Joni Brenner’s exhibition at Smac Gallery Johannesburg takes portraiture to another level in South African contemporary art

The exhibition titled between me and you: four models in studio 21 May-2 July 2022 attracted a huge crowd to its opening despite a chill Johannesburg weather.

By Edward Tsumele, CITYLIFE/ARTS Editor

When you get into the downstairs section of Smac Gallery in Parkhurst, on  4th Avenue, one thing that will strike you immediately are portraits of men on its walls. These men are captured in different moods and the grace in posture is so well captured that you cannot fail to note the meticulousness that the artist put in as she painted them on the wood panels. The portraits that show only the heads are definitely not silent as they are communicating loudly in their silence. They exude surrealism.

But If you thought that was all, you have not yet seen anything until you go up the stairs to the first floor section of the gallery. Here you will be greeted by several portraits of a naked body, well captured by the painter. Even though these portraits in this section are of one person only, no one painting on the wood panel looks like the other. The moods are different.  And here there is something else to be aid and noted about these portraits, and that is the dignity in which a naked body is captured. A naked body always exudes dignity if well captured and certainly here is one example of paintings of a naked body that shows a high level of sensibility on the part of the artist and the model.

You will not fail to conclude that to achieve this high aesthetic of a naked body by the artist, there is a need for a deep level of collaboration between the artist and the model. First of all, to achieve this level of artistry, first of all, a level of trust needs to be built between the model and the artist as a person, and secondly the model needs to trust not only the artist’s technical abilities, but that they will create work which will display sensibility. And to achieve this is not easy simply because both the artist and the model are in are in their most vulnerable situation during the process of painting, and  under those circumstances of extreme vulnerability, it is too easy to be distracted and not produce the kind of work that the artist has in mind. After all we are human.


But in this instance portrait artist Joni Brenner and her four models, Charles Bothner, Fred Glick, Wilson Mootane and Scott Hazelhurst, have managed to collaborate in a stunningly remarkable way that definitely takes the art of portraiture to another level in South African contemporary art.

And it is understandable why Brenner in this exhibition titled between me and you:  four models in studio. has managed to achieve such a stunning aesthetic effect on the viewer. And judging by the big crowd that braved the bitingly cold weather on Saturday, May 21, 2022, it is an exhibition that will be on the lips of many an art lover in Johannesburg during its run which is from May 21, 2022 to July 2, 2022.

And there is a reason for producing such remarkable portraiture by the artist and her models. Since the mid 1990s, Brenner has worked with the four long term models, all men. Common to all four experiences is a specific relational act of producing portraits: two bodies in a room, engaged in an encounter rooted in looking and being looked at.

 These dialogical encounters are repeated and durational ¬– each sitting lasting a few hours, once or twice a week and over many months or years. Fundamentally different from any other kind of portrait making setting, the exchange of regards allows for a type of immersive, intersubjective likeness to emerge rendering portraits that are ambient and durational rather than snapshot and certain. The catalogue that accompanies this exhibition contains an essay written by the artist, in which she reflects on this relational practice to which she has returned over and again.

‘It takes a long time to be able to look back’ she notes, and her essay traces some of the key concerns that have remained central to her practice, as well as the subtle shifts in the portraits over the years. There is an undeniable yearning for connection underpinning these portraits, made in a shared private space, with two people spending time together in an experience where, as Paul Valery observes, ‘once gazes interlock, there are no longer quite two persons and it’s hard for either to remain alone’.

 But Brenner also reflects on her long term Between you and me: Four models in studi Text by Brenner practice through which her grip, her scrutiny, her stare at these others moves from an anxious impulse to fight against or prevent loss (‘…it is all passing, and this is the only reason for wanting to preserve it’), to a lighter though still fragile capacity, to let be. To be with.

For the viewer then, being among these portraits is akin to being with the models in slow and unfolding time. The mediums used in Brenner’s portraits are metaphorical and point to conceptual themes that have long been present in her work.


She discusses this in her essay: ‘The unfred clay sculptures with their ability to crumble and return to dust; the heavy stone with its inbuilt permanence and longevity, against which the oil paint seems so much more alive; the wax casts and surfaces which refer to preservation and embalming; the plasticine sculptures with their capacity to be squashed and destroyed; the watercolours on stone which carry the terrifying and always imminent possibility of being washed away’. There are also plaster casts, four of which are included in this exhibition, which carry references to the memorialising function of death-masks.

All of these mediums connect to the idea that portraits occupy that threshold between life and death — made to affirm a life, they also map the passing of time.

Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in 1969, Brenner currently lives and works in Johannesburg. She obtained both her bachelors and masters degrees in fine art from the University of the Witwatersrand. She has been practicing as a professional artist since 1996, and has had a number of exhibitions, the latest one before between me and you: four models in studio, being a solo exhibition at the Turbine Art Fair 2021.

Between me and you: four models in studio is running from May 21, 2022 to July 2, 2022,  at 25 7th Street, corner 4th Avenue, Parkhurst, Johannesburg.

Contact: Tel: +27 (0)10 900 2131

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One thought on “Joni Brenner’s exhibition at Smac Gallery Johannesburg takes portraiture to another level in South African contemporary art

  1. Hello from Paris.
    Please transmit our bon souvenir and faithful friendship to Joni whose work we use to follow since 96, when I met her on the occasion of her MBA exhibition at Wits.
    Since that time, what we specially like in her work is the constant desire to find behind and beyond the first apparence of skin, the humanity and character of her models, through the most difficult exercice of abstraction applied to portrait.
    We would like
    to buy a catalogue of the exhibition . Can you make it possible.

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