Sanell Aggenbach used Graceland as the namesake for her latest exhibition, which dabbles in the murky territory of Afrikaans identity and culture.
Six hundred thousand tourists visit the home of rock icon Elvis each year. Graceland in Memphis is a historical site that has become the homeland for the itinerant, nostalgic traveller. The status of the site has grown to such mythical proportions, it was declared a national historic landmark in 2006. Sanell Aggenbach used Graceland as the namesake for her latest exhibition, which dabbles in the murky territory of Afrikaans identity and culture.The introductory work is a gold-framed portrait of the artist ensconced in the arms of an Elvis impersonator. An engraved marble plaque situated behind the kitsch tourist portrait expresses the words of Afrikaans poet, Gert Vlok Nel: “Ons is Gracelandloos Koos/ Geen Memphis Tennessee vir ons nie”. Graceland for Aggenbach is a ghost – a sanctuary unattainable. The discussion of Afrikaner identity has consistently dealt with concepts of place and belonging; it is the product of paradoxical processes of both colonisation and decolonisation. The Great Trek was an effort by Afrikaners to relinquish British rule. During apartheid, the National Party sought to exclude other indigenous groups through separate development, while today, some Afrikaners prefer to live in all-Afrikaner enclaves such as Orania. Aggenbach deals with the seductive quality of a homeland in her oil painting Haven (2009). Graceland is etched in cursive writing in a patina green hue across an ample pair of white breasts. They look comforting and maternal – a “haven” like the title suggests. But they are bereft of comfort. When navigating the exhibition, “graceland” is revealed as an elusive mistress.Afrikaans art and culture has expressed the fraught Afrikaans identity with the most insightful and intuitive brush: Ingrid Jonker, Breyten Breytenbach, Koos Kombuis and Fokofpolisiekar have all dealt with the challenges of being Afrikaans in lieu of a loaded history. Aggenbach adds to their voices and pays homage to some of these cultural icons in works such as the etching Ingrid (2009), the reverse glass painting Africanus Albus (2009), and a mild steel wall sculpture, Metal Heart (2009), which references the title of Rian Malan’s book My Traitor’s Heart (1990). Aggenbach’s strength emerges in her sensitively executed paintings, a trio of earthy coloured oil on paper portraits of former South African prime ministers being the strongest. The portraits are folded, hiding their mouths, and rendering them voiceless. The subdued colour palettes and blurred edges in her technique express the nostalgic and emotional intensity of the subject matter.In his ode to Graceland, Paul Simon sings, “my travelling companions are ghosts and empty sockets. I’m looking at ghosts and empties, but I’ve reason to believe we will all be received in Graceland.” In many ways, Simon’s words sum up the transient notion of space and belonging in the Afrikaner identity. It is an identity burdened by ghosts of violence and exploitation but ultimately a culture that is rich and fundamental to the character of South Africa. Sanell Aggenbach’s exhibition is a satirical, yet subtle rumination on this complex cultural history.