ZOOM AND GLOOM OR WISHFUL THINKING?
I have always enjoyed guiding viewers through the FNB Joburg Art Fair. As fairs go, it’s my favourite. The cliché holds true – Johannesburg is the country’s gateway to Africa – so when Nicole Siegenthaler invited me to participate once again, I immediately said yes, but of course this time would be different. No chummy smiles or glad handing, no beady-eyed poking about the intricate surfaces of paintings or slow rotations about sculptures, no perspective or ambient buzz. What makes an art fair a delight is the cheek by jowl variety. Art Fairs are souks, and if one enjoys cluttered variety, a boon. It is true they are overwhelming – where does not rest one’s eye? – but I’ve always enjoyed the challenge and exited pleased, if exhausted, because I discovered artworks I love.
For instance, at the Cape Town Art Fair in February – just before our national lockdown and the navel gazing and fret it still generates – I spotted a painting by Neo Matloga which immediately demanded my attention. Gently peeling myself away from the perfunctory art chat I was conducting – chatter plays a big role in art fairs, usually with overpriced glasses of plonk in hand – I ambled over. What struck me about Matloga’s ‘painting’ – the artist’s description – though they seemed more collage to me, was its inventiveness. His paintings were warm portrayals of everyday encounters in a lounge, on a porch, a celebration of the day-to-day lives of people which the great humanist, Njabulo Ndebele, has so persuasively championed in his book The Rediscovery of the Ordinary. Given the appalling stereotypes affixed to Africa as a begging bowl, s#!thole, zone of abjection or mayhem, Ndebele’s embrace of the rites of ‘ordinary’ humanity – against the conception of South Africa as a place of abject rage and ‘spectacle’ – is of particular relevance to the contemporary African art world.
The Canadian novelist, Michael Ondaatje, remarked that everything is genetic, everything collage. I love the connectedness this view supposes – that people are people because of other people – which is also the spirit of Ubuntu. The faces in Matloga’s paintings are made up of photographic fragments, a reminder that we are all composites. This take has a greater reach. If Steve Bantu Biko believed that Africa would give the world a ‘human face’, it is because he saw the continent’s strength, its generosity, zest, and, most of all, its ability to heal the world. This conviction is certainly evident in the offerings by African dealerships and those further afield which focus on the African diaspora.
Painting dominated. Is this because it works best on screen, because its photogenic? Surely. But one cannot dispute the fact, world-wide, that painting is back. The fact that it is easy to roll up and trade accounts for its appeal, even more so now that we are housebound, our transactions compromised. But I think it is the small and great pleasures painting affords which we now find irresistible. The British critic, Matthew Collings, speaks of ‘the inner life of painting’, which he distinguishes from its ‘subject matter’. ‘What Modernism teaches us [is] that the use of painting has in the end, if the painting is important … to do with its identity as a painting, and not the surrogate it offers through imagery, history, documentation and recording and so on, of various other experiences’.
Collings’ view stayed with me as I scrolled through the offerings at the Joburg Art Fair. What struck me was the vivacity and tenderness of much of the painting on offer. I fell in love with Joel Mpah Dooh’s naïve grace, Theresa-Anne Mackintosh’s quirky whimsy, Marcellina Akpojotor’s densely encrusted eloquence, and, especially, Tafadzwa Tega’s moody blue scenes depicting private vigils. But what struck me most was the overall sensibility which African painting in 2020 communicated to me of quiet, ease, effortlessness, warmth. In a time stricken by uncertainty and anxiety, it is heartening to see art which captures the best in us. If there is one irrefutable element which these artists and many others convey, it is the consolatory power of painting.
Another dominant seam is mixed media, the mashup of improbable materials – crockery, toothpicks, fake fingernails, wool, hessian, spray paint and oil paint, tin foil, amongst many others – in works by Stephanie Conradie, Chris Soal, Frances Goodman, Michaela Younge, Talia Ramkilawan, Cyrus Kabiru, Gresham Tapiwa, Sizwe Sibisi, and Donna Kukama who, in the title of one of her works adds ‘wishful thinking’ as a mixed media component. This is an inspired addition. Afterall, what is life and art without wishful thinking? Imagination? Spirit? Wonder? Especially now, in this obscene man-made ‘Anthropocene’ age in which life is an extension of waste and not the reverse? One need only look at the recent David Attenborough documentary on Netflix to be reminded of this disastrous fact, but what struck me while scrolling through the Joburg Art Fair offerings is the artists’ positive spin on waste, the desire to inoculate the earth by absorbing and transforming its ills. Conradie’s inspired use of crockery is a case in point. But so are the homespun materials which artists like Younge and Ramkilawan choose to work with, wool, cotton, needle and thread, and the comforting worlds they mirror. I can think of no better way to convey the importance of the magical and homely than through art.
‘If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint’, Edward Hopper, a famously quiet man, remarked. It is inspiring to see Hopper’s spirit reincarnated in the paintings by Ameh Egwuh. As Edgar Degas reminds us, ‘A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, and some fantasy? When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people’. If Degas’ view remains pressing it is because we cannot live without mystery and fantasy. Despite the urgencies of our time, driven by fear and rage, life is unsustainable without it. Wishful thinking is our elixir and grail. And if mixed media artworks tell us anything, it is that this great human adventure is not only psychologically and spiritually vital, but that we cannot move forward without a zest for experimentation. ‘Art has no rules’, when stuck – innovate.
Photography too has its part to play. I delighted in Robin Rhode’s figure in flippers snarled in cord and Benji Reid’s wild antics. The ‘greats’ too are on display – David Goldblatt, George Hallet, Guy Tillim, but the work that astonishes me most is Mack Magagane’s mysterious portraits of roiling matter. There is a drama in Magagane’s photographs that is uncanny. His nocturnal vision is comparatively rare in a culture of photography which traditionally, in the South African context, errs on the side of a daylight documentary realism. Robert Frank’s view supports this register – ‘There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment’. True. But what an artist defines as human is up for grabs. Wishful thinking … dream … everyday magic … matters too. Alfred Steiglitz shares Magagane’s view. ‘In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality’, he says. This is certainly the case in the self-portraits by Zanele Muholi, the most celebrated South African photographer today. A major retrospective of her work is currently on show at the Tate Modern.
One cannot conclude this musing on the Joburg Art Fair without a nod to sculpture. By no means dominant this year, it too plays its part. Wim Botha’s figure of Christ is a technical knockout, but so is the subtle work Percy Konqobe. The first is spectacular, the second modest, yet both are inspired by faith. ‘I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free’, Michelangelo noted. It is this release one finds in the works by Botha and Konqobe. But sculpture is not only the province of religion. As Henry Moore tells us, sculpture also helps people ‘to see what a wonderful world we live in’, and here I must note the golden sculptures – part fertility goddess, part stress ball – by ‘Goldendean’ – aka Dean Hutton – which delight in our fleshy mortality.
All in all, it is this great love and belief in life which the Joburg Art Fair gifts us. As Nicole Siegenthaler tells me, there has been much international online traffic and interest. This is for the good. But I must finally add that without Siegenthaler at my side – she in Joburg, me in Cape Town – weaving our conversation into yet another wishful fabric, this year’s guided tour wouldn’t be as pleasurable.