Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

Vaughn Sadie; Genna Gardini; James Beckett; Kemand wa Lehulere





top – bottom Vaughn Sadie, untitled (risk posed to waiting), 2007-8, infra red lamp, 150w
motion sensor halogen light with 5mm of 0.5 mmsq x 2 co white twin flex, art deco lamp
stand with twin flex, hose pipe storage device, mild steel, and 500m of 2mm galvanised wire
rope, wall lamp with bulb, twin flex and supa wood, dimensions variable; Vaughn Sadie,
untitled (folly in failing), 2009, metal tripod, theodolite stand, 40 w clear incandescent lamp,
7 w compact golf ball globe w/wht and 10m of 0.5 mmsq x 2 co black twin flex, dimensions

Embedded in architectural structures or decorative features, artificial light has an unobtrusive presence, allowing it to silently enforce social norms and configure spatial dynamics. These are some of the concerns underpinning Vaughn Sadie’s art and his latest solo exhibition Situation, held at Durban’s Bank Gallery recently, where Sadie unpacked artificial light’s omnipotent influence, not only in the context of art, where light is employed to underscore worth, but in the manner in which it discreetly (re)constructs reality. It was like walking into a vacated photographers’ studio, or an abandoned film set. Light bulbs were perched on ladders or attached to tripods, summoning these realms of imageproduction in which illusions of reality are cunningly re-enacted. But here, it is a dismantling of that process that Sadie seeks to conjure. In other instances, artificial light’s metaphoric character was illuminated. A coil of fluorescent tubing was positioned on a barren floor in what appeared like a disused jail cell. Alluding to mortality, it flickered intermittently as its predetermined lifespan slowly drew to a close.

Darkness and light summon the core binaries that are thought to define existence. Life and death. Good and evil. Knowledge and ignorance. With its obligatory switch, offering choice, manmade lights create the illusion that these actualities are subject to our whims. Sadie’s art probes the many situations in which this artificial sense of authority plays out. Conjuring sterile corporate interiors in which uniformity is believed to aid productivity, Sadie displayed a slide-projector image of two plugs embedded in a banal strip of office skirting. He wryly titled this piece Pleasure of Feeling in Control (2008), mocking the sense of security that the light switch confers.

Mostly Sadie presents scenes of obscure mundanity, but it is in these banal situations that the illusions of reality are laid bare. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that Sadie faithfully represents these familiar scenarios. Situation mostly consisted of found and readymade objects. Like Jeff Koons, who is a stickler for preserving the integrity of the readymade, so too does Sadie’s work betray a reverence for the readymade.

“The moment you start to alter it, you undermine the object,” observers the Durban-based artist.

The familiarity of the everyday objects that Sadie employs in his art provide little comfort as it becomes readily apparent that their underlying purpose has never been fully understood. Primarily he achieves this by stripping back the physical structures that facilitate artificial lights’ omnipotence, highlighting its unnaturalness. In works such as Untitled (distance to the ground) (2008), we see bare lights isolated from any decorative casings or architectural environments. An untidy clutter of wires is left in full view.

“So much of this enforced structure and technology has been around for so long that it becomes imperceptible,” he says. “I am intrigued by that. I try to identify those things that are so invisible but are really so present. Lights are reliant on physical structures and by showing them on ladders I make those structures tangible.”

Untitled (100m sprint) features two pushbikes carrying fluorescent lights, which are connected to 200 metres of electric cable. The installation is situated in a narrow alcove in the gallery, enhancing the irony implicit in the objects’ inability to achieve mobility, thus obviating its functionality. Sadie showed this work at Simon Gush’s shortlived Parking Gallery in 2006 but the genesis of the exhibition dates back to 2005, when Sadie conceived Spill light for the Young Artist Project at the Durban’s KZNSA Gallery. The title refers to a state in which artificial lighting extends over the perimeter of a property.

“We immediately feel unsafe in places where the light stops, especially in South Africa where things that exist outside of light become so ominous.”

Sadie is intrigued by artificial light but his artistic trajectory will not be defined by this fascination; he has a growing interest in challenging his audience’s proclivity for compliance: “I am actively constructing spaces that look at what the implications of passivity can be.”

In an effort to engage with spectators he has identified a brand of art that immediately resonates.

“I like the everyday in the work; it is so easy for art to disappear into the abstract,” he says. But it is also the mundanity and futility of ordinary actions and the indifference they engender that piques Sadie’s interest. “The world is made to numb us. There is comfort in performing mundane actions because we don’t have to ask big questions. We can just watch a film or read a book where someone shows us the complexities in our life without us actually experiencing it, and then we can just cook supper and go to bed.

