THE RAW & THE COOKED
Anthropology decrees that the raw/cooked axis is characteristic of all human culture, the ‘raw’ associated with the natural, the cooked with the cultural. But of course, it’s not that easy to separate nurture and nature. Given that ours is the Anthropocene Age, one defined by interpenetration and contamination, neat binaries no longer hold. The world is fluid, and yet, we persist in divvying it up. Indeed, ours is an Age of Extremes.
The game called ‘Opposite’, in which one person says ‘hot’, another says ‘cold’, is something to which we’re hardwired. In modern art, a telling distinction long in operation is primitivism and classicism, the former seen as an outlier wild energy, the latter as a civilized and sedate one. This prejudicial assumption is deep-rooted, the foundation of Europe’s ‘Civilizing Mission’. Though, when Kurtz in the Congo jungle in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness cries – ‘exterminate all the brutes’ – you wonder who in fact is sane and rational, the white supremacist imperialist or those he has oppressed and perceived as brutish? Every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism, notes Walter Benjamin. Paradox is key. Despite our clinically neurotic desire to divide the world, the syncretic prevails.
In two solo shows at Graham Contemporary, in Hyde Park Corner Johannesburg, we see the work of two very different painters, Bob-Nosa and Andrew Kayser. If Bob-Nosa conjures the barbaric and primitive edge associated with Basquiat, or street art, it is because defacement and dissolution is integral to his energy-field. He works at the limits of composure and sobriety, the execution is feral, the mark-making convulsive.
LEFT Bob-Nosa Uwagboe (b. 1974), Power to the People, Acrylic and Spray Paint on Canvas, 153 x 123cm, 2022
RIGHT Bob-Nosa Uwagboe (b. 1974), End Police Brutality, Acrylic and Spray Paint on Canvas, 182 x 122cm, 2020
Acrylic and spray paint on canvas speak to an outlier culture. Largely portraits of black men, Bob-Nosa channels the complex of fascination and dread, an age-old stereotypical projection onto a perceived Other. However, this is a decoy, a tactical ploy, for what we see, in vividly colourful paintings, is a trigger that explodes prejudice. Bob-Nosa exposes and undermines a toxic unthinking position – a cultural prejudice – to reveal a compelling mix of pathos and bombast, gentleness and exaggeration, an attitude about black male style and being that is nuanced, culturally and politically canny, while tapping the primitive resource – definitionally Afro-punk – that is transgressive and wildly fulsome.
In contrast, Andrew Kayser’s paintings of white suburbia are subtly insinuating rather than graphic, ruminative rather than spectacular. If Bob-Nosa is the fauvist – the beast – then Kayser, with his carefully delineated and spaced energy-fields, conjures an inner hidden unquiet and restlessness. His paintings, unlike Bob-Nosa’s, are not objectified visions – visions of objectification – but psychological dramas. Tonally muted, expressively suppressed, connected to tenuous emotion, Kayser speaks to a long European painterly tradition, in which the psychic embodiment of history and culture is paramount. In Kayser’s case, that culture is white middle-class suburbia caught on the perceived margin – Africa – of a perceived centre – Europe. Kayser’s subtropical vegetal realm exposes the dissonance – the effete white homes, jewel-like blue pools, in the heart of a darkly snarled jungle. The artist’s use of light further exposes this tension – his is a world electrified, paranoid, exposed, vulnerable.
Of course, both Bob-Nosa and Kayser’s worlds are vulnerable. Neither is exempt from prejudice and projection. Both expose the discomfort integral to the habitats they inhabit and evoke. In both, nature and nurture conspire together. There is no way to make clean distinctions. Everything is contaminated, everything obscene/Anthropocene – raw and cooked.
I DECLARE I AM HERE
Caroline Suzman, the grandniece of the legendary Helen Suzman, continues the family tradition of activism – through photography. ‘I stand for simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights’, Helen Suzman declared. They are ‘the indispensable elements in a democratic society – and well worth fighting for’. The vision, though noble, has tragically been betrayed. Instead, we find governmental dereliction, the abandonment of the poor, the negation of opportunity, the embittered self-serving hatred of others, the appalling absence of human rights.
Given this bleak prognosis – comparatively difficult to fully understand from the vantage point of the Western Cape, the only truly functional province in South Africa – nevertheless I have encountered many in Johannesburg who remain optimistic that the city – once the African economic power-house – is on the verge of a turnaround. Like Helen Suzman, we must remain optimistic and fight for justice. This, certainly, is the temperament inherited by her grandniece, Caroline Suzman. At the Turbine Art Fair, housed in Hyde Park Corner in Johannesburg, Suzman’s monumental photographs of inner-city black Folk proved stridently current and celebratory. The series, titled ‘I Declare I Am Here’, affirms a right to self and to place. Her portraits are not merely documentary records of a given time and place – the Johannesburg inner-city and its denizens – but an astute capture of the vivacity of the city, the surety and ease of those who occupy it. Hers are psycho-geographic understands of an ‘Afropolitan’ world.
