Writing Art History Since 2002

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Association of Visual Arts Cape Town

The Michelangelo of the Sistine Chapel and the Raphael of the Vatican Stanze attained a bravura mastery of anatomy, foreshortening and contrapposto, a high Renaissance figural achievement that Vuyile Voyiya transmutes into a distinctively African graphic statement. Like the old masters, he cultivates classical grandeur, nobility and elevation, constructing idealised sculptural paragons, and exploiting every expressive resource of stance, gesture, muscular torsion and facial expression in order to convey their lofty emotions.No artistic programme could possibly appear more dowdily academic and out of touch, but, by expressing this seemingly obsolescent classicism through the linocut (a medium closely associated with black township and protest art), Voyiya naturalises this heroic Eurocentric tradition and gives it a novel African spin. Voyiya takes the linocut, which we associate with crude, drastically simplified imagery, and he miniaturises it, thereby endowing it with the subtlety and exactitude of the highest forms of artistic expression. A confetti of minuscule oval, triangular, round and arc-shaped flecks of white on black pick out Voyiya’s vigorous moving figures. These pristine white blobs read as a shower of brilliant light pouring over the anatomies, illuminating their braced musculatures in minute detail. This brightness stems from an African rather than a European sun: it is a rudely intrusive light which makes the figures spring into emphatic sculptural relief, while exactly defining the extent of the shallow space around them.The prosaic classical virtues, the precise record of space, interval and distance, of varying intensities of light and shade, and contrasting volumes and masses, are enlivened with baroque luminary theatrics. Blinding spotlit areas conflict with deep stygian pools of black, maximising the visual drama and contrast. The glory of Voyiya’s dot technique is its irrepressible kinetic ebullience. As soon as the eye scrutinises detail, the image abruptly shifts register, and the anatomies collapse into dot patterns. This hypnotic retinal quiver achieves effects of perpetuum mobile.Voyiya’s show, entitled Pentimenti, consists of serial images in which the artist portrays nude and clad black figures in extraordinarily graceful poses as they run through a fluent series of energetic movements. The sequences resemble choreographic progressions in which the protagonists balletically enact rituals of courtship and quarrel, rapture and estrangement. Vivaldi’s Quattro Stagioni accentuates the stylised rhythmic majesty of this dance sequence in which the lovers finally reach understanding and plight their troth. Voyiya’s grandly exalted tones are those of opera, tragedy and classical dance. Resounding emblematic significance often resides in such anti-naturalistic modes of expression, and Voyiya’s swirling interlocked dancers appear to function as allegorical representations of the body politic. They are both a black Everyman and Everywoman staking out a brighter future, and fierce antagonists burying their differences in order to achieve unity. In Renaissance drama the resolution of conflict spontaneously culminates in music and dance. Pentimenti implies an equally felicitous consummation and it thus expresses fervent aspirations to national harmony. Lloyd Pollock

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