Surfacing is a group exhibition which allows for an exploration of the transient space between destruction and (re)construction. The exhibition aims to bring to light the fragments and residues that remain after destruction, and linger beneath a new form. In the preface to the 1961 edition of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre writes “violence is man re-creating himself”. Although Sartre speaks of violence as a necessity for overthrowing colonial power, “no gentleness can efface the marks of violence; only violence itself can destroy them.” This exhibition understands Sartre’s notion to address culpability, selfhood and violence and trauma involved in the process of becoming, scrutinizing and (re)creating.
Liza Lou’s Dirty White (2011-14) is a painting woven entirely out of glass beads. Over a period of months, Lou and her studio assistants from eight different townships in KwaZulu-Natal wove white A4 sheets out of identical white beads. The resulting painting tells the story of its own making: pock marks, streaks, ruptures and dirt are imbedded in a kind of code that speaks of the blood, sweat and tears of everyday life. For Lou, it is precisely in the moments of imperfection that beauty emerges – quoting from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem (1992), Lou explains “there’s a crack in everything, that’s where the light gets in.”
Kendell Geers’ sculpture Country Of My Skull is made from a cannibal trophy from New Caledonia; an artifact that by
its very nature is politicised and stands as a reference to violence and terror. The work’s title is taken from Antjie Krog’s literary account of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission – and expresses the artist’s constant battle between the paradoxical distancing of himself from a prejudiced and vicious heritage and the acknowledgement that he can never be entirely removed from it. In WaitingWantingWastingWorking Kendell Geers has produced a generic bed made from polished steel and razor mesh. For Geers the industrial phenomenon of razor mesh production – based on separation and othering, is a metaphor for the predicament of South Africa during Apartheid – as well as a metaphor for the artist who was born into the apartheid regime and struggled to understand the violence he was born out of and simultaneously born into. WaitingWantingWastingWorking has been made to be beautiful and monumental, while at the same time maintaining the original violence which has so informed Geers’ production throughout his career.
One million points of light by Alfredo Jaar was shot off the coast of Angola, in Luanda. It was taken while standing, facing the ocean directly towards Brazil, in memory of the 14 million slaves sent from Angola to Brazil. Jaar’s photograph is inviting in its beauty and physicality; the way in which the image has been photographed and Jaar’s decision to use a lightbox to display the photograph means that surface of the image becomes almost tangible. It appears as if the light hitting the water becomes a layer that could be peeled back like skin, revealing the deep suffering to which the artist alludes.
In an abridged version of the large installation I was looking back, Mikhael Subotzky investigates the practice and mechanics of looking in relation to the history of South Africa, the history of photographic devices, and his own history as an artist. A number of the works on show have been smashed by the artist, creating a tension between document and object. The shattered surfaces become both unsettling and poignant, both concealing and recreating the image that lies beneath it.
mounir fatmi’s 3D rendered film Sleep Al Naim shows the writer Salman Rushdie sleeping peacefully, his bare chest heaving and falling to the rhythm of his breathing. The film borrows its imagery from Andy Warhol’s minimalist pop experimental film Sleep. Sleep Al Naim suggests the ambivalence of a physical abandonment, quiet and calm. Given the now notorious threats to Rushdie’s life, the film alludes to potential physical threat – and the viewer perhaps feels unease at watching Rushdie in a state of such vulnerability. This unease occurs against the alienation between the viewer and what is happening inside “Rushdie’s” mind – the ambivalence of quiet exists in these moments – when the torments of the mind exist in the unconscious.
William Kentridge’s 2007 body of work What Will Come is both a reflection on the way in which images are perceived and constructed by the human eye and a political statement about the violence and repercussions of colonialism. The works explore the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (at the time Abyssinia) in 1935-1936, drawing a connection between fascism and colonialism. Kentridge describes the works as “involving seeing twice. Seeing the image in one form and then reconstructing the image either in a mirror, or another optical device.” What Kentridge does then, is to deconstruct an image and ask for the viewer to reconstruct it using a series of optical devices. The drawings become fragments and remnants – with the full image existing only in the transient space of each viewer’s eye – and by extension mind. In evoking Italian amnesia about its colonial past, and the need for the re-evaluation of its violent heritage, Kentridge explores the duality of selfhood trauma involved in re-evaluating the self.
In Candice Breitz’s new video installation Treatment, the artist brings an original soundtrack to three key scenes from director David Cronenberg’s seminal film The Brood. In focusing on the family trauma at the heart of The Brood, Breitz pays tribute to Cronenberg’s ability to draw audiences into psychological identification with his characters, suggestively adding the voices of her own family to a palimpsest that already folds Cronenberg’s family narrative into that of the fictional family in The Brood. Staging an analogy between cinematic role-play and therapeutic role-play, The Brood and Treatment share – with their directors – a deep-seated interest in the formative nature of family relationships, a serious investment in the analytical potential of the moving image, and an absolute conviction in the potential of fiction to delve beneath the surface of things.
Haroon Gunn-Salie’s installation titled Amongst Men considers the figure of Imam Abdullah Haron, and the intersecting histories of Islam and the resistance to colonialism and apartheid in South Africa. The installation conceptually recreates Imam Haron’s funeral, which was attended by over 40 000 people after he was murdered by Apartheid police in 1969, by suspending a series of cast kufiya. It is accompanied by a haunting sound element: a recording of a poem written and read by James Matthews, which questions “Was he a patriot or terrorist?” – a reflection on the Imam’s legacy of resistance in contrast to his treatment at the hands of the Apartheid government.
Johan Thom’s work Recital (lend me your ears) consists of three prayer bead necklaces each fashioned from wooden beads, music strings and fifty individually engraved razorblades. Like a real set of prayer beads, the object is made to be handled as part of a highly personal, meditative reflection. The work exists as a silent symphony playing out in the mind of the viewer, and is constructed from the artist’s personal history as an immigrant from Europe. Thom states “this symphony has as much to do with my family, religion, as with war and the discovery of gold in Southern Africa in 1886. But more sinister meanings are present here: The appearance of sharp blades on the necklace serve to remind of the actual collection of ears as trophies by soldiers during the colonial wars in Africa. Instead of a crucifix each prayer bead terminates in another object associated with the larger history by and through which my identity is constructed.” As with Kentridge’s film, where the complete image exists only in the mind of the viewer, Thom’s violent heritage is replayed in the mind of each viewer who interacts with the components of the artist’s inherited history.
In The English Garden, Kudzanai Chiurai investigates Zimbabwe’s violent history as well as the way in which Africa is imagined in the west. Chiurai questions the “contemporary African condition” by juxtaposing the past and the present of a continent in the constant grip of violent civil wars. The painted body emerges from Chiurai’s landscapes as an ambivalent site, of simultaneous oppression and agency, as it negotiates the limits of action and freedom. It is precisely those moments of oppression and agency – destruction and reconstruction – that Chiurai explores, and that his characters simultaneously lament and cherish.