Behold: Echidna, monster of monsters

Nandipha

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 stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.
  • The gallery will be closed from December 16 until January 8.
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Kaddish for Elu

put-your-heart-under-your-feet-...-and-walk-Fat-2017-Two-channel-digital-video-sound

HORROR of loss: Steven Cohen in his work ‘fat’. Photograph courtesy Stevenson Gallery.

SOMETIMES THE RAW howl of loss is the only thing possible. Sometimes it is more potent than any words which are in danger of teetering anywhere near the threat of idle platitude. Sometimes the raw gesture, the unthinkable act of personal anger and sadness in the wake of loss is more appropriate than the mannered one that is societally acceptable. If you have watched a loved one degenerate into base matter through illness, before they vanish from your life, part of Steven Cohen’s current exhibition will hit you in the solar plexus and it won’t let go until you have howled that memory back into subservience. put your heart under your feet … and walk! is a potent and utterly beautiful tribute to Elu, Cohen’s life partner who passed away suddenly in July of 2016. It resonates unapologetically with deeply personal references and a brutality of fresh and alarming aesthetics which Cohen and Elu developed over the last 20 years.

In many ways, this exhibition seems deceptively modest in size. It comprises three videos and a room full of ballet shoes. And as such, it is an informal taxonomy of Cohen and Elu’s rich collaborative career. As you look at each different installation of used and bruised, torn and smashed pink pointe shoes on their little podium, you recognise snippets and talismans drawing from the rich and taboo ethos of South African performance history – of which Cohen and Elu were the centrifugal force from the late 1990s – effectively pulling and pushing at the sense of possibility in a medium that had no history yet, in this country.

There are monkey skulls in ballet shoes, hunched like demons; there’s a mummified cat strapped to a shoe. Hitler puppets and anti-semitic propaganda vie with ornamental roosters and Victorian purses. There’s an anal probe and a startling array of sex toys and domestic tools, not to forget an elephant’s tail, a pair of purses made of real toads and a pair of phylacteries strapped over a rolled up Torah Scroll.

There’s a piece of Vallauris pottery in direct and shattering reference to Cohen’s unforgettable work Golgotha (2009), which too, dealt with loss – that of his brother. And as you ponder each tableau, each combination of values with the ballet shoe pinned or sewn, nailed or enfolded around the historical reference, you see in your mind’s eye, snippets of a career that was almost thwarted by a frightened public, but a career that developed nevertheless.

Cohen speaks and writes of the Elunessless of his life, since the passing of Elu. But when you enter this space, there is something so richly personal, so irrevocably about the dancer himself, that it feels that Elu is present. Immortalised. Dancing with his characteristic sense of anguish and self-belief, in these shoes, or those. In pain and in joy.

The eponymous phrase that serves as the title of this exhibition was uttered to Cohen after Elu’s passing. It was uttered by Nomsa Dhlamini, the woman who raised Cohen and became a significant collaborator in his later works.

Cohen explains in the gallery’s flyer when he told Nomsa – who was then 96 – that Elu had died: “I asked her how I could continue life alone, she said ‘put your heart under your feet … and walk!’” The first video work that you encounter in this exhibition is one of Cohen having the soles of his feet tattooed with this phrase. The rest comprises a real manifestation of how he is making this come true.

And effectively, that’s where the aesthetic, moral and emotional pinnacle of this exhibition lies. The video works which are screened in the second half of the gallery space. Named simply fat and blood, these two works have a duration of just over 6 minutes each and yet, as you sit there in the darkened space and the abjection of these images infiltrates your head and your heart and your ability to breathe fluently and your mind’s sense of smell, they will touch you in a place that you might not have known you had, until this experience. And when you emerge from having watched them, you will be stilled. And silenced. And it will feel like hours, aeons, have passed.

In these works, Cohen brings his grief to a South African abattoir, and dressed in a white tutu, with his characteristic head of makeup and butterfly wings, he is filmed dancing his heart out, in wrenching tribute to the loss of life. It’s a tribute to the stuff and muck that constitutes what a living being is and a paean to all that in the world that must be. It’s like watching a crime, a snuff movie, a manifestation of great religious sacrifice all rolled together. It’s the kind of work that is art but transcends art and pushes it back into the realm of spiritual gesture.

It isn’t easy to see. It’s not meant to be. But it is devastatingly potent and will not let you go flippantly. Above all in this quintessential gesture of tribute and mourning, of horror and celebration, Cohen’s aesthetic remains intact and doesn’t begin to touch the slippery mess of sensationalism that pervades the grimy commercialism of our world. Indeed, you might be told to see it, for sensationalist reasons. But if you’ve looked properly, when you have emerged, you will be a different person. As you might have been when you visited Deborah Bell’s recent exhibition, or Minnette Vári’s.

  • put your heart under your feet … and walk! by Steven Cohen is at Stevenson Johannesburg in Braamfontein until November 17. Visit stevenson.info or call 011 403 1055.