Liminal Identities in the Global South showing at JCAF until end January 2022

JCAF [Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation] 1, Durris St Forest Town.

The current exhibition at JCAF is the 2nd in a programme of 3 year-long exhibitions around the theme of the Global South. Booking is by appointment only on their website or info@jcaf.org.za  +27 (0) 10 900 2204.  For more on the building and the institution. 

Catalogue cover. The inverted position of the South American continent demonstrates how the positions of “North at the top” and “South at the bottom” are simply human constructs

Liminal Female Identities in the Global South

As the title suggests, Liminal Female Identities in the Global South, addresses, through the work of  female artists, issues of the Global South and its “constructed” relationship to the Global North.  A further concept that threads through the current exhibition – that of liminality, understood as a transitional, intermediate phase, a space in-between, which, as Homi Bhaba raises, opens up the space for cultural hybridites. In addition to the idea of liminality in the context of hybridity and assimilation, the global pandemic of Covid 19 is “an event’ which has thrust the world into a liminal space – where things are not what they used to be and where the world has not yet transitioned to a more stabilized outlook (if that will ever be possible). 

Conceptual layout of the exhibition 

JCAF’s website, and the wonderfully generous and informative illustrated catalogue provided for free, summarize the structure of the exhibition which is “divided into five areas: Prelude, Requiem, Movements I, II and III, each consisting of a particular colour based on the coronavirus alert levels. Moreover, each area is conceptualised according to a musical tempo, either moderate, fast or slow, denoting a time-based experience of the exhibition.”  If this seems complex, cerebral, multi-layered and multi-valent, it is but a hint at what is in store. 

There are no more than 20 pieces by a writer and artists/architects.  Named artists (many of whom work across a wide range of media) are listed here in the order in which their work/reproduction of their work is shown in the 5 sections: 

Oswald De Andradet 1890-1954 (Brazilian poet and novelist); Tarsila do Amaral 1886-1973 (Brazilian painter); Lina Bo Bardi 1914-1992 (Brazilian architect and designer); Lygia Clark 1920-1988 (Brazilian artist); Jane Alexander 1959- (South African sculptor and installation artist); Lygia Pape 1927-2004 (Brazilian filmmaker and co-founder of the Neo-Concrete Movement in the 1950s); Kamala Ibrahim Ishag 1939- (Sudanese painter); Kapwani Kiwanga 1978- (Canadian born mixed media artist , working in Paris); Ana Mendieta 1948-1945 (Cuban-American video and performance artist); Sumayya Vally 1990- (South African architect and founder of CounterSpace architectural practice); Bernie Searle 1964- South African photographer, film-maker and installation artist).  

PRELUDE ADANTE (MODERATE)  A time of becoming

In the first space or room, Prelude, the viewer is introduced to the notion of cultural contact between North and South, between European colonial powers and indigenous Brazilian culture embodied in the photograph of Abaporu on the back wall.  

Aboporu by Tarsilia do Amaral 1928  “Abaporu” (translated as the man who eats people) refers metaphorically to cultural cannibalism ie the “swallowing” of European culture; digesting and  assimilating it; and transforming it into something distinctly Brazilian.
Oswald De Andrade’s Manifesto Antropófago displayed in a replica of a glass easel by Lino Bo Bardi. The meticulously conceptualized immersive experience is evidenced in the sophisticated lighting and resultant shadows.

Projected on the back wall is a copy of one of Brazil’s most famous works, Abaporu. The original (oil on canvas) was painted in 1928 by Tarsila do Amaral (1886-1973), as a birthday present for her husband at the time, the writer and poet Oswald De Andradet (1890-1954). It is said to have inspired his Manifesto Antropófago, a copy of which confronts the viewer on entering, displayed in a replica of  one of Lino Bo Bardi’s revolutionary glass easels (first used in 1968). The Manifesto’s idea of “cultural cannibalism” was taken up by the Brazilian Modernists in the 1960s in the Tropicália movement also known as Tropicalism. 

