Seeds of the Fig
26 November - 31 March 2023
WHATIFTHEWORLD is pleased to present Seeds of the Fig, a group exhibition curated by RESERVOIR and hosted at the Twee Jonge Gezellen Farm in Tulbagh.
Something about figs stirs up an uncanny childhood reflex. A coming of age or a loss of innocence – perhaps from a misidentification of the fig as the Biblical forbidden fruit, or otherwise early exposure to Sylvia Plath’s metaphorical tree: Each fat purple fig representing a full and vastly different future, and her protagonist sitting paralyzed with indecision while the figs rot and fall to the ground. To harvest fig seeds, you’re supposed to scoop them out and soak them in water for a few days. Viable seeds will sink to the bottom of the container, and the rest can be discarded. Those sunken seeds will have already absorbed moisture and softened enough to crack and germinate quickly. Through patience – proof of principle. And then there’s the fig wasp.(1)
In studio practice, and especially for artists working in sculpture, periods of gestation between ideation, experimentation and materialisation are critical. Sometimes multiple periods between those actions, sometimes ranging over years. In an accompanying 2020 exhibition essay, Anna Hartford laments how “writers look on in envy at the celebrated evasions of artists. We are stuck using the disastrously explicit medium of language: always forcing us to say something, to make a claim.” Open-endedness and ambiguity are the particular privileges of the artist. To describe what each and every one of these sculptures are about – how they subtly connect with each other and sit like beacons within a particular art period, niche to contemporary [South(ern)] Africa – could only corrupt the complexity and entanglement of their individual stories. Each work is a node, proof of life, marking a certain point in the artist’s timeline and their extended network, and the largely abstract nature of most of these works are effective exactly because of their open-endedness and ambiguity.
Artist-curator-polymath Mitchell Messina recently described collaborative practice as being similar to the pushing around of the planchette on a ouija board, which except for being absolutely perfect in describing the fluid ‘where the hell did that idea come from’ nature of cooperative exhibition-making, struck a chord with a word that had been following us around during the curatorial process: Communion. Communion with the dead, with ancestors, with each other, with the material, with the land. The act of sharing or exchanging intimate thoughts and feelings, especially on a mental or spiritual level. Not only is the venture of bringing together these sculptures a form of fellowship and rapport between their makers, but many of the works have the votive feeling of offerings. Whether or not this points to a shift towards the spiritual in contemporary art remains to be seen, but certainly an overwhelming proportion of the conversations with this group of artists and others indicated a sense of yearning – for closer communities, for meaning and gentleness, perhaps, as a lockdown response, for the opposite of sequestration.
While a lot of the world has responded to post-pandemic freedom with what is being called ‘revenge travel’, perhaps the real craving we feel is not to fly or drive or boat, but to walk – accessing what Rebecca Solnit aptly describes as ‘the endless fertility of walking’:
The rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts. This creates an odd consonance between internal and external passage, one that suggests that the mind is also a landscape of sorts and that walking is one way to traverse it. A new thought often seems like a feature of the landscape that was there all along, as though thinking were travelling rather than making. And so one aspect of the history of walking is the history of thinking made concrete—for the motions of the mind cannot be traced, but those of the feet can.
Imagining, after reading Solnit’s poignant passage, the heatmap of a 300-year old working farm, concentric and crisscrossing beats forming a concentrated scribble of activity, and the slight deviation in those patterns that can occur by placing a sculpture in the middle of it. How we encounter this new object, move towards and around it, and how in turn it can cause even a minor disruption in the pattern of our thinking. Through looking and walking, finding harmony of body, mind and environment.
In a way, Seeds of the Fig is RESERVOIR’s first exhibition, at least in the sense of time and a percolating concept. It started with the quiet knowledge of a dormant sculptural mass, a set of ten caskets by Ghanain artist Ibrahim Mahama that were locked away before they could be seen, mere weeks after the opening of the inaugural and ambitious Stellenbosch Triennale in February 2020. It’s funny how certain objects or buildings, rather than images, can embed themselves into your subconscious and resurface years or even decades later.
Language often does this too – names or words that are recontextualised with age. Tulbagh is one of those names, a valley originally named after the region’s red sand by the Sonqua, a group of pastoral first nations Khoekhoe who had resided in the area for thousands of years.(2)
By intervening on the landscape of Twee Jonge Gezellen with sculptural works, the space becomes a kind of apiary, with each sculpture representing a ‘hive’ of activity, influence and history: The artist, their practice, the research and the references to broader canons, the sociopolitical placement, from studio to situation.
In essence, this exhibition is about time, and the productivity of waiting. Time spent in the studio, time walking to and from a sculpture in progress. Time between contemplation and the implementation, both for the artists and us as curators, all the while relying on the creative debris that collects and engenders new pursuits.
(1) Over the course of 80 million years, each species of fig tree has evolved alongside its own species of fig wasp. Each fig relies on its wasp for pollination, and each wasp relies on its fig for reproduction. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the connection “has become so profound that neither organism can exist without the other”. If the fig is male, the wasp will mate successfully and its larvae will burrow out and carry the pollen on to other trees. If the fig is female, the wasp will die alone. In either case, the fruit (which is not a fruit at all, but an inverted cluster of flowers) contains specific enzymes necessary to decompose the singular wasp or the couple by the time it’s picked and eaten.
(2) Only 70 years after the arrival of the Dutch, loss of land, war with the free burghers over food and water, and finally the decimation of smallpox wiped out nearly the entire population. The rest were forced into white-owned farm labour under a series of legislation, starting with the Caledon Code in 1809, a disguised form of slavery which restricted their movement beyond the farm borders where they were required to have a ‘fixed place of abode’. Their children would be indentured servants under law to ‘repay’ the Boers for their food and board, the complex heritage of which is still evident today on the same farms that existed 300 years ago. (Dooling, Wayne. 2005. The Origins and Aftermath of the Cape Colony’s ‘Hottentot Code’ of 1809)