Land rights, squandered opportunities


LAY of the land: Window of Opportunity III, a charcoal drawing on paper by Setlamorago Mashilo. Photograph courtesy Everard Read Gallery.

THE FORMAL, POLITE space of the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg has not lost its sense of prestige. It’s polished and honed in a particular way. There’s certain atmosphere of traditional sacredness in this space. And as a gallery, it’s a complicated sacredness, that is as much about begging for dangerous controversy as it is about being a reservoir for excellence. Artist Setlamorago Mashilo (b. 1987) has the remarkable opportunity to show his work in several of the gallery’s rooms. But something sits wrong here.

The work is splayed across several approaches to art making, and a diversity of mediums is shown – from monotype and relief prints on paper, to bronze cast sculptures, lithographs and drawings. And in this diversity, Mashilo’s political voice is not dulled, and he articulates strong opinions about land history, ownership and bloodshed, in different metaphors.

But when you step closer to some of the two-dimensional works, with particular reference to the monotypes on show, there are worrying neglects in elements that support the protocol of displaying a framed artwork in a museum. While the artist’s line flows with potent energy, the paper is grubby; the deckle edges inconsistent. The prints are not pristine or as good as they can possibly be. It feels like anything is good enough. Something is compromised here. And it’s about some basic gallery rules that cannot be broken.

Preciousness is a term that can be positive and not. When you make work, you need to toss the precious idea to the wind, as you cast about bravely with visual decisions. But when the work is finished — the focus on the professional presentation of it, brings back preciousness thoroughly. It’s about cleaning up to show you’re worth it.

Mashilo’s relief prints are crude in their titling and rendition, bringing in a chunk of red into the narrative of each. It is his drawing and his sculpted work that give the show a sense of possibility; in the former, there’s an interesting sense of space and plenty created over detailed reflection on farm land. In the latter, he engages with the humble mielie as a gloss on the whole messy business of land expropriation.

The unit of the mielie is deliciously upsetting in its ordinariness. Its tactility speaks a million words about land and its contents. But alas, there are not enough mielies here, and certainly too few drawings.

Indeed, had the artist conceded to show the works that do him most proud, and perhaps curtailed some of the narrative content he’s dealing with here, the exhibition would have held its own sense of integrity as art, and not as political diatribe, which is how it feels.

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