Mary Corrigall is an art critic and senior feature writer at The Sunday Independent.

About Vaughn Sadie: Since graduating in 2003 with a B-Tech degree in Fine Arts (cum laude), Heidelberg-born Sadie (1978) has participated in several group shows nationally. Situation, held at Bank Gallery (April 23 – May 28, 2009), was his first solo exhibition at a commercial venue and followed on his 2005 show, Spill light, presented as part of the KZNSA Gallery’s Young Artists Project, curated by Storm Janse Van Rensburg. In 2007 Sadie facilitated light workshops with Jay Pather in the Spier Contemporary Performance Workshops. Currently completing his MFA at the Durban University of Technology, Sadie is also at work on his first large-scale public commission at the Durban ICC. Vaughn Sadie is Art South Africa’s eleventh Bright Young Thing for 2009.




Genna Gardini.

It’s Monday, May 25, almost winter. I’m in Observatory to see poet Genna Gardini read of her work at Off the Wall, the weekly poetry reading night organised by Hugh Hodge at a local café in this student neighbourhood. “Cell phones on silent or off please,” reads a notice. The poet moves to the front. We are hushed. Gardini writes much older than she is but she reads much younger.

“Mister, you crinkle off my broeks/ like a yellow sucker wrapper,/ calling me precious/ (or, precocious, I can’t tell which/ with the crackle of this cellophane hymen/ caught snapping like a lid on your mouth).”

Words are electric, not always, but they can be. Gardini says “bodies are like circuit boards”. Her voice fills the Observatory café with a premonition of great things to come. There’s an almost visible tremor that we’re all sharing, all feel part of, as if the words are coming out of each and every one us, out of a place we’ve always known we harboured but never had access to – until Gardini’s voice became our voice. The applause is thunderous. Gardini seems bemused by the reaction. Hodge steps up to the microphone and advises us all to mark this evening in our diaries, “the night you first heard Genna Gardini read.”

Actually, Gardini reminds me of Janis Joplin. I don’t know why. There’s something unspeakably tragic about Gardini, a tragedy typical of wise youngsters. Later on, I track the poet down. She is generous in her answers to my questions.

“The first time I can remember sitting down to write a poem I was in grade one,” she begins. “So, yes, between seven and eight. My childhood best friend recently gave me a whole whack of poems I wrote at that time. They’re the funniest things – I kept trying to use the word ‘upon’ but wrote it as ‘apone’, and was convinced there was an evil nurse, Nurse Betty, out to kill me.”

I offload an inevitable question: influences. “Anne Sexton is one of the big ones, if not the biggest. I think, like every other female writer my age, I discovered her, Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf around the same time as the hormones hit, so they are always going to be associated with that precious, awkward period.”

What does the poet think of art? Does Gardini have any formal relationships with the artworld? “I think it’s fairly easy to spot the artwork (just like the song, and the book, and the movie, and so forth) that I was obsessed with at the time, in any given poem. Joseph Szabo is all over the show in Mister, and there’s a lot of Loretta Lux and Miranda July in later stuff, like For Laura. I think I probably identify more with someone like James Jean than with most writers. He does, on a much more accomplished and skilled level, what I would love to in terms of bringing folk and fairytales to modern ideas of innocence and sexuality.”

Perhaps, I venture, it is the task of the poet to restore to words their electric, cultic quality that is inevitably lost in daily usage. “I don’t really know how not to write about where I come from, to tell you the truth. Both sides of my family moved to Zimbabwe from Italy in the mid 1950s, to work on the railroads and tobacco farms. My parents met there (they were childhood sweethearts), married, and then moved to South Africa where they adopted me. So that whole legacy binds me here. Also, I wouldn’t be writing about popping into the Jet to buy some broeks or bandying the word “fanny” about so much if I wasn’t South African, and I’m sure the work would suffer for it.” But, all things said, we’re in the iPod age. Does anybody read poetry anymore?

“I think the digital age is making poetry more accessible rather than rendering it redundant. Work is being published on blogs and forums and eZines – you don’t have to buy a literary magazine or an anthology anymore to read poetry. I think someone like Lebo Mashile, who literally goes on the road with her work, and then broadcasts that journey on TV, is an amazing example of how the work can resonate on a wider level here.”

My final question is a simple one, and prompts an equally pithy response. Why should artists listen to poets? “It’s good for them.”

Aryan Kaganof is an artist and filmmaker based in Cape Town. www.kaganof.com.

