4 December - 21 January 2013
WHATIFTHEWORLD / GALLERY is pleased to present Positive Tension, an exhibition showcasing new work by a diverse group of South Africa’s most exciting, established and emerging contemporary artists. The exhibition does not aim to assimilate the varied concerns and practices of the group into a single narrative, but rather provide an insight into the scope of artistic production in South Africa today. The exhibited works point to a shifting dynamic between the artist and the society in which they live. These concerns are articulated through personal, political, figurative and abstract forms. Positive Tension refers to both the intricate dialogue that can be achieved by juxtaposing seemingly disparate works alongside one another, whilst simultaneously highlighting the engagement with, and the visual response to, the contentious issues that occupy our taut social fibre. Positive Tension thus intends to act as a platform for critical dialogue and exchange.
The archive has long been a rich source of material for artists interested in the truths and ambiguities of the photographic image. Working with a highly personal narrative, Sanell Aggenbach draws on family photographs as a starting point for a portrait of her younger self. Titled, Mommy as a dancer, the work posits a carefree identity that seems impossible to imagine in her current adult roles of artist, wife and mother. The first of a new series called Famila Obscura, the self-portrait is placed somewhere between the memory of pure escapism of youth, and the burden of adulthood. Sidestepping the dilemma of subjectivity and the dichotomy of traditional portraiture, the image focuses on the complex ambiguity of memory and fantasy.
Whilst Aggenbach uses family archives and autobiography, Julia Rosa Clark uses a different kind of accumulated ephemera to express a personal and uncomfortable relationship to her position as a white woman in South Africa. Acknowledging her unwillingly complicit position of privilege due to historical circumstance, she confronts us with this uncomfortable truth. Using an assemblage of tourist trinkets from the apartheid era to depict crudely simplified and “idealized” landscapes. She also, quite literally, supplements this with rose tinted glasses. These visually seductive glass vessels hide sharp and potentially dangerous edges, acting as a metaphor for the perils of living in denial, excess or the self-imposed ignorance of broader social and political conditions found in the privileged classes of South Africa.
Following on from Clark’s commentary and discomfit around the issue of “Whiteness”, Rowan Smith takes a seemingly irreverent position in a series of scribbled statements. Referencing a kind of “note-to self” diary entry, the statements sarcastically prod at the complexities of dealing with white identity in post apartheid South Africa. Like all social satire, a darker undercurrent motivates Smith’s flippant tongue-in-cheek remarks. This becomes apparent in his photographic and sculptural work: Untitled (Burn) and Untitled (Tyre). Untitled (Burn) is an eerily beautiful series of photographs showing the slow burn of a hand carved wooden tyre. An obvious reference to the practice of “necklacing” associated with apartheid era protest, it is an issue that has recently resurfaced in the form of mob violence in both xenophobic and vigilante attacks in the severely under resourced informal settlements surrounding South African urban environments. The tyre, made during Smith’s Master’s Degree in California, has a sense of dislocation. The appropriated symbol of violent protest is placed in sandy turf and removed from the chaotic urban scenes of confrontation in which we are accustomed to seeing it. This kind of de-familiarisation transfers the viewer into a space of quiet contemplation, as the normal terms of reference fall away, and the tragic implications can be seen for what they are.
In the work of Cameron Platter, film noir, anthropomorphic tales of sex, drugs, excess and political skulduggery create a web of dubious motives and unfortunate victims. Platter’s narratives are both a cautionary tale, and a lament of societal decay, exposing the empty rhetoric of consumerism and political sloganeering.
Working with a more visually subtle, yet equally direct critique, Zimbabwean artist, Dan Halter, addresses the dilemma of the post-colonial state and its attendant colonial past. Using texts by writers like George Orwell, Chinua Achebe and Joseph Conrad, and conceptually re-appropriating their craft and language, his work poignantly illustrates how effects of colonialism are literally interwoven into the fabric of contemporary sociopolitical conditions. In this particular piece titled, Nervous Conditions, Halter uses text from the novel Nervous Conditions, by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, which is set in post-colonial Rhodesia during the 1960s. It attempts to illustrate the dynamic themes of race, class, gender, and cultural change during the post-colonial conditions of present-day Zimbabwe.
