The inestimable gravity of small things

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ONLY connect: A piece on show from Hunter-Gatherer.

WHAT DOES IT mean to be human in this relentlessly throw away world in which we live? This is the kind of question which comes under the loupe of Kai Lossgott in his quietly dramatic exhibition Hunter-Gatherer, bringing together, as it does, a broad range of detritus and references, playfulness and poetry.

You may think of Belgian poet and conceptual artist, Marcel Broodthaers as you peruse this body of over 80 pieces, quietly placed alongside one another, works which overlap each other as they document time and serve as an ecological catch-all as they turn your eye and your head in unexpected directions.

You may think of work made by South African artist Alison Kearney in Switzerland about the aesthetic value of ostensibly throwaway domestic objects, as you look at the plastic garments worn by Lossgott in which he collected objects from the world, during recent residencies.

You may, indeed, think of Colin Richards’s meticulous water colour paintings of traditional divination objects as you try to make sense of the order of things Lossgott has established in his installations and prints, performances and filmed work. And in his artists’ books.

Lossgott doffs a proverbial cap to all of these practitioners, sampling the roadkill he finds as he draws lines that describe forms and others that rupture worlds. Hunter-Gatherer is an exhibition about what art is in our throwaway culture, and as you find yourself pondering the materiality of his UV-prints on foil or on household tissue, as you are mesmerised by the array of tiny bottles containing specimens, and evoking a beam of light in a darkened room, you find yourself cast among the poetry and the thinking of this unusual and thoughtful artist. It’s a deep and bold exhibition, but one that on the surface is demure as it is almost elegant.

Concept segues with achingly beautiful line work as photograph segues with found object in this contemporary extrapolation of the conventional definition of the San lifestyle. What does Lossgott, the artist as a persona on the streets of Europe hunt for and gather? Clues and gestures, meanings and disused NikNak packets, fluff and nonsense, ants and seeds … you name it, there’s a taxonomy somewhere in this exhibition into which everything meticulously fits.

It’s an important exhibition, which confronts the throwaway soul of contemporary society, as it reveals an engagement with the world which is unique and beautiful as it is audacious and not the kind of thing you might expect in this gallery space which reeks corporate through its very pores. Not only corporate but commercial: Hunter-Gatherer is a complex body of work that teeters gleefully and self-consciously between academic inaccessibility and the need to woo a buyership. The unabashed magnificence of many of the pieces grab you by the eye, but they do so in an abstract way. When the image of a plastic carrier bag evokes a priest praying, arms akimbo; when the post-consumerist world is so meticulously and earnestly explored as it is here, something magical happens and the time invested in each bit of human detritus lends it a solemn value, but one not unspiced with self-deprecation and utter levity.

  • Hunter-Gatherer by Kai Lossgott is on show at the Absa Gallery in the North Towers in downtown Johannesburg until June 15. Park in the bank’s parking garage on Polly Street (off Main Street) and take the elevator up to UG – and bring your ID. Call 011 350 3003. The gallery is open from 08:30 until 16:00 Monday to Friday.
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Graphics to appall the gods

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ONLY connect: Scarily bad graphics in Tabita Rezaire’s lightbox work, Dilo.

Let’s take apart the internet, Matrix style, she says. Let’s reveal it as the crass, manipulative, racist mechanism that it is, she says. It’s a cancer in our midst, premised on shallow values and colonialist mindsets, she argues. Let’s heal ourselves of the rubbish it brings into our lives. Nothing wrong with these sentiments of Tabita Rezaire. Just a pity about the exhibition’s presentation.

Exotic Trade is French-born Guyanese/Danish artist Rezaire’s first solo exhibition, and while it expresses really fabulous ideas about Ifa divination and binary mathematics, about knowledge that is stolen and knowledge that needs to be remembered, it lacks the kind of visual sophistication that would give all this thinking the dignity of gallery support.

In this way, the Goodman Gallery’s hosting of this material as it is seems misplaced or not sufficiently thought through. Comprising several large scale projections, and a number of Diasec prints, filled with kaleidoscopic detail that draws together visual values from Nigerian ancient cultures and Egyptian ones, as well as a fabulous trio of cast bismuth crystal snakes called Celestial Hiss, which is arguably the highlight of the whole show, the body of work is increasingly mesmerising and discomforting, but not for the right reasons. When you reach the display of the pink gynaecological chair, complete with stirrups and a looped video, entitled in all earnestness, Sugar Walls Teardom, you might have to control the urge to laugh out loud with uncontrollable abandon or run in unabridged horror: it’s like the final scene from Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, only you are ostensibly the subject.

