Behold: Echidna, monster of monsters

Nandipha

ON the wings of Samothrace: a detail of Nandipha Mntambo’s Echidna. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

THE SMELL OF resin assails you as you enter the space. It makes your nose sting, your eyes water, but the first work that you confront, a 3m-wide monoprint with gold leaf, grabs you and casts your discomfort into abeyance. As you fall into the urgency of this work, entitled Wild Thoughts, you might vaguely think you’ve hardly ever seen paintings or prints by Nandipha Mntambo before, but you’re too engrossed to step further. The work is roughly abstract but presents a parabola of thought and an engagement with colour and mark making that reveals Mntambo’s authority with this approach too.

Mntambo rose to prominence with her work Europa in 2008, an astonishing therianthrope, mixing the head of a mythical beast with her own. An artwork that conjoined animal fur with human flesh, live performer with constructed image, it was scary and sexy, provocative and disturbing at once. It was a work that made you look. And remember.

Now, almost 10 years later, with many exhibitions and accolades under her belt – this is her seventh solo at Stevenson – you get to see Mntambo stretching toward new heights. She’s still working in the mythical traditions, but her work is less obvious and even more potent.

On paper, The Snake You Left Inside Me is a modestly-sized exhibition. It features just 10 works. But when you arrive in the space, you will be overwhelmed, not only by the residue of resin in your nostrils, but by the energy, the sense of abstraction and the maturity of these pieces.

And so, as you wrench yourself from the work in the gallery’s vestibule, you get to see Moonlit Shadows and Wild Thoughts: works on paper using gold leaf that blast you in your solar plexus, with their complex simplicity. You will also see corrupted drum-like works – Mother and Child, Hubris and Ouroboros. They feature Mntambo’s signature use of animal skin stretched on a frame. You are able to look at them with a kind of dispassion, exploring the subtleties, understanding the nuance in the pieces.

Well and good, you might think, satisfied that this is a powerful exhibition. You might at that point turn to leave the gallery space. Don’t. There’s more.

Behind the wall separating the second gallery space from the third, lies Echidna. As you intrepidly enter the space – it’s dark and the work has the advantage over you – you come upon something that conjures up the disturbing realism of the work of Australian sculptor Patricia Piccinini, or that of Chinese sculptor Liu Xue. Only, it’s more. It’s like the denouement of a story, the classic pièce de résistance.

Echidna is gloriously half-woman/half-snake, reaching as she does from ancient Greek narrative. She’s the monster of all monsters, evoking in a poetic and understated way, the classic Winged Victory of Samothrace in the thrust presented by the resin-rich fabric, the potency of the pose, even though (or especially because) it is headless. The creature’s tail embraces the room with a furry muscularity that will make your hair stand on end, but will leave you unable to look quickly.

Balancing intelligent curatorial decisions with exceptionally fine work, The Snake You Left Inside Me offers a glance at the relevance of mythological contortions. It is a potent and terrifying exhibition that will not leave you untouched, as you walk back through the space, something squirming uncomfortably in your belly.

  •  The snake you left inside me by Nandipha Mntambo is at Stevenson Gallery, Braamfontein, Johannesburg, until January 19 2018. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.
  • The gallery will be closed from December 16 until January 8.
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Levelled by floodlines

drowningworld

THAT’S all there is. Gideon Mendel’s 2015 photograph of João Pereira de Araújo, standing inside his house, in Taquari District, Rio Branco, Brazil.

IT’S THE SILENCE that grabs you first. And the gaze of the sitters. And then you notice the truncated quality. Everyone is submerged in cold, dark water. But it is the silence that holds your heart in thrall, as you walk through this astonishing selection of photographs from Gideon Mendel’s Drowning World, a project which has occupied this South African-born photographer’s emotional and aesthetic focus for the past 10 years.

This is more than an exhibition. It’s a gesture in the name of what is happening to our planet under the relentlessness of global warming: world-wide floods. Since 2007, Mendel has been travelling all over the world, from Nigeria and Thailand to Australia and the United Kingdom, America and France, Brazil and Bangladesh, taking photographs of the devastation left by flooding.

