Performance Art

Under the mercy of a prefix, stripped wide

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I see the future and it is mixed up: God Bless My Son, a photograph by Mario Macilau. Photograph courtesy UJ Art Gallery.

WATCH OUT FOR the goosebumps that will plague your skin and soul and motivate you to move from one work to the next in Trans, an extraordinary exhibition put together by Brazilian curator Daniella Géo and featuring works that take the notion of the prefix ‘trans’ and splay it open to myriads of possibilities.

And you may think trans and leap to the rhetoric of transgender, but you’d only be about a tenth accurate. This exhibition is about exile and a cross pollination of ideas. It’s about the modesty in the act of sweeping with a broom as it is about riffs in jazz and self-hatred. It has been beautifully curated and will keep you driven by the exhibition’s broader premises as well as by the nuances of each individual work and how each artist confronts the meaning of the prefix.

It is, however, the work of Mozambican photographer Mario Macilau that grabs you from the moment you enter the space. It’s positioned close to the start of the logical chronology of the show, but is something you will turn to look back at as you commit to the rest of the works. You may look at this masked pregnant figure in its asymmetry and sense of presence and think of the work of European Dadaist Hannah Höch. And as you stand there, entranced and almost paralytic with gooseflesh, you acknowledge God Bless My Son as the title, and a whole litany of interpretations float around this work simultaneously. It doesn’t matter which fits. The work has grabbed you tight.

Usha Seejarim presents Sparkling Sweeper, a simple yet complicated circular construction of grass broom heads which at once plays with the mysticism inherent in repetition, as it takes something humble and ordinary and pushes you to look at it with a different, more mystified eye.

While your eye is feeling mystified, it alights on Ives Maes’s piece which is simply entitled 50°56’46.3”N x 5°26’32.8”E, a compass reading. At first glance, this titanium 3-D print looks like a mollusc. But look closer: it’s a city in miniature.

And then, you turn in another direction and see the installation of Marie Ange Bordas, which features lists of death and footage of feet with the ebb and suck, the flow and give of the ocean. It’s a comment on the horror of forced migration, and a tightly political one, but aesthetically, it is simple. It is devoid of sensationalism or the rawness of tears or blood. Rather reaches in directly to your own sense of humanity.

While the relentless soundtrack of Brazilian artist Celina Portella’s work, Derrube (knock down), infiltrates the space, when you turn to look at it, you see the virtual smashing of the self by the self, in a manner which is both cathartic and difficult to watch. A young woman literally hammers herself painfully away. And all at once, you are that young woman.

Sorry not sorry is a wise yet biting comment on exile, articulated in the videowork by Albert Whittle, that draws you in with calypso rhetoric and holds you focused until it repeats itself. And then some.

Ultimately, this exhibition, comprising the work of eighteen artists from all over the world, young and old, offers a context which make it patently clear that the time of the conventional two-dimensional artwork is still crumbling, but eternally poised on bursting out with new relevance. Your focus is such that the works that make noise and grab your eye will draw you. But it is also paintings such as Diana Hyslop’s intertwined Home is where the heart is give you deep pause.

  • Trans curated by Daniella Géo is at the UJ Art Gallery in Auckland Park, Johannesburg, until September 19. It features work by Mehraneh Atashi, Marie Ange Bordas, Joël Mpah Dooh, Vibha Galhotra, Diana Hyslop, Taiye Idahor, David Koloane, Mario Macilau, Ives Maes, Kagiso Pat Mautloa, Blessing Ngobeni, Sam Nhlengethwa, Celina Portella, Usha Seejarim, Lady Skollie, Veronique Tadjo, Myer Taub, Alberta Whittle and Pat Ward Williams.
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