Of goosebumps and brokenness

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

Intoxicated by the freedom to make art

STEEPED IN HUMILITY AND HARD WORK: David Brown passed away suddenly. Photograph by Robyn Sassen

Arguably one of the most important sculptors in South Africa of his generation, David Brown passed away tragically suddenly on March 18 in Cape Town. My View was privileged to have interviewed him in January.

He balked, laughingly and humbly, at the idea of being a South African institution, but his deeply cynical, darkly hilarious works from the 1980s formed a curious backbone to what South African sculpture was – and is still – about. Akin to the harsh absurdity that German Expressionist artists like Max Beckmann and George Grosz articulated in the mid-20th century, the work is eerie and witty, explicit and dramatic.

“It’s hard to make pretty things in South Africa,” he spoke of his series, the Eleven Deadly Sinners, shown in 2015 at Woodstock’s Smac Gallery. Inspired by the Roman busts in the corridors of FTSE, it’s about “the banal professions: Butcher, Soldier, Lumberjack, Boxer … complicity is the theme. These are the ugly side of humanity.”

Brown’s Smac show was his first in over 20 years. “Freedom is intoxicating,” he expressed aversion to the gallery circuit.  “You walk into the studio. Put on some rock ‘n’ roll. And engage the material. It’s a good thing, but you slip out of the public eye. Art is not like running a race, but if you can crack a big commission, it helps. I don’t know what’s going on in the art world right now. I just make things.”

Inspired to be a sculptor by his father-in-law, the artist Cecil Skotnes in 1975, in 1986 he rocketed to the attention of South Africa’s art world, with Tightroping. It was a winning entry in a competition mounted by the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which had just built a contemporary wing. Brown’s work was chosen with that of Willem Snyman, Gavin Younge and Bruce Arnott.

Tightroping, featuring a man and a woman splayed at outlandish angles to one another was installed in front of the gallery, facing Joubert Park. “It became a favourite place for wedding photographs,” said Brown from his gorgeous studio in Cape Town’s suburb of Woodstock, the repurposed high-ceilinged red brick building which was once a brewery.

“I made it in my first proper studio: a broken down dilapidated ruin of a building on the border of District Six. It just fitted: the front hit the door and the back hit the wall.”

But Tightroping’s saga didn’t end there. Ten years later Brown was telephoned out of the blue by JAG’s director, Rochelle Keene. “‘Are you sitting down?’ she began. ‘You won’t believe this. Your sculpture has been stolen.’ I was horrified,” he described how the heavy bronze piece had been violated. “The female figure on the rocket was wrenched off, as was the flag.

“All that was left was the figure on the back of the chariot with a megaphone. The woman must have been thrown over the wall. I thought it would have been chopped up for scrap metal immediately. The JAG flew me up there to see the damage. Some people thought it should be restored. Some thought it should we should just forget about it. They moved what was left into the museum.

“Seven years later, the artist Willie Bester phoned me: ‘Hey, I found your sculpture on a scrap yard,’ he said. ‘I’m putting it up in my garden; it’s got a big crack down the middle. Can you fix it?’ I visited Willie and discovered it had a huge wide crack. Fortuitously I think someone in the scrap business had seen it as something that might have had some value and they put it aside. The work had a stainless steel blade, which was still there, amazingly.

“Willie was so crestfallen that the thing had to be returned to the JAG. He’d paid R5 000 for it. Then the Sunday Times did a story on it. I don’t know how they picked up on it, but the scrap yard got a fright, and they paid Willie his R5 000.

“Then it came back here. It stayed in the studio for about two years. I had it up on a winch hanging against the wall and then finally – the JAG didn’t have money – I actually fixed it for nothing. The gallery sent me the remaining piece of the sculpture. I was working with the industrial foundry, so I got a dirt cheap price for that and the transport. And that was the end of it.”

He slipped easily into a philosophical tone about the fallibility of things. “It’s all about the dynamic of making things. The supreme freedom. In the end, it doesn’t matter really, whether they get sold or smashed up for scrap.”

Brown, who was an immensely prolific and intrepid explorer of new ideas and new ways of expressing them, felt strongly about how South Africans don’t look after sculptures. “They buy a Merc and clean it every day, but they buy expensive sculpture and expect to look after itself. It’s devastating. My wife Pippa and I were in Berlin for a year and we saw all the monuments and sculptures. They’re all immaculately polished and they look beautiful.

“Maintaining a sculpture is neither expensive nor difficult. When my sculpture was installed in the gardens of the University of Cape Town, I trained a young man, Nicholas Shemane, to restore sculptures. He goes there three or four times a year: cleans them; checks all the bolts are tight; waxes and polishes the bronze, so it looks great. There are 64 sculptures in the collection and he does the whole lot. It’s a job. You’ve just got to know how to make a beeswax polish and you need a panelbeater’s buffing machine and a few rags and some scourers. That’s all.

“The complete disregard for public sculpture is not about malice. It’s benign neglect. I believe there won’t be anything left in 50 years… art is understandably right down there in priorities, but still …

“In the 1980s, there were so many competitions, so many awards, so much was happening. I think some of the most interesting art was made then. But that seems to have all fallen away,” contemporary young artists disappointed him. “They all want to be superstars. Tomorrow. Our art world has become isolated and competitive. The collaborative generosity I knew from people like Neels Coetzee, I don’t see any longer today.”

As a young sculptor, Brown, who was educated at Westerford High School and UCT’s Michaelis School of Fine Arts taught at the Ruth Prowse Art Centre briefly. “I worked like a demon: Teaching three days a week, working the rest of the time. I think I was an okay teacher, but I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to make.