The most troubling aspect of this exhibition which promises a yoga outlet, however, is the graphics of the different bits of videoed material. They’re compiled with the kind of unsophisticated hand that discovers for the first time the huge variety of fonts on Coreldraw and wants to use each and every one of them. There’s a stilted quality to the graphics – and an uncomfortable and obvious ways in which images of Rezaire herself are segued with a reptile – which pleads for a more sophisticated collaborator and deeply damages the validity and impact of the message she’s trying to convey.

You might come to this exhibition wanting to be mesmerised, wanting to lose yourself in the folds of possibility that it promises, but instead, you’re confronted with a poorly made video presentation that starkly tells you how bad the world is and how you need to realign yourself with the “politics of pleasure”.

The opening video Premium Connect, bombards you with 13 minutes of information: it’s a little like something from Orwell’s 1984. Only this is Big Sister and she is, what she describes herself as a “Black womxn [sic] in the face of colonialist and capitalist exploitation”, but still, she’s policing your very core, with her political correctness and alienating language in tow. If you want to come to a gallery to see good art, this isn’t it.

  • Exotic Trade by Tabita Rezaire is at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, until May 17. Call 011 788 1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com.

Framed by a blade of fire, a spot of glue and a miscellany of limbs

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THE lady ponders: Rebecca Haysom’s collage The Tiger’s Bride. Photograph courtesy Circa Gallery.

AN UNCOMFORTABLY DIZZYING association between the ideas of feminist magical realist writer Angela Carter and between-the-wars German collagists John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, seems the most appropriate way of describing the wild and terrifying humour, explicit and witch-like sexuality and rough and tumble gamesplaying in this, the first solo exhibition of Rebecca Haysom.

Entitled The Tiger’s Bride, this tender and quivering yet seemingly bruised body of close to 40 works, is collectively about quirky humour, dark laughter and the slithery teasing apart of mythical practices, fairytales and idioms. And art history is tossed into the mix too. Here’s a sprinkling of Dalí, there’s a quotation from Rembrandt and another from Van Dyk. Nothing is sacred beneath the robust yet delicate scalpel of Haysom as she slices off limbs and reattaches them at fantastical angles, blending tigers and women, forcing scale relationships that are off the radar and constructing roses of papier mâché billed Make her Cry.

This latter work is a witty play on what you see. There’s a fabulous scene with a very young Maggie Smith in the Richard Attenborough musical satire Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). From far, the character played by Smith is demure and welcoming to young men and wouldbe conscriptees. But as the camera pans in, there’s something so garish and terrifying about her, that the values change irrevocably. As you gaze on Haysom’s bouquet and realise that these petals are solid and tough, something similar happens and the image becomes cruel and scary rather than sweet or romantic.

Evoking the work of South African book artist Kathleen Sawyer, Haysom’s work splays the values associated with old European fairy tales: tales of mermaids and witches, magic spells and big skirts. The Emperor’s New Clothes is present here, as is Prince Charming.

It’s a wonderland whirligig of an exhibition, albeit a precarious one: be careful what you find yourself admiring, it might just not be exactly what you think it is. That lady is a tiger, and the joke may be on you. While some of the works seem like one-liners, the more you look, the more they suck you into their depths of the kinds of possibilities that you can create with a spot of glue and a quick, sharp knife, ranging from biblical association to pornography.

The one work which seems anomalous in this collection is a large landscape painting at the end of the gallery on a sheet of loose canvas, which hangs like a curtain. More like a stage set than a work like the others, it offers a concatenation of values that chime oddly and will leave you unsure of yourself and of what you’ve understood by the rest of the work.

Is it all a stage set in the context of play acting? You can’t really be sure. Either way, understated and thoughtful, witty and bizarre and above all, reliant on a sense of careful construction of body parts on paper and ideologies in the artist’s head, this is a potent exhibition which is an embodiment of play and earnestness, with blurred boundaries between the two.

  • The Tiger’s Bride by Rebecca Haysom is on show downstairs in Circa Gallery Rosebank until April 29. Visit circaonjellicoe.co.za or call 011 788 4805.