Two images of historical precedents of the current pandemic:  Left a copy of Doctor Schnabel Van Rom, Kleidung wider den Tod zu Rom 1656 by Paulus Fürst and right a reproduction of a 19th Century Mexican retablo image entitled Lonely Soul Ex-Voto.
A copy of Fürst’s 17th Century image of a doctor who treated people for the plague

REQUIEM LACRIMOSO (TEARFULLY) The event of the pandemic  

An anonymous 19th Century devotional image (original on steel) depicting people offering prayers for an ill person.

Transitioning to the space of the ‘pandemic body’ are two images  referring to historical precedents of the current pandemic.  These two small images are beautifully displayed – reverently, shrine-like; framed with a background colour-field of subtle rich Rothko-esqe red, but, as with Abopuru, the slippage between original and copy/reproduction is not overtly surfaced – in fact the display techniques blur this important distinction.  Reuben Tholakele Caluza, Influenza 1918 plays in the background but sadly, was inaudible during the walkabout. (If you download the exhibition app on site, you can hear Walter Lambe’s, late 15th century “Stella Caeli” from the album Star of Heaven: The Eton Choirbook Legacy).

MOVEMENT I ALLEGRO (LIVELY) The present time 

In this section, connotations of hazmat suits and medical masks speak directly to the current pandemic in the 21st Century.  However, there is a disconcerting dehistoricizing (ie removal from historical context), as the works displayed are 2021 recreations of works originally made in 1967 . This is not an issue in itself, but it’s a detail which is relevant and so important to surface.  The fact that viewers can no longer interact with the masks because of social distancing, subverts Clark’s original intention of focusing on subjective experience and the viewers’ bodily interaction with, and visceral response to her works.  

Here two installations by Lygia Clark (co-founder of the Neo-Concrete Movement in the 1950s).  On the right the two rubberized suits joined by an “umbilical cord” in O Eu e O Tu (The I and the you) 1967 replica 1921, were made to encourage 2 viewers to wear them and explore the pockets and crevices of their own and each other’s suits. In Mascaras Sensorias (Sensorial Masks) 1967 replica 2021, scents, mirrors and bells in the masks are designed to provide the interactive participants with a multi-sensory experience
Jane Alexander Harbinger in Correctional Uniform 2016
Detail of Jane Alexander’s Harbinger in Correctional Uniform 2016

Jane Alexander’s Harbinger in Correctional Uniform 2016 is typical of Alexander’s style and technique. Life-size, part animal part human, individual parts are real objects  and accessible, but the overall effect is an unsettling clash of incongruities. This chained and silenced hybrid in our space is, like all Alexander’s sculptures,  ambiguous and deeply unsettling. 

MOVEMENT II LENTO (SLOWLY) The temporal nature of things 

Kapwani Kiwanga Flowers for Africa Ivory Coast 2014
Ishag The Dinner Table with Embroidered Cloth 1974 oil on board  (no measurements given in the catalogue but it’s about 1 m by 600 cm (?)

This section which deals with temporality and transience  comprises works by 3 artists: photographs in a series of what the artist Ana Mendieta terms, “earth-body” works, the Silueta Series, Mexico (1973-7/1991), show imprints and traces of the artist’s body in the landscape.  Flowers for Africa by Kiwanga comprise found objects which are neither particularly conceptually rich nor visually engaging or challenging. The 3 installations refer to bouquets on display at independence ceremonies of 3 countries: Tunisia, Nigeria and on the left, the Ivory Coast. The lighting with the cast shadow of the installation on the left is for me, the most convincing aspect of the work. 

Kamala Ibrahim Ishag is the third artist. The Dinner Table with Embroidered Cloth 1974 alludes to community ties between women in this depiction of a zár ceremony, a ritual performed by women in Sudan, Somalia and Egypt which involves exorcising a demon or spirit thought to possess women in particular. As a founder member in 1978 of the conceptual art group called the “Crystalists”, she challenged the Khartoum Group and its traditional male outlook. 

