What history has dished up for me



PLATES to tell a life. One of John Anthony’s works on show. Photograph courtesy Buz Publicity.

HOW DO YOU tell the story of a complicated life in a way that visitors to an exhibition can access, empathise with and take something away from, without detracting from your story? You have their attention for a fleeting 30 minutes, maybe. John Anthony (aka John-Anthony Boerma) achieves this rather remarkably, in his masters exhibition currently on show at the Unisa Gallery.

There is a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 horror flick The Shining  in which the Jack character (Jack Nicholson) steps into an alternate time zone, unwittingly. He walks into the haunted hotel’s ballroom and there, like magic, are many ghost couples, dancing. The music is a cross-hatched gentle concatenation of famous standards of the time, all pinned together, which wafts in and out of audibility. The effect is astonishing.

You experience something of this idea of gossamer threads of remembered music and sung lyrics layering and following and obliterating one another, in this exhibition; you emerge from it in a haze of your own nostalgias upon nostalgias.

Anthony’s choice of medium here is a range of found domestic plates. And magicked against a soundscape created by Linda Kuhn, memory, joy, ugliness and sadness cohere in song lyrics. The body of 200-odd works on show, each with a gold-coloured rim, evoke porcelain traditions that reach into the 18th century. But these are not perfect plates. They bear words in a child-like sensibility and they bear simple drawings, some of which cast a nod in the direction of European masters of the ilk of Marc Chagall and Otto Dix. Each is a metaphorical turnstile into a whole range of deep and rich associations that define the artist and significant points in his life, as they will evoke clear levels of nostalgia in you.

The words are ordinary words. Strung together, like beads, in a particular order, they become songs and buttonhole memories for that reason. Anthony has elected to delete some of these words and highlight others, which does mess with your ability to read them and take them away in your own context, and in that sense, they downplay the works’ marketability.

While the works are on sale, marketing is obviously not the impetus of this potent exhibition. Also to its possible discredit, there is too much regularity, particularly in the left wing of the display. Here you find works hung side by side in a way that enables you to quickly walk along their ranks, reading their words and allowing them to stream together in sentences and phrases which sometimes make sense, almost like a shopping list. It is the works hung in the right wing of the display that force you to engage more deeply and that present a sense of mystery and blurring of information that intrigues and seduces.

As a whole, the presence of these delicate a robust ciphers of your memories and Anthony’s, hung in cohesion is simple and complex, utterly stirring and aggressively beautiful, all at the same time. It’s a meal for your heart and soul, with multiple dishes.

  • Love is a dangerous drug by John Anthony, is part of his Masters in Visual Arts degree, and is on show at the University of South Africa Art Gallery, in Unisa’s main campus, Kgorong building, Preller Street, Nieuw Muckleneuk Pretoria until 27 March. Call 012 441 5681.

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