiece of ancestral communication – it facilitates connection, as does the home-brewed beer. In Isilawu (Herbs) the igqirha feeds the whipped mixture of herbs to the goat, which must willingly consume the foam. Toyi’s use of composition is extraordinary. His beautifully frugal lines leave vast open spaces that speak boldly of a realm that few connect with, and the untouched whiteness of these spaces alludes to the symbolic purity of the igqirha’s ritual. The symbolic meaning of sacred space and its associated prohibitions is a key theme in the extensive exhibition Figuring Faith, which opens up various approaches to the interaction between humans and spiritual beings. On exhibition is a beautiful Pende sculpture (kishishi) of a mother and child, which, in its initial context, would stand atop a ritual house of the chief who mediates between the ancestors and the people. Sacred spaces, however, are often manifested politically where a relationship between self and a higher being is used to justify nationalistic concerns, as seen in David Goldblatt’s photographs depicting the staunch, nationalistic faith of Afrikaners.While conviction, conversion and confession are on the one hand deeply personal a number of works in Figuring Faith suggest that personal transformation is deeply embedded in cultural and communal circumstances. Mikhael Subotzky’s sweeping 360-degree panoramic photograph, Preacher, Dwarsrivier Prison, questions the motives of turning one’s life around through a conversion experience by leading the viewer’s eye on a rollercoaster ride that traces the distorted curves of the prison, dips into a deep shadow, and ends at the tip of the preacher’s finger that points to the heavens. It is this tumultuous journey that creates the self as one connects with others in a culturally and communally embedded space. Ruth Simbao National Arts Festival 2006Various Venues GrahamstownRecalling Anton Brink’s Dogma, Churchill Madikida’s Like Father Like Son?, Dina Belluigi’s Unbridled and Zach Taljaard’s Con/front, what recurs unexpectedly is a detail common to the solo shows of Belluigi and Taljaard: a toolbar. Digitally-imaged tools, a scythe and a pair of pliers among them, run along the bottom of the first of Belluigi’s Eve prints, while on one wall of the main room inside Fort Selwyn, where Taljaard suspended the chief piece of Con/front, a wooden board acts as the support for wrenches and toy pistols.Their different contexts notwithstanding, the tools in each exhibition connote violence and manipulation, and raise the question of ownership. To whom do these tools belong, viewer or artist? Who has the right to use them? And toward what end?Both exhibitions explore the artist’s vulnerability. For Belluigi, who combines photography, drawing and digital prints in a show that places images of her body within bell-jars or architectural settings, or in positions derived from art history (for example, St Sebastian), it is the risk she runs, as a woman, of being ‘bridled’ like a horse within the conventions of marriage. Taljaard, meanwhile, explores the dangers he might face, as a gay man, of being re-formed or deformed not only by the physical violence of, say, a soldier but by more covert ‘normative’ social pressures. (Among the objects of parody in Taljaard’s show is a near-life-size sculptural confrontation, staged in the magazine of Fort Selwyn, between an army action figure and a classical statue.)Vulnerability to militaristic and other forms of power, as harnessed in particular by the US, are more overtly dealt with in Brink’s Dogma. In numerous works bearing the ironic title The Individuals, silhouetted figures in precise perspective strike poses and become repetitive ciphers rendered docile by ideology under skies erupting with oil-paint effects that suggest apocalyptic signs.Brink’s efforts to bruit a message separate him from the self-reflective focus of Belluigi and Taljaard, yet his accessibility allies him indirectly with 2006 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner, Churchill Madikida. Like Father Like Son? is an autobiographical record initiated by Madikida’s rediscovery of the biological father he had thought dead. Madikida turns the camera on his newfound father, the siblings he did not know he had, his mother, and even himself. These family members share their unique perspectives on the historical events, each story circling the clipped and awkward – even sly – account of the father who abandoned Madikida.Though unquestionably moving, the exhibition struck me as taxing, difficult to navigate and sparse. Other than a TV cabinet and a few sofas evoking the lounge of a family home, the entire installation comprises looped videos of the interviews played on large screens or monitors. Since the videos run simultaneously, the interviewees talk over one another, creating a cacophonous environment. However, this chaosmos of voices and perspectives does suit the subject; the splintered, obfuscating quality of the recitations effectively strips the piece of narrative and of confessional intimacy, thereby interrogating both ‘fine art’ and recognised media forms such as documentary.The arts of production and viewing require tools, the former for self-fashioning and communication, the latter for interpretation. When a Taljaard or a Belluigi displays the toolkits art normally veils, they expose their practice as bricolage and invite viewers to be more self-aware of their own analytical skills. The tools, in other words, belong to artist and viewer alike, and if they are not to become hammers, they need to be handled not as products but as negotiations. Michael Herbst

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