Writing Art History Since 2002

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Spier Wine Estate | Stellenbosch

Chuma Sopotela in a performance piece by Mwenya Kabwe, Chuma Sopotela and Kemang Wa Lehulere, U nyamo alunampumlo (the foot has no nose), February 2008, at Spier Contemporary 2007Four vertical banners strategically positioned on the Spier Estateproclaim the Spier Contemporary 2007. Each variously pictures redpaint oozing from a tube, a clutch of brand new paintbrushes, a graspof pencils and a computer-disc dusted with powdered yellow pigment.Such clichéd allusions to ‘fine art’ and the simplisticequation of ‘art’ with painting seemed somehow appropriate in acontext where gilded statues of the Muses of the Arts are accordedgarden-gnome status and tourist attractions such as Moyo Restaurant,open-air ‘ethno’-style bar areas and the ubiquitous Craft Marketpoint towards the transformation of this Cape estate into anAfrokitsch themepark.A showpiece in the Enthoven empire, and in line with its founder’sappropriation of contemporary art to enhance his [Dick Enthoven’s]image, Spier Estate, under the aegis of its much-vaunted (but as yetunrealised) Africa Centre, was the compulsory-in-effect venue to whatmust be dubbed as the successor-sequel to the defunct Brett KebbleArt Awards.Contemporary South African art, uneasily it seems, finds succouronce again at the breast of high capitalism.Undeterred by the lack of a suitable building in which to housethe exhibition, a seemingly ingenious temporary structure using 90shipping containers, stretched fabric and painted plywood sheetingwas constructed. It stood on a series of old tennis courts on the”south bank” (note the tell-tale allusion to Tate Modern inLondon) of the Eersterivier that bisects the estate. Its novelty as amirage of things yet to come elicited the somewhat corny, if notironic headline, “Hail the new Art Temple”, before which “artlovers” stood “in awe” (SA Art Times, December 2007). Whilehighly innovative, and very “non-gallery/anti-museum”, as onecritic put it, the structure contained flaws both aesthetic andpractical that disadvantaged a number of the works on display. Inthis idyllic natural setting, nature found subtly irritating andunintended ways of interfacing with art. Grass prickled up from themargins of the old tennis court surface in certain areas to thedetriment of photographs that really required the pristine andminimalist setting of a professional gallery space. Jeremy Wafer’svarnish and pencil drawing, Balcony, spread over six segments of avast white painted plywood wall, was ruined by the appearance ofyellowish stains along its covered joints. The staining, a result ofunseasonal rain and high humidity, was much in evidence throughoutthe structure.The tent-like covering also allowed the strong summer light topenetrate it in certain areas, rendering some of the conceptualprojections in the more open exhibition areas almost illegible.Indeed, legibility was a major difficulty. Ironically, despite thepotential generosity of this innovative space, a sense of awkwardclutter prevailed. This may have been a result of the fact that theflow of the interior walls was punctuated by disjunctured intervalsof closed and infinite space and changes of colour and texture. Thislack of consistency was also in evidence in the roofing material,chosen it seems, to modify the lighting requirements of differentareas. The exhibition is to tour to the Johannesburg and Durbanpublic art galleries, and it will be interesting to see how it sitswithin these “art temples” of a more professional andconventional nature. Although only 100-odd works were selected fromover 2000 submitted country- wide, one had a sense that even lessthan this might have been appropriate, not only for this temporarystructure, but for the artistic standard of the whole enterprise.The selection process, using regional selection points,approximated that of the Rembrandt-sponsored Cape Triennials, thelast of which was seen in 1991. An attempt at integrating urban andrural representation, Spier Contemporary brought to notice the workof Giyani sculptor Phula Richard Chauke, whose work is a refreshingextension of the traditions of Venda woodcarving, first ‘discovered’through Ricky Burnett’s Tributaries exhibition in 1985. Theartist’s lively and well-crafted sculptures “honour” – asthis self-styled “political commentator and historian” puts it -Mandela, Jan van Riebeeck (The Man who changed South African historyin 1652) and Shakespeare (The greatest author of them all),neutralising political-correctness with a refreshing reconciliationof cultural and historical polarities. Brett Murray’s Praise Singerand Faithful Sycophant, both superbly crafted bronzes, while highlyamusing, lacked the iconoclastic bite of his previous work; they alsoevidenced a worrisome re-return to the aesthetic of his formerMichaelis mentor, Bruce Arnott.An emphasis on installation and performance was a major thrust ofSpier Contemporary, to which was tagged a special series ofperformance art workshops. The performance pieces, many presentedlive at the opening event and again at specified times, were alsorecorded for projection in the exhibition areas, which assistedgreatly in assessing their content and merit.Peter van Heerden, whose presence was marked in a number of othercollaborative works, presented Die Uitlander, the African and theVrouw. This performance, although a prize-winner, and dedicated “tothe women of Africa”, was a threadbare replay of his earliersubversions of Boer ideology – a piece of hillbilly Dadaism wherethe slapstick trivialised any meaningful critique of Afrikanernationalism. Bradshaw Schaffer’s What have we done?, made incollaboration with Van Heerden, and Nina Barnett and Robyn Nesbitt’sWarcry, on the other hand, were as conceptually neat, short andcompelling as many of the other longer, sometimes turgid performanceworks were not.Conceptual neatness also characterises Andrew Putter’sprize-winning Secretly I will love you more, in many ways, alreadythe signature work of Spier Contemporary 2007.Ostensibly a “singing” portrait of Maria de Quellerie, wife ofJan van Riebeeck, this piece recreates the seventeenth-century Dutchpainter Pieter de Putter’s Portrait of a Young Woman (1646) in theIziko Michaelis Collection. Like Chauke’s work already mentioned,it features a loving and surprising reconciliation between perceivedcultural opposites – between the coloniser and the colonised. DeQuellerie sings a gentle Khoikhoi lullaby to her adopted Khoikhoidaughter Krotoa, subverting simplistic notions of racial differenceand South African history.Justin Fiske’s breathtaking Kudalini, consisting of suspendedpebbles that invest the notion of kinetic art with new power, wasunfortunately not a prize-winner. However, at time of writing, it waswell on its way to being voted as best work on show by a visitingpublic that was not only mesmerised by the its kinetic nature, butclearly impressed by its refined integrity and lack of pretension.The first Spier Contemporary exhibition is like the proverbialcurate’s egg, good in parts. Emphasising the unconventional and thenew by our provincial avant-garde, it ended up as a concoction ofbright sparks and mediocrity. Unlike the national-scale exercises ofthis kind in the past, it seemed short on established professionalnames, with only Gavin Younge, Sue Williamson and Peter Schützrepresenting a more mature generation of artists.As such, this first Spier Contemporary seems, in the finalanalysis, to be a hybridization: three parts of Sasol’s NewSignatures with one part Rembrandt Cape Triennial. It remains to beseen how the impetus and promise of this new event on our visual artscalendar develops in terms of integrity and staying power.Hayden Proud is a curator and art historian based in Cape Town

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