Curiouser and curiouser

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EVERY which way: Geometric forms, a drawing in charcoal and chalk on brown paper, by Gordon Froud. Photograph courtesy Total Exposure.

AS YOU ENTER the upstairs space, courtesy of the architects of the Standard Bank Gallery, there’s an implicit sense of event. This is obviously always the case. But it’s enhanced several-fold in Gordon Froud’s first major retrospective. How? Curatorial decisions have dramatically place a massive polyhedron in your face. This exhibition is about time – but it’s also all about space and geometry and God.

But ah! you might cry, as you summit the staircase, this polyhedron is stumped. It’s got blunt points. It’s dramatic, sure, but there’s something artisanal about it. And then you step a little closer and look at the tessellation wall works, which surround said polyhedron. They may you feel as though you have stepped into a child’s kaleidoscope on crack. And then you realise they’re made of black plastic coathangers and cable ties, and the blunt edges of the polyhedron are appropriate because the whole object is made of giant traffic cones. It is then that the world begins to turn on its axis for you as you engage with this extraordinary exhibition.

Mooted as a mid-career project, this exhibition sees Froud in his mid 50s, offering sophisticated and carefully articulated summation on all that he’s been working on and interested in through his career. And while the geometry is central to it all, there’s an ethos as to where this geometry is found and how it is extrapolated that keeps you curious to the very end.

But more than that, Froud takes the whole of the upstairs gallery space and uses it with clarity and empathy. It’s a humble exhibition that is about the real skills of looking and drawing on supports such as brown paper, but a proud one too, that examines a great diversity of artmaking approaches. Ultimately, it is satisfyingly balanced in the layout of work, which takes you through four ‘chapters’ of possibility.

You do, however, emerge from this exhibition remembering Froud’s fondness for all things Alice in Wonderland.  Not because there’s a Cheshire Cat secreted in the interstices of the lines and circles here, but rather because the mathematical ethos of Lewis Carroll’s madcap ideas are spun under the surface of these works.

And while as a body of work it touches on everything from Jewish to Christian to Hindu to Buddhist splays of spiritual values, it also doffs a cap to Leonardo’s thinking and sees a spot of geometry in the world as it stands. In doing so, it evokes the thinkings of György Doczi on proportional harmonies in nature and everything else.

That said, a couple of series in this exhibition, including the photographs of the figure in geometry, feel almost too diagrammatic and if you’re not in the know in terms of mystical values, they may leave you cold. Similarly, a series of embossed images toward the chronological closure of the show feel so busy that you cannot look at them. But Froud is an interesting character and this exhibition really does go the extra mile in offering something for everyone. It’s astonishing to acknowledge that all of this is the work of one artist.

And further to everything, this society has a troubling relationship of not being able to celebrate its own. For whatever reason. Often an artist needs to go overseas and earn ticks from the so-called “International community” before he or she gets a nod from local establishments. Froud’s show here and now kind of bucks this trend, but for a mid-career show to be mounted in the latter years of as prolific a practitioner as he, feels uncomfortable. However, as you walk through the four chapters of this exhibition, so do you realise that this is most likely where serious fine art in contemporary society is pointing right now: the invested thought. The carefully drawn line. The gesture that is unashamedly analogue. This is an important show for all the right reasons.

  • Harmonia: Sacred geometry, the pattern of existence by Gordon Froud is at the Standard Bank Gallery, central Johannesburg, until June 15. 0860 123 000.
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Mud and the meaning of perfection

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LOOK into my eyes: Muziwandile Gigaba’s Ntwananhle I.  Photograph by Muzi Gigaba.

SOMETHING COMPLETELY ASTONISHING is currently on show at the University of Johannesburg’s FADA Gallery. Named Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys, this exhibition is only up for another day or two, but it’s a gallery visit you won’t regret. This is Muziwandile Gigaba’s masters exhibition and it serves to present this young ceramicist, draughtsman and printmaker within the context of storytelling that takes oral tradition to new, and intensely relevant heights.

Born in 1984 in the KwaZulu-Natal township of KwaMashu, Gigaba draws from an upbringing that was immersed in the simple narrative values defining rural life. In developing his oeuvre, he ciphons out the purity and magic of stories handed down from grandparent to grandchild. You see this shimmering with directness and sophistication in his work, whichever way you look.

Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys crafts a rich and nuanced tale about ritual and presence, fantasy and poverty. It’s at once resonant with ancient storytelling traditions as it is grippingly contemporary. But you do not need to know the intricacies of the tale in order to sit at the feet of these pieces in awe.

Gigaba’s large scale linocuts, while skilled in the sweeping linework and strong reflection on proportion, anatomy and character they embrace, play second fiddle to his ceramic work. They’re biblical in their reach, but almost too painterly in texture to be unequivocally legible as linocuts.

Also, their presence is compromised. As you walk into the gallery, your eye is caught by the impeccable attention to sculptural detail in the ceramic pieces, and it just does not let go. Ntwananhle I and II are hollow works in the aspect of a sculptural bust. They contain electric lights. By and large, this doesn’t feel necessary – the works are so contained and provocative, so detailed and mysterious, they light up on their own. Gigaba’s use of texture and text he intertwined into the surfaces of the pieces are simply breath-taking.

There’s much more than you can grasp in a first visit to this show – some of these ceramic heads have a slot in them, like a money box. It’s a gesture which offers a sardonic look at the concept of saving money but also comments on the preciousness of work of this nature: use these to insert your coins and when they are full, you have to smash the piece to get at your stash.

There’s a hanging construction of ceramic moths in the second part of the gallery space. This is less engaging because of its several nature: it’s busy and is designed to act like a vignette hanging in front of an installation shot from Nirox sculpture garden in Krugersdorp. It’s a not completely successful, whimsical aside to Gigaba’s Ntwananhle tale that feels a little more literal than the heads.

So, when you look at Gigaba’s ceramic heads, you might think of the ceremonial Epa masks of the Nigerian community of Yoruba. The large, almost pendulous orbs peer back at you with a kind of imperial sense of importance, and the detail and texture on the pieces make you want to never stop caressing them with your eyes.

Also on display are selections of Gigaba’s drawing books, which offer a pointed reflection on the artist’s beautiful line work and wise focuses. Gigaba’s is a name to remember, taking the humble medium of mud to new and extraordinarily dignified levels.

  • Ntwananhle and the R2 Boys by Muziwandile Gigaba is at the FADA Gallery, Bunting Road Campus, University of Johannesburg, in Auckland Park, until March 1. 011 559 4555.

Look at me! Portraiture under the loupe

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MYSTERY that haunts. Genna and Felix, the winning work by Kate Arthur. Photograph courtesy Sanlam and Rust-En-Vrede Gallery

THEY MOSTLY GAZE back at you, with intent, each from his or her – or their – own vantage point, through the texture of lines drawn or painted in charcoal, pen or oils. Most embody a sense of mystique and a layering of narrative which makes you ponder and which haunts you as you walk the length of the gallery. These are the top 40 works on the Sanlam Portrait Award 2017, judged this iteration by Nkule Mabaso, Peter Monkman and Carl Jeppe, and won by Kate Arthur.

A biennial competition, started in 2013, it’s a celebration of the formality of the genre of portraiture and the finalists represent some brand new names on the art spectrum and some fresh and delightful, intense and focused approaches to the craft of rendering a likeness. By and large, it’s an extremely traditional project, harking back to the values of pre-Realism Europe where the portrait was king and it was assessed along the lines of very clearly determined rules of representation.

And by and large, what you find here are hard-boiled and clear approaches to the genre, with colour, tone and texture that resonates with naturalistic values, and images you can read very easily. It’s a project which overlooks the values that modernism sprinkled liberally onto representational art in all its tropes, corrupting them and pushing them into a state of torsion.

It’s also a project that flies in the face of self-consciously post-modern or post-post-modern self-reflexivity. Further to that, there’s an alarming absence of printmaking techniques or water colour. Were etchings and linocuts banned in the rules? Was there a point prohibiting water-based approaches? While some of the works are drawings, the vast majority are dinkum traditional oil paintings on canvas. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, there seems to be a very thin margin of approaches selected.

There are many stand out pieces, including Marié Stander’s Gifts from Joseph and Maureen, a drawing of a couple in charcoal and ink; Jennifer Ord’s An Instance of Substance, an image which skirts with light and dark with dexterity and cohesion; and Janine Anderson’s First Day at School, in which you can feel the crisp whiteness of the child’s brand new school uniform with your heart.

