Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

South Africa’s Forwards: High scoring centennial survey at National Gallery greets World Cup

Report from… Cape Town
1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective
Iziko South African National Gallery
April 16 to October 3, 2010

installation view of the exhibition under review, with, foreground, Mary Sibande, Conversation with Madam CJ Walker, 2009. Mixed media, life size synthetic hair on canvas. Courtesy of Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg
installation view of the exhibition under review, with, foreground, Mary Sibande, Conversation with Madam CJ Walker, 2009. Mixed media, life size synthetic hair on canvas. Courtesy of Gallery MOMO, Johannesburg

Riason Naidoo has hit it right. Young, smart and very individual, Naidoo is the first Black director of the Iziko South African National Gallery, appointed just a year ago. His first exhibition, 1910-2010: From Pierneef to Gugulective ( April 16 to October 3, 2010), seizes the moment and leaps into the spirit of World Cup celebration, matching the excitement that is running like an electric current through this country. It is an excitement generated not only by football, or the novelty of hosting hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors – it is the exhilaration of seeing ourselves with new eyes, as part of the larger world, and of standing together as one nation behind one team, the experience of national pride legitimated.

With something like this in mind perhaps, Naidoo chose to mount an exhibition that would “turn the focus in on ourselves” and give visitors to the National Gallery, both foreign and local, “a reflection of our own art stories”. To explain the title, Hendrik Pierneef was an Afrikaner landscape painter of 100 years ago, much admired by the establishment: seven murals by him are in South Africa House, Trafalgar Square, London (which became a focus for anti-apartheid activism). Gugulective is a concept as much as a group. It was started in 2006 by a collective of young Black artists, actors and dancers living in Gugulethu – a disadvantaged township outside Cape Town – in the hope of stimulating social interaction and political change. Now it includes artists from other townships. In spite of the chronological order of its title, the hanging of this exhibition takes us in the opposite direction, moving from the current works of the Gugulective back to the beginning of the White Afrikaner narrative, when the British and the Boers achieved Union, solidifying White rule.

But far from being a studious plod through history, Pierneef to Gugulective is more like being at the coolest party in town. With over 700 works by that many artists, all crammed together and jostling for attention in a not very large space, there is no point in trying to give proper attention to everybody. You can either skim the surface and enjoy the general atmosphere or get into a huddle with a few pieces. I was grabbed by Mary Sibande’s In Conversation with Madam CJ Walker (2008) – a sculptural installation of a woman being unravelled by her maid, and by Steven Cohen’s video Chandelier (2001), which shows him near naked and teetering on fetish high heels in a Johannesburg squatter camp, and by Deborah Bell’s luscious oil painting, Lover’s in the Cinema (1985). The exhibition occupies the entire gallery, with most works taken from its own rich collection. With a modest budget and limited time, all five of the museum’s curators collaborated – Naidoo says he told them to play – resulting in an intoxicating get together of artists and ideas that looks light and spontaneous even though a lot of heavy issues are included.

There is color, wit and gravitas, not only within the works themselves but in the unpredictable relationships set up between them. Even for those who know little about South African art, there is the fun of spotting celebrities on the crowded walls, with artists like William Kentridge and Marlene Dumas given no special treatment. There is plenty of emerging young talent at this party, the heady excitement of South African artists who are beginning to be noticed by the rest of the world. Seeing them under one roof is like picking the cream off the best recent exhibitions – but these are the artists who are always seen. Their appearance on biennials and international shows adding to the great feeling of being a respected part of the international art world, just as the general population loves being part of international football. Like the vuvuzela – the ubiquitous plastic trumpet that gives every holder the power of expression at football matches – individually these artists may have a lot to say, but all at once they can be taxing.

A happy surprise is the inclusion in Naidoo’s wide embrace of older generations, of familiar works long out of circulation, and of little known works. Black artists and photographers who were denied access to art schools during the apartheid years, and mostly ignored by galleries, are treasured guests at this party. Naidoo says he is especially preoccupied with ‘bringing together neglected history’. Some works, like Ronald Harrison’s Black Christ (1962), which the apartheid regime banned, are heard about but seldom seen. And there are seminal works, like Willie Bester’s 1913 Land Act (1995), a bench assembled out of found materials with the words “Europeans Only” carved into it; or Jane Alexander’s The Butcher Boys (1985), three lifesize half-human figures that expresses the bestiality of the times.  At the other extreme, you want to say Wow! to VladamirTretchikoff, the wildly popular realist painter previously considered too kitsch for the National Gallery – How did you get invited!?

Lionel Davis, a Cape Town artist, says that he has never seen anything that appealed to him as much as this show. “Every moment that I spent in that place was a joy to me,” he said. After seven years on Robben Island, Davis was kept under house arrest for a further five years, living in a tiny flat with his mother within the Coloured community of Cape Town – which is when he started painting. He enjoyed this rare opportunity to see works of artists he knew from the past, and said that although Tretchikoff was scorned by academics and intellectuals, reproductions of his work hung in every Coloured home. He loves the way the walls at this exhibition are packed with art, he says, because they remind him of an ordinary home, and show “how a museum can be an extension of oneself”.

installation view of the exhibition under review, including Ronald Harrison, The Black Christ, 1962.  Iziko South African National Gallery Permanent Collection
installation view of the exhibition under review, including Ronald Harrison, The Black Christ, 1962. Iziko South African National Gallery Permanent Collection

Naidoo, who says that the first time his parents went into a museum was when he was working in it, wants the National Gallery to belong to the wider public, and to attract communities who do not normally visit. He started as a painter, but was driven to curating by a passion to rediscover forgotten artists like, for instance, the 1950s photographer Ranjith Kally, whose work he unearthed from old files and has exhibited around the world. He says his aim is “to open up our gallery to beyond our borders, especially to the African continent”.

But Naidoo has received some harsh criticism. In an attack which became personal, one prominent local critic accused him of trashing the reputation of the National Gallery, of having no curatorial experience and of being out of his depth. Others have equally strenuously defended him, praising the exhibition’s feeling of freshness and air of vitality. But in general, the Cape Town art establishment seems to be hedging its bets – for the moment – about an exhibition which in so many ways goes against the accepted international approach to art presentation.