Bondage. Perversion. Recognition. Retreat. These are among the forms in which love greets us as we enter the Johannesburg Art Gallery. We are here for A Labour of Love, a group exhibition conceived, curated and two years in the making by curators Gabi Ngcobo and Yvette Mutumba.
It takes no more than a single breath — involuntarily drawn — to absorb the quiet fullness of the exhibition’s entrance hall, to sense that something other than a group show is underway.
A row of framed relief prints sits not fixed, but hinged to a wall. They sway imperceptibly like overembellished window shutters, with their carbon paper anatomy just visible in the afternoon light. Struck with a sense of the mortality of paper, of memory, it becomes clear to the observer: we are in the heart of a resurrection.
“You must understand how we were rendered stark naked by the previous government,” says artist Charles Sokhaya Nkosi in his opening address to a full gallery of art labourers and lovers at the exhibition’s Sunday-afternoon opening. “Our artistic expression meant nothing to them. To them we were nobodies. But today, thanks must go to the curators of A Labour of Love for making this heritage a touchable reality.”
Standing at the foot of a floor-to-ceiling printed receipt that details the 1986 sale of 80 original pieces by the late Namibian-born artist John Muafangejo to one Hans Blum of the German mission in South Africa for just over R1 200, it is both easy and jarring to see what Nkosi means by a “touchable” heritage.
The life-sized receipt is painted directly on to the gallery wall among a roomful of Muafangejo’s prints, leaving us unable to divorce the work of an artist known as a “prolific chronicler of historical narratives” from the question of the value of the black artist’s body of work in an economy that would sooner pillage African art than pay for it. Read more