South African Sculptors Storm the Hague By Osei G. Kofi
A while back I embargoed the word “stunning” from my vocabulary. I was determined not to use it for a long while because it had become overused, a cliché, an easy crutch. Then, a fortnight ago I walked into the Museum Beelden aan Zee in The Hague to see The Rainbow Nation, an exhibition of contemporary South African Sculpture – and my self-imposed embargo vanished.
I walked through the doors of the airy, light suffused warehouse styled museum built on the dunes of Scheveningen, the Dutch capital’s seaside resort where topless sunbathing and nude swimming debuted in Europe in the 1970s. Instantly, semi-consciously, I heard myself intoning: “stunning”, “stunning” over and over again. Spread around me were about 100 specimens of the most stunning collection of sculptures I had seen anywhere in decades.
Trojan Horse | Willie Webster
They were all there – maestros of the South African contemporary canon – an impressive list of stunning talent south of the Limpopo: Jane Alexander, Debora Bell, Willie Bester, Andries Botha, Wim Botha, David Brown, Paul Edmunds, Dumeli Feni, Gordon Froud, Kendell Geers, George Hallet, Nicholas Hlobo, Jackson Hlungwani, Sydney Kumalo, Nandipha Mntambo, Samson Mudzunga, Claudette Schreuders, Mary Sibande, Angus Taylor, Edoardo Villa, Barend de Wet, Anton van Wouw.
Some of the above magicians, plus Willem Boshoff, Marco Cianfanelli, Wilma Cruise, William Kentridge and Pitika Ntuli, whose works often require elbow room, were accommodated in three other locations: ANW Bank head office, the Kloosterkerk (church), and the Lange Voorhout public park. A sidebar photographic exhibition was also mounted in an adjacent room in the museum, showcasing the usual suspects of South African lenswork – David Goldblatt, Hasan & Husain Essop, Pieter Hugo, Mikhael Subotzky.
Sophie Knitting | Mary Sibande
Mary Sibande had a pride of place in the exhibition. A fibre glass life-size cast of her alter ego Sophie the domestic worker, resplendent in her signature blue & white Victorian gown and knitting from a giant ball of red yarn, greeted visitors in the concourse of the museum. A second installation, Lovers in Tango, occupied a big portion of the main aula. Sophie, hands aloft, was directing 13 uniformed and helmeted soldiers holding imaginary rifles aimed at an imaginary enemy. A third Sophie, this time clad in yellow Victorian robes and wearing a pair of white plimsolls was up on a plinth in the Kloosterkerk, a 19th century Protestant church a couple of kilometers uptown.
In less than a decade the youthful Sibande has enamored herself into our consciousness, with as much of the élan of Sophie as of her own compelling life story. Sibande was the first in her extended family in rural Mpumalanga to go to college. She was eight when Apartheid ended, thus offering her generation a shot at “non-Bantunsized” education - compared to her mother, grandmother and great grandmother who rose no higher than domestic servant. Today, armed with sculptural skills honed at the Witwatersrand Tecknikon and the University of Johannesburg, Sibande casts her magic far and wide. Each Sophie is molded from Sibande’s petite body and painted pitch black before being draped in Victorian apparel. I am smooched by Sophie and all what she stands for, however, methinks it’s about time her creator moved on, to offer her growing admirers something, well, beyond Sophie.
No exhibition of South Africa sculpture would be complete without Kendell Geers. I’ve followed the career of the enfant terrible from the day he earned international infamy by urinating into Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain at the Palazzo Grassi during the1993 Venice Biennale. Without Duchamp there will be no contemporary art as we know it, at least not the wacky whacky side of it à la Basquiat, Serrano, Schnabel or Hirst.
PrayPlayPreyPay | Kendell Geers
Duchamp (1887-1968) was that French Dadaist who when asked to provide work for a modern art exhibition in New York in 1917 walked into the J L Mott hardware store, bought a porcelain urinal, titled it “R. Mutt 1917” and presented it as “ready-made” art. Decades later and renamed “Fountain,” the bowl was considered the Eureka moment when contemporary art was birthed; creating a no holds-barred place where everything made by man or in nature can be art. Walter Arensberg said at the time even horse manure glued to a canvas is art – if done by an artist!
It was no wonder that Geers dodging a six-year jail sentence for refusing to serve in the Apartheid war and oppression machine fled into exile in 1989. He landed at the New York doorsteps of the iconoclast Richard “if it looks good, it is good” Prince who took him in as apprentice. The apprenticeship served Geers well. In 1999 his Brick installation was included in a New York show curated by none other than Okwui Enwezor. He also won an ArtPace residency in Texas the same year and a place at the Carnegie International. Yes, talent mixed with notoriety does pay!
Geers had only a piece in The Hague show. PrayPlayPreyPay was vintage Geers – shock, subversion, irreverence. Green dirt-caked handcuffed forearms of a black man protruded from a wall. Was Geers saying Black South Africa is still in chains nearly 20 years after Apartheid ended? Was this handcuffed man paying for some kinky bondage stuff gone awry? Who was the prey and who was the predator here? Well, I think it’s more to do with the first question – not yet Uhuru black South African. The potency of the message is palpable, especially when seen on the backdrop of the recent gunning down by Black policemen of 34 Black miners striking for better pay at the Lonmin Marikana platinum mine. Geers hardly ever makes art for art sake. Every piece is imbued with lethal shards paring open uncomfortable truths and contradictions in society; the politics of violence, fear, corruption, breaking down old barriers while erecting new forms of them.
