Writing Art History Since 2002

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ABSA Gallery I Johannesburg

Sanell Aggenbachs’ latest exhibit, Perfectly Still, grapples with both the temporal and subjective aspects of portraiture. The act of capturing a likeness within a representational mode is inextricably linked with the notion of time. The portrait stands as a record of a given moment where subjectivity is constructed. Similar to many of her previous projects, Aggenbach’s focus is the intersection between social histories and personal experience. Perfectly Still draws on the rich historical background of her home locale, the Cape Town suburb of Woodstock, Aggenbach used photographic portraits of the neighbourhood’s multi-racial population as her source material. These she obtained from the archive of Dutch photographer Van Kalker, who according to the press release documented the multi-racial suburb from 1938 to sometime in the 1970s. The commissioned studio portrait is fertile ground for aspirant and imaginative self-fashioning. Taken against an undecorated background, these portraits became a theatre through which alternative subjectivities could be explored. Through Van Kalkers’ lens, later transcribed into paint by Aggenbach, the identities of a street-smart gangster (Ace) and sexy vixen (Minx) are performed. The formal attire, including uniforms, religious and cultural dress, as well as the hairstyles become props to articulate different modes of self-presentation not always viable during the apartheid years. Santu Mofokeng’s The Black Photo Album comes to mind, his project being a similar exploration of how black subjectivities were negotiated within a context that sought to disempower and subjugate.However, instead of directly copying the image in a simple transfer from photograph to painting, Aggenbach opted to work from Van Kalkers’ negatives. The effect is a historical palimpsest of a wraith-like inverted visage. The negative is not fully developed, it is arrested in representational limbo, these individuals relegated to the position of ghosts in apartheid society. Aggenbachs’ milky colour palette and smooth paint application muddies the slick finish of the photographic print. In so doing the interpretive aspects of photography are brought to the fore, the apparent transparency and currency of the image denied. Here the influence of Victorian ghost photography on Aggenbach is evident, where swindler’s used photographic trickery to present images of ghosts. The portraits appear hazy, almost floating and hard to pin down. The works are not vital. Aggenbachs’ technique does not exploit the tactile quality of the paint, which would have given life to the portraits. Rather they become insubstantial nostalgic artefacts, making it hard to connect with the figures she portrays. As a result the gaze of both the artist and viewer becomes sentimental rather than critically sensitive, a possible flaw in the exhibition. One cannot gainsay that Aggenbach is an artist with an eye for technical detail or deny that she is thoughtful about the subjects she tackles. Perfectly Still is carefully curated and flows well from the clustered small-scale portraits assembled like family photographs on a domestic wall to the larger works, which are given ample space to breathe. Also worth noting is Aggenbach’s Momento series, digital prints of plates with illustrations in ballpoint pen. These are beautifully executed and inventive works fusing historical references with imaginative new media.

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