Ultimately, after perusing the whole collection, you understand why Kate Arthur’s Genna and Felix was deemed the best of them all. The two characters in underwear on a turquoise background, stand their ground provocatively in a way that makes you look. Their presence is unequivocal and their story, clearly involving forays into gender ambiguity and incapacity, is mysterious, but not too much that you lose focus and not too little that you lose interest. In short, it’s a précis, a haiku of narrative mystique. The painting in ‘real life’ is a lot smaller than what you might think, when you see a photograph of it, but the intensity of Arthur’s focus on the two characters sucks you into their souls.

There are also execrable examples of pieces that seem to contradict the overweening aesthetics and focus on skill of the body of work in entirety, and which seem to mischievously challenge the solemn premises of judging an art competition. A mixed couple with crudely crafted limbs in a cartoonish pose by Jacques André du Toit vies so markedly with the aesthetics of the rest of the works, it creates a mystery of its own. And while some portraits feel more like pictures than renditions which reach from the soul of the sitter to the soul of the viewer, in all, the collection is strong and bold, and very worth seeing.

  • Top 40: Sanlam Portrait Award 2017 is at the UJ Art Gallery in Auckland Park, until March 7. 011 559 2090.

Not just another brick in the wall

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ICONIC gestures and handcut stencils. An image from Ilka van Schalkwyk’s Wall of Song.

ART, ARGUABLY, CANNOT – or should not – feasibly exist without a difficult push and pull, on the part of its maker and its audience. Something has to give that forces an image to trip the light fantastic and become more than just a drawing on a piece of paper. It’s got to do with the muscularity of initiative, that momentum which a project running on its own sense of self sets afire all by itself and changes the nature of the world. This is what you get with Ilka van Schalkwyk’s Throwing Stones, her Masters exhibition, but one which is bold and fascinating enough to skip the boundaries of — and transcend the limits of — university rigour.

This body of 28 pieces of work doesn’t offer the grapeshot effect of a classic student’s thinking. There are no half-cocked pieces here, filling space, and there is no disparity in the 14 bold screenprints on canvas, and the 14 political speeches translated into layered sheets with ghostly images and hand cut text. The works are hung and explained with a clarity of thought that is developed and thought through with a compelling sense of detail.

Van Schalkwyk is not only a very interesting visual artist with a fine sense of texture. She also has a condition called synaesthesia which prompts the colouristic decisions she has taken in making these works. Colour takes a very particular level of meaning and interaction in her brain. It’s a physiological reality. And she is not afraid to play with it and discuss it in her work. You will see little oblong shapes of colour on the speeches, and her choice of colour wheel opposites in the screen prints speak to this, too. You may find her choices garish, but that’s not her problem – or the works’.

If you have synaesthesia, too, even if van Schalkwyk’s choice of colours do not speak to you, you may empathise more deeply with this aspect of her project.

But synaesthesia considered, this exhibition is not a medical extrapolation or a text book case study. It’s not an exhibition about a condition. The body of work, in its precision and its sense of focus and decision, is cohesive, beautifully made and articulate in a way that makes what she terms ‘guerilla’ prints – where she has created stencils out of paper and screenprinted through them – seem like woodcuts. The texture of the works, the way in which the cut lines simplify drawings with a breath-taking sense of succinctness, and the correlation of stencil and colour, image and text is remarkable.

There’s a video at the end of the gallery in which van Schalkwyk is filmed explaining the works. You feel compelled to watch this and understand her decisions taken, but ultimately these very carefully and rather woodenly expressed values are not necessary in the broader project of this exhibition, which is about cultural differentness and protests songs as much as it is about heroes and villains. It’s an astonishing and intelligent exhibition which challenges the idea of academia and its many words, as it shuts doors on the capacity of people without synaesthesia to interpret use of colour.

  •  Throwing Stones: Paradoxical Freedoms by Ilka van Schalkwyk is at the UJ Art Gallery, Kingsway Campus, Auckland Park until January 24. Call 011 559 2099.

 

Blood in the water, a sjambok on the wall

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STAINED sheets and the wrath of Mamma: Frikkie (Zak Hendrikz) and Sussie (Liezl de Kock). Photograph by Jan Potgieter.

