African sculpture, tweaked


GIRL with fire in her hair: Cobus Haupt’s miniature mask in bronze: Burning. Photograph by Shenaz Mahomed, Fried Contemporary Art Gallery.

THE AFRICAN NARRATIVE that takes traditional material culture and rethinks it, is not a new one. Think of the work of Man Ray, or the late bronze cast assemblages of Joan Miro, or the tinkering of Picasso in an Africa-wards direction. Some of these forays led the artists down the troubled path of misappropriation, and have seen them being fingered of late for dodgy political values. Pretoria-educated sculptor Cobus Haupt dances this path with acumen and integrity, offering nine modestly sized works to judder your equilibrium.

Haupt’s sculptures touch the unpredictability of the surrealist exquisite corpse, while they offer insights into African discourse and take heed of the variables in the casting process. In short, they’re fully formed works, from several aspects, there to engage you, maybe upset you, but entrance you, either way.

Arguably, the highlight of this intimate show case of his work is the installation of five miniature masks along the right hand side wall of the gallery. They’re hung in a way that enables each to cast a nod at their neighbour – at a sufficient distance to allow each to have space to be seen. And they quote aesthetics and turns of physiognomic phrases from all over the African continent and its mask-making traditions.

Each little face brings together a concatenation of values: aesthetic ones, political ones, existential ones, and you look into their eyes, and find it difficult to move on. Roughly, the size of the traditional so-called ‘passport’ masks, these pieces are cast in bronze and bear significant features. The strongest is Burning, a delicate but robust reflection of the face of a young black woman. Her hair is an approximation of baby dreadlocks, but look closer: each is a perfectly formed tiny fist of protest.

This little face offers a gloss on youth protests, imbibing the notion of hair as a instrument not only of identity, but also of victory. It’s a tightly-conceived piece, recalling the power of hair and the hair of power that many scholars, thinkers and writers – from Anitra Nettleton to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name a few – have pondered and written about.

And as you allow your looking and thinking to radiate from this piece, so you see how each element in this exhibition takes African preconceived notions and gives them jolts and tweaks that make them uniquely Haupts, but also make them cheekily gaze at the rhetoric from other angle. It’s African art, but not what you think.

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