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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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

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.

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.

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.

Blinded by Kentridge

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ORDINARY MAGNIFICENCE: Kentridge’s polyptych of birds in flight make this exhibition something to see. Photograph by Geoff Sifrin.

AS SOON AS most gallery visitors and those who boast an interest in the creative industries announce that there’s a William Kentridge exhibition in town, a sense of respectful silence embraces the conversation. It’s like a declaration that God has landed in Johannesburg and may be seen on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Kentridge, who started showing his work at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg in 1989 has unquestionably become South Africa’s biggest arts celebrity. He has exhibited all over the world and his achievements boast not only a meteoric rise in the popularity and collectability and prices of his work, but also a work ethic that is genuinely second to none. But when it comes to critically engaging with Kentridge’s work, you’re up against such a powerful brand that has been so successfully marketed that you’re robbed of opinion as you stand in front of the pieces.

You shouldn’t be, however. While Kentridge’s drawing skill in this exhibition remains unequivocally magnificent and surprisingly quiet in a beautiful polyptych of a bird in flight, rendered with a fat brush and loose ink on disused ledger pages, this exhibition’s central piece is a videoed tour de force which closes out a regular visitor who hasn’t done sufficient homework.

Academic art at its most dangerous, this Kentridge installation is violent and an assault on the senses. Lots of things happen in this utterly impeccably made three-channel experience, which is punctuated by words and phrases like bullets from guns, as it is supported by the faux-military and vaguely threatening pomp and circumstance of brass band music, with a sense of quirky and revolutionary malevolence.

You’re not sure if these slogans are Kentridge’s own words, or ones which draw from Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book or a combination of the two. A gun-toting Dada Masilo, in a red beret, a guerilla-evocative skirt and traditional pink satin ballet shoes, features considerably, as do other performers in surreal contexts. But there’s a level of ominous undercurrent that is difficult to read with clarity, refuting the basics of the opera tradition.

Is this an opera? Is it an embryonic gesture toward an opera in the tradition coined by Monteverdi in the 17th century? Or should it be seen to conflate with the rudiments of Chinese opera that stretch to the Zhao Dynasty in early Chinese culture? That it’s Chinese is obvious. This work  premiered in Beijing and is currently on show in Seoul and it speaks with impeccable design and digital articulation of the contradictions in modern China. You’re left not really knowing where it all fits together, but infused with a sense of awe that you have been in the presence of the master, that is actually blinding.

You don’t have to believe this – but you do have to read the supporting material, where you will glean that Kentridge’s Notes toward a model opera is informed by a lecture Kentridge delivered in 2015 in Beijing about Chinese culture and what it is currently undergoing. How you, as a Johannesburg gallery visitor, get seduced by this material, is a different issue. Without focused immersion into the underpinning literature, you’re left with an overwhelming after-image of a cosmogony of beautiful birds, aggressive filmography, dance and collaboration which is exhaustive.

  • Notes towards a model opera, an exhibition by William Kentridge is at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg until February 12. The exhibition features contributions by Dada Masilo (choreography), Philip Miller and Johannes Serekeho (composition), the First St John Brass Band and members of African Immanuel Assemblies Brass Band (music performance), Zana Marovic and Janus Fouché (video construction), Yoav Dagan (video installation), Gavan Eckhart (sound mix) and Greta Coiris (costumes). It is performed by vocalists: Joanna Dudley, Tlale Makhene, Ann Masina, Moses Moeta, Thato Motlahaolwa and Bham Ntabeni; instrumentalists: Waldo Alexander (stroh violin) George Fombe (tuba), Adam Howard (trumpet and spoons), Charles Knighten-Pullen (guitar),Tlale Makhene (percussion) and Dan Selsick (trombone); and performers Dada Masilo, Tlale Makhene, Thato Mothlaolwa, Bham Ntabeni and Thabane Edwin Ntuli. Call 011 788-1113 or visit goodman-gallery.com

Courting Excess with Erotica: Frances Goodman’s discomfiting one-liners

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Snakes crawling out of the wall might not necessarily be your idea of a beautiful art exhibition, but it will certainly get your attention, and in some of these glimmering, scaly works, you will be horrified, but you won’t want to stop looking at them. In her fourth exhibition at this gallery, Frances Goodman, who has earned her reputation for pushing boundaries into the domain of female vanities, goes one step further.

The bulk of the work on show is made of commercially produced false fingernails and eyelashes. A restrictive medium, you might think. But no. Goodman has glued together millions of synthetic fingernails to form the salaciously creepy snakes that are central to several of the pieces on show. Creeping out of walls, knotted slimily together, they’re patterned, they’re scaly, they’re imminently shocking to the senses. You would jump out of your skin if one of these works moved; on a logical level you wouldn’t be surprised.

But the exhibition is not reptilian in focus. Rather, its underlying thread is that of excess and erotica and in commenting on how women adorn themselves, Goodman has created something that is both compelling and repelling at the same time. A work called Ophiophillia is a veritable nest of snakes, all wriggling together. In another work, called Lacquered Up, comprising red fingernails, blood is evoked, gushing and haemorrhaging from a pipe in the wall.

Less successful pieces comprising glossy parts of cars, great big slices of smooth fibre glass and glittered beads and diamante also feature, but the impact of these pieces is as subtle and developed and a smack on the head with a sledgehammer.

But the work doesn’t stop there. In the Jan Smuts Room on the far right of the gallery, Goodman has created a body of close to 60 small ‘drawings’ made of faux eyelashes and glue. Some bear texts, others are more abstract, but the most successful of these curiously compelling pieces evoke the obscure eroticism in a Japanese woodcut tradition, featuring octopi. There’s a tentacle here, a bit of octopus-evoking texture there. The drawings touch and meander through traditions and notions of eroticism, in a creepy, discomforting way. They feel like drawings made of pubic hair, as they embrace wit and sensuousness with a critical edge that’s hard.

Nail Her is not a show that kow-tows to a conventional art buyership, but it is certainly art that makes you look, even though it does slip into the crevice of the one-liner: once you’ve seen it and ‘got’ it, you move on.

  • Nail Her, a solo exhibition by Frances Goodman, is at Goodman Gallery in Rosebank until May 31 (011)788-1113.
  • A version of this review appeared first in the SA Jewish Report.