Writing Art History Since 2002

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Gallery Momo Johannesburg

Phillip Rikhotso was a joint winner of the top prize at last year’s Brett Kebble Art Awards. The jury’s decision to split the first prize between two artists with different approaches, confirms the significance of singularity, yet its motivation with regard to Rikhotso’s work seems peculiar. A daily newspaper reported that the judges commended his “traditionally carved” sculptures for complying with “the highest international standards”. For want of such a significant manual, let Rikhotso’s work be the guide.His brightly painted images are dynamic and enact legendary and everyday scenes. To a certain extent, though dissimilar, his carvings touch the same timbre as Timothy Mlambo’s sculptures. Whereas Mlambo, the classicist, finishes his pieces meticulously, Rikhotso, the romantic, relies on suggestion. Limbs end in three or four fingers and toes. Nails are redundant.An engaging storyline runs through Rikhotso’s sculptural groups. In Honyani he captures the drama that unfolds when the prodigal son returns to his father. Rikhotso chooses four dramatis personae: the son, the father, a minister of religion and the almighty god. Apart from his deity figure with his long beard, outstretched arms and flowing gown, the people are ordinary. The son with his rucksack, shorts and T-shirt looks like a backpacker who has arrived at a tribal homestead seeking accommodation. Unlike the other characters the boy’s wide mouth has a sensuous curve.An intriguing subplot underlies this seemingly normal gathering. The positioning/placing of each character is meaningful: oppositions and intermediaries symbolise the various emotions and relationships. God faces the father, but not the son, nor the minister of religion; the son faces the minister, not his father nor god – he and the minister are momentarily the intermediaries between the divine and worldly powers.Timpiku (Wings) is another gathering. A baboon, taunted on several occasions by his friends when he said he would fly, demonstrates his feat to them. With the exception of a girl, in a stylish two-piece, the group looks wide-eyed at their friend’s miraculous transformation. His arms change into wings and a face emerges from his solar plexus, signifying the blessing of the ancestors. Though these groups are telling, one is left wondering how far have they been subjected to the curator’s display? Similar concerns went through my mind when, in recent years, I saw installations by Johannes Segogela and Freddie Ramabulana. I have often wondered whether the work of Peter Schütz or Gert Swart would also be subjected to a curatorial hand if a storyline were deemed necessary.When is Rikhotso’s voice best heard? When you stroll along using one of his walking sticks? Or when enjoying the interplay of bright colours and dynamic shapes of Wanunu wa kwembe (Pumpkin man)? This jolly fellow’s cap is made from that part of the pumpkin attached to the mother plant. Like an umbilical cord, this remnant of the stalk tops the cap and inevitably suggests Ngabulo, which means joy. Born in an orange pumpkin, Ngabulo is the child of laughter from Gcina Mhlope’s story Moonlight Magic. Elza Miles

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