But this is not documentation in any bald way with an environmental set of boxes to tick at hand, or a great big glossy budget. It’s a deep, achingly human gesture. The images focus on the lives of the people it has touched. And in doing so, you, in the gallery, get to understand the horror of the situation not by evaluating the economic damage, not by looking at the vast implications going forward, not by gazing into images which sensationally cast unleashed flood gates at you with torrents of water boiling down, evoking Armageddon, but by looking at the eyes of the people in the photographs.

They are first world country people and people eking out a living at the bottom end of the world’s economy. They are people with the wherewithal to wear diving suits and Wellington boots to protect their bodies from the rank water in which their furniture floats, and people without these things. People alone, and people with their loved ones. Old, young, black, white. It doesn’t matter: the look in their eyes is the same. One that says they have lost everything.

The project collectively embraces four different focuses. There are conventional images of waterlogged landscapes, the portraits of the flood victims, images that document the waterline inside domestic environments and photographs that peer through water damage at the intimate mementos of ordinary people. The series interject one another with the sense of thoughtfulness and empathy characteristic of Mendel’s oeuvre.

Here is a photograph of a photograph of a child, the texture of the photographic paper bloated and discoloured beyond recognition, just a little chubby hand on one side of a great big stain, indicating the loved photograph that once was. There is a couple, their arms around each other, as they stand in what was possibly their lounge. The water is above their waist level. And the horror of now having nothing, sits like a massive exclamation in this silent wateriness. There are no tears. Just blank horror.

In another image, two young Muslim women stand, hijab in place, the world around them like a stage set. It gives you a jolt when you realise that the torn environment, the strong setting in which you see them, is a byproduct of the flood waters. And another jolt when you lower your eyes to acknowledge the flat line of browning water that hides their legs.

The body of displayed work, which comprises photographs from each of the different components of the project as well as a 39-minute-long looped video which you will struggle to pull yourself from, opens up a collective understanding of human values. As part of this species, we like to acquire things. We take ownership of them. We indulge in a sense of our own importance. And yet, in the wake of weather of this nature, we are all the same. It’s a great leveller. An irrevocable one.

Photography, by its nature stands in the oft rickety breach between art and documentation and that breach is very clear in this exhibition. But you do not emerge from it with a sense of aesthetic victory. You emerge with a sense of awareness. And with one of having touched the fabric of what makes life precious on this planet.

The exhibition segues with that of Masixole Feni’s Drain on our Dignity, a body of work for which the young photojournalist was awarded the 2015 Ernest Cole Award, which is on display in the museum’s upstairs gallery. While Feni’s work represents the indignity of broken and ill-functioning sanitation and sewage systems in areas close to Cape Town, and offers a Jacana Books-published publication containing these images, the energy of the two bodies of work jostle with one another.

You leave Feni’s collection oddly able to shut out the sadness you have seen in the images because they resonate like conventional media images. But with Mendel’s you cannot close the door to that silence. That sense of bewilderment. That loss. Because they resonate like art.

  • Drowning World by Gideon Mendel is at the Wits Art Museum in Braamfontein, until February 15, 2018. Visit https://www.wits.ac.za/wam/ or call 011 717 1365.
  • Masixole Feni hosts a walkabout of his exhibition on October 28 at midday. Drain on our Dignity is also on show in the museum until February 2018; the publication of his work is on sale for R250.

Kaddish for Elu

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HORROR of loss: Steven Cohen in his work ‘fat’. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

SOMETIMES THE RAW howl of loss is the only thing possible. Sometimes it is more potent than any words which are in danger of teetering anywhere near the threat of idle platitude. Sometimes the raw gesture, the unthinkable act of personal anger and sadness in the wake of loss is more appropriate than the mannered one that is societally acceptable. If you have watched a loved one degenerate into base matter through illness, before they vanish from your life, part of Steven Cohen’s current exhibition will hit you in the solar plexus and it won’t let go until you have howled that memory back into subservience. put your heart under your feet … and walk! is a potent and utterly beautiful tribute to Elu, Cohen’s life partner who passed away suddenly in July of 2016. It resonates unapologetically with deeply personal references and a brutality of fresh and alarming aesthetics which Cohen and Elu developed over the last 20 years.

