20 May - 8 July 2023
WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Nightshade, a solo exhibition by Sanell Aggenbach.
A funny quirk about the English language is the accepted use of the nonreferential subject, “it”. It is raining. It is 08:30. The word it fulfills the grammatical role of subject for the sentence. What it lacks is a semantic role. We pretend that these its are stand-ins for clear referents – the weather, the time – and this explanation seems to satisfy, mostly. Sometimes, however –
It is dark.
Here, it lingers. There is no sensible substitute, and while linguists might shrug, the special privilege of writers and artists is to treat anything as a subject, in the philosophical, narrative, or fictional sense. And Darkness is a goodie.
In her new solo exhibition, Nightshade, Sanell Aggenbach has done just that. Turning darkness into a generous character full of lessons, Aggenbach explores the theme of integrous growth in the face of adversity, through a pared down selection of natural studies in painting and sculpture.
As you ascend the ramp at the start of the exhibition, a small offering is visible at the far side of the entrance. A single St Joseph’s lily, hand-carved from Jacaranda wood, lies suspended in time on a small brass-topped shrine. The flower’s saintly name droops with symbolism – purity-beauty-chastity-rebirth-etc – even said to have bloomed in the Garden of Eden where Eve’s tears of remorse fell to the ground. In the vanitas composition, the cut flower has already begun to wither and die, even while we enjoy its beauty. And in a contemporary world, where we have all but ceased to communicate in symbols, a flower holds only memories.
My mother kept a collection of black seeds in a marmalade jar with a checkered red and white top. It was on a corner shelf in the kitchen of the old colonial manor house we lived in for a year or two. I remember them because I wasn’t allowed to touch them, and of course I would, every chance I got – curiously spilling them onto the counter for study, their smooth bean-like shapes tempting and alien, before hurriedly sweeping them back when someone approached. The only other memories I have of that house was burning my arm on a boiling pot, and icing it with the handfuls of hail that had just finished falling outside – and of course, to stay away from the Angel’s Trumpets.
As I grew older, and my mother continued to plant moonflowers in all their forms everywhere we lived, I learned about their propagation. Brugmansia, or Angel’s Trumpets, form part of the larger family of Nightshade, and are extinct in the wild. They are found only ornamentally, or as escapees of cultivation. On one of her nightly walks during a residency on the 300-year-old Twee Jonge Gezellen farm in Tulbagh, South Africa, Sanell Aggenbach encountered one of these escapees.
To walk alone as a woman at night is a rare thing, not only in South Africa. Rarer still, to walk for enjoyment, discovery, contemplation. Finding herself almost entirely isolated in the post harvest lull, Aggenbach made full use of the privilege to roam – photographing elements of the nocturnal farm, the ravine and the dam, spider lilies, the gardens and vines, and of course, the spectacular bell shaped Brugmansia. Growing down in a bog along the back of the main farmstead, Aggenbach witnessed their twilight spectacle, watching them unfurl at dusk and bloom like bright moons, white enough for their nighttime pollinators to easily find them, her eyes growing accustomed to the gathering darkness.
This ‘growing accustomed’ ticked over in Aggenbach’s mind and eventually stole into the studio. Rather than a frog-in-hot-water kind of conditioning (although living and working in South Africa, this socio-political reading is not lost on her), she looks generatively at the slow and gradual increments of confidence which follows the first faltering steps as we adjust to difficult circumstances.
Either the Darkness alters—
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight—
And Life steps almost straight. 
We find, or create, methods of navigation – constants that can only be revealed to us in times of particular darkness. In a spectacular combination of observation and interpretation, a nearly 2 x 3 meter rendition of the Southern Cross forms the climax of the exhibition, paying homage to the plotting of the stars. Across from it, Mars is in retrograde and titled Be-Bop (2023), neatly tying our melting pot of contemporary cultural chaos to the influences of the ageless and unthinkable universe.
In a continuation of her Foreign Bodies series, a small garden of copper botanicals rises from low plinths and rough hewn wooden bases across the exhibition floor. If not for the first hand-carved flower at the beginning of the show, it might have been easy to overlook that these sculptures have wooden cores of invasive Camphor. Like time capsules, these botanical studies sit fixed in perfect monochrome bloom forever: A Canna, from the artist’s childhood summers in hot and dry Worcester; another Lily, long-stemmed and upright; a humble, unidentified vetplant.
Although there are technically six paintings included in Nightshade, Aggenbach’s technique of layering and turpentine washes to create the effect of a double-exposed image, often means that the same painting is made two or three or many more times on the same canvas before settling in to its ghostly glow. Lilith (2023), Sub Rosa (2023) and We are Made of Stars (2022) all emerge from the pitch as if slightly radioactive, their equivoque titles referencing myth, literature and science. As a character, Lilith in particular seems to sum up much of how we’ve come to know Aggenbach’s practice – always in celebration of the slightly witchy.
Text by Shona van der Merwe