About Genna Gardini: Born in Benoni (1986), Cape Town-based Gardini has a BA in English and Drama from Rhodes University (2007). Her poems have been published in Carapace, New Coin, Fidelities, New Contrast, The Sentinel Literary Quarterly and Pulsar’s Other Poetry. She was awarded the Douglas Livingstone Prize for Poetry and the Poetry Africa Schools Competition in 2004.




top – bottom James Beckett, N.L.13 – Tribune per Teatro all’Aperto – Castello Sfprzesco,
2008, Indian ink, gouche and white pencil on paper, 63 x 83cm. Courtesy Luettgenmeijer,
Berlin; James Beckett, installation view of Bagnoli and Italsider as extract-arrangement, 2009.
Photo: Danilo Donzelli. Courtesy T293, Naples.

Including articles on how to prune a hedge in a catalogue of works created for a cancer research institute is not unusual for James Beckett. This artistaccumulator-scientist-engineer is an enthusiast. After graduating from the Natal Technikon in 1999, this Zimbabwean-born, almost 32 yearold has found himself and his practice suspended between multiple media, localities and vocabularies – ranging from sonic experimentation with art students in Nanjing, China, to migrant worker research in Kucevo, Serbia. “A lot of energy’s burnt moving between different worlds, languages, and infrastructures,” he offers. But it is the simultaneous pursuit of these various lines of inquiry that characterises Beckett’s “schizophrenic” research model.

We’re sitting in the canteen of an uberkitsch, 1970s building only recently vacated by the Shell Research and Technology Centre, in Amsterdam Noord. A complete time warp, the debris of outmoded corporate culture – clock in/out cards, plastic letters on an injury statistic board, wood panel ceiling and mauve-teal colour scheme – are almost too much for Beckett to contain himself. His recent interrogations into industrial history around the Netherlands include projects such as Vacuum (2003), which he describes in his book, Monograph 1998-2008 (2009), as a rigorous exploration of “business and morality in the history of the vacuum tube” played over an installation of electrical inventions also patented by the Dutch Philips company. This “constant reviewing of different ways of telling stories, piecing certain components, different instances to create a world” defines Beckett’s quirky, installation-based use of traditional and anachronistic materials. “I’m not afraid to be kitsch,” he states. “My work is retrospective and craftoriented.”

Inspired by the Constrained Writing experiments of the Oulipo group who, determined to legitimate literature in the face of authoritative scientific research, imposed a laboratory of conditions upon themselves in order to generate content. For Beckett, this kind of approach creates a layer of rules, be it an historical background or a real set of contextual mechanics, which provide the structure for him to hinge the details of his work to: “When you don’t exceed those parameters, that’s where your universe appears.” The result of this agitation between factual grounding and a kind of romantic mystery is a confusing but poetic set of inapplicable informative creations.

One of his most recent “industry extract-arrangements” is about Dalmine, an Italian scaffolding factory by the same name. The work exhibits his ability to intervene in the macrostructures of historiography, exposing the mechanics of the personal, the documentary and the material. Presenting museal vitrines of corporate paraphernalia together with darkened landscape paintings and toscale maquettes, Beckett’s “heavily worked” methodology holds itself lightly, as he allows himself complete absorption in this blurriness of form and function.

I ask him why his subject matter seems to stand without the scaffold supporting the work of many Southern African artists – identity politics or national memory. From early on, he says, inspired by the approach of the post-war Germans, Beckett “wanted to focus more on the mechanics of construction as opposed to politics”, and in an ironic turn, by encrypting his work with the specifics of his proposed universes, his arrangements evade any kind of overarching functionalisation. Beckett questions the accountability of the architecture of larger scale contemporary art shows in South Africa, like the Joburg Art Fair. “How does it answer for itself?” he asks. “How would you develop a different model for a different set of circumstances?” Beckett’s advice for young artists follows this need for contextual awareness: “It’s a lot about your own initiative – no one is going to lift you out of the candy store while gazing at the shelves. You have to stick some shit in your pocket and run.”

Clare Butcher is writer and 2008/09 graduate of the de Appel Curatorial Programme.

About James Beckett: Born in Zimbabwe (1977), Becket studied at Natal Technikon, Durban (1995-99). After winning the Emma Smith Prize he left for Berlin, later accepting a place in the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam. Beckett’s interest in sound is longstanding: while a student he was a member of Pietermaritzburg punk band Fingerhead, with Felix Laband. After initially working with installation, sound has come to play an increasing central role in Beckett’s work, the artist involved in research-based activity with output ranging from radio documentaries to mock ethnic bands, as well as museum displays documenting the cultural and physiological effects of noise. In 2006 he staged an exhibition at the KZNSA Gallery. Beckett recently published a monograph of his work available from Kehrere Verlag Heidelberg. He is a previous winner of the Prix de Rome for Art and Public Space.