In many ways, this exhibition seems deceptively modest in size. It comprises three videos and a room full of ballet shoes. And as such, it is an informal taxonomy of Cohen and Elu’s rich collaborative career. As you look at each different installation of used and bruised, torn and smashed pink pointe shoes on their little podium, you recognise snippets and talismans drawing from the rich and taboo ethos of South African performance history – of which Cohen and Elu were the centrifugal force from the late 1990s – effectively pulling and pushing at the sense of possibility in a medium that had no history yet, in this country.

There are monkey skulls in ballet shoes, hunched like demons; there’s a mummified cat strapped to a shoe. Hitler puppets and anti-semitic propaganda vie with ornamental roosters and Victorian purses. There’s an anal probe and a startling array of sex toys and domestic tools, not to forget an elephant’s tail, a pair of purses made of real toads and a pair of phylacteries strapped over a rolled up Torah Scroll.

There’s a piece of Vallauris pottery in direct and shattering reference to Cohen’s unforgettable work Golgotha (2009), which too, dealt with loss – that of his brother. And as you ponder each tableau, each combination of values with the ballet shoe pinned or sewn, nailed or enfolded around the historical reference, you see in your mind’s eye, snippets of a career that was almost thwarted by a frightened public, but a career that developed nevertheless.

Cohen speaks and writes of the Elunessless of his life, since the passing of Elu. But when you enter this space, there is something so richly personal, so irrevocably about the dancer himself, that it feels that Elu is present. Immortalised. Dancing with his characteristic sense of anguish and self-belief, in these shoes, or those. In pain and in joy.

The eponymous phrase that serves as the title of this exhibition was uttered to Cohen after Elu’s passing. It was uttered by Nomsa Dhlamini, the woman who raised Cohen and became a significant collaborator in his later works.

Cohen explains in the gallery’s flyer when he told Nomsa – who was then 96 – that Elu had died: “I asked her how I could continue life alone, she said ‘put your heart under your feet … and walk!’” The first video work that you encounter in this exhibition is one of Cohen having the soles of his feet tattooed with this phrase. The rest comprises a real manifestation of how he is making this come true.

And effectively, that’s where the aesthetic, moral and emotional pinnacle of this exhibition lies. The video works which are screened in the second half of the gallery space. Named simply fat and blood, these two works have a duration of just over 6 minutes each and yet, as you sit there in the darkened space and the abjection of these images infiltrates your head and your heart and your ability to breathe fluently and your mind’s sense of smell, they will touch you in a place that you might not have known you had, until this experience. And when you emerge from having watched them, you will be stilled. And silenced. And it will feel like hours, aeons, have passed.

In these works, Cohen brings his grief to a South African abattoir, and dressed in a white tutu, with his characteristic head of makeup and butterfly wings, he is filmed dancing his heart out, in wrenching tribute to the loss of life. It’s a tribute to the stuff and muck that constitutes what a living being is and a paean to all that in the world that must be. It’s like watching a crime, a snuff movie, a manifestation of great religious sacrifice all rolled together. It’s the kind of work that is art but transcends art and pushes it back into the realm of spiritual gesture.

It isn’t easy to see. It’s not meant to be. But it is devastatingly potent and will not let you go flippantly. Above all in this quintessential gesture of tribute and mourning, of horror and celebration, Cohen’s aesthetic remains intact and doesn’t begin to touch the slippery mess of sensationalism that pervades the grimy commercialism of our world. Indeed, you might be told to see it, for sensationalist reasons. But if you’ve looked properly, when you have emerged, you will be a different person. As you might have been when you visited Deborah Bell’s recent exhibition, or Minnette Vári’s.

  • put your heart under your feet … and walk! by Steven Cohen is at Stevenson Johannesburg in Braamfontein until November 17. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.

Where’ve all the photo budgets gone?

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NO pic, no crit.

HERE’S THE SCENARIO. There’s a festival of theatre happening in a city. Many productions to see. Some new, some tested. There’s nothing quite like a platform for new theatre ideas to flex their proverbial wings and try out their thinking on a new audience. There’s also nothing quite like a production which enjoys a strong and positive critical response. Hell, even negative critical response, should be of value. But what has happened to the cherished position of the arts photographer? Nary to be felt on opening nights any longer is that frisson of self-importance that the arts photographer exudes when she or he alone is the only person who can legitimately go click-click throughout a show.