“Anyway, I have kind of survived. And miraculously I have gotten this far.”

Brown, born on February 3 1951 in Johannesburg, died from a suspected aneurysm and heart attack while surfing in Muizenberg. He leaves his wife, Pippa and son, Jules.

JAG’s brave curators, absent support

Most recognisable girl in the room: Daniel Gabriel Rosetti’s 1866 Regina Cordium, on show in the JAG’s centenary exhibition.

As you walk into the majestic space of the Edwin Lutyens-wing of the Johannesburg Art Gallery – through the entrance that faces the railway lines – you are confronted with two utterly superb Dumile Feni drawings. They tower over you as they reach, in their characteristic brutal charcoal linework toward the space’s high ceiling, effectively taking your breath away.

And, by the time you have meandered through the rest of the exhibition spaces constituting the celebration of the building’s centenary, you kind of wish the Dumiles had indeed taken your breath away, and that that was all you’d seen.

Not that the quality of the work on display is bad; rather the all-pervading sense of neglect hangs like a pall over the gallery, which shows its most precious gems in earnest honour of the building’s milestone. But further to that, a lack of guidance or literature and the absence of any gallery staff – it was a Sunday early in the year that I visited – leaves the space feeling ominously mausoleum-like.

The entrance you use finds you slap-bang in the middle of one of the curated exhibitions, but there’s nothing to advise you of this fact; you walk hither and yon until you encounter a different exhibiting context. And still, nary an indication that this is the second of the suite of six exhibitions curated for the building’s milestone. This lack of pamphlets or information or help of any description leaves you focused more on where one exhibition ends and the next begins, than on the work itself.

There is, admittedly, a large text on each of the exhibitions’ introductory walls, but you have to find it to appreciate it. And just over a month after the grand opening, a lot of the letraset-like letters stuck onto the walls are beginning to peel off.

While the exhibitions individually and collectively speak of much focused work and thought by the curators, and are clearly projects at great pains to showcase the JAG’s wonders, there are unforgivable horrors in how the museum’s maintenance is neglected. Yes: the roof has been attended to and hopefully over the last couple of rainy days has proved watertight, but there are so many areas in this beautiful space that suffer the indignity of rot.

Maybe two thirds of this museum should have been shut to the public, for the centenary and the remaining third be given the careful attention to detail on lights, walls, floor and ambience it deserves.

Having said that, the exhibitions’ curators must be lauded for bringing out old treasures and precious secrets from the JAG’s holdings – some you may know well – they may be your favourite favourites that resonate with times past in this gallery’s auspicious history, including the Picasso harlequin drawing, the Whistler etchings, the Siopis Melancholia painting that launched her popularity in the 1980s and the 1866 Daniel Gabriel Rosetti Regina Cordium, arguably the collection’s most recognised paintings.

Others you may not have seen before, such as a remarkable piece by Gerard Marx near the gallery’s entrance that reflects in a three-dimensional mosaic on an aerial view of Johannesburg, and a glorious Adolf Jentsch landscape and some incredibly fine John Koenakeefe Mohls. And yet others may trigger your memory of exhibitions that you’ve loved. There are some stunning works by Gladys Mgudlandlu, Jackson Hlungwanes to make you gasp and fierce and haunting works by Valerie Desmore.

In the space containing the display of African traditional works – from the collection of the Oppenheimer family, the display of objects might be encased in glass cabinets, but this doesn’t blur their unequivocal magnificence. From decorative vessels to headrests, walking sticks to figures, these mainly wooden pieces honours its promise of being among the best in the world.

The exhibition of Pre-Raphaelites curated by Sheree Lissoos is delicious, if you can pull your eyes from the flawed teal walls on which they’re hung and look through the ill-lit glimmer. It’s a crying shame: the works are jewel-like, reflecting a mid-19th century work ethic, touching on values opposed by radical artists such as the Impressionists. In these conjoined rooms, curated with a sense of the works’ emotional and historical value, you understand why the paintings are scorned as mawkish, but also to appreciate how all-consumingly beautiful they are.

Still armed with nothing, by way of literature or explanation, your ramble may lead you to the exhibition of works on paper, where you will see some Daumiers, a Hockney and some Kentridges to knock your socks off, or you may reach the exhibition of video art in the JAG’s most modern wing which was built in the 1980s.

In this latter exhibition, alongside wall signage, there is an open door, through which you see a stash of broken gallery furniture: if this is part of performance art, it is not marked as such. There’s also a very large unlabelled abstract painting on the wall alongside the men’s lavatory: was this too big to have been moved? Why is it unlabelled?  It is somewhere between that point and the Mohau Modisakeng video work that you cannot see because it is labelled as such but not switched on or working, that you experience the desperate need to get out of JAG altogether, before you lose all hope altogether.

The JAG’s centenary is an important series of exhibitions. Not only because of the work showcased, but also because in its upkeep and staffing it reveals the kind of benign neglect that you see in the Pretoria Art Museum, discussed here. At the JAG, however, there’s an urgent focus on the part of the curators to hold onto what we have by way of culture. But it’s a gesture that so obviously lacks support from the civic bodies under whose responsibility it falls, it is quite simply a disgrace.

  • The JAG’s centenary on until March 1 comprises: Curator Sheree Lissoos’s exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite work; Encore, an ensemble of the JAG’s popular favourites; Moments in a Metropolis, curated by Tara Weber, is an exhibition of work on paper; Pastoral Pieces: Significant African Objects is curated by Karel Nel and Philippa van Straaten; South African Art 1940-1975, is curated by Antoinette Murdoch; and The Digital Underground, a glance at electronic and digital art, is curated by Musha Neluheni. Call: 011-725-3130