Thando Mama

NSA Gallery | Durban

From the series Mind Space, 2005, digital prints on photo archival paper, 59 x 42cmWhen people knew nothing and lived in fear and ignorance it was the Dark Ages. If you’re scheming evil schemes you’re having dark thoughts and planning dark deeds. And, should the occult be involved, you’re dabbling in the dark arts. When Conrad explored innermost Africa he didn’t take a pleasure cruise down a river but penetrated the heart of darkness. When disease struck medieval England everyone died of the Black Plague. In the Industrial Revolution coal-miners succumbed to the Black Lung. When the American stock exchange crashed in 1929, ushering in the Great Depression, it was known as Black Monday.Via these and myriad other examples it has been argued that language – especially of the Western variety – programmes prejudice against all that is dark and black. From a purely objective standpoint, however, there is scant evidence of overt racism – after all it is simply a fact of nature that darkness is defined by the absence of light. Yet if you happen to be black you would be easily given to wonder how the colour of your skin is synonymous with so much that is to be feared and fled from.This is the position exciting young South African artist Thando Mama finds himself in. Though he might be a bright new star in the firmament (his work featured in group exhibitions in Belgium, America, New Zealand, Switzerland and France; he received the MTN New Contemporaries Award in 2003 and the prestigious Prix de la Communaute de Belgique at the Dakar Biennale in 2004), Mama is obsessed with darkness.Take his installation We Are Afraid, the centrepiece of his exhibition Next Movement. Simply put, the room containing the work is the most terrifying place on the planet next to Abu Ghraib. After about five minutes of claustrophobia, panic and utter dread I find my way out in need of animal tranquilisers and hard liquor. The room is pitch black and you can’t see a thing. It’s the kind of super-gravitational darkness that causes light to bend. Your sense of direction is maimed by floor-to-ceiling walls of black fabric, which form an indecipherable maze. With your hand outstretched you walk into the cold cement of a wall. You turn around only to walk face-first into stiff fabric. You are trapped by the darkness, lost and petrified. You’re in the haunted spaceship from Event Horizon; you’re in that house at the end of The Blair Witch Project where it all ends very, very badly.In a distant corner a TV hypnotises itself with soft white noise. A looped audio track eerily fills the space with samples from what appears to be a BBC news broadcast: a clipped British voice repeats the mantra “forgotten about Africa” while a young girl’s voice dejectedly intones “we are afraid” over and over again. Feeling an anxiety attack beginning to rapidly build I turn on my cellphone in a desperate attempt to create a little light. Savagely scrawled on the wall in front of me, in what appears to be blood, is the word BLACK.In the other installations that make up Next Movement, Mama continues to “grapple with the uneasy representation of the African male” but transcends this cerebral press release-ese with an obsessive-compulsive quest for identity, relentlessly using his own body as the vehicle. 1994 – The Next Movement is comprised of 221 graphite sketches of Mama’s tensed horizontal body while Reflection: Composition 1 – 4 and Resurrection: Composition 1 – 3 features subtly different depictions of the same body in its same state of lateral distress. In the visceral video work 1994 (III) Mama’s body is in endless agitated motion, constantly disintegrating and re-integrating, and vaguely bringing to mind Kentridge – were he a young black existentialist.It is this combination of extreme hyperactivity (in one of the digital prints on display Mama’s face is warped and distorted as if he couldn’t keep still for a fraction of a second) and conceptual rigour that makes Next Movement such a compelling exhibition. Though his obsession with the depiction of his body verges on the pathological, Mama’s ruthless repetition of a single figure is analogous to the manner in which much minimalist music derives its power from massive groupings of single note. Furthermore, these figurative works form a bold comment upon the intense, almost absurd effort required for a black body to make an indelible mark upon the environment.Alex Sudheim is a critic, writer and musician based in Durban
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