THE POTENTIALLY SINISTER and foetid context of what goes on — or used to go on — behind closed farm doors in grim and unbending religious South Africa comes under close and gory scrutiny in Reza de Wet’s riveting tale of incest and dirt, horror and gamesplaying. It’s as much a psychological tale of trauma as it is a foray into really graphic representations of violence, sinister complicity and the space between twisted imagination and terrifying reality. With a sterling cast headed by the inimitable Liezl de Kock as Sussie, the work will bleed into the very interstices of your nightmares, but promises to retain its status as a classic of South African theatre making.

Diepe Grond, the work in its original Afrikaans, saw light of day at the Market Theatre in the mid-1980s and some 30 years later, premised on an English translation of the work by de Wet herself, it doesn’t miss a beat in terms of the grim filth of a mixture between staunch Afrikaans righteousness infiltrated with an unwavering sense of religious value, and a clear understanding of what is evil, juxtaposed with moral values that have had their sanity and their heart torn out by the roots.

Sussie and Frikkie Cilliers (Zak Hendrikz) live in abject filth. There is dirt everywhere. It’s in baking tins and disused food cans and all over the table. You can smell the detritus of their body fluids on the stained mattress, in your mind’s nose, as you look at the careful and rich detail of this set. The chamber pot and the basin of water constitute their bathroom. The nanny, Alina (Thembi Mtshali-Jones) is a maternal yet sinister presence, but she is moulded to fit a traditional understanding of domestic maid in an apartheid South African context. But this is dirt and domesticity with a history that has become frozen by an event.

The set embraces everything, with the dun-coloured screen that allows for shadow against muted light and indicates another room in the house, the raw wood made of what seems to be shards of railways sleepers, and the bed itself. The only anomaly is the shiny surface of part of the construct that seems to contradict the rustic values of the space.

These ruins of what was once a farm house, with the children’s mother and father at its helm is the source of a mysterious and destructive relationship between the family and the dearth of water in the land, as well as a repository for hideous secrets. Which brings Mr Grové (Mpho Osei-Tutu) into the mix. He’s a lawyer, a young black educated man, with a job to do. A will to ratify. Information to relate. He has no idea what he’s in for.

There unfolds the kind of madness that you may recognise from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho, which sees the characters becoming caricatures of their parents with the flick of an eyebrow, the lilt of a word, the gut-wrenching depth of a screech of pain. And you may think of Yael Farber’s harrowing Mies Julie that too deals very explicitly with the mess and rot behind farm doors in apartheid South Africa. But African Gothic stands its own ground and leaves you feeling wrecked for other reasons. The stories that are told between these siblings, and the stories that are alluded to present an understanding of abuse and madness that will keep you riveted to your chair, throughout.

Having said all of that, the work is not completely flawless. There is a sound track which seems to operate on a loop, and sinister music interjects in places where the machinations of the performances say it all with much more muscle. While the blood-curdling giggles of hyenas in this sound track work, it is the music which strips the here and now from the piece and forces you to remember that this is just a play. Further to that, it is something as small as hairstyle and a physique that affects some of the energy of this piece. Hendrikz’s hairdo is fashionable and primed, blond, curly and tapered, and it clashes with the values of Frikkie’s context and his abjection. Similarly, his body is ripped. And tanned. And we see much of it, which is not necessarily a thing to complain of – but in the context of Frikkie, you expect something baser, something paler and thinner, something you don’t want to look at, but do, as we see with de Kock.

All in all, the work is a violent firestorm of political emotions which reflect an understanding of the land and of life in the isolated reality of a disused rural farm, where jackals bay and the wind seeps willy nilly through the walls, where the spilling of blood is present everywhere and the innocence of utter cruelty is splayed out like a springbok. It promises to be one of those cultural imperatives that continues to raise the bar in theatre-making in this country.

