Writing Art History Since 2002

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Albany History museum | Grahamstown

The reflexive exhibition Ties that Bind, curated by Durban Art Gallery’s Carol Brown, takes as its departure point the prickly notion of “family”. Curated to coincide with the South African Association of Marital and Family Therapists, the exhibition first opened in Durban in May, in the week that South Africa celebrated ten years of democracy. It seems entirely fitting that the show has travelled to the National Arts Festival, given the complex web of relationships that keep on characterising, tearing and binding, post-Apartheid Grahamstown and its annual festival.Brown has selected works by 28 artists (including an anonymous artist) for her show. The works differ in media, presentation, and content, yet are bound together by the paradoxical theme of the exhibition: Ties that bind. This play on words, according to Jay Pather’s exhibition opening address, evinces “the paradox at the centre of all relationships, the desire for … security as well as freedom, the underlying restlessness and the aching need for rest” that both ties us together and rents us apart.Several works on the show deserve mention, but for the sake of brevity I shall concentrate on two in particular. Roger Ballen’s b/w photographs Puppy between Feet (1999) and Factory worker holding portrait of Grandfather (1996), intricately related, strikingly encapsulate the tense dialectic of anxiety and tenderness, proximity and distance, familiarity and unfamiliarity that typifies relationships.In the one picture, large, gnarled feet and fingers delicately hold a tiny, seemingly still blind puppy, while the possibility of the puppy being squashed is never far from our minds. In the other, the relationship between a young man and his grandfather seems both uncannily close (their somewhat stern expressions mirroring one another), and yet painfully distant, given that the latter is but a picture — a picture within a picture.Similar to Terry Kurgan’s Family Affairs (1999), Jean Brundit’s Does your lifestyle depress your mother? (1997/8) and Mamatakane Makara’s Memories (2003), Ballen’s photographs tantalisingly speak of the way that relationships (between friends, lovers or relatives) are always mediated by the fragile tools with which we try to communicate with one another. This fragile mediation or meditation may be fraught with both possibility and impossibility, but as such it strikes our bodies, like the heat emitted by Clive van den Berg’s lit-up Family Tree (2003).Gerhard Schoeman

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