No curatorial hand hurts Colbert Mashile’s hybrid beasts

Mashile

A sheep looks at you blankly from the interstices of a drawing. But is this really a sheep? Conjoined with a human-evocative body and highlighted by a clasped-together pair of chicken’s feet, the current exhibition of charcoal and paint works on paper by Colbert Mashile is about much more than the portraits of animals or idiosyncratic quirk.

Rather vaguely and slightly disparagingly titled collectively This and That, this body of 13 drawings pushes and pulls from around the visual nuances Mashile has established for himself over the last several years. His is a language about therianthropes and sympathetic magic; it’s about the kind of gesture which rendered a sheep’s head into Be’elzebub in William Golding’s classic novel The Lord of the Flies, the kind of gesture which can give a human character the head of a jackal a pig or a sheep but not allow it to slip into trite or silly dialogue about symbolism.

It is also not about an instructive or two-dimensional reflection of how old African culture manifests in contemporary art – the wily rabbit, iconic in so much African legends – appears often, sometimes it’s heavily whiskered, or it has no limbs, or it’s tied to the back of a goat, like a baby.  It’s sinister, endearing, mysterious, but above all, it embraces an ebb and flow which allows the work to speak for itself and the hybrid beasts to speak in a language of their own, devoid, mostly of the trappings of mythology.

In the absence of a gallery-made press release, you’re forced to make your own assumptions about the focus and designs of the pieces in question – and this is both good and bad. From a positive perspective, you’re left alone with these works, bold and outspoken as is Mashile’s wont, but crafted and curious and digressing from his seductive use of the naïve anthropomorphic form.

On the other hand, in being left alone with these works, you become aware of a curatorial absence which compromises how they are reflected. There’s discrepancy between the name of a work and how it is labelled, in one instance, as there’s a void in what This and That really is about. Yes, it’s a joy to see Mashile’s work, but devoid of a backstory, even one filled with platitudes or praise, something feels stripped from the relationship between audience and work.

  • Colbert Mashile’s exhibition This and That is at Speke, the downstairs space at Circa Gallery, Jellicoe Avenue, Rosebank, until August 13. 0117884805 or circagallery.co.za
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