  • African Gothic is written by Reza de Wet and directed by Alby Michaels. It features design by Oliver Hauser (lighting and audio visual), Sarah Roberts mentoring students (production), Jo Glanville mentoring students (costume and props), Nadine Minnaar (set), Franco Prinsloo (sound), Madeleine Lotter-Viljoen (costume construction), Caitlin de Villiers (props construction) and Christelle van Graan (make up). It was performed by Liezl de Kock, Zak Hendrikz, Thembi Mtshali-Jones and Mpho Osei-Tutu in a brief season at the University of Johannesburg’s Con Cowan Theatre. This represents phase four of a 13-month project; the fifth phase promises to see the work hosted on national and international stages in 2018/9.

Journey to humanity’s heart, with a lens

By Israel Bansimba

  • Israel Bansimba is a third year fine art student at the University of Johannesburg, who took part in the arts writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen earlier this year.
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MAN with an eye for dance: Seasoned dance photographer, Denis Rion. Photograph courtesy youtube.com

THE MAGIC OF making a photograph work, according to Nantes-based veteran dance photographer Denis Rion (59), happens in the way in which it can capture light and movement. He was seduced by the medium at a young age and realised early on that this would be a lifelong affair. Rion was in South Africa for this year’s Dance Umbrella, as he collaborated with Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena on their work Corps. He chatted to My View about his career behind the lens and in front of dancers.

“Dance is a fundamental element of the culture and identity of each country I have visited,” he says, speaking of how his career has taken him all over the world. He is interested in capturing gestures and movement and his work’s resonance with the dance world felt natural from the start. His work has been characterised by his desire to capture and reflect on the idea of ‘the other’.

Characteristic of Rion’s dance photography is the black background. He explains this, deeming that blackness as neutral: “If the background is the decor, there is the subject plus the decor, but I’m only interesting at the subject, that’s why I use the black background in general.”

On his website, he comments: “My photos offer a still picture of what is most live in us: flesh and emotions, materials and colour, which highlight the magnificent force of movement and gesture, the richness of the diversity of body expression, like a journey to the heart of humanity.”

  • Rion’s work can be seen this week with the performance of Corps, danced by Gaby Saranouffi and Moeketsi Koena in Infecting the City, April 5, 7 at Artscape, Cape Town. Visit infectingthecity.com/2017/

How to put on that tutu and dance, in spite of everything

By Assent Menwe

  • Assent Menwe is a third year fine arts student at the University of Johannesburg. She took part in the arts writing course facilitated by Robyn Sassen.
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PAINTING and dance, courage and tutus: Tamara Osso. Photograph courtesy http://www.thatspace.co.za

TAMARA OSSO’S NEW work, Tutu, which debuted at the 29th Dance Umbrella earlier this month, is backed by a tale of escaping and reorganising social, cultural and personal structures and a focus on the complexity of the ease or difficulty with which the body moves. Osso spoke to My View about painting and dance, tutus and tradition, paralysis and movement earlier this month prior to the performance of her work at the Nunnery.

The work, choreographed by Shanell Winlock-Pailman and Laura Cameron is directed by Osso. It comprises four danced characters: the aloof woman, the busy lady, the man who doesn’t want to be seen and the unstable man. It is performed by Winlock-Painlman and Cameron as well as Nathan Botha and Kgotsofeleng Moshe.

Osso’s inspiration to write the story behind this piece came from her own practise in visual art and her love for movement: in addition to her dance credentials – she learnt classical ballet as a child and has been associated with several contemporary dance companies in South Africa, including Ballet Theatre Afrikan, Free Flight Dance Company, La Rosa Spanish Company and Moving Into Dance Mophatong – she graduated with a Fine Arts degree from Wits University in 2014. Blending her visual art with her dance-based endeavours, Osso is intent on creating a dance language which is fresh and unique.

Expressing frustration with her ideas that have often been forced to leap beyond the boundaries of being paintings, she says that some of her paintings were compromised because she felt an urgent need to express herself through bodily movement as well as with paint on canvas.

But this frustration and sense of urgency to use as much of her energy as possible in creating her work, rests also on her personal circumstances. The mother of a young boy with hemiplegia which is a condition that causes one side of the body to be paralysed, Osso focused Tutu specifically around not being able to move properly. Her gesture reaches from the personal into the universal: We can all relate to feeling physically limited or stuck; effectively our sense of stability in the world is one of the powerful factors that makes us relate to ourselves and how we experience life.

Under Osso’s directorial hand, Tutu describes how we all move differently; some faster and more slowly, based on our personal vulnerability.