Review

Silent poems, confrontational prayer mats and girl talk

PowerPoint Presentation

THE power of the silent story: Stills from an untitled work by Reshma Chhiba. Photograph courtesy Fried Contemporary Gallery.

AS YOU ENTER the gallery space at Fried Contemporary Gallery in Pretoria, there’s a work on the exhibition A Flood in My Hands that you may overlook in error. But when you do see it, you experience a great quickening of your nerves and soul, that embraces the heart of this exhibition.

Suspended from the gallery’s ceiling it’s a devastatingly subtle essay by Alka Dass in the form of a disused baking tray and pigment. It tells of female biological and cultural identity and a play on words that will make you quiver. It’s entitled Battery not included. Is this about menstrual blood? Is it about battery as in abuse? Is it an ironic comment on the things society dictates women must do to retain a sense of equilibrium, to fit in?

Either way, it’s a cornerstone to this exhibition, which by dint of its title seems to promise an engagement with female identity in a very direct and visceral sense. Don’t, however,  expect the kind of sensationalist blood paintings that women of 1970s in America made as feminist statements. This exhibition is about women, but it’s a lot more subtle than a splashing of menstrual blood and a tossing about of tampons. It’s also a lot more sophisticated.

As you enter the space proper, the work of Laylaa Jacobs grabs you in an unexpected way, and does not relent. Evoking a work exhibited more than ten years ago by Dutch-born artist Daphne Prevoo which featured a knitted red jersey with sleeves that bled into the gallery space, the work, entitled Armoured Fulla spills onto and fills the floor. It is redolent of the atavistic quality that is abstract yet alive, present in Nandipha Mntambo’s latest works. Comprising a prayer mat as support, the work contains a vomiting out of texture created with steel wool. It’s impeccable and unmanageable in the emotional impact it presents, and you find yourself glancing back at it as you peruse the rest of the exhibition, with slanty eyes, just to make sure it has not moved from when last you looked at it.

The works are not accompanied by interpretations, to the credit of curator Aysha Waja. While many of them are obviously dealing with the complexities of being a young Muslim or Hindu woman in a contemporary setting, the visual potency of many of the pieces shouts beyond religious dogma or ritual, and without explanatory texts to hold onto, you’re forced to really look, to allow your spirit to engage with the work on a level that has little to do with religion or prejudice.

It is in this way that you’re led to read Dass’s work on this exhibition as a contemplation of beauty rituals. You get to see Jacobs’s use of prayer mats as comment on prayer practice and at Anastasia Pather’s jewel-like little compositions which blend collage with image, reference with texture meticulously.

Simphiwe Buthelezi plays with a meshed support in her work, challenging the conventions of the paintbrush as she assaults the idea of texture. Her work A moon whispered let me love you, is strong and provocative because of the use of silence – the open grids of her canvas which give the composition a breath of life.

While unframed works pinned onto the wall with a bulldog clip and Chumisa Ndasika’s flow chart with a mirror at its core grapple with professionalism in this context, it is unequivocally, Reshma Chhiba’s Untitled two-channel video, originally made in 2003 which steals the heart of the show.

You’re not given to understand what the Hindu woman on the left of the work is gesticulating about. Neither do you know what the black woman on the right is saying. But you’re compelled to watch them again, and again in their passionate expressions.

There’s a synergy between this work by Chhiba and her kum-kum powder-imbued two dimensional works on this show, dealing with the Hindu goddess Kali in a pared-down and abstract way, referencing the potency of her 2003 exhibition.

All in all, while there are fine accents and beautiful choices made in A Flood in My Hands, there’s an area of disparity. The exhibition is premised on words and phrases by Turkish poet Seher Çakır (b. 1971) and Nayyirah Waheed, a young contemporary poet who is renowned for the magnificence of her words and her Instagram presence: Achingly beautiful lines and phrases which will resonate with your soul. They are, however, written on the gallery walls in a slapdash and crooked charcoal hand which blurs the magic in this exhibition: you want the words to sing to you with impeccable clarity. They should be written with a lyrical hand and an outstretched sense of calligraphy. This presentation brings what could be a profound statement about women, ritual, identity and gender, from a promising sophistication to something young and relatively unformed.

But given the core of Chhiba’s work, the writing on the wall is forgivable. “Sometimes the night wakes in the middle of me,” writes Waheed, “and I can do nothing but become the moon.” You will feel the same relentless choice.

  • A Flood in my Hands curated by Aysha Waja comprises work by Simphiwe Buthelezi, Reshma Chhiba, Alka Dass, Laylaa Jacobs, Chumisa Ndasika and Anastasia Pather and is at Fried Contemporary in Brooklyn, Pretoria until March 3. 012 346 0158 or visit www.friedcontemporary.com

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