Two stills from Kemang wa Lehulere’s contribution to Rites of Fealty/Rites of Passage,
a onenight exhibition of new performance pieces, Bag Factory, Johannesburg, July 29,

There is an urgency about the artist Kemang wa Lehulere. He sleeps late and wakes up early. His furrowed brow reflects a mind whose ambition outstrips the available hours in a day. Wa Lehulere works in a variety of media, notably in painting and performance. He is a co-founder of Gugulective, an artist collective based in Gugulethu, Cape Town. The group challenges the notion that township residents are visually illiterate; to this end, they have used the shebeen, kwa Mlamli, as a base for numerous meetings and exhibitions. In his individual capacity, Wa Lehulere has participated in a number of exhibitions, both locally and internationally, including an appearance on Arte invisible, part of the Spanish art fair ARCO. In 2007, he staged a collaborative performance, with Chuma Sopotela and Mwenya Kabwe, Unyamo alunampumlo (The foot has no nose), winning an award on the inaugural Spier Contemporary. Although working within the paradigm of contemporary art, his performances draw on traditional rituals. In a performance held at Johannesburg’s Bag Factory recently, Wa Lehulere, wearing a charcoal coat, paced barefoot across grated charcoal; a soundtrack of the artist combing his hair played in the background. The grating of charcoal symbolises histories – personal or collective – that are still to be documented, while the combing of his hair is a reference to his identity as a young black man. The wearing of the coat symbolises a Xhosa saying “uguqul iBatyi” (literally, to turn the coat inside out, but in its figurative sense implying changing identities). The coat also references his identity as a black man who – because of his mixed parentage – has at times been considered “not black enough”. Issues of identity are prevalent in a number of his performances, including Nothing ever changes (2009), presented at the Klein Karoo arts festival and Uguqul’ iBatyi (2008), which Wa Lehulere performed in Berlin.

Interestingly, Wa Lehulere’s first name, Kemang, proposes a question: “Who am I?” It suggests not only an existential question, implicating everyone using the name, but also proposes an identity that is always under construction. “I am but a student in this world, and a voluntary disciple to better the black experience,” he has self-referentially stated. Wa Lehulere’s artistic output is a logical extension of this statement of intent, and echoes his interests in history, trauma/healing, racism, the social body and social imagination.

Earlier this year, in March, Wa Lehulere hosted his first one-person show, Ubontsi: Sharp Sharp!, an exhibition of monochromatic works on paper presented at the Association for Visual Arts in Cape Town. The work was an imaginative retelling of stories and events that took place in Wa Lehulere’s family before he was born. Wa Lehulere’s household is largely led by women, who during apartheid sold alcohol illegally; this biographical fact has influenced and shaped the history of his family. The work, which revisits an aspect of his family history that was never spoken about, does not play into the trap of victimhood. Wa Lehulere’s executions are playful but respectful. His art manages to haunt the viewer long after the physical encounter. The influence of surrealism is clearly evident, his work carrying faint echoes of Cyprian Shilakoe and Spanish artist Juan Miró.

According to the artist, “the refusal to depict faces in my paintings is an expression of an identity which has been refused”. This strategy lends Wa Lehulere’s work an enigmatic quality, allowing for multiple readings. On occasion, his paintings prompt literal readings, Wa Lehulere incorporating written slogans into his work. One such work features the phrase “wit kaffer” (white kaffir), and points to Wa Lehulere’s use of semiotic devices to confront issues of identity.

Although still young, Wa Lehulere has had to grow up quickly. His maturity not only shows in his furrowed brow but in his political awareness, the sensitivity of his work, sharpness of his mind and generosity of his humour.

Kabelo Malatsie is an undergraduate student at the University of Johannesburg.

About Kemang wa Lehulere : Born in Cape Town (1984) and currently resident in Johannesburg, Wa Lehulere is a practising video artist, print maker, painter and performance artist. Active in exhibitions at the Bag Factory, in 2007 he participated in Rites of Fealty/ Rites of Passage, a onenight exhibition of new performance artworks that followed a performance workshop led by Johan Thom. A former member of Gugulective and current member of the Dead Revolutionaries Club, his bio on the latter’s website states that “he un-ashamedly has BEE aspirations and hopes to be a house ‘Nigger’ one day”. Kemang wa Lehulere is Art South Africa’s twelfth Bright Young Thing for 2009.

First published in Art South Africa Volume 8: Issue 01

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