Review

Fifteen fine reasons to visit Braamfontein

Stevenson15

FLITTERINGS and rusted flutterings: Meschac Gaba’s moving work on nomadic culture and homelessness. Photograph by Robyn Sassen.

THERE’S A POTENT and muscular articulation of joy as you enter the gallery space for the Stevenson Gallery’s celebration of its 15th anniversary. It’s difficult to pinpoint why this happens because contemporary artwork is traditionally not happy but contemplative, not easy but sophisticated and often very self-focused. The curators of this exhibition are to be congratulated on an approach to this project which they have achieved with a general sense of levity that engages the complex notion of a group show without, on the whole, alienating the public and without dumbing anything down.

This is an intelligent and friendly approach to showing diverse works on a milestone occasion and it’s a raised toast to the history of the space which retains balance: it’s about the history of each artist with the gallery, and the gallery with each artist, as the blurbs on the wall explain, but these are demure and don’t hit you in the eye as you walk in. They’re also not overwritten or in academese. And curiously, even though the gallery now has a whopping eleven directors and you might think ‘… too many cooks …’ there is a cohesion to this show which speaks of sheer maturity.

You’re embraced with an understanding of the work in its space in a very potent way. As you enter the gallery, you are effectively walking into the confines of Serge Alain Nitegeka’s Wall Drawing vs Form Ephemeral with its bright flat colours and unorthodox space constructs. The space moves you around the works and you are engaging with them in a way that takes you off guard.

As you round the corner and have your equilibrium shifted a tad by Zander Blom’s famous series of work Drain of Progress (2004-7) which play with modernist preciousness, so are you assailed by a spot of Walter Battiss eroticism in the subtle form of Mrs Thomas Leisure Bay, a water colour in four parts, which features an ear listening to the sea. But there’s more: as you move on, you’re further assailed by a room full of birds.

This is Meschac Gaba’s very fine work on homelessness and nomads, and the use of the floor evokes what Steven Cohen did in his recent exhibition in this space. It takes your high-cast vision and turns it upside down.

Surrounded by works made by the ilk of Guy Tillim, Robin Rhode and others, Gaba’s installation dwarfs everything. You can feel the energy of these homeless, rusted sparrows and you hear them rustle and twitter in your mind’s ear.

And while you’re aware of what you’re listening to, the sounds of ‘Skokiaan’ a very famous South African indigenous tune filter and flow through the space, defining it in such a way that you feel you want to dance.

It’s the sound track of a film about the history of the tune, in the hands of Zimbabwean muso August Musarurwa (1920-1968), made by Penny Siopis and it’s the mix of hand-made film texture, a compelling story and snippets of a delightfully young Louis Armstrong when he visited South Africa in the 1960s that holds sway and holds you close to its energy.

There is one more space that you visit in the chronology of this exhibition. And this space is defined by another Siopis installation. Her work Will is an assemblage, museum-style of strange and unnerving objects which are part of her personal collection. Each has a story to tell.

It’s a fabulous work which will leave you open-mouthed and moved at the notion of what we leave behind, after life, but it dominates the space in such a way that you are unable to intellectually separate it from the work by Adjective, or indeed those by Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Dada Khanyisa or Paul Mpagi Sepuya from the Siopis. Or even, the Francis Alÿs work about the magic of origami, which disappears into the gallery’s bookshelves.

You do, however, rapidly forgive the clumsy grammatical tincture to the title of the show, understanding that it is about embracing all that the Stevenson Gallery has represented to contemporary South African art for 15 years. You emerge with bits of Skokiaan and misremembered rusty birds fluttering in your head. And that pervasive celebratory energy.

  • Both, and is curated by Sisipho Ngodwana and Alexander Richards and has an iteration at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town, simultaneously. This review is premised on the Johannesburg leg of the show.
  • In Johannesburg, until 24 August, works by Adjective, Francis Alÿs, Walter Battiss, Zander Blom, Meschac Gaba, Simon Gush, Dada Khanyisa, Moshekwa Langa, Meleko Mokgosi, Serge Alain Nitegeka, Odili Donald Odita, Robin Rhode, Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Penny Siopis and Guy Tillim feature.
  • In Cape Town, until 22 August, works by Jane Alexander, Francis Alÿs, Avant Car Guard, Wim Botha, Breyten Breytenbach, Jordan Casteel, Edson Chagas, Steven Cohen, Njideka Akunvili Crosby, Paul Edmunds, Olafur Eliasson, David Goldblatt, Ian Grose, Jared Ginsburg, Nicholas Hlobo, Pieter Hugo, Anton Kannemeyer, Mawande Ka Zenzile, Glenn Ligon, Songezile Madikida, Mustafa Maluka, Mitchell Gilbert Messina, Sabelo Mlangeni, Nandipha Mntambo, Zanele Muholi, Wangechi Mutu, Youssef Nabil, Daniel Naudé, Paulo Nazareth, Simphiwe Ndzube, Hylton Nel, Mame-Diarra Niang, Odili Donald Odita, Thierry Oussou, Deborah Poynton, Jo Ractliffe, Viviane Sassen, Claudette Schreuders, Berni Searle, Lerato Shadi, Barthélémy Toguo, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and Portia Zvavahera feature.

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