Crying in public; bathed in invincible colour


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

Saving face with ghouls and filigree


SLEEPING with ghosts: A digital work on paper by Banele Khoza. Photograph courtesy Pretoria Art Museum.

THE BELEAGURED GRANDE dame of visual arts in Pretoria, Pretoria Art Museum, is aware of her flaws, which in many respects are not of her own making. Like many state-run institutions dealing with the arts in South Africa right now, the neglect of the building, its environs and the ugly 1970s redolent design is something that is far away from the current issue of the day on a back-burner which may well, at this point, be ice cold. Given these limitations, the heart and soul of the museum – its staff – are clearly still hard at work in keeping the space relevant. On show in one of the museum’s smaller spaces is a gem of a debut solo exhibition by relative newcomer Banele Khoza (b. 1994).

This young product of the Tshwane University of Technology, who comes of a rural background in Swaziland, has seen an exponential rise in the interest his work has enjoyed, and this is completely warranted. Capable of working with such an intimate sense of filigree in his pen and ink drawings, that it sometimes beggars belief, Khoza is stretching his skills into the realm of watercolour and installation.

What you will see in Temporary Feelings, the first solo exhibition hosted under the ‘For Sale Project’ run by PAM – in the past, this project featured group showcases – is ghoulish images, with an intense sense of soul and wit, redolent in many ways of the work of artists such as Robert Hodgins, not only in terms of his wild and oft outrageous use of colour juxtapositions, but in his use of narrative and composition. Khoza looks at life and death, sex and identity in the curious, complex and candid way that is the privilege and blessing of his youth.

The work is not stripped of cynicism, neither is it sugar-coated, but it is exploring the sense of possibility that Khoza’s instinctively beautiful lines embrace.

Central to the exhibition is an installation behind glass deemed “artists’ books”. Gaze closely at these and you will realise that while Khoza has remarkable aptitude for the book arts, these works in question are books bursting with his distinctive mark-making, bleeding over into written words and back into drawn elements, rather than artists’ books with their own identity and reason for existing.

Overwhelmingly, Khoza is not only a ‘new kid on the block’, but the energy and fierceness he brings to PAM’s environment is an injection of hope and new blood for the institution. Whether his transient presence here, in this far room of the museum, has the fire in it to develop its own momentum, remains to be seen. The exhibition’s initiative is the brainchild of its curator, Mmutle Kgokong – and hopefully art lovers will continue to see developments under this young professional’s steerage – that has the power to override PAM’s currently crumpled reputation.

  • Temporary Feelings by Banele Khoza, curated by Mmutle Kgokong, is at the Pretoria Art Museum until September 4. 012 358 6750.

Oh, Pretoria: you’re breaking my art


How does a municipal structure in place for decades, get broken with abandon? Is it a process? What breaks first that is deemed not important enough to fix? The abysmal current state of Pretoria Art Museum is a crying shame to its proud, polished history. It feels as though the best solution is to shut it down and give the vagrants who dry their smalls on the Bartholomeu Dias sculpture in the museum’s park, a roof over their heads.

You drive into PAM’s parking lot – the museum campus occupies a full block of central Pretoria, including lavishly sized grounds and a generously structured building. It’s a weekday at the end of the year. People are on leave from work. Children are not at school. The parking lot has two police vans parked at random in the shade. Their occupants sit in their vehicles, doors open and legs out. It’s lunchtime. They eye you quizzically over their greasy burgers: “What are you doing here?” they seem to ask. There are no other cars.

You ignore that. Mount the stairs to the 1970s-styled venue. And look to the right. The grass is bald; freshly washed T-shirts are drying on the bronze public sculptures.

The security guard sits in her belted bulging regulation trousers, fingers at her weave, phone at her ear. She clearly uses all her airtime and battery power in this job, daily. With her chin, she instructs you to sign the visitors’ book; she doesn’t deign to pause in her conversation to greet you.

You enter the space. The next security guard, behind the desk grins vacantly: R22 he asks. He doesn’t offer a receipt. And if you think of the numbingly boring life he must lead day in and day out sitting in that chair, with maybe three visitors a month you feel this arbitrary sum can be viably chalked down to charity; you let it go.

