Wafer: Telling of murder with a simple palette and a mature eye

Untitled, a painting in oil on canvas (2015) by Mary Wafer

Untitled, a painting in oil on canvas (2015) by Mary Wafer

It requires a particular level of maturity to take a concept and work with it until it reaches a point of abstraction, but a very unique sense of artistic muscle and wisdom that can keep that abstraction relevant to the casual viewer. This is what Mary Wafer achieves in her current exhibition at David Krut.

Entitled Ninth Floor, the body of paintings and hard ground etchings shown here is not excessive in size. It’s primarily monochromatic and hinges very directly onto a poem by Chris van Wyk, about the alleged killings in the late 1970s that took place at John Vorster Square in central Johannesburg, under the pall of apartheid.

The stories that sullied our world then are graphic and terrible, and most of the facts surrounding the multitude of people who openly rejected the ghastly machine of apartheid, and how they died or were tortured, are not completely known. Lies and misinformation colour that bleak period in South Africa’s history in layers of words and bureaucracy hiding gestures, cruelty and loss.

In this exhibition,with an astute eye and a ruthless sense of composition, Wafer touches all she needs to. But the work is not about the blood and horror of being pushed out of a ninth floor window in the police headquarters of a city ravaged by racism. It’s also not about the dockets and police records, the words and accounts. And yet, it is.

When you look at these works, which visually focus on the repeat patterns and rhyming visuals evoked by Venetian blinds in a huge building, clad in glass and bricks, you get a sense of texture. But it brings also a sense of horror, particularly when the uniformity of the pattern is disrupted.

Arguably, the title of the exhibition and the presence of the works operate in tandem: you can’t separate them and retain that freshness of horror that legibility of unspoken brutality. But this is a moot point: you approach the images ensconced as they are in the title of the exhibition and all that it connotes.

Having said that, the body of work here is impeccably produced. The etchings are printed flawlessly. The lines break the surface of the work with a sense of industriousness. Evoking the etchings of Dominic Thorburn from the 1980s and earlier, dealing with the industrial and motorised monsters that gave apartheid its scary face, Wafer’s body of work is beguilingly simple: they don’t allow you to glory in the texture of the mark making, but keep drawing you back to the presence of the gesture.

Ninth Floor is a heady exhibition without being prescriptive or blatant. It’s a tour de force body of work by a mature artist. You can see all the works in the space of maybe fifteen minutes, but their presence casts a grim resonance in your sensibilities which is frankly haunting.

  • Mary Wafer’s exhibition Ninth Floor is at David Krut Projects, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank, until August 6. 0114470627 or davidkrutprojects.com
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