Journey to humanity’s heart, with a lens

By Israel Bansimba

  • Israel Bansimba is a third year fine art student at the University of Johannesburg, who took part in the arts writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen earlier this year.
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MAN with an eye for dance: Seasoned dance photographer, Denis Rion. Photograph courtesy youtube.com

THE MAGIC OF making a photograph work, according to Nantes-based veteran dance photographer Denis Rion (59), happens in the way in which it can capture light and movement. He was seduced by the medium at a young age and realised early on that this would be a lifelong affair. Rion was in South Africa for this year’s Dance Umbrella, as he collaborated with Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena on their work Corps. He chatted to My View about his career behind the lens and in front of dancers.

“Dance is a fundamental element of the culture and identity of each country I have visited,” he says, speaking of how his career has taken him all over the world. He is interested in capturing gestures and movement and his work’s resonance with the dance world felt natural from the start. His work has been characterised by his desire to capture and reflect on the idea of ‘the other’.

Characteristic of Rion’s dance photography is the black background. He explains this, deeming that blackness as neutral: “If the background is the decor, there is the subject plus the decor, but I’m only interesting at the subject, that’s why I use the black background in general.”

On his website, he comments: “My photos offer a still picture of what is most live in us: flesh and emotions, materials and colour, which highlight the magnificent force of movement and gesture, the richness of the diversity of body expression, like a journey to the heart of humanity.”

  • Rion’s work can be seen this week with the performance of Corps, danced by Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena in Infecting the City, April 5, 7 at Artscape, Cape Town. Visit infectingthecity.com/2017/
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My body, my heroism

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THE reeds and I. Oupa Sibeko’s iQhawe. Photograph courtesy MAP Contemporary Gallery.

THERE’S A DENSE stillness articulated in the tough and unselfconscious photographs of performer Oupa Sibeko in his solo exhibition iQhawe. But as you look, you realise there is considerably more to these heroic images, cast pristinely onto a white background, which situate the artist in traditional reeds or nakedly.

For one thing, it’s an exhibition which comprises not only posed photographs – the works have been choreographed, if you will, by Sibeko, and photographed by Ben Skinner – these confrontational images conflate identity and bring together  cultural secrets with taboos, reeds with heroism in a black body painted white, and not only are they enticing, but they are also frightening. But you can’t readily look away.

iQhawe speaks of the Japanese dance form known as Butoh, where an engagement with the dancer’s body in relation to the dancer’s soul and the context of the dance is palpably intense and thoughtful. The movement is agonisingly slow. It’s like a form of worship or meditation. This is dance that reaches beyond the confines of convention or entertainment. It is dance which reaches back into the atavistic annuls of what dance was about a thousand years ago or more. It was about using the body to converse with the gods; being cognisant of one’s vulnerability, and prowess, of one’s beauty and terror.

Sibeko is an artist who continues to demonstrate a searing lack of fear in pushing the limits and questioning them guilelessly. Staging his performed work as a photographic moment is, of course, a marketing gesture, but it is more than that, too. Like Steven Cohen before him, among others, Sibeko, in capturing this powdery ether of his personal energy and culture, enables you to hold on to it all with the kind of intensity you lose in the transience of watching dance happen.

But also in Sibeko’s works, similar in a sense to that of the work of Ayana V Jackson, there’s a frank and almost deadpan engagement with the brutal structures of historical colonialist photography. Here’s a young man, imbued in his sense of self, in his Zulu culture, in his reeds and his body. He isn’t a specimen for scientific purposes. His photographs exist not for the need to be consumed in a racist rhetoric. He is what he is. A hero. A godhead. An angel. An emissary of his own values. Unapologetically.

  •  Reeds of iQhawe by Oupa Sibeko, is at MAP Contemporary Gallery in Melville until February 18. 011 726 3638 or visit www.mapcontemporary.co.za

Sucked into abstraction’s vortex, head first

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ONLY connect: A detail of Ricky Burnett’s painting in oil on canvas, titled Ivory VI. Photograph by Liz Whitter.

