The (art) world according to Jamal

IN THIS AGE of social media, Wikipedia and any and every other kind of dumbing down and shallowing out of real thought, the presence of Ashraf Jamal’s anthology of art essays, published by Skira in 2017 raises a middle finger to lazy thinking, sloppy writing and weak academic students who think that art history is a doddle. This collection of 24 meaty and oft cheeky essays gives life and engagement to the work of South African artists deemed significant by Jamal, a critic and academic with considerable weight.

As you read this extraordinary work, imbibing rich caveats of thought about art and politics, sociology and philosophy, two things stick out. The first is the unequivocal and mostly consistent beauty of Jamal’s language. Mostly on top of his long sentences and complex ideas, he articulates a reflection not only of the work in question, but also of his love for the task of thinking about it. Occasionally, however, the work dips into the realm of the turgid and inchoate which is often where traditional art writing stumbles, but more often than not there is a readable levity to Jamal’s work.

The second thing is something that may leave you pondering as to the intended reader. With no notes or text references, the work obviously doesn’t fit the protocols of academic writing. Jamal reins freely here, quoting sources from Dr Seuss to Walter Benjamin, Charles Dickens to Susan Sontag, to name but a few resources, and offers a rich tapestry of yardsticks and benchmarks to his critical approach, most of which are breath-taking in their finesse, elegance and sometimes impetuousness.

In his essays, for instance, on the work of collagist Sam Nhlengethwa, conceptual artist Ed Young, the politically pornographic drawings of Conrad Botes and Anton Kannemeyer, the photographs of Pieter Hugo and the ripples in whatever art is made by Khaya Witbooi and Kemang wa Lehulere, there is a beautiful tactility which informs and entertains, showcases but also doesn’t let you out without some pithy and careful thought provocation. These are important essays which contribute deeply to the discourse.

On the other hand, with his focus on the work of gender activist Zanele Muholi, the nub of the material rambles and if you do not have a solid knowledge of the work itself, you may be left at sea. When Jamal looks at performance artist Mohau Modisakeng’s work, he extrapolates beautifully on that of photographer Santu Mofokeng, but leaves you in the dark as to Modisakeng’s work methodology.

Occasionally, Jamal writes in the first person – in the case of painters Georgina Gratrix and Nigel Mullins, for instance – and this jars somewhat with the intellectual wisdoms he offers, making the writing feel too personal, to close to the bone.

Having said all of this, this is a work not of indulgence but of luxury. Here, Jamal is able to stretch his intellectual muscles in a whole plethora of directions. He embraces artists that are not the “usual suspects” in this type of overview. Sometimes – as in the case of sculptor Beth Armstrong – he writes about the artist’s student work, offering it a relevance that raises it beyond its unformedness – because it draws from the young thinking of the artist. Installation artist Simphiwe Ndzube is another case in point: drawn to Jamal’s attention by one piece on an art fair, Ndzube is celebrated with alacrity and wisdom.

But the crowning glories of this book are its final two chapters – one on Ndebele artist Esther Mahlangu and the other on “instagrammarian” Tony Gum. Here, in an almost chatty tone that flies in the face of the more conceptually difficult approach in the rest of the anthology, Jamal offers art historical gold. Mahlangu’s work is contextually described and pondered with depth of focus as well as chutzpah challenging the perspectives of the established powers that be. Gum and her body of self-portraiture, too, is held up to a light which shines bold and bright on the notion of a 20-year-old art celebrity as it does on one with the temerity to cast an amused glance at the sturm und drang of Frida Kahlo or the overusedness of Tretchikoff’s icons.

In all, this is a beautiful book. From a design perspective, as you turn the pages, you feel the gasp of delight slip almost unintentionally from your lips: there are not many images, but those chosen are designed to startle, mesmerise and set your thoughts in motion.

Will this book stand the test of time in terms of art historians out of the academic framework who don’t want the detritus of references et al? That remains to be seen. On so many levels, while it is an unequivocal treat to the eye and mind, this is a life’s work of great love and labour that carries the momentum of the era of belle lettres that has passed.

  • In the World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art by Ashraf Jamal is published by Skira, Milan (2017).

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