Continuing with the thread of displaced cultural identity and the merger of the colonial past with present reality, Oliver Kruger’s work presents us with the incongruous imagery of black bagpipers. Taken at a school in Pretoria, the institution is modeled on the British public school system and, as such, incorporates these Scottish traditions into the extra-curricular activities. Ironically, Bagpipe bands as we know them today were first formed by Scottish soldiers serving in the British Army as a way of asserting their cultural independence from the British regiments. Now in a third cycle of assimilation, the children of these particular middle-class black families are adopting it. In interviewing the students photographed, Kruger found that participation was motivated by a desire to belong to a homogeneous group.
Moving towards abstraction: John Murray, Rodan Kane Hart, Lyndi Sales and Morné Visagie engage with surface, structure and form.
Drawing inspiration from the formalist and minimalist tradition, as well as the work of artists like Robert Smithson, Rodan Kane Hart’s reductive structures are intersecting forms based on the patterns that result from the urban architectural landscape.
Continuing in the emphasis of compositional elements such as line, shape and texture, John Murray’s work creates a tumbling, leaning and overlapping series of colour, which shape the patina of the painting surface, evoking the early 19th century collages of DADA and Constructivism.
In Peter Eastman’s work, Untitled, considered mark-making creates waves and visual rhythms. The canvas becomes a palimpsest for the careful erasure of the originally primed surface and the accumulative addition of unique scratches. Engaging with drawing-as-process, the work brings to mind a statement made by painter Cy Twombly: “Each line is the actual experience of making the line. It does not illustrate. It is the sensation of its own realisation.”
Lyndi Sales’ work, Ontology, refers to metaphysical structure, connections and hierarchy. Visually referencing cell structures or molecules, Sales creates a fragile network of nodes connected by paper filaments. The image visible to the viewer appears to be a fractured lunar landscape. A macrocosm rendered using the smallest cellular structures.
Morné Visagie’s expressions of form and colour appear, on the surface, to be structured and rigorous on closer examination on sees that the image is made up of thousands of individual stitches. Visagie explores a range of colours based on memory, representing the sky’s reflection on the water’s surface of the Sibebe mountain pools in Swaziland, where he recently completed a residency. Through pixilation, the image is broken-up into squares of individual colour, transforming it in a way that the image becomes abstract and unrecognisable.
Radically Shifting the focus away from abstraction, Frances Goodman and Athi-Patra Ruga look at gender, tradition and desire.
Frances Goodman’s work, Give as good as you get, forms part of a broader body of work titled the Revenge Series, playing on the stereotype of the emotional and irrational woman, the series consists of a series of car bonnets that are scrawled with the sarcasm and vitriol of a woman scorned in love. Using bonnets Goodman uses the car as powerful symbol for both materialism and desire and, by extension, the idea that you can own what you desire. Drawing attention to the sexual economy of relationships where often sex is used as a currency. Goodman critiques the unspoken yet explicit understanding of the power dynamics that underpin many relationships.
Athi-Patra Ruga addresses different issues around gender and rights of passage, drawing on his personal experience as an abakwetha. In The photographic series Ilulwane – the Xhosa word for bat, or literally “one who floats at night,” – is a derogatory term used to describe a young man who has forsaken the traditional circumcision ceremony that forms part of a rite of passage into manhood. Whilst Ruga himself underwent the traumatic traditional practice, he is highlighting the unhygienic conditions under which this surgery continues to take place which can result in HIV infection, septicemia and in some cases even death. Modeling himself into a living manifestation of the Ilulwane within the framework of drag and camp aesthetics, Ruga creates an extravagant and otherworldly figure.