Ngezinyawo: Migrancy through a thoughtful loupe at WAM.

One Tito Zungu’s envelopes which he sent home in the 1960s. The epitome of migrant labour, these envelopes told his loved ones a story about the big city he was not able to with words. Photo supplied.
One Tito Zungu’s envelopes which he sent home in the 1960s. The epitome of migrant labour, these envelopes told his loved ones a story about the big city he was not able to with words. Photo supplied.

Occasionally, you come across a curated exhibition so attuned to delivering on its promises, your heart sings. Fiona Rankin-Smith with years of curatorial expertise yields an impeccable reflection on migrancy which informs without being didactic, moves without being maudlin and will touch you very deeply. The magic starts before you even enter the museum.

Last week, composer Philip Miller debuted a sound installation in WAM’s vestibule. Entitled Extracts from the Underground, it’s a beautiful idea, articulated like his TRC Cantata a few years ago. This sublime work, which bleeds into Braamfontein’s streets with its projected sounds and visuals, has as libretto a 1967 Fanagalo dictionary. On opening night, last week, precious operatic moments were sung by choristers. The libretto? A ledger listing injuries incurred by miners, dating from the 1930s.

Miller’s work is astounding. But its impact should not be allowed to overrule the rest of the exhibition. Works grab you by the eyes and knock you sideways by virtue of thoughtful juxtapositions and intelligent reflections on the issues at hand.

From Michael Goldberg’s heart-catching 1970s Hostel Monument for the Migrant Worker, which conjures up harsh hostel realities, to photographs by Gideon Mendel, David Goldblatt, Gisèle Wulfsohn, splaying open different, heartbreaking aspects of SA migrancy; from Claudette Schreuders’ sculpture of a black woman with a white child, to Ilan Godfrey’s photograph of a prostitute in a forest and overpoweringly fine narrative photographs of illegal miners by Mark Lewis; from traditional and contemporary beadwork to Tito Zungu’s exquisite envelopes celebrating the big city and touching his own homesickness, the show is rich with diversity.

Coupled with educational challenges to stir your heart and head, the exhibition includes William Kentridge’s marvellous 1991 hand-made film ‘Mine’, which reverberates with a compilation of mining footage, and in turn thunderously speaks to Miller’s work.

You might leave this exhibition with sore feet: there’s a fair amount of space to cover. But you will certainly leave it with a full heart. Migrancy stretches deep into many of our histories. It’s an exhibition which earns full critical marks and deserves many re-visits.

  • Parking near WAM is awkward; rather pre-book parking.
  • Miller’s work is screened until June 26.
  • A version of this review appeared in the print issue of the SA Jewish Report.

Exhibition: Ngezinyawo – Migrant Journeys is at Wits Art Museum, Braamfontein. It is curated by: Fiona Rankin-Smith, Peter Delius and Laura Phillips and is on show until July 20.

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Robyn Sassen

A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and artslink.co.za and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

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