THIS REMARKABLE BOOK of photographs of black paintings made and exhibited by South African artist Ricky Burnett is intentionally out to mess with your mental equilibrium, but not your self-esteem. Premised with a short text written by Tracey Hawthorne, the book situates itself in art history. In confrontation with ideals of representation. But this is no ordinary art history book – or treatise. There’s no substantial guidance into how to get through each work with its individual nuances and characteristic density. You might feel lost and a little frightened.

It’s a fear sparked by the generally bad rap that visual art has gained in the contemporary press: often visual arts writing is done in such a way that if you are not armed with several degrees in a deep and obscure specialisation in the discipline, you will fear you’re not sufficiently intelligent or well-educated to engage with the core of the work. Blame it on conceptual artists such as Marcel Duchamp. On writers who over the years developed such an impenetrable tendency to obfuscate their writing with specialist terminology deriding plain language that they effectively chased away popular engagement.

You could even blame it on editors and sub-editors who over the years fell victim to bullying by specialist writers with complicated and seldom-used terminology and theories. But the more you look, the less you should fear these paintings in this book, for this reason.

Yes, they’re about the work of notoriously uncategorisable artist Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). Yes, Burnett comments that the structure of the paintings is not apparent and that they hinge on Goya’s work in a way that cannot be easily traced. But he’s not really playing games with you. No, really.

In 1936, German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay called The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. A critical paean to the idea of photography as a medium and photography as a means of reproducing art, it was to become arguably one of the more important tracts on the moral and ethical issues surrounding reproduced photographs of paintings in books.

Ricky Burnett: Troubled With Goya sits strategically on the thorns of Benjamin’s argument. The photographs – taken by Liz Whitter – are of such a quality that they actually challenge the experience of seeing the art works in the flesh, in a gallery, lit in particular ways. Here, your nose is pushed against the nuances of the paint as it is lit in a certain way. You can almost smell the paint as you gaze into its peaks and valleys that the artist as created on the canvas.

But further to that, this is not only about photography and painting. It is also about printing. Published by Palimpsest International and printed in Malaysia, this book offers a richness which you can taste. It doesn’t suffer from a tendency to be muddied and sullied with fingerprints tainting the surface of the glossy paper.

The book does, however, have a downside. But it’s a downside that you could take and stretch across a whole swath of artmaking, should you be so inclined. And that rests upon its abstraction. If Liz Whitter and the Palimpsest International team had focused their considerable skills and acumen in photographing a patch of soil after a rainstorm, or the underside of a piece of rock, they would yield something as varied and as rich, and abstract and as magical as Burnett’s paintings of Goya’s work. Does that mean that we who feel sucked in by these images in this book, down to our very toes, are beguiled and foxed by tricks and nuances that have nothing to do with the real world? Not really. This book isn’t about the underside of a rock or a piece of soil. They’re about Ricky Burnett reflecting on Goya. And there’s their rub of brilliance.

Ricky Burnett: Troubled with Goya (Palimpsest International, Malaysia 2016) Visit www.rickyburnett.com

 

The stuff of nightmares

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SILENT reach: a still from Shirin Neshat’s Roja. Photograph courtesy Goodman Gallery.

AS YOU WALK into the gallery space, an aura of stunned silence enfolds you. There’s a single silver gelatin print by Shirin Neshat from her film Roja hanging on the wall before you: A young woman in black stands in front of a huge, vaguely mushroom-shaped building. And it is mesmerising. And terrifying, in a way you can’t quite put your finger on … but try as you will to pull your attention from it, you will fail.

It is the magnetism of these quiet yet deeply threatening works that force you to remember the title of the exhibition, and indeed, as you watch each of the two films on show in the gallery – Roja and Sarah – you feel yourself twisting and turning in your own metaphorical bedclothes as you struggle to make sense of a dream context that is impossibly frightening while it borders on the intangible and obscure.

There’s a passage in Milan Kundera’s 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in which a woman finds herself alone on an island inhabited by children.  It’s an immensely disturbing passage, blending a sense of sexual violation with an understanding of disorientation, but it is written with such a delicate yet acerbic pen that it is unforgettable and leaks into your subconscious. Similarly with Neshat’s work.

Entwining tones of light and the power of water to render images ghoul-like in their intensity and obscurity, this veteran Iranian-born, nomadic artist, whose work premiers in South Africa with this exhibition, knits together an understanding of fear in a world fraught with the threat of conflict. And yet, in its obscurity, it holds to the notion of dream.

