Silent poems, confrontational prayer mats and girl talk

PowerPoint Presentation

THE power of the silent story: Stills from an untitled work by Reshma Chhiba. Photograph courtesy Fried Contemporary Gallery.

AS YOU ENTER the gallery space at Fried Contemporary Gallery in Pretoria, there’s a work on the exhibition A Flood in My Hands that you may overlook in error. But when you do see it, you experience a great quickening of your nerves and soul, that embraces the heart of this exhibition.

Suspended from the gallery’s ceiling it’s a devastatingly subtle essay by Alka Dass in the form of a disused baking tray and pigment. It tells of female biological and cultural identity and a play on words that will make you quiver. It’s entitled Battery not included. Is this about menstrual blood? Is it about battery as in abuse? Is it an ironic comment on the things society dictates women must do to retain a sense of equilibrium, to fit in?

Either way, it’s a cornerstone to this exhibition, which by dint of its title seems to promise an engagement with female identity in a very direct and visceral sense. Don’t, however,  expect the kind of sensationalist blood paintings that women of 1970s in America made as feminist statements. This exhibition is about women, but it’s a lot more subtle than a splashing of menstrual blood and a tossing about of tampons. It’s also a lot more sophisticated.

As you enter the space proper, the work of Laylaa Jacobs grabs you in an unexpected way, and does not relent. Evoking a work exhibited more than ten years ago by Dutch-born artist Daphne Prevoo which featured a knitted red jersey with sleeves that bled into the gallery space, the work, entitled Armoured Fulla spills onto and fills the floor. It is redolent of the atavistic quality that is abstract yet alive, present in Nandipha Mntambo’s latest works. Comprising a prayer mat as support, the work contains a vomiting out of texture created with steel wool. It’s impeccable and unmanageable in the emotional impact it presents, and you find yourself glancing back at it as you peruse the rest of the exhibition, with slanty eyes, just to make sure it has not moved from when last you looked at it.

The works are not accompanied by interpretations, to the credit of curator Aysha Waja. While many of them are obviously dealing with the complexities of being a young Muslim or Hindu woman in a contemporary setting, the visual potency of many of the pieces shouts beyond religious dogma or ritual, and without explanatory texts to hold onto, you’re forced to really look, to allow your spirit to engage with the work on a level that has little to do with religion or prejudice.

It is in this way that you’re led to read Dass’s work on this exhibition as a contemplation of beauty rituals. You get to see Jacobs’s use of prayer mats as comment on prayer practice and at Anastasia Pather’s jewel-like little compositions which blend collage with image, reference with texture meticulously.

Simphiwe Buthelezi plays with a meshed support in her work, challenging the conventions of the paintbrush as she assaults the idea of texture. Her work A moon whispered let me love you, is strong and provocative because of the use of silence – the open grids of her canvas which give the composition a breath of life.

While unframed works pinned onto the wall with a bulldog clip and Chumisa Ndasika’s flow chart with a mirror at its core grapple with professionalism in this context, it is unequivocally, Reshma Chhiba’s Untitled two-channel video, originally made in 2003 which steals the heart of the show.

You’re not given to understand what the Hindu woman on the left of the work is gesticulating about. Neither do you know what the black woman on the right is saying. But you’re compelled to watch them again, and again in their passionate expressions.

There’s a synergy between this work by Chhiba and her kum-kum powder-imbued two dimensional works on this show, dealing with the Hindu goddess Kali in a pared-down and abstract way, referencing the potency of her 2003 exhibition.

All in all, while there are fine accents and beautiful choices made in A Flood in My Hands, there’s an area of disparity. The exhibition is premised on words and phrases by Turkish poet Seher Çakır (b. 1971) and Nayyirah Waheed, a young contemporary poet who is renowned for the magnificence of her words and her Instagram presence: Achingly beautiful lines and phrases which will resonate with your soul. They are, however, written on the gallery walls in a slapdash and crooked charcoal hand which blurs the magic in this exhibition: you want the words to sing to you with impeccable clarity. They should be written with a lyrical hand and an outstretched sense of calligraphy. This presentation brings what could be a profound statement about women, ritual, identity and gender, from a promising sophistication to something young and relatively unformed.

But given the core of Chhiba’s work, the writing on the wall is forgivable. “Sometimes the night wakes in the middle of me,” writes Waheed, “and I can do nothing but become the moon.” You will feel the same relentless choice.

  • A Flood in my Hands curated by Aysha Waja comprises work by Simphiwe Buthelezi, Reshma Chhiba, Alka Dass, Laylaa Jacobs, Chumisa Ndasika and Anastasia Pather and is at Fried Contemporary in Brooklyn, Pretoria until March 3. 012 346 0158 or visit

Behold: Echidna, monster of monsters


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 or call 011 403 1055.
  • The gallery will be closed from December 16 until January 8.