You ask where the Keith Dietrich exhibition is; the man gesticulates vaguely. “There’s art everywhere,” he frowns. “This is a gallery.” He returns to his catatonic lassitude immediately.

The first thing you encounter on your left is the museum’s curious collection of ceramic art. It’s so precious and fragile no one is allowed to see it. You’re only allowed to peer through the thick and dusty glass at how the works are irretrievably ramped against one another, frozen in time.

And there is Dietrich’s show. It’s a gem in a slum. <<See my review of it here>> Having had your fill of this beautiful, terrible, sophisticated reflection on society and slavery, your instinct is to flee, at once. But fatal curiosity holds you back. And oh my goodness: cheek by jowl with Dietrich’s show is a group of the most wretched little JH Pierneefs imaginable.

Exhibiting art is a complicated exercise. It’s about PR as much as it is about art history. But, it’s also about the behind-the-scenes magic that makes a theatre set design into a whole world, and a dance venue into a place of dreams: an art gallery needs proper lighting. Maybe the Pierneefs in this show are not wretched, but with stunted lighting and a devastating sense of sameness, your mind gets numbed. The works are ignominiously killed. Your sluggishness drags you forward.

There’s an exhibition by contemporary photographer Michael Meyersfeld in the next space. It features giant texts on the wall which scream out at you so loudly they destroy the work completely. You come away unable to remember what the words say or the photographs depict. It’s not clear who made these aesthetic decisions or sanctioned them. Or why.

The next space presents the work of Artists’ Proof Studio artist Bambo Sibiya. Beautiful drawings and extraordinarily fine linocuts hang in a place where clearly the lighting guy got side-tracked. It’s also a space where the low ceiling fights so obviously with the work exhibited, you can’t breathe properly.

Had enough? Probably. But the day would not be complete if you’d missed PAM’s final disappointment. This dreadfully dry potted history of South African art, from San Rock art, through the mists and mothballs of high apartheid to art produced in protest and concept, has been on show for at least a year – I brought students here last February – and everything’s still in the same dusty sequence. You come away from it with moist eyes. From lots of yawning.

It’s in the long, potentially elegant space of the Albert Werth Hall, named in honour of PAM’s first curator, who enthusiastically took up the museum’s reigns in 1963. From the 1990s, this was where the Sasol New Signatures competition happened. [Curiously this competition is still hosted at PAM, but clearly not in the Albert Werth Hall]. It was here where the remarkable, fabulous work of Dutch-born artist Daphne Prevoo was showcased in 2005, an unequivocal highlight for that year, if not that decade, searing images into visitors’ minds that are still there <<see my review of that here>>.

Art history is a funny discipline. While it contains the rollicking beasts in the hearts and sensibilities of talented, sensitive people on the forefront of society who saw things differently and had the courage to say so, it’s about beauty, as it’s about politics and circumstance. And it’s about fun. And horror. But an exhibition is seldom a self-generated miracle. A curator’s hand matters.

Steven Cohen’s Selfish Portrait (1999) an upholstered chair silkscreened and hand-coloured, is the gem on this side of the slum, but it isn’t exhibited in a way to make you swoon.

There’s also lovely Walter Oltmann, Cyprian Shilakoe’s represented, as is William Kentridge. But the show is stripped of wow, bleached of life.

You exit the building. All you want to do is blindly hit the highway, saving off your thirst for the first cheerful roadside fast food place. There’s nothing here to offer you solace. Or even refreshment. Drinking toilet water feels dodgy. The Spar over the road looks skanky. Besides, you haven’t stamina to walk further than your car.

While PAM reeks of apartheid thinking, it really did evolve: the collection started in 1930, in Pretoria’s town hall. PAM’s erection was completed in the 1960s. Indeed, South Africa’s prime minister HF Verwoerd – the architect of apartheid himself —laid PAM’s foundation stone. But the forward thinking in the collection from its very inception was kick-started by work bequeathed from the estate of Sir Max Michaelis (1852-1932), a mining magnate and art patron.

Michaelis’s collection, valuable though it may have been, largely comprised work by Northern Dutch masters from the 17th and 18th centuries, which was already well represented in Johannesburg and Cape Town. It did, however also include work by local masters: Pierneef, Pieter Wenning, Frans Oerder, Anton van Wouw and Irma Stern.