As Achille Mbembe, the Cameroonian philosopher based at the WISER institute in Johannesburg, remarks, ‘Afropolitanism’ is an ‘ethico-political stance’, not a happenstance survivalist cobbling. It is this potent aura of selfhood that pervades Caroline Suzman’s vision. Her men and women, and those fluidly positioned between or without, assume their poses with aplomb. Nelson Chilambo, manager of a trucking company, dressed in the colours of the American flag, with his hand against his heart – the American anthem bizarrely and ironically audible – is positioned in the midst of rubble. The billboard behind him, painted by the LA collective, Cyrcle, is of an overturned throne and crown, while the framing lettering reads – OVER OVER OVER OVER THRONE. The image is potently paradoxical. An inversion of power? The settings are essential to the meaning and impact of Suzman’s photographs. Ellen Bennie, an ‘Attendant at the Workers Museum’, poses in a pink off the- shoulder ruffled top, blue slacks, white handbag, while in the background a white and black hand fist-bump each other. Conviviality? Mutuality? Understanding?
In every photograph, it is this intrinsic compassion that dominates the look, feel, condition. A breathtaking vitality consumes every image. These photographs, emphatically, are not what Susan Sontag defines as ‘memento mori’ – there is nothing funereal, or existentially fraught about Suzman’s vision. In fact, her images radically counter the morbid view of the photographic image as a mere cut-out out of time, disconnected from the complex flow of life. Contra Sontag, Suzman’s photographs do not ‘actively promote nostalgia’. While she might agree with Sontag that ‘photography is an elegiac art’, for her it is not a ‘twilight art’ – notwithstanding the despairing realization that Johannesburg is in tatters, destroyed by corruption and mismanagement. Rather, it is the photographer’s great aunt’s vision of justice and equality that prevails, a heartwarming hope, against despair, that human life remains sacred and beautiful, empowering and good. Consider ‘Prisca Mpofu, en route to a Rock of Victory Ministries church service’, shot in Newtown in 2018. The framing of the breathtakingly elegant central figure is exquisite, the life-affirming tension of beauty and decay sonorous.
SAUCE WITH SAS
Johannesburg’s premier event, and the longest running Art Fair in South Africa, is now over, but events, despite the guillotine of time, never end – everything everywhere reverberates all the time. This is the wonder of life, if we are prepared to quit our silos. On the final Sunday, I spoke with Joy Woolcott, Production Manager and VIP coordinator, and, long ago, a student of mine at Rhodes University. A born and bred Joburger, Woolcott was thrilled by the flood of ‘young black urban attendees’, the pulse of regeneration, the hopeful realization that, at the precipice of collapse, Johannesburg is ‘entering a new cycle’.
It is of course impossible not to feel optimistic about a city, especially when pottering about the many wondrous booths of an art fair that proved easeful in its circulation. There were no serried rows of cubby-holes, rather, the entire space felt aerated and open, this ingenious ergonomic and spatial orchestration the vision of the fair’s chief administrator, Kim Kandan, an elegant effete silver-haired youth. It is he who invited me to do a walkabout, a role in the at world which I love above all others, because it is then that one interfaces and engages with what we euphemistically term the ‘general public’
Of course, nothing of the sort exists – there is nothing general or generic about human life – which is why I framed the walkabout around three vital and competing sagas in the present moment. The first biopolitics – the rights of the body, racism and sexism, patriarchal power and its comeuppance – the second, ecological politics, the critical matter of ecological survival, in what is an Anthropocene Age, one created and destroyed by humans. As for the third –Abstraction – more on that in a moment. For now, consider the urgent subjective concernsurse, nothing of the sort exists – there is nothing general or generic about human life – which is why I framed the walkabout around three vital and competing sagas in the present moment. The first biopolitics – the rights of the body, racism and sexism, patriarchal power and its comeuppance – the second, ecological politics, the critical matter of ecological survival, in what is an Anthropocene Age, one created and destroyed by humans. As for the third – Abstraction – more on that in a moment. For now, consider the urgent subjective concerns of the private body, and the greater global concern regarding the fate of the earth. We, each one of us, is caught between the private and personal, the public and global. Navigating this spectrum is never easy.
