Writing Art History Since 2002

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Everard Read | Johannesburg

According to Mary Jane Darroll, a director at the Everard Read Gallery, Johannesburg, and curator of Visibility: The state of being able to see or be seen, a group exhibition of works by seven black male artists, the show was put together to show “a contemporary vision of Africa by Africans post 1994”. The artists selected to achieve this vision were Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi, Amos Letsoalo, Zamani Makhanya, Moss Mokwena, Nkoali Nawa, Lindelani Ngwenya and Ben Tuge.The act of being visible implies subjectivity and becomes quite problematic in a group show featuring black male artists in a commercial gallery space in Johannesburg. Michel Foucault, in his article ‘The Order of Things’, suggests, “all periods of history possessed certain underlying conditions of truth that constituted what was acceptable as discourse”. These conditions, he says, changed over time. Discourse and subjectivity inform what one sees as the artist, curator, and viewer. This is particularly evident in post-1994 South Africa. Buthelezi uses melted plastic in collage. His scenes, which feature titles like Healing the (Black) past, include jovial places of drinking. Before 1994, the local shebeen was a place of catharsis and celebration; today it is increasingly a trendy hotspot for young upwardly mobile BEE candidates. By contrast, Letsoalo depicts rural scenes of ritual practice, places that are becoming increasingly unfamiliar for those living in metropolitan areas. Letsoalo’s people have become part of a sentimental rhetoric whose history will only be visible in anthropological documents.Makhanya explores shapes, figures and symbolic African artefacts, perhaps to question the significance and relevance of these in the context of present day Africa. The cowry shell historically had monetary significance in some African cultures; today it can easily be an icon in a sangoma’s reading. Mokwena provides a way to navigate the busy streets of Jo’burg. Influenced by artists like Mondrian, Picasso and Pisarro, Mokwena flattens this robust city into computer chips on a dark landscape. His images have an eerie, alienating quietness that is very different to the mechanical bustle and noise of Jo’burg.Nawa’s dark charcoal portraits recall Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi, a slick, street-smart character mouthing tsotsitaal ready to slit your throat with his Okapi knife at any suspicion that you’re out to get him. Nawa’s figures are not very convincing and struck me as dated. Today’s tsotsi cuts a more ‘refined’ figure; he wears tailored suites, not balaclavas.The maternal figure has always played a significant role culturally. Ngwenya’s use of copper in a basket weaving method to depict such figures reminds one of maternal comfort and accommodation. This figure has been deified in many African societies as the peacekeeper, the educator, the pillar of strength in the nation. Again, one wonders about the relevance and role of this maternal figure in present day South Africa, an insight that becomes apparent when one examines Ngwenya’s hollow structures.Zimbabwean-born Tuge brings topical politics to bear in a work that warns Mugabe to repent for his sins. Titled Boarder Hopping, Tuge’s sculpture shows a well-dressed woman with long legs, tucked into high heals, holding a baby in her arm. The work is cynically humorous: the wide-eyed figure is presumably a Zimbabwean exile leaving home for the promise of a better life south, in the city of lights, Gauteng Maboneng.Needless to say the curator of the exhibition set herself a mammoth task of fulfilling the stated intention of the exhibition, particularly given the underlying conditions of truth at play. Inevitably, the show raises more questions than it answers. Why show only black male artists? Or, more pointedly, why the exclusion of female voices if the exhibition promises a contemporary vision of Africa by Africans post 1994? And who are these Africans? Who defines them? Are they persons born on the continent of Africa? Is it possible to house an exhibition reflecting a contemporary view of Africa without taking into account her vast geography and its many nuances? When we use the word African, in South Africa, post 1994, do we assume commonalities where there are none?

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