Crying in public; bathed in invincible colour

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TEARFUL yet present: Crying in Public by Banele Khoza. Photograph courtesy Lizamore & Associates.

When first you access these boldly rendered works by Banele Khoza, you might think you know what the artist is saying. And you might be tempted to wave a dismissive hand at the perceived social problems of a young man. Problems of loneliness and rejection, sex and confidence. But the more you look, the less you see and the more the mysterious and haunting Crying in Public pieces seem to predominate this exhibition offering an autobiographical reflection that might reach you in a place much deeper that you would allow at the best of times.

Part of the gallery’s mentorship programme, Khoza, who is fast becoming a name in the professional art world, was mentored by Colbert Mashile in this exhibition. He showed work last year at the Pretoria Art Museum, and something extraordinary is clearly cooking in this artist’s sense of possibility, his confidence and the muscularity of his approach. Much more than crass comments on emotional or physical states of being, the works in Lonely Nights burst with painterly audacity.

There’s scant reference to the filigree that featured in Khoza’s earlier show. But once you begin to embrace the paintings in this exhibition, you hardly miss that incisive complex linearity. Khoza demonstrates a beautiful understanding of the interface of colour and chance in a way that will touch you to the core.

The exhibition is peppered with small scale canvases all titled Crying in Public and numbered individually. By and large they’re abstract, or somewhere between abstraction and gestural self-portraiture. And in their blasts of colour or mark, be it Venetian yellow or a mild pink, be it black or blue and white, something is articulated here about how we cover up in the face of society, about how we hide our emotions or sob where we think we’re invisible. It’s not explicit, but it is sophisticated and discreet.

The works are not completely or consistently solemn, however: there’s a touch of Robert Hodgins in the numinous shapes conjured by Khoza’s paintbrush, and conjoined with the comments that shriek out loud and in bold type of the artist’s lonely nights from “I have a girlfriend” to “Fuck me”, to a commentary on how in an age of social media, you might be focused on counting likes and pretending to be working, but that it’s all a haze of pretense. The works are massaged into life with a self-deprecating humour, and an exuberant use of text all over some of them.

But it is their overall freshness that grabs you by the eye and infiltrates your whole being. Khoza works largely with a palette tinted into conventional pastel shades. His brush marks are generous and luscious and he skirts with boldness around the notion of abstraction, yielding pieces that are delightful and visually enticing.

  • Lonely Nights by Banele Khoza is at Lizamore and Associates gallery in Parkwood until March 30. Call 011 880 8802 or visit lizamore.co.za

Tales of sound and fury, signifying everything

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BROKEN figures, polluted landscapes. Works by Blessing Ngobeni. Photograph courtesy Everard Read Gallery.

TAKE AN ALREADY angry and energetic approach to art making with a political edge, and exacerbate it with shoddy politics, unethical behaviour and the distressing circulation of the notion of ‘alternative facts’ in the country and the world, and you get Blessing Ngobeni’s current solo exhibition – the seventh in his career thus far – which probes and bashes against the horror of our times, using his intellect, his paintbrush and his anger as part of his tool box.

Ngobeni’s work has a reputation of unrelentingly splicing art historical references together, from across the spectrum, as it quotes and dissects the instruments and politics of our times. Often really crudely. Masked Reality sees an evolution in his approach, and if you consider the gallery space at large before you allow yourself to be sucked into the individual works on display, you will recognise an iconicity that digresses from his former works which boasted less of a clear composition than these.

Still, you see echoes of Bitterkomix and Norman Catherine, of the grotesque sexuality that is present in between-the-world-wars work of German artists associated with the Neue Sachlichkeit period of Expressionism, such as Georg Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix. There are bodies here which like those represented by Hieronymus Bosch of hell, centuries ago, are nothing but big pairs of buttocks farting poisonously into the ether. There are other bodies which boast grotesque breasts filled lumpily with malignant-looking red contusions and lesions. The psychological horror known as vagina dentata – vagina with teeth – is reflected as a green claw with sharp nails.

And the work is also extremely violent in its making. Heavy paint is splashed with purpose across these compositions, chunks of text from newspaper form part of the palette, where heads of characters are premised with the face of a snarling jackal or a fierce pig.

