Woodstock Revival

A 1984 October magazine article discussing the link between gentrification and the transformation of New York City’s Lower East Side into an art district cites that between 1981 and 1984 no less than 25 galleries opened in this district. The article further points out that the adventurous avant-garde inadvertently forms the frontline for the gradual reclamation of the inner city. The transformation of Woodstock into Cape Town’s art district is quantitatively smaller, contained within the envelope of the Fairweather and Buchanan buildings, up until Albert Road, but with the opening of two major galleries, Bell-Roberts and Michael Stevenson, within a month of each other, the transformation pioneered by the Goodman Gallery last year is qualitatively significant.

Anthea Moys with the District Six Hanover Minstrels and Street Band and Everton Nsumbu, during her performance Deur Mekaar in Cape Town, 2008, staged at Goodman Gallery Cape, Woodstock Photo: Paul Grose A 1984 October magazine article discussing the link betweengentrification and the transformation of New York City’s Lower EastSide into an art district cites that between 1981 and 1984 no less than25 galleries opened in this district. The article further points outthat the adventurous avant-garde inadvertently forms the frontline forthe gradual reclamation of the inner city. The transformation ofWoodstock into Cape Town’s art district is quantitatively smaller,contained within the envelope of the Fairweather and Buchananbuildings, up until Albert Road, but with the opening of two majorgalleries, Bell-Roberts and Michael Stevenson, within a month of eachother, the transformation pioneered by the Goodman Gallery last year isqualitatively significant. Comparison of three group exhibitionsrunning almost simultaneously at these galleries reveals how theconfiguration of space and artwork create each gallery’s uniqueidentity, often in a productive tension with their Woodstock context.Power Play, hosted by the Goodman, presented a group of younger artists, including Dan Halter, whose work is performative and provocative, if not directly political. While the show has little aesthetic identity on a formal level, with certain choices – such as a series of early Moshekwa Langa prints – seemingly out of place, it engages directly with its context. Anthea Moys’ rooftop performance, Deurmekaar in Cape Town (2008), loosely choreographs the District Six Hanover minstrels to do a procession on the Fairweather rooftop in full regalia, followed by a solo guitar performance by Everton Nsumbu in French. The group arrived late on the opening night, giving the work an unrehearsed quality and while the footage in the gallery was composed from a second performance, this projection retains a sense of informality. The work’s merit lies in its attempt, however unsuccessfully, to engage with the Woodstock community and culture. The work of Husain and Hasan Essop visually dominated the Goodman space, both an index of gallery’s open sightlines between spaces and their hyper-real colours – bright pinks and reds. The twin brothers’ refinement of their use of montage and repetition has provided for more nuance in the point that their work makes: a reversal of an identity politics imposed on Islamic and Eastern cultures, as much global as particular to the Cape, performed by the brothers themselves.This self-conscious employment of mimicry is the theme of Disguise, which marked the curatorial debut of Joost Bosland, and the inauguration of the new Michael Stevenson space – more contemporary art centre than gallery. Disguise mixed select stable artists, such as Nandipha Mntambo, Berni Searle and Wim Botha with an impressive line up of international practitioners, including Yinka Shonibare, Yto Barrada, Candice Breitz and Julie Mehretu. While the gallery and the show are undoubtedly a first class production, exquisitely finished and accompanied by a beautifully produced catalogue, there are gaps in its conceptual framing and curation. This is not to say that the show failed, or that this equals aesthetic deficit, rather the sheer scale of Stevenson’s new space – formed by the articulation of several smaller spaces – set the scene for interesting curatorial tensions.Disguise broadly divided itself according to categories of disguise: as the performance of self; as the rhetoric of power, both political and hegemonic; and, as intrinsic to materiality or medium. Placed in a single room were such diverse works as self-portraits of Mntambo, now interestingly wearing or ‘performing’ one of her signature hide sculptures, along with David Goldblatt’s photographs of homeland architecture, mask of apartheid’s disenfranchisement of migrant labour, alongside a painting by Penny Siopis, Ambush (2008), that references a nineteenth century erotic Hokusai woodblock print, where the smooth finish conceals her use of glue and ink. Dineo Bopape completes her video work, Dreamweaver (2008), with a characteristically quirky installation, her belief that “the space is also the costume” echoed in Athi-Patra Ruga’s performance residue. I found Yinka Shonibare’s high-definition video work, Odile and Odette (2005), playing the ‘dark’ against the ‘light’ characters from Swan Lake, too high-gloss erotic. While beautifully produced it speaks a static vocabulary of hybridity and auto-exoticism. As such Disguise is caught between two ideas: mimicry and transformation. Homi Babha explains that “the effect of mimicry is camouflage”, a symptom of colonial projection onto the colonised, who disappears in the performance of their otherness – a kind of transformation. The works I was most drawn to foregrounded the performative and included Lunga Khama’s subtle gender play in Ubuhle Bumnyama (2008), and Barrada’s portraits of a female Muslim smuggler, The Smuggler’s Belt (2006).The most strongly curated space, almost a stand alone exhibition, contained Pieter Hugo’s Nollywood series along with Zanele Muholi’s portraits of Miss D’ivine (2007), and Kalup Linzy’s faux R&B video work, SweetBerry Sonnet (2008), as well as the fashion sculpture by artist Nick Cave. In Hugo’s series of constructed portraits, a group of Nollywood actors – made up as vampires, murderers, gangsters, jilted lovers – create gory, filmic mis-en-scenes. This postmodern melodrama consciously mimics the media’s pessimistic portrayal of Africa, parodying the exoticising gesture.Unlike Michael Stevenson’s space, the Bell-Roberts’ new venue has a glass wall fronting onto the street – yet, it was the only show that failed to engage in any conscious way with its new context. The space is elongated and rectangular, with movable wall divisions; its natural light recedes towards the back. Possibly the most awkward of the three spaces, it’s opening show, Between Meaning and Matter, curated by Sanford S. Shaman, felt similarly awkward, with few curatorial links between works, invoking the thematic content in a relatively straightforward, unoriginal way.Norman O’Flynn’s Border Ramblers (2008) and Amelia Smith’s Seven Images of the Digging at Kimberly Mine (2008) may be relevant, but are derivative, making little attempt to develop the visual languages they borrow from, while Nigel Mullin’s text paintings and Tanya Poole’s unfinished translation of digital film stills into paint, from Kill Bill and Babel, belong to a more decorative genre.Some works nonetheless stood apart for their engagement with medium and interpretation, amongst them Anthony Strack’s photographs of Mossel Bay, subtle landscape photographs with a quiet sense of texture and decay, also Kevin Brand’s painted plastic moulds for golf clubs or climbing carabinas, titled Oracle (2008), and Philippe Bousquette’s surrealist assemblages. Two video works, both performative, Fahamu Pecou is the Shit (2008), by American painter Fahamu Pecou, and Jacques Coetzer’s Room to Room (2008), were what you would call smart, and belonged on a different show. At the frontline of the transformation of Woodstock, Simon Gush’s installation of a hand-blown glass window, titled Anticipating Ever, is the single work that makes direct reference to gentrification. Installed over the only pedestrian-level street window in the Michael Stevenson space, it pointed to where the disguise slips.
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