The city council developed PAM’s focus on local talent; the initiative developed its own momentum.

The space was enlarged in 1975 and 1988 and upgraded in 1999. But then what?

Not only does the space today have paltry visitors, creative energy or attention to curatorial detail, not to mention no sense of the sacredness that would make the very idea of hanging freshly washed broeks on the side of a sculpture anathema to even a vagrant, but it also has no internet presence.

It’s unforgivable. Yes, times are tough; money’s too tight to mention and arts funding is always in business’s cross-hairs. But by the same token, this creative industry is replete with talented, brave, passionate people who understand how earning money and doing things that matter must balance. Come, come, Pretoria. It’s time to think out of that box. Or surrender it to the homeless.

<<This article was posted five days ago, on December 25. There has been unprecedented response to it, including a blog which looks at the broader sociopolitical situation. Read it here.>>

Dietrich and the skill of folding sullied flesh with frank words


Has this broken world in which we live, replete as it is with an anything goes mentality, become numbed by the notion of horror? Have images of atrocity lost their bite? This is a question you might be tempted to ask as you enter the space of Keith Dietrich’s astonishingly beautiful exhibition which focuses on crimes and punishments relating to colonial slavery from the late 1600s until the early 1800s. But as you peruse this body of work, which in its thinking and its execution brings the spectre of slavery to the fore, you will be unnerved and seduced in a way that graphic representations of violence just cannot reach.

In 1985, film director Claude Lanzmann’s monumental work Shoah shook the foundation of what Holocaust documentary film should be. This monster production which is over 10 hours in length and which took some 11 years to create redefined the telling of a story of an atrocity. Lanzmann veered completely from any images relating to the series of brutalities which have come to be collectively called the Holocaust. Instead, his panning camera focuses on the beautiful lush green landscapes of the contemporary sites of those appalling acts of hate. And he records verbatim the words, in layers of language, of the witnesses, victims, perpetrators.

In his elegant and enormous yet profoundly subtle exhibition, Dietrich does something that cleaves to an understanding of the underpinnings of Lanzmann’s project. In reflecting on the punishment of slaves in 18th and 19th century colonial South Africa, he quotes from 1 220 legal treatises and record books, offering names, crimes and punishments. Bound magnificently into four artists’ books, the work has no images of brutality. But the words in red ink, accounting these floggings and impalings, amputations and beheadings, punishments for petty crimes, are far more emotive and evocative than any representation could be.

It’s like radio theatre: the words simply and directly open your sensibilities to the real horror under Dietrich’s loupe. The four hand-stitched unique books play with the traditions of bookbinding in a way that skirts notions of fragility and notions of tradition, yielding a kaleidoscopic series of impeccable paper folds that seize you by the eyes and pull you in to its interstices, unyielding.

The walls around the installation feature four photomontaged portraits that focus on the diversity of people who were, indeed, slaves in the period under scrutiny. Each of them – three men and a woman – are strong, iconic images that engage you directly. Each has a text on his or her body, embracing and celebrating a drawing of a vital organ.  It’s a text of records of atrocities, but in its physical presence it entraps your eye, your heart and your sense of history.

Dietrich is a heavyweight – as an academic and an artist – and yet, he exercises great astuteness and restraint, almost levity, in presenting the material in his exhibition. This is not about prowess. The writing and how it relates to the subject matter in its positioning and its layout flows with directness that takes you through geographies and moralities with a smoothness that leaves you thinking – the vessels for the ideas in this exhibition are so beautifully honed and so thoughtfully compiled that they do not stand in the way of the gem-like kernels presented.

But visiting this exhibition in its current manifestation – it will be travelling the country in the coming year – is a stultifying challenge, saved by the strength of the work. While this is a topic for another post and shouldn’t detract from an honest engagement with Dietrich’s work, the Pretoria Art Museum shrieks disrespect for the work it houses.

Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives is an important exhibition, not only in terms of the documentary insights it offers into the grim and dirty roots of slavery in this country, but also in terms of the unequivocal achievement the work offers the rather obscure discipline of artists’ books.

  • Fragile Histories, Fugitive Lives, an exhibition by Keith Dietrich is at the Pretoria Art Museum until January 17. Call 012 358 6750