Five reminders of how visual artists can invoke and stir deep emotions

Sikhumbuzo Makandula’s ‘Ubuzwe II’, 2016, Digital photograph: Inkjet on Epsom Ultrasmooth. The mural kaSebe/Sebe’s Lip (2011) is by artist Buntu Fihla.

Review 2016: This has been a year most of humanity would like to forget with war, disasters, racism, sexism and, especially in arts and culture, the deaths of revered icons. But it is also in the arts and culture where people look for and find hope. The Conversation Africa has asked a number of our contributors to give us five books, records, buildings, works of art and so on in their field that made a difference to them in 2016. Here is fine arts scholar Sharlene Khan’s year in review.

When the invitation came to reflect on five visual artwork highlights of 2016, my first reaction was “I’ve been stuck in Grahamstown and haven’t seen much artwork”. But on reflection this small university town (in the mainly rural Eastern Cape province of South Africa) had a fine share of exhibitions this year.

1. “Ubuzwe” - Sikhumbuzo Makandula

For Makandula’s graduate exhibition “Ubuzwe” (nationhood) in the Albany Museum Alumni Gallery, one enters a darkened space and is met with huge digital photographs of the artist in his iconic red Catholic cassock.

Makandula cuts a lithe figure, yet his presence in his works is anything but. In the video “Isigidimi” (messenger), Makandula’s lonely figure, Indian ghungroo bell a-clanging, navigates the Ntaba KaNdoda monument. It’s an Israeli-inspired legacy from President Lennox Sebe‘s rule in the apartheid-era ethnic “homeland” of Ciskei, which apart from its monolithic outer appearance feels like a state of abandonment within.

In a powerful scene, Makandula stands in barren concrete room in front of the symbolic crane of Ciskei –- a mural remnant called Inyeke kaSebe/Sebe’s Lip (2011) from artist Buntu Fihla, its bloody beak lying at its foot –- clanging away.

Although not a Catholic, I associate the sound with a procession of authority, the marking of the redeemed or a kind of exorcism. Perhaps Makandula offers some kind of spiritual cleansing of the many ideologies gone wrong that mark this place. One word followed me throughout the exhibition though: “fong-kong” (fake product). Like this tsotsi-taal (township slang) word, Makandula is masquerading as a redemptive figure, but has no redemption to provide except perhaps reflection on our past, our present, our sense of personal and collective self.

Such monuments signify a false dream, a separatist ideal that seemingly has no place in contemporary South Africa, but which our segregationist reality belies. “South Africa” is more aptly described by its fong-kongness. Our fong-kongness may, in fact, be the reality that we should be seeking rather than scary “nativist” visions of self (whether this is Black/White/Indian).

2. “Lefa La Ntate” - Mohau Modisakeng

From ‘Lefa La Ntate’ - Mohau Modisakeng (2016)

Modisakeng’s Standard Bank Young Artist 2016 exhibition “Lefa La Ntate” (my father’s inheritance) consists of a set of photographs and a performance, plus a series of four videos. Modisakeng’s performance is set around a wooden table that is being incessantly carved into by a number of black bodies, who at particular intervals or sounds change and cross seating, but never stop their work.

A young black “baas” (boss) in Trilby hat and whip sits at the head of the table. At the very far end of the room are bags of coal which, during the performance, are heaved upon the shoulders of a strong young black man, carried across the length of the table and emptied in front of the baas. Each time he does this, the young man’s face is contorted with hatred. It finally boils over, with him and baas-man engaging in a physical altercation. Baas-man’s cap, when it falls off, results in white dust falling over him, revealing his white state of mind. The works speak of the daily grind of men working amid the bowels of South Africa’s earth and economy whom we have betrayed in the light of day.

3. “Noka ya Bokamoso” - Lerato Shadi

Shadi’s “Noka ya Bokamoso” (river of the future) saw yet again the power of the live performance that has become a key strategy in visual arts. For a week, she sat for eight hours a day without eating or speaking knitting a red scroll. On one of the large walls were the traces of three red circles made up of affirmative writing (“I am…”) by Shadi which she also erased and marked again.

‘Noka ya Bokamoso’ - Lerato Shadi (2016)

Part of the falsity of colonial mythologies is the imagination that others can be erased. Erasure is never that simple or complete. The erased leave marks, traces, stains which others follow like a forensic investigator or a shaman and suddenly the invisibilised speak again.

In a smaller contained space, her new videos left me queasy. In the first we see a Spandex-ed figure roaming a dry arid landscape, the strange creature at odds with its locale.

In the second video, we see the disjunctive qualities of the first video continued as Shadi swallows and gags on earth and in another segment, on wool which she weaves into a phallic-like shape with her tongue. The video is painful to watch and at times I was close to gagging.

As a signifier, earth could represent one’s home, closeness, the stuff we are made of and return to, so why does she gag on it in the same way she does with the wool? Why is it not digestible? Shadi here perhaps yet again shows that ideologies and metaphors are much easier than the complexities of real world histories and signification.

4. “Crossing Over” - Mathias Chirombo

From Mathias Chirombo’s ‘Crossing Over’ at the National Arts Festival (2016).

During the National Art Festival I encountered a small exhibition entitled “Crossing Over” by Zimbabwean Grahamstown-based artist Mathias Chirombo. It was full of blue paintings – marked by unrecognisable forms that seemed carved out of the paint to have lighter blue forms that were composed of the white of the canvas etched in with the stain of the blue oils (seemingly a manipulation of a palette knife on the surface).

In his artist statement he talks about losing his father not very long ago and that the works are the expression of the pain he feels, the sense of loss that is incommunicable. I want to weep. I lost my father last year and, even on days when the pain is not overwhelming, the universe-sized hole inside me at losing one of the people who knew and loved me before I was born, is beyond my linguistic ability. But Chirombo manages to somehow capture something of it in carved blue paint. Loss, not just as a feeling, but as space where memories that don’t make the “Top 100 highlights” reside.

5. “Ke Lefa Laka” - Lebohang Kganye

Kganye’s Bamako Photography Biennale 2015 award-winning work “Ke Lefa Laka” (my inheritance) is composed of two series of works which deal with oral family histories and memories, as well as personal archives which are our family albums. In a series of digital montages, Kganye overlays images of herself dressed up similar to images of her mother from days gone by. Kganye’s mother passed away in 2010 from sudden illness.

The works commemorate a feeling only those of us who have lost a parent know – the moment of looking at a love so great and trying to find it in the image of those we have lost, and, perhaps, rather trying to locate ourselves. In “Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography”, we see philosopher Roland Barthes using the same impulse gazing at a picture of his deceased mother, trying to find one that most captures her essence, falling short and theorising on our relationship with photographs.

In an image-saturated world, it perhaps feels like we are beyond being moved – we have seen it all before. And yet, I am reminded sitting here in this “dorpie” (small town) that visual artists have a way of moving us beyond this feeling, of invoking and stirring deep emotions in us. In the failure of monument(al) projects to capture memory and ego in exactly the right proportions, these artists’ works are instead smaller moments of time and feeling that unite us in our remembrance and sense of fong-kong selves.

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