A festival of theatre is happening in a venue. The publicist sends mugshots of the practitioners to the media at large. There are no production photographs. Is it not within the festival organiser’s priorities to budget for a festival photographer? And if this is the case, should a critique be published online without the courtesy of a picture of the production? Is that not like a description of a product that you’re trying to market with words alone? Should a review be premised with the image constructed for the programme? Would anyone read a review that has no illustration? Methinks perhaps not.

It’s similar to the old philosophical chestnut: if a tree falls in a forest, and there is no one to hear it, does it make a noise? If a show is marketed with no production pics, does anyone in the industry or in potential audiences give a flying fig about it, or will they read further than the pictureless state?

A review in the strictest sense is not a piece of fluffy marketing, which should be allowed to easily slip under the mantle of marketing material, with the logo headlining it. A review in the strictest sense should be the handle the public can access – if they respect the reviewer’s opinion enough. And it should be able to stand its ground with an image referencing the show under scrutiny.

Photography came into common technological parlance some 120 years ago. The camera, its accompanying technology and the guy pressing the button became an event and a performance in its own right, and the novelty of being photographed in early modernism were simply remarkable.

Time passed and the technology continued to grow and proliferate. Photography became a revered medium in its own right, and the professional photographer was able to teeter viably between being a member of the media and an artist. He or she earned respect, credibility; hosted exhibitions and had work published in glossy gorgeous books.

The arts photographer became a specialisation all of its own, and simply extraordinary images became the domain of South African photographers of the ilk of Suzy Bernstein, John Hogg, John Hodgkiss, Ruphin Coudyzer, Dex Goodman, to name but a few. It was a specialisation that enabled the creative juices and skills of dancers, performers and photographers to be intertwined, the one enhancing the other.

And then, things started dwindling. The technology became so sophisticated that it crept into everyone’s cell phone as an automatic bit of extra software. And hey, presto! The whole world, no matter how inarticulate or visually ordinary they are, can be a photographer. Social media is like a cancer fraught with appalling photographs of everything from twee kitties to meals about to be eaten, but production pictures? Not a sausage. Is this something that young performers don’t understand in their education or a box that goes unticked by festival organisers for monetary reasons? The mystery remains.

In the past several months, I have been subject to sitting through productions that clearly do not believe it to be of sufficient importance to include professional designers — be they sound engineers, costumiers or production designers – on their production credits. I have seen productions that feel they can strip music down to its bare necessities and toss out a couple of chords played by three instruments, pretending to be a full orchestra. I have seen people who have attempted to be the performer, the producer, the director and the marketer of their own work. And now, we see production picture-less shows expecting reviews. What happens next? Will these performers/directors/producers also become their own critics?

Of course, it’s all about money. But are we cutting our proverbial noses off and making ourselves less functional and scarily ugly in the process, by not respecting the work of the professionals who support the theatre industry? My View will regrettably not be hosting reviews of shows that do not offer production pics.

 

Whatever shall we tell our children?

refuge

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.

Ode to the hole in your heart

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SEARCHING for someone. A still from Minnette Vari’s Eleventh Hour. Photograph courtesy Facebook.

THE IRREVOCABLE EMPTINESS of loss is the subject of the video piece and related artists’ books that comprise this intimate and raw, broken yet focused work of Minnette Vári. It’s a lot less abstract than her previous bodies of work and while it is unashamedly personal for Vári, it retains a delicate obscurity with which it is able to simultaneously reach deep and relentless into the heart of who we all are as vulnerable mortals who don’t know where the next body blow is coming from. Or the next big loss that will redefine us.

The video work is but seven minutes in length. It features an anonymous search party exploring an unspecific landscape. As you watch it, however, you become immersed in its urgency and lose all sense of time. And as you stand there, transfixed and weeping, you feel that you wouldn’t be doing justice to the loss by leaving the gallery after just one viewing. Each time you watch the sequence of these seekers in their overalls with their torches and their circles of light, with its zigzags of static and its panning across a landscape, you nurture a secret hope that they’ll find who they’ve lost; that the world will be able to turn again, and that the roaring bloody agony of loss will be sutured.