MOVEMENT III GRAZIOSO (GRACEFULLY) + CRESCENDO Eternal time 

The catalogue entry on this section reads: 

During afflictions and disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic we discover our “radical vulnerability” and the need for grace. In this section eternity is represented by the colour gold and by luminescence and reflection”.   

Sumayya Vally/Counterspace After Image 2021 tinted mirror and steel.  Although this work (said to be inspired by the iridescent quality of Johannesburg’s light shot through with the minerals from mine dust), makes reference to imperial and colonial exploitation, in its abstraction it is not difficult to respond to the shimmering light and reflection in terms of grace and transcendence.

After Image 2021 by Sumayya Vally/Counterspace as well as Berni Searle’s archival digital print Mantle 2021 (behind glass making amateur photography impossible!), “make sense” (for me) in terms of grace and transformation and evoke a sense of the metaphysical, of the spiritual, of “eternal time represented by the colour gold and luminescence and reflection”.  (Exhibition catalogue) 

However, Berni Searle’s installation Shimmer 2012-2013 (the “crescendo” referred to in the title of this section?) is, I think, of a different order. (As it is impossible for an amateur to photograph and to avoid copyright infringement here is a link to an image of Shimmer). Given its own very darkened room, it comprises 5 video projections on the walls with, in the centre, a gold-covered elephant skull and elephant bones. 

“The installation points to the decimation of natural resources like gold, ivory, rubber [and presumably wild animals?], and to the cruelty of the Belgians, represented in one of the videos by the gold hands that recall the severed hands of the Congolese people. Shimmer is a modern-day memento-mori reflecting on humankind’s actions in history“.   (Exhibition catalogue)

This installation is powerful and deeply moving in its affect and  the multi-media technical virtuosity and costly materials are all extremely impressive. But I remain unconvinced that, curatorially, this work is conceptually congruent with this final section.  Memento Mori as a concept refers to the notion of the inevitability of death, no matter how one lives. Does Shimmer really fit comfortably into this genre? Does it really speak to memorializing the exploited Congolese?  Or is it not rather a more overt commentary on barbaric colonial cruelty and arrogance and all the other horrors that went with Belgian colonialism?   

Does this exhibition succeed with many of its aims? 

This exhibition is complex, dense and is clearly informed by contemporary cultural theory and museum practice.  It is exquisitely presented with careful consideration of aesthetics and affect.  It introduces, to many viewers I suspect, new ideas from, and new connections with others in the Global South.  It is clearly aimed to stimulate intellectual engagement, debate and discussion and in all this it is very successful. 

However the curators also aim to offer a ‘rewarding personal encounter between the visitor and the artwork”.  The encounter is envisaged as a “pilgrimage”, “an inward, reflective transformation”.  It is here that I found my experience fell short. For me there was too much unfamiliar material to take in without any hooks and hangers to give me “a way in” at my own pace (which says a lot about my general ignorance, I admit!). I know the lack of labeling is part of current museum practice but when the material is conceptually dense I often need some access point and contextualization (and I don’t think I am alone here).  I found that my responses, reactions and attempts at internalizing were necessarily dictated by the logistics of a group walkabout – by an external tempo rather than my own. I am not sure that the touch screen separated from the images, as the sole “way in”, works. Technology and art could still interface successfully with the use of audio guides for example, which would allow for a more individual pacing, enable the accompanying music to be heard (it was inaudible), the colour coding to be absorbed, and encourage a slower absorptive mode and more visceral experience.  We were encouraged to stay afterwards and go through the exhibition again but after 2 hours of intense “information intake”, the mind … and the body … they get tired.  

Having said this, now that I have had some time to digest and absorb this significant exhibition, I look forward to another visit as well as to future talks and discussions. This is an incredibly important and much needed public intellectual space for Johannesburg – but, let’s not make it too rarefied.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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