Thirty years of gods, bulls and other beasties

JohannMoolman

WORTH worshipping? Johann Moolman’s Place of the Rain Bull, a work in stone and rusted mild steel. Photograph courtesy Fried Contemporary Art Gallery.

FIFTY YEARS, A hundred or more from now, what will archaeologists retrieve to establish who we were as a society and what made us tick? Shape-Shift, a retrospective exhibition by Johann Moolman contemplates that idea of obsolescence with a strong sense of history but not without a wry grin at the hubris of our society.

Moolman’s name, if you’ve been following visual art for awhile, hasn’t been headlined in local commercial galleries for some time, and this exhibition makes it feel the time is right for a revisit of these quirky, curious and beautiful pieces, made with a strong hand, potent craftsmanship and a capricious sense of possibility. The show comprises paintings, sculptures and relief works, but also altered found objects.

But while the work feels prolific, the space is limited, and as you walk into the gallery, you feel bombarded: the show seems to cram too much into too small a space.

As you move deeper into the space, however, this shifts. The gallery’s main space comprises one large room, one smaller room and a garden, into which the work spills. Curiously, the smaller room in the establishment doesn’t feel as cluttered as the large space – rather, the closely ranged pieces feel like a friendly crowd. They cluster with a sense of their own poetry and the installation is a comfortable one, resonating with the kind of curatorial ethos that was achieved in Wits Art Museum’s retrospective of the work of Peter Schütz last year.

There are two clear poles in the material – while some of it tends toward naturalism, some of it reaches toward a diagrammatic reflection of values and it is the latter which makes you smile and gives you a sense of awe. To its credit, the work is not curated with a numbingly rigorous sense of chronology and early works neighbour later ones, offering a fine and witty sense of repartee.

As you run your eyes up the length of a tall thin piece to discover a delightful head with simple horns, you realise this is much more than a simple stick. It’s a god. It’s a rain bull. It has presence. Run your eye down the work, and in some instances you will discover emblematic breasts, a pregnant belly or a penis jutting out of the work – delightful signs that give this creature a therianthropic nature: is this a man or a beast? Is it a girl or a boy? Is it a mix between the two?

It evokes the tall drums from Ghana, Ashante and Luba culture, which are gendered – as well as figures in African traditional pieces, as it touches on the succinctness of Brancusi’s sculptures.

And yes, this work flits between values cast by European modernism in relation to an African aesthetic and more self-conscious contemporary manoeuvres. But after all the vociferous debates surrounding this kind of approach, you need to be able to see the items for what they are. This rain bull’s head is clearly an evocatively shaped stone and yet mantled and horned as it is, it becomes something else. This shaped stick is a portal into another world, and that squat form is a symbol of sexuality. Tribute is paid to Henry Moore, to our human ancestors and to our traditions of ferreting histories.

It’s the kind of show that deserves a national museum space and a gallery season that warrants long contemplative hours of looking and thinking, but in the absence of all these wishful ideals, and even in the absence of a corridor of space between some of the works, it is still the kind of show that will touch you in a multitude of ways, and the tightly-packed crowd of close to 60 works becomes forgivable in the light of the thrill you get in being able to see a trajectory of 30 years of thoughtful incisive work.

  • Shape-Shift by Johann Moolman is at Fried Contemporary Art Gallery, 1146 Justice Mahomed Street (formerly 430 Charles Street) in Brooklyn, Pretoria until August 13. 012 346 0158 http://www.friedcontemporary.com
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