Each time, of course, you know that this cannot be. And because the work is structured around the trope of loss rather than more specifically, the loss is mine as it is yours, and that voice you long to hear in the soundscape of wind and breath is one you’ve been missing ever since that someone, that almost anonymous ‘you’ to who Vári refers in her text, left you.

Accompanying the exhibition are three unique artists’ books, constructed in a landscape format. These works contain digital prints that draw from the film and are worked up with an energy specific to the medium of monotype. Here, ink is dragged across a surface, drag marks peppering and pocking the underlying photographic vagueness, there there’s a sense of humanity moored in the landscape, but too ghostly to hold onto.

As the film unfolds, and the more you watch it, you find yourself casting your gaze beyond the reach of the search party, in the hope that maybe you can spot the one who is missing. Of course, you can’t, but as your eye reaches through the nameless space of the landscape, so you realise its unfriendliness, its barrenness, the call of the nightjar that resonates with eerie loneliness and you acknowledge that the world is a quieter, more alone place because your someone is no longer there. More than that gesture of searching for someone, however, is the one in which Vári argues, by dint of the work’s title and the written material in the monoprints, obscured by drops of what could be tears, that loss happens at the proverbial eleventh hour: when it must.

This magnificently subtle, carefully crafted body of work never ponders into specifics; instead it gnaws at the kernel of what makes us tick. And Vári takes the simple and complex beauty of her aesthetic into a space previously untrammeled and more profound than ever.

  • The Eleventh Hour by Minnette Vári is in The Viewing Room, Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, until August 19. Call 011 788 1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com

Quarried wisdom in a vestibule of bling

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COMING out in all directions: Michele Mathison’s Extrusion. Photograph courtesy Whatiftheworld.

IT BEGINS WITH the stairs. Brutally bling-filled, impenetrably shiny and black, the introductory aspect of the Keyes Art Mile in Rosebank, the project of several wealthy consortia, which contains the Whatiftheworld gallery is not what you could describe as friendly. It’s pristine and shiny, slippery and steep and the hostile staircase leads to a vestibule which is dark and sterile, unpopulated and so designy you feel unable to breathe, in case you exude too unblingy an approach and get summarily tossed down those stairs by one of the strict-looking security guards for breaking fashion rules.

But as you let your eyes temper a little in the gloaming, you find them resting on Michele Mathison’s Parallax. This astonishing knot of real street lights feels at once like a mixture of an allusion to a traffic accident and a playful manipulation of the world itself. It evokes the extraordinary things that Mathison has done in the past with picks, creating rhythm and flow, song and fluidity with recalcitrant objects.

And as you cajole yourself into walking through that black marble space, your lonely footsteps creating sad little ‘plinks’ on the shined up surface, the sterile and expensive designs in the shops nearby looking forlorn, you reach the gallery proper. It’s a brightly lit space, and Mathison’s works on show give you pause. Yes, on one level, they fit the racy and shiny ethos of Keyes Art Mile, but they do so with a gentle dignity, not working on its crassness, but rather exploring the simplicity of its approach.

There are tricks in the works that belie the substantial nature of the medium. But these gestures never slip into the notion of the one-liner. When you realise that what you’re looking at in a work such as Distension – a series of wall-mounted pieces – is not a loosely stretched piece of fabric billowing from a canvas-stretcher, but rather a substantial body of carefully cast fullness, something dramatic leaps through your sensibilities. You get the joke, but you don’t move on, gripped as you are by the seductive presence of the works.

They wax and they wane, singing ancient songs of Zimbabwean stone and odes to what can be done with untempered steel. There are works which are rusted and others twisted against the grain. The abstraction of the pieces is beguiling and mesmerising, as the title of Mathison’s exhibition dodges and veers against political references and descriptions of the abstract relationships between stone and metal that he has constructed here.

It’s a beautiful exhibition, and one imminently worth experiencing even in this rich and newish space, because it offers a generous and intimate levity to works that could otherwise have been ponderous or self-indulgent.

  • States of Emergence by Michele Mathison is at Whatiftheworld, Rosebank, Johannesburg, until August 19. 012 358 6750.