Mud and the meaning of perfection

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LOOK into my eyes: Muziwandile Gigaba’s Ntwananhle I.  Photograph by Muzi Gigaba.

SOMETHING COMPLETELY ASTONISHING is currently on show at the University of Johannesburg’s FADA Gallery. Named Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys, this exhibition is only up for another day or two, but it’s a gallery visit you won’t regret. This is Muziwandile Gigaba’s masters exhibition and it serves to present this young ceramicist, draughtsman and printmaker within the context of storytelling that takes oral tradition to new, and intensely relevant heights.

Born in 1984 in the KwaZulu-Natal township of KwaMashu, Gigaba draws from an upbringing that was immersed in the simple narrative values defining rural life. In developing his oeuvre, he ciphons out the purity and magic of stories handed down from grandparent to grandchild. You see this shimmering with directness and sophistication in his work, whichever way you look.

Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys crafts a rich and nuanced tale about ritual and presence, fantasy and poverty. It’s at once resonant with ancient storytelling traditions as it is grippingly contemporary. But you do not need to know the intricacies of the tale in order to sit at the feet of these pieces in awe.

Gigaba’s large scale linocuts, while skilled in the sweeping linework and strong reflection on proportion, anatomy and character they embrace, play second fiddle to his ceramic work. They’re biblical in their reach, but almost too painterly in texture to be unequivocally legible as linocuts.

Also, their presence is compromised. As you walk into the gallery, your eye is caught by the impeccable attention to sculptural detail in the ceramic pieces, and it just does not let go. Ntwananhle I and II are hollow works in the aspect of a sculptural bust. They contain electric lights. By and large, this doesn’t feel necessary – the works are so contained and provocative, so detailed and mysterious, they light up on their own. Gigaba’s use of texture and text he intertwined into the surfaces of the pieces are simply breath-taking.

There’s much more than you can grasp in a first visit to this show – some of these ceramic heads have a slot in them, like a money box. It’s a gesture which offers a sardonic look at the concept of saving money but also comments on the preciousness of work of this nature: use these to insert your coins and when they are full, you have to smash the piece to get at your stash.

There’s a hanging construction of ceramic moths in the second part of the gallery space. This is less engaging because of its several nature: it’s busy and is designed to act like a vignette hanging in front of an installation shot from Nirox sculpture garden in Krugersdorp. It’s a not completely successful, whimsical aside to Gigaba’s Ntwananhle tale that feels a little more literal than the heads.

So, when you look at Gigaba’s ceramic heads, you might think of the ceremonial Epa masks of the Nigerian community of Yoruba. The large, almost pendulous orbs peer back at you with a kind of imperial sense of importance, and the detail and texture on the pieces make you want to never stop caressing them with your eyes.

Also on display are selections of Gigaba’s drawing books, which offer a pointed reflection on the artist’s beautiful line work and wise focuses. Gigaba’s is a name to remember, taking the humble medium of mud to new and extraordinarily dignified levels.

  • Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys by Muziwandile Gigaba is at the FADA Gallery, Bunting Road Campus, University of Johannesburg, in Auckland Park, until March 1. 011 559 4555.
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Books that redefine the universe

By Sinead Fletcher

  • Sinead Fletcher is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg who recently took part in the Arts Writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.
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A man for all books: Professor Buzz Spector. Photograph by Sinead Fletcher.

“MAKE YOUR OWN book, Buzzy,” was the instruction that a three-year-old Buzz Spector remembers most clearly as the trigger that started his illustrious career as a book artist.  Arguably one of the superstars of the Booknesses Colloquium and Exhibition – currently on show in Johannesburg – Spector spoke to My View whilst he was in South Africa for the opening and conference hosted at the end of March.

His mother’s instruction came with his first 16-page, brown craft paper book that was sewn with red yarn. This was the paper in which his three-year-old’s sister’s diapers, freshly delivered from the laundry came wrapped in. Spector explains that this moment and this investment of a kind of creative autonomy, planted the seeds of interest which began his exploration and fascination with the book.

These days, armed with qualifications in the field from the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, and the University of Chicago, Spector, who is currently a professor of art at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art at Washington University in St Louis, enjoys exploring the making of artists books by way of altering already established archival, record keeping encyclopaedias and almanacs, which boast graphically and typographically identical layouts. Working with great writing – philosophical or fiction – is a difficult process, he says,  as it requires him to explore and read the texts carefully and deeply.

Not every book that makes for great reading served his purposes though. Many do not “suit my method,” he says, explaining that he can go many years before finding books which are suitable for his forms of book alteration. The criteria which Spector follows to find his ideal book include the institutional nature of the text, the quality of paper that the text is printed on, the sturdiness of the binding, the physical properties of the dust jacket and the presence or absence of mould or mildew.

“All of these concerns, from root materiality to critical reading, have to be in play for the work to begin.”

Spector knows South African art making well. He considers Willem Boshoff, who he’s known since 1995 a “kindred spirit”. Articulating great admiration for the work of William Kentridge, Spector also mentioned that recently he has become more aware of books made by artists such as Stephen Hobbs and Stephan Erasmus.

Having worked at a few paper mills, over the years, including Dieu Donné in Brooklyn, New York, Spector says he has been “impoverished” with his selections of paper thus far and is now “looking for the buffet” after being exposed to the work of Mary Hark and other young South African artists.

Describing the Booknesses Colloquium as having had a quality of urgency that showed both in the enormous emotional investment of professionals associated with the University of Johannesburg people – David Paton especially – and in artist book collector Jack Ginsberg’s desire to enable the exhibit to spark a transformative social interest in South Africa, he said this urgency was reflected a sense of caring and desire which, within the international community, he explains, “promotes urgency in reawakening our interest to go out and promote our practise.”

Spector spoke of the multiple panels in the Colloquium, which focused on a rich mêlée of books-related issues, including the notion of the book’s relevance to culture as well as the problem of the book being exhibited as a stillness of form whose “meaning arises in motion.”

  • The Booknesses exhibition, comprising the collection of Jack Ginsberg and curated by David Paton, is on show at the FADA Gallery on the Bunting Road Campus of the University of Johannesburg and the UJ Gallery on the Kingsway Campus, until May 5. Contact David Paton on: dpaton@uj.ac.za or 082 888 4859. Or visit website: http://www.theartistsbook.org.za/