But this is not comforting. Similar to Esther, Queen of the Swamp, a chilling video installation by Israel-based artist Miri Nishri – exhibited in Johannesburg in 2013 –Neshat’s film Sarah trammels through a sparsely treed forest, but it embraces a such a potent sense of dramatic expectation that you feel your heart beating rapidly in anticipation as you sit in the darkened space and drink up the sheer texture and focus of the material.

It is, however, the film Roja that might throw you emotionally. Conjoining so tight a focus with so broad a reach, the work engages with what could be the weight of guilt which a parent imposes upon an adult child. Or with the looming presence of politics. Rich with recrimination, accusation and theatricality, the work is bold, breathtakingly beautiful and in many ways almost sterile in its sense of silence. But you will take it away with you, when you leave the gallery. And when you try to sleep at night.

Elegantly hung, this exhibition, which focuses more on the nebulous stuff of dreams than on the politically articulate gestures involving text on the body for which Neshat is better known, comprises 10 works – including the two video installations – and each of the photographs is not only printed to a large format, but it is so big from a visual and an iconic angle that it stops you dead in your tracks.

  • Dreamers by Shirin Neshat is at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg, until September 14. 011 788 1113.

Of goosebumps and brokenness

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DOES this hurt? Dwang # 6 by Richardt Strydom. Photograph courtesy Johannesburg Art Gallery.

THERE’S A CLINICALITY to this intense body of photographic work that repels your inner being and makes you want to turn away and then run away really quickly before you encounter the works in detail. But that same inner being of yours knows that if you do this, you will be caught. And punished. If you have been through the officialdom of a schooling system under apartheid, with its mandatory medical examinations, you will know why. Richardt Strydom brilliantly offers a body of work that makes you feel as though you shouldn’t be looking, but once you do look, it is difficult to turn your gaze away.

Premised on an extract from Jean-Paul Sartre’s powerful preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (first published in 1965), an electrically relevant text which embodies similar nerve-endings to Franz Kafka’s haunting tale Report to an Academy, the work is not only about handpicked “promising adolescents branded with the principles of western culture…”, it’s also about the unspoken horror of colonialism. Sartre goes on to promise the reader than when they have finished reading Fanon’s vital text, “… you will be convinced that it would be better for you to be a native at the uttermost depths of his misery than to be a former settler.”

In several visually clean and professionally hung series of photographs, Strydom engages a whole litany of the realities of being raised as a white, Afrikaans-speaking youth under the pall of apartheid. This is not just another politically astute exhibition, but it is something of a horror show. However, under the wise and astute viewfinder of this photographer and the exhibition’s curator, Musha Nehuleni the work on show presents none of the blood and guts that a traditional horror show might offer, but rather implied intimacies, a sense of suicidal values and a sense of medical exploration that tramples into the notion of invasive sexuality. They’re immensely uncomfortable images that will haunt you.

The mesmerising reality of this exhibition is that it is not sensationalist. There are no genitals on display, or acts of “real” violence. All the photographs focus on the head of the sitter. The suicidal gestures involve fingers pointed in the child-like framework of a make-believe gun. The sexual innuendo is something you draw out of the images of fingers in mouths. You look at each man photographed, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. Because of the gestures, the context, the surrounds.

Further there is a video piece that segues together footage of these pseudo medical examinations which recall the kinds of things that were imposed upon young boys during apartheid – ostensibly to check their readiness for the army which was mandatory at the time (only here the idea of pre-pubescent boys has been superseded by the presence of men). The work is overcast with soundbytes. One man is explaining why he would like to become a sex worker. Another speaks of how things snowballed into a violent situation after he had imbibed one too many. The voices are difficult to hear, difficult to listen to, as you hear them. The blending of these invasive facial examinations by a white hand, devoid of a medical examination glove, with this soundtrack is more horrifying than watching a staged display of atrocity.

But a strange dynamic was operative in the space last Sunday. One of the temporary walls closing off parts of the downstairs exhibition area was dismantled, roughly, revealing the rest of the enormous space filled with broken furniture and fragments of rubbish and dust. A charismatic church was singing hymns somewhere in Joubert Park. The presence of this broken bit of the gallery and the beauty of the church songs bounced and rumbled off the works on Bleek with such an energy it felt planned. Difficult to establish if it was, but either way, it gave the experience of visiting the exhibition a local context and a resounding resonance that hammered home all of those race values and left a residue of goosebumps that will take some time before they subside.