The centre piece of the exhibition is an installation contained by the oval space of Circa with a kind of gothic terror. Queen of Scavengers is suspended from the gallery’s ceiling and extends to the floor, featuring a demonic figure made of what seems to be papier mâché, which has myriads of blind black dolls attached to its fingers. As you enter the space, it feels as though you’ve walked into a horror film, and your adrenalin pumps and urges you to flee. But you don’t. You want to look further.

The dolls – children’s play things made of plastic – are blind because their eyes, too, like the rest of their little faces and bodies, are spray-painted black in the direct and almost haphazard manner for which Ngobeni has come to be respected. It’s a violent cauldron of an image which has tremendous impact, but as you come closer to it and feel it attempt to blind your sensibilities from the two-dimensional works on show, you might question its value.

Unlike the paintings and drawings, the work feels more ostentatiously dramatic. Ngobeni’s appeal has been in the deeply evolved images he creates with multiple references layering one another and fighting for your eye in the same image. This Queen of Scavengers seems out there to make you look. And once you have looked, you must draw your eyes away, to the more evolved material.

Having said that, it’s a Queen emblematic of Ngobeni having the creative stamina to continue reinventing himself. He has established a signature modus operandi and critical respect. Queen of Scavengers is the opening of a new chapter, and makes you both afraid and enticed in your desire to peer into Ngobeni’s future.

  • Masked Reality by Blessing Ngobeni, is at Circa on Jellicoe in Rosebank until February 25. 011 788 4805 or visit circaonjellicoe.co.za

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

Love in the time of Palmyra

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I looked away, and it was broken: “Man Turns Away” (2016) wood and oil colours by Clive van den Berg.

During the 1980s, Clive van den Berg made a series of unutterably fine lithographs focusing on Pearla Seidle Gibson who used to wave the troops goodbye, as they went to war. It’s called Farewells; the works are small – almost inconspicuous, but for the understated poignancy that powers them. During the same period, van den Berg made energetic public installations with shards of coloured tiles. A Pile of Stones is a monumental body of work which draws together his rich embrace of colour with deep reflection that is about love, loss and holding tight.

On one level, it’s an immensely angry show confronting murderous homophobia in a world broken by religious fanaticism, but it takes the specifics of Syria and Iraq and pushes the details into a universal ennui. You come out of this exhibition wanting to embrace the people in your life because of how one can fall, or be pushed, lose or be lost.

The three-dimensional works evoke Anton van Wouw’s reliefs in their mood and detail. The difference is van den Berg elects to work with stubborn mediums, choosing wood over clay, steel over bronze casting. And the effect, particularly of the supremely potent installation in the middle of the gallery, is devastating. It offers a bleak, yet breathtakingly beautiful reflection of the messy tenderness of the human condition.

His Man Turns Away is a quiet piece, but one charged with emotional dynamite. It is a simple sculpture in wood and oil of a man, on a triangular support attached to the wall. His posture is so loaded with simple and irrevocable desolation, that it will continue troubling you. Why has he turned away? What does he leave?

But this is not only a sculpture show, and Van den Berg’s drawings and paintings on canvas and paper lend even more fierceness, but a great sense of perspective to the body of work. As it attracts you in with mad psychedelic shapes, so does it taunt your attraction with fierce gesture and brutal images. Van den Berg uses undiluted colour without tentativeness reflecting the pummel of angry fists smashed against rotten ideas on large canvases.

Harsh striations of electric blues and oranges maul and caress his images with anger and sadness at the horror to which the world continues to degenerate. And yet, yet amidst all that badness and madness, there is levity. There are men escaping torment as they camouflage themselves beneath spots of colour and shadows of lines.

Though focused so bleakly on the machinations of the Islamic State, this is not an exhibition that stands on a soapbox. Rather, A Pile of Stones attests to the fierceness of love and how it can withstand even death itself, but you have to look hard between the murderous anger, broken bodies and muscular drapery to reach this.

When you visit this exhibition, do not forget to peruse van den Berg’s ink on paper works in the gallery’s Viewing Room. It’s a body of 31 drawings conceived with a frank line and an exploratory boldness which lend cogent reflection on an artist at once political and emotional, universal and specific; a man not afraid to go head to head with a block of wood or a lump of steel, and one who can wield a stylus bearing ink with acuity and conviction. It’s a beautiful exhibition.

  • A Pile of Stones by Clive van den Berg is at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until February 15. 011 788 1113.