KZNSA Gallery | Durban
Nontombeko Ntombela first met Bronwen Vaughan-Evans at the Durban Institute of Technology’s Fine Art Department where the latter was her supervisor. The unequal weighting that would normally define such a relationship was absent: Vaughan-Evans would listen to Ntombela talk about her work and knew exactly what she meant. This sense of intellectual and emotional convergence was no doubt facilitated by the fact that Ntombela had entered her studies as a mature student. The pair found further common ground when Ntombela discovered she was pregnant – Vaughan-Evans had just had her first child.Soon after that, the pair decided to hold a joint exhibition, a decision that not only made complete sense but also brought a breath of vernal air to the KZNSA Gallery last September. Both artists foreground intimacy in an aesthetic language that is rich with physical and emotional texture, yet retains a sparseness and lucidity. Their images and techniques sing to each other, and in the context of the gallery formed an overarching composition that flowed seamlessly through its multiple spaces.Although they come from different backgrounds, the two artists seem to share the same artistic and emotional hemisphere. Both work with multi-panelled pieces which set up dialogues between individual works. Both work in a two dimensional painting space, but transgress the traditions and suggested rules of painting. Both focus on the intensely personal but manage to unfurl that intimacy onto a broader, almost Jungian universal canvas. And both produce work that goes straight to the heart.At the same time, the two retain their autonomy, their techniques differing as much as they overlap. Vaughan-Evans’ technique of layering white gesso on top of black, and then sanding it away to reveal an image distinguishes itself, even as it echoes Ntombela’s relief carvings, painted over with bitumen, which is never dry, always drying. Similarly, motifs which appear in Ntombela’s stitched and embroidered work often find expression in similar images in Vaughan-Evans’s images, and vice versa.Both are concerned with notions of excavation, of working beneath the surface – in a physical and metaphoric sense – to find something that if not true, at least resounds with a sense of the real. A common thread that runs through both their work is their interest in the demands and expectations that accompany motherhood; the shift in the perceptions of others towards these new mothers is clearly a point of great solidarity. Ntombela’s work, for instance, explores aspects of Zulu tradition, the unwritten laws which she is now supposed to claim ownership of and obey.The images that constitute these negotiated spaces are both dense with meaning and committed to their media – they are defined by both their tenderness and strength. There is an intuitive power at work here, and the images layer themselves on top of each other in the gallery’s visual cortex, a readymade matrix of fleeting memories that, although familiar, do not belong to the viewer. A child holds onto a doll. A mother holds onto a child. A young boy plays with mud and herds cows. A satellite hurtles through space like a ballerina. CCTV cameras look down on us from above. Figures move off into the distance, just barely visible. Through this matrix emerges a ghostlike narrative, one that is greater than the already broad scope of their work. For want of a better expression, it is the social narrative of a country. Yet even while many of the images subtly explore notions of otherness, the combined body of work that is Negotiated Spaces is not about the race of its creators. It is about commonality and sameness, a solidarity that these two artists from differing social backgrounds portray with such quiet certitude.