The exhibition features beautiful installations by Siemon Allen, a stamp collector Nicholas Hlobo, an abstract sculptor, Sethembile Msezane who digs deep into her tradition in her art practice, and Wim Botha, running from June 28 –November 4, 2023.
By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor
When a friend and I arrived at the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation, a privately owned museum of art in Forest Town, the museum’s curator Clive Kellner was locking up, after having taken a group of media on a walkabout of the new exhibition before our arrival. It was a mad Tuesday, June 27. 2023, because there was another art event taking place nearby in Houghton that we had to attend first. As it were, both events were scheduled to take place at the same time, creating a scheduling dilemma for us as both these events are the must-attend kind of art events no matter what. Even if one hour late, after all it is better late than never, as they say. “Maybe you must come another day.” Kellner must have seen the change in my face’s not so hidden expression of disappointment.
“Ok. You can come in, but it will have to be a quick session.” That sealed it and I could not help it but smile in response. As we were ushered into the exhibition hall by two young and well informed women, Kay-Leigh Fisher who holds the title of Programme Associate and Mulanga Mbedzi, going by the title of Tour Guide, I noticed a number of iconic images on my left, placed next to each other. What caught my eye in particular are the three of the five pictures – a picture of a long winding queue of people – Francois Pienaar with Nelson Mandela. Both smiling with their hands, raised hoisting what looks like a sports trophy with a packed Elis Park Stadium watching the two men in the middle of the stadium – important looking men seeming to be holding a meeting with boldly written word “Reconciliation” hanging above their heads.
Yes you are right if by now you know that the first picture is that of South Africans voting in 1994, to usher in democracy, the second picture is of course the South Africa rugby triumph of 1995, when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup, walloping Australia, and of course the third photography I have just referred to above is that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission sitting in 1996, to decide who deserved to be pardoned for what political crime they had committed during the apartheid years. These images set the tone of this exhibition featuring the works of Siemon Allen, a stamp collector Nicholas Hlobo, an abstract sculptor, Sethembile Msezane who digs deep into her tradition in her art practice, and Wim Botha, whose practice is overtly political and is informed by the Western art canon.
“Now we all know that right now the country is experiencing uncertainties with crime, corruption, load shedding and people questioning the issue of the Rainbow Nation (as to whether it really existed in the first place) given the state (of race relations) of the country right now. And so those images remind us of the good memories of the past,” Mbedzi explained the context of the five images before she took us on a tour of the exhibition.
Essentially what she was referring to is the anxieties and frustrations currently seizing South Africans as after the promising years of the Rainbow Nation euphoria, when many could grasp the possibility that could come with freedom for themselves and their loved ones. Unfortunately in the current circumstances that promising bright future has been dimmed by challenges that have since emerged. And they are many, such as the recurring problem of continuous episodes of load shedding, the State Capture reality, crime and unemployment among others. These are challenges that threaten to create conditions for social and political instability, of the type that was seen during the failed insurrection that saw the looting of shops, destruction of property and the blocking of roads that supply goods that drive the economy. Billions of Rand were lost during that unrest.
And therefore these photographs remind us of what we once were barely 30 years ago. This is a way of reminding us, what could still be achieved, the possibilities of still retrieving whatever fading vestiges of the early years and build on them for a possible bright future. I thought that was quite an impactful way of setting the tone for this engaging exhibition, and which for the first time since the museum opened slightly more than two years ago, features local contemporary artists and their works. This in a way answers some of the reservation I personally had about the past exhibitions. Just for the record, there is no doubt that the past two exhibitions that have taken place in the museum were of an exceptionally international standard, and therefore were successful in many respects, including introducing the local art audiences to international artists of stature, such as Frieda Kahlo, for example. Indeed the audience responded positively, booking visits several months ahead. Even as far ahead as 12 months. Now that is really success from whichever angle one looks at it. But somehow a part of me felt that, we also needed high class exhibitions at such a great museum, featuring local contemporary artists and their art practice. This way, the chances of attracting diverse audiences, and not only the art elite, but ordinary South Africans, was a real prospect. This is an important fact because the country at large needs art education, creating a new art audience for the present and the future. Now this exhibition is it. It is the answer to my yearning, and certainly the yearnings of others who might have felt the same way as I did.
Given the limited space for exhibitions that the museum has, I felt that the curation is fantastic, managing to make the place look great for the works of the four artists do not look crammed. There is space to breath. In fact it is easy to not even notice the limitation of the space when viewing Otherscapes: Four Installations by Four Contemporary South African Artists, which running from June 28 to November 4, 2023.
Yo0u will be taken on mixed emotions journey. On one hand you will be reminded of the richness of African traditions through Msezane’s installation, spirituality through Hlobo’s wonderful installation that evokes in a viewer a certain spiritual serenity, the crudeness of British colonialism and empire building through the stamps collected Allen, covering British rule in South Africa to Apartheid rule. You will also notice that in this collection of stamps, an impressive installation that covers a good part of the walls of the exhibition hall, black icons are not commemorated. It is as If black never existed in this country during that time. You will also be confronted by the role of politics in our everyday life through Botha’s installation of white sculptures of animals.
Essentially Otherscapes proposes surveying the scene of contemporary South Africa through these four large-scale installations that can be viewed as ‘scapes’. These suggest different takes on the state of the country by exploring narratives around people and nation, identity and place, body and space. If it were possible to create a collective sense of belonging in South Africa, what would it look like? How would it feel? The four installations evoke architectural qualities, forms that emerge from the landscape, but as spectres rather than solid structures. Since they are interactive spatial environments, the viewer must walk around, in or through the installations in order to engage with them. From the illusion of the rainbow nation to the disappointment of a failed state, the exhibition interrogates what lies in the space between utopia and failure. The works of Siemon Allen, Wim Botha, Nicholas Hlobo and Sethembile Msezane present subjective views informed by colonialism, politics, memory and spirituality. Clive Kellner, Executive Director at JCAF, comments: “This exhibition asks, How can art reflect on the current South African situation, not through direct representation but through ideas that reflexively raise important questions about our democracy?” Otherscapes introduces the South African-focused programme taking place at JCAF during 2023, which will culminate in the inaugural journal launch in December.
Otherscapes: Four Installations by Four Contemporary South African Artists is currently on at Joburg Art Foundation No 1 Durris Road, Forest Town, Johannesburg. Bookings can be made on the JCAF website from 13 June 2023 Exhibition viewing is by appointment only Entrance to JCAF is free to the public Visit www.jcaf.org.za for further information Instagram @foundation_jcaf