  • Bleek by Richardt Strydom, curated by Musha Nehuleni, is at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in Joubert Park until August 14. 011 725 3130

Visual riffs, beautiful portraits

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SIMPLY MAGNETIC: Artist Proof Studio’s Bambo Sibiya’s portrait of jazz great Hugh Masekela.

How do you blend jazz – an abstract but very specific musical genre – with visual art? On one level, it seems natural – the idea of some cool riff being translated into a glorious autographic line – but when you think of an art audience, will this gel? Will this be meaningful to everyone who looks at the work? The project might make you think of the powerful collages of veteran artist Sam Nhlengethwa, but curator Tumi Tlhoaele clearly comes from the next generation in her competent and cool straddling of the chalky line between beautiful images and fabulous sounds, in putting together a real gem of a show that coincides with the Jazzuary Masterclass hosted by radio station Kaya fm.

The exhibition features the work of seven visual artists; the brief was premised on the work of jazz greats such as Philip Tabane, Hugh Masekela, Johnny Dyani, Letta Mbulu, Louis Moholo-Moholo, Pat Matshikiza and Winston Mankunku Ngozi, each artist was told to make work that “responds to, reflects upon and interprets the music.”

Dangerously wide, in a sense, but one that has been resolved satisfyingly, in the most part. As you enter the space, which is part white cube, part jazz venue – there are Drum covered pillowcases and a worn in leather settee, with a cat on it that is quite territorial – you are assailed in the best possible way by Bambo Sibiya’s beautiful and magnetic drawing of jazz great Hugh Masekela. Blending friendly and explorative draftmanship with paintings, different circular reflections of South Africa’s leaders and icons behind Masekela’s wise and wonderful face, this is an important work which in its ambit and reach fills the whole oblong space of the Res Gallery.

Effectively, it is such a strong work that it could easily erase the presence of everything else on show, with its captivating sense of life. You look into Masekela’s charcoal eyes and you can hear his music. From this great work, it feels like a bit of a come down to engage with the more abstract works of artists such as Palesa Mopeli who works with rubber innertube, constructing sculptural networks that slither and glide against the wall and suspended from the ceiling. They resonate with the influence of Nicholas Hlobo’s approach but relate fairly abstractly to the exhibition’s underlying theme.

Malcolm Jiyane’s reflection on jazz is about crowds of moving people, indicated with an energetic sense of visual rhythm. A multi-instrumental jazz artist, Jiyane’s small but intense pieces whorl with implied sound and jiggling bodies, but you need to stand up close to grasp their visual impact. They do not call you in from the street.

Energy is, similarly what drives and holds the painted works of Layziehound Coka and Ayanda Mabulu. The latter’s large political piece draws together many reflections from a reference to the French Revolution to complex and grotesque layers that deal with sacrifice and bloodshed. It’s a large work, too big for the position it holds in the gallery, and its loudness prevents you from looking from far enough or near enough. Further, while there’s nothing wrong with the work itself, it’s a bit of a hard-to-read anachronism in the context of this exhibition.

And if you feel nostalgic for the work of Nhlengethwa, look at that of Neo Matloga. Indulging in collage like Nhlengethwa, Matloga doesn’t run too closely to the veteran artist’s metaphors. Rather, he constructs his own in a series of relatively small, deliciously quirky collages which really make you want to dance.

But then, there’s the work of Neo Mtsoma, which answers all those unasked questions raised by Sibiya’s piece, about the portraits of the jazz performers themselves. In this body of work, you see a dignified digression from the abstract playfulness of the more autographic pieces. You see the honour and the passion, the loneliness of the performer on stage, and the ugly beauty of the effort to make great music.

  • Considering Genius is curated by Boitumelo Tlhoaele. It comprises work by Layziehound Coka, Malcolm Jiyane, Ayanda Mabulu, Neo Matloga, Palesa Mopelia, Neo Ntsoma and Bambo Sibiya. It is on show at the Res Gallery in Rosebank, until January 28. Call 011 8804054 or visit resgallery.com or http://www.jazzuary.fm

 

Goldblatt and the unassailable dignity of viewpoint

A monument to JG Strijdom, late prime minister. A 1982 photograph by David Goldblatt.