I couldn’t help ask another museum visitor to take my photograph beside the Trojan Horse, (see picture top of page) a masterpiece by Willie Bester – a fifth columnist among South Africa’s “resistance artists” who include Jane Alexander, David Brown and Andries Botha. Trojan Horse may evoke the Greek mythology of Achilles, Helen, Paris & Co, but Bester’s horse, made of vehicle and industrial scrap metal, harks back to a searing collective memory. In October 1985, during the Apartheid state of emergency, armed white police officers hid in crates in an open delivery truck and drove through the Cape Flats townships. A band of unsuspecting youth pelted the “foreign” truck in their besieged community with stones. Thereupon, the murderous goons emerged from the crates and pumped bullets into the backs of the fleeing boys. Trojan Horse is Bester’s wrenching witness to the ignominy.
I first saw Trojan Horse, which I consider Bester’s most evocative creation, at the stand of Gallery Momo in the 2010 Joburg Art Fair, Johannesburg. Pray thee that Momo’s owner Moana Mokoena, an officer and a gentleman, the finest manager in the South African art scene, would ensure that Bester’s national totem, now with the Robert Bowman Gallery, London, finds a permanent home back home in Africa.
Zeus | Nandipha Mntambo
Also stunning at the show were the monumental exhibits of the scrumptious Debora Bell, with her Crossing II and Interval I; David Brown with The Horse, The Knee and The Amputee; Nandipha Mntambo with Zeus (a horned effigy of her own upper torso); Andries Botha with Nomkhubulwane, a life-size elephant of galvanized steel and recycled rubber tyres. Nomkhubulwane, or the Zulu goddess of rain, nature and fertility, was a big hit in the Lang Voorhout park where visitors frolicked around the elephants legs or perched on its trunk. A sad note though, days to the end of the three month-exhibition vandals toppled Nomkhubulwane over onto its side. Fortunately no serious damage was done to it.
While the curators made Sibande’s work the centre piece, my vote for stellar-ness goes to Dumile Feni. If Henry Moore regaled us with his amorphous denizens lording over European cityscapes, and Botero laughs all the way to the bank with his corpulent ladies and obese Don Juans masquerading as matadors, it’s a pity the world was deprived of what Dumile Feni could have been - had the Apartheid regime not driven him into exile to an early death in wintry New York at the age of 48.
Feni was born poor in 1942 in Worcester, Cape Province. His mother died when he was six and his itinerant preacher father was rarely home. Teenager, Feni escaped to Johannesburg and found his creative calling at the Block and Leo Wald foundry. Cecil Skotnes taught him drawing technique, Bill Ainslie and Ephraim Ngatane helped Feni, who battled tuberculosis, to find his artistic mojo. Harassment from the racist police for an affair with a white woman drove him into exile in the US in 1968, after stops in Nigeria, Britain and China.
Feni survived on the odd teaching job in colleges, and doing record covers, posters and murals. Fortunately he was able to devote more time to his real love – sculpture. His polished bronzes, especially History, are magisterial. The pieces showcased in The Hague courtesy of Gallery Momo, Johannesburg, evoke joy, beauty, yearning, injustice, alienation, mourning and celebration in equal measures. We rejoice in the wondrousness of what that little lonesome boy of Worcester bequeathed to posterity. But the pathos in the premature death of such a creative spirit who would have undoubtedly joined the world’s greats remains infinite.
Sculpture demands from the artist a creative light beyond that which those working with oil and canvass rarely require. If great music has the power to lift the spirit above the mundane, sculpture provides the window to completion of celestial purposes, because breathing life into cold stone or metal must be a gift from the gods. Few artists in modern times are able to merit this sort of anointment. In Africa, think Ousmane Sow, the Senegalese magician who breathes life into mud and straw.
History | Dumille Feni
Two mischievous thoughts nagged me as I walked out of the museum. How come so many South Africans are able to sculpt to the standard of the gods? In Kenya we have Elkana Ong’esa, Gakunju Kaigwa and two others, period. The glaring fact is, if the gods tend to sprinkle their benediction more liberally in South Africa, the government’s enlightened art policies combined with a solid tradition of corporate sponsorships and commissions plus patronage from wealthy families, have been the key. For instance, sponsors of The Hague show included the ANW Bank, Rabobank, Bank Giro Lottery, VSB Fonds, Mondriaan Fonds, Aegon, Pwc, KPMG, SAB Miller and the City of The Hague. Just imagine, the Museum Beelden aan Zee is a private initiative!
The other nagging thought was this. What if the growing number of Africans, our former Excellencies now unwilling tenants in the white tower blocks of the International Criminal Court (ICC) east of the city, had been exposed to such humanizing beauty during their formative years? Would they have committed their crimes against humanity in their adulthood? And, would any gain be made were ICC chief prosecutor Madame Fatou Bensouda to give two hours exeat to internees Charles Taylor, Laurent Gbagbo and Thomas Lubanga to visit the Rainbow Nation exhibition? Wink wink!