Whatever shall we tell our children?

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YOU might not like me when I’m angry. Hulk Habib by Hasan and Husain Essop. Lightjet C-print on archival paper.

COMIC HEROES HAVE, since they were first thought up and drawn in the late 1930s, had a very particular place in a child’s values. The values of a white child, that is. Why? Because these great and noble chaps who don cloaks and masks or turn green with self-righteous rage, in the name of the underdog, are all white, like the hypothetical kid in question. What this means to a child who is not white is so exclusionary, it causes all of this world’s values to crumple. Twin artists Hasan and Husain Essop have the temerity and sense of style and purpose, to take this on, directly.

Once you are gripped in the gaze of a Muslim Batman, Spiderman and Incredible Hulk, all resistance crumbles in this potent exhibition of constructed photographs engaging, in the Essops’ inimitable directness, with the complexity of being Muslim in the contemporary world.

Along the lines of Pieter Hugo’s approach in his Nollywood series of 2009, the Essop twins engage a political reality which has become dangerously clichéd in the wake of 9/11 and the thrust of hysterical Islamophobia. Like Hugo’s work, the Essops’ images are all posed: these are not press images but art, confronting bias from within.

And the result by and large will shift your equilibrium.

A young Muslim man kneels on a beach strewn with thick fleshy bits of kelp and lots of discarded empty plastic bottles. He cradles a child’s doll in his arms. As you look at it, you experience a double take. This is a reference to a 2015 press photograph of the drowned Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler, on a beach in Turkey. It went viral, presenting a face of xenophobia that was about a lot more and a lot less than what the hateful rhetoric was espousing. It’s an image which grabs you by the throat and stifles your breath. Before being a refugee, this young man was a daddy.

The portraits of the three Marvel comic superheroes, however, dominate the space of the gallery’s main display area with a quiet violence. It may make you think of how children’s heroes need a cultural makeover, giving children who are not white access to heroes who look like them.

It may frighten you: the unflinching gaze of Spiderman in his keffiyeh, the Hulk with a taqiyah and Batman with Arabic words cast across his mask, depending on who you are, are confrontational. The potency of these characters in a Muslim framework is explosive and profound, while it’s easily digestible and direct. And the litany of reflection on the values of children – the ones who hold the superheroes in thrall – resonates through your head.

Also in the gallery’s main space, there is an installation. A little dinghy. Some baby clothes strewn on the floor. Two poles or oars, with the emblem of the Syrian flag. “Are we there yet?” is emblazoned on one little crumpled t-shirt, a clichéd reflection on children’s classic impatience in road trips, which has been turned tragically upside down, reflecting the terror of refugees travelling to a new world which may or may not accept them.

Other works, such as the single channel HD video Refuge, articulately place you, the beholder, in a pilgrim-like situation. Many people seem to surround you. The atmosphere is peaceful yet threatening by the very quantity of people in the frame. They move gently forward. You feel smothered.

There’s a “No Muslims” and a “Muslims Only” sign punctuating the show, as well as a flag printed in a typeface redolent of Arabic, but English in its proclamation that Islam doesn’t kill, people do. In another image, a beheading is imminent. These much more obvious engagements with the values of the show tend to weaken the show’s thrust with their unambiguous confrontation of dangerously shallow prejudice and cliché.

It is the works which force you beyond the stereotypes and into the heart of a young parent or child who has hate shoved into his or her face because of his or her culture and origins that will leave you shell-shocked and ashamed of this world’s values.

  • Refuge by Hasan and Husain Essop is at the Goodman Gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg until August 19. Call 011 788 1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com
  • For a commentary on the iconic nature of contemporary political photographs, read this column by Geoff Sifrin.
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Our messy world in a clean bromide

Meyersfeld

MADAM, please: Michael Meyersfeld’s ‘The Epidemic of Shame’.

THE SEVENTEEN PRISTINE photographic images by Michael Meyersfeld that comprise his current exhibition, Adaptation would have given French theorist Roland Barthes a run for his money in how they extrapolate on the rhetoric of the world in which we live today. Barthes wrote with a scalpel-like language through photographs, demonstrating how they illustrate the world and answer questions, how they encapsulate subtleties. In Barthes’s absence, however, and without too much wordage, these beautifully crafted black and white photographs are everything that the notion of fine art photography is all about.

They’re printed – on both backlit Duratrans film and fibre-based silver bromide – with a clarity that resonates boldly in your head. With utterly black blacks and completely white whites and all the greys in between focused with precision and delicacy, these photographs are brilliant technically even before you get to look properly at the images and the iconography – and the iconoclasm – they embody.

And then, you do look closer. And what do you see? For one thing, you see a microcosm of what it is to be a South African in a society replete with values that shift by the day. Some of these characters, such as the swimsuit-clad woman in what looks like the underside of the bridge in downtown Johannesburg, or the Pale Male Fading in an image of graffiti, are like the unexpected gods of a place, the guardians of secret gateways into parallel universes.

You might look at these works and think of the photographs taken by French photographer Frédéric Brenner, or that of fellow South African photograph Roger Ballen, in terms of how the works are choreographed and curated, how Meyersfeld places characters in situations that are wont to erupt into a million words.

You might see the complicated futures and layered narratives indicated by the compositions, such as that of Guarded Futures, a composition containing a brown boy, a white boy and an Alsatian puppy. Black and white, rich and poor, joyous and complicated, the characters in this body of work is a litany into the many faces of South Africa.

But it is not boring platitudes or nifty compositional decisions that skirt with the smarmily sensational or the itchily uncomfortable that you will encounter in Adaptations. Meyersfeld’s lens embraces the minutiae in the details of each work with a tender sense of earnestness, almost a sensuous understanding of the value of each tile in a mosaic, and each chair in a room.

The effect is something of magical realism caught unawares. When you look at the naked man in an assembly hall, or the abject beggar whose condition is reflected in the face of the woman from whom he begs; the priest, complete with leopard skins in what was once the Wolmarans Street Shul in Johannesburg and the blend of goats and Gaultier in an image that reeks of one of South Africa’s urban townships, you gain a rich diverse melee of realities, and you realise with a kind of suddenness, how Meyersfeld’s gesture in capturing these people and these scenarios, is one that is not without a smile – a wry smile, granted, but a smile of great fondness for the miasma of values chucked together, which we in South Africa call ours.

These are not documentary photographs in the formal sense of the notion; many seem to be posed. The characters are not named. Rather, this body of work offers a kind of a stage set periscope into how Meyersfeld reflects on and composes an understanding of the sham and drudgery, the broken dreams and precious moments that comprise South Africa’s dark and contorted and sometimes surprisingly witty or beautiful social underbellies.

Given Meyersfeld’s status in the photographic world, these are also immensely haveable works, not only for their intelligence and intensity, but also because of the rapidly shifting currents in our world. You won’t remember these mad contradictory days when they’ve passed.

  • Adaptation by Michael Meyersfeld is at In Toto Gallery, in Birdhaven until July 3. Call 011 447 6543 or visit intotogallery.co.za

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/

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