A monument to JG Strijdom, late prime minister. A 1982 photograph by David Goldblatt.

Curating an exhibition of as important an icon in South African visual art as David Goldblatt might sound like a simple task, from the outset: behind the lens and darling of galleries all over the world for close to seven decades, Goldblatt needs no formal introduction to frequent gallery visitors. His work remains astonishing, in its wryness, its sense of wonder and its lack of crude judgment. It’s intellectually and politically sexy, never stooping to the crudeness of taking sides. But, truth be told, we’ve seen it often, in a range of exhibiting contexts, in books, all over the world.

So, curator Neil Dundas needs to be very specifically singled out and celebrated in this extraordinary exhibition which offers a fresh sheen on Goldblatt’s important and magnificent oeuvre, in a way that will challenge you, in the gallery, to relook and be seduced all over again by the work. Brooking everything under the notion of values, and playing with what scale does to the consumption of a photographic work, Dundas skilfully blends historical narrative with humour, beauty with tragedy, leaving you with a richer understanding of Goldblatt’s work and his presence in the South African story.

As you emerge at the top of the gallery’s staircase, you are hit in the solar plexus and the heart, simultaneously, with three large scale photographs that confront value head on. There’s a group of South African leaders at Parliament’s Senate in the centre; a view onto the degradation of Freedom Park, a post-apartheid dream which has been thwarted on the left; and a photograph drawing from within apartheid’s belief system on the right. They’re like three exclamation marks of sound that grab you by the eyes and the memory and don’t let go. None of them enable you to look with bias. Each of them is about very specific ideological perspectives. And each of them leaves you with great empathy of the situation captured.

But the exhibition is very far from being monolithic or predictable. Around the central well of the gallery are numerous photographs from different projects and focuses of Goldblatt’s over the years. They’re important photographs, printed up like the ‘snaps’ that were de rigueur in the sixties and seventies: small square formats, black and white, with a white border around them. Cleanly framed, they are as legible and potent visually as they would be printed up enormous, but the different scale pushes something new into the mix which makes you read them with a nostalgic sensibility that doesn’t undermine their vitality or their potent sense of moment.

Further to that, this rich and beautiful showcasing of Goldblatt’s work gives presence to Goldblatt’s voice in reflecting the thinking behind making these photographs, behind the Transkei in the 1970s or Gammaskloof in the 1960s. We see powerful excerpts from Goldblatt’s series on Boksburg, on the Transported of Kwandebele, of asbestos mining, of people of the plots of Randfontein in the early 1960s … a photograph commemorating some of apartheid South Africa’s most iconic sculptures neighbours one documenting the dethroning of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, at the campus of the University of Cape Town, earlier this year. The juxtapositions make your head spin with their wildness and their dignity.

One of the primary delights of Goldblatt’s work is how his titles are embedded in so much. The images take your eye and your head into the deep interstices of a situation. You notice many things that make your blood pressure soar, or bring tears to your eyes, but then you focus on the mother and child; the girl at a bus stop; the real person who is never inconsequential, but might be compositionally shadowed, that gives the work its name.

Victoria Cobokana is one of the more potent and astute essays on Aids prevalence that you might ever see. Goldblatt’s portrait of this woman with her two small children in the home of her employer in 1999 resonates with the clear values in a Renaissance painting of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child: in terms of colour and light and simplicity. Without stooping to gimmickry or self-conscious smartness, it’s a portrait which lends this woman and her little family enormous, overpowering dignity. But don’t go away from the work until you have read its caption.

The Pursuit of Values is more than just another retrospective of one of South Africa’s most important photographers: It’s an exhibition which speaks articulately of the unassailable dignity of viewpoint and the beauty inherent in every single situation. What a way for the Standard Bank Gallery to end 2016.

  • The Pursuit of Values, photographs by David Goldblatt is curated by Neil Dundas and is on show at the Standard Bank Gallery in central Johannesburg until December 5. Visit standardbankarts.co.za or call 011 631 4467.