Having established this complex pivot, I then introduced the audience to a variety of artworks which embraced nature and the denatured, custom and modernity, the past and the present, to thereby affirm the continuation of a vulnerable thread. At the centre of the show stood Deborah Bell’s bronze riders on a chariot, perfectly self-possessed in a wild green landscape. The year before, in this very position, stood a deceptively floating sculpture by Zanele Muholi and a monumental relief work by Usha Seejarim of spanned wings built with the metal plates of domestic irons. Apart from the inspirational force of these sculptures, one could not ignore their strategic biopolitical placement – Sir Zanele Muholi, who confounds gendered categorization, and Usha Seejarim, an artist-mother-Housewife who finds the miraculous in seeming drudgery, beauteous wonder and possibility within the seemingly ordinary – in the metal plate of an iron, say.
This year it was Deborah Bell and Walter Oltmann who assumed centre-stage. Oltmann, winner of the Nirox Sculpture Prize for 2023, presented the armour of a warrior – Japanese? A figure from the Crusades? – made of threaded black wire. It is not the figure we see, but its exoskeleton, its husk, for what intrigues Oltmann is the void that consumes being – the precarious realization of our in-existence, despite the desperate will on our part to assert ourselves. It is this precarity – between Being and Nothingness – which defined the temperature or mood of the affair, as it were. Gerda Scheepers’ deconstructed abstract work, a scantily stretched black canvas against the exposed black wooden rigging, posed the key question regarding matter – what matters, what defines being? In her case a work that defies content, empties substance. Unsurprisingly, this work was staged by Blank, a gallery whose
deconstructive agency has endured, against the struggle for substance and identity.
That said, a heated debate ensued regarding the Rights of Portraiture, our need to be seen and recognised, and why, intriguingly, a painterly tradition defined by wealth and power, has now become common fair, each and every one of us given the right to be photographed and seen. This focus was especially the case, in recent years, presented under the moniker – Black Portraiture. Why, one wonders, has black portraiture assumed global traction? Because the black body, after Ralph Ellison, was once perceived as ‘invisible’? Because, from our radical new ethico-political standpoint, we must hold fast to the Rights of the Black Body? But then, what of the exploitation of this reality, its expedient use, the Black Body in the art world as a novel variation of an age-old slave trade? Opinions were vexed, as they should be. Intriguingly, unlike in previous fairs, black portraiture did not dominate the scene. As Woolcott noted, ‘florals’ were omnipresent too – an ode to nature, domesticity, the vanitas tradition, best exemplified by the enduring appeal of Georgina Gratrix’s glutinous densely plastered oils. But, furthermore, it was Abstraction that prevailed – the third term, following the matters of biopolitics and ecological politics – the need, against the burdens of the world, to liberate oneself from group-think, oppressive consensus, and, in the vacuum permitted, to find the art which best speaks to the greater depths of our singularity. Because, of course, art only truly matters when it communicates itself singularly to each of us in its own singular way.
For my part, I was compelled by Francis Goodman’s ceramic sculptures with their medicinal theme – the body in pain, the need for painkillers. Or, by Shepherd Ndudzo’s carved carbuncular lead wood planes. Or, Selwyn Steyn’s brilliant reveal of the frangibility of Johannesburg’s urban surfaces and built environment – the friable tangibility and glow of dust. Or, Jake Aikman’s dense and thickly glutinous visions of the sea, contrasted with its thin realistically delineated visions of the seas fathomlessness and opacity. Or, then again, Pia Truscott’s tender retooling of plastic waste, hers an abstract portrait of the horrors of human excess, nevertheless beautified.
Though, one portrait of the musician and current creative director of Louis Vuitton, Pharrell Williams, delightfully nagged me. Painted by Sphephelo Mnguni, it shows the singer-designer with a wide bling grin, studded with precious stones. Here was a figure of a black man and power-broker that was not objectified, but wholly in control of the narrative. This, in many ways, also typified the young dealership in which the painting hung – BKhz – which embodies Joy Woolcott’s zeal regarding a novel, demystified, cool vision of blackness now.
Others will have seen other art that compelled them more deeply. Such is the fact, fate, wonder of life. If the Johannesburg Art Fair was, to me, a triumph, it was because of the optimism it engendered, the embrace of novelty and youth, the creation of new young collectors, and the staging of works by our bright new young things.
Joy Woolcott was correct, the city of Johannesburg, the South African art world, is ‘entering a new cycle’. ‘We’ve got stuff going on’, Woolcott resumed. ‘People, artists, are working beyond’ their remit. At this point Woolcott’s younger brother, Lawrence Lowdon, appears. An intern at Grey’s Advertising, he has just come up with an approved brand logo for a condiment – SAS, Sauce with SaS. That’s Johannesburg, that’s its premier art fair – A Sauce with Sas!