Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 17, 2014
Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa San Francisco: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in association with San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2014.
Exhibition schedule: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, February 21–June 29, 2014
Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie. Inhabitant (still) (2012). Live performance from Danse, L’Afrique Danse, Newtown Johannesburg. Courtesy Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theatre. Photo: Kutlwano Mokgotsi.

Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa presents work by twenty-three South African artists and artistic collaborators. The several dozen works in the exhibition span sixty years worth of production in media ranging from photography and performance documentation to installation, print, and drawing. The exhibition places contemporary South African artists in conversation with several apartheid-era photographers including Ian Berry, Ernest Cole, and David Goldblatt. This dialogue proposes intimacy—a concept as complex and open to interpretation as the countless lives that enact it—as an aesthetic instrument prevalent in contemporary South African art and prefigured in these earlier photographic practices. Ultimately, the curators implicitly postulate, the artistic broadcasting of personal relationships and encounters complicates a national history often told in black and white. The albeit unintentional concurrence of the exhibition with the twentieth anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 asks visitors to consider contemporary art in relationship to the country’s ongoing efforts at reconciliation with its apartheid past (Dominic Willsdon, “Time Machines,” Public Intimacy exhibition brochure). The anniversary places the exhibition in dialogue with explicit commemorations in South Africa and abroad of apartheid as a bygone era. Public Intimacy asks visitors to consider the persistence of public display as an important and necessary platform for contending with cultural systems of value that favor certain identities over others.

Co-organized by neighboring institutions Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)—whose multi-year expansion has temporarily sent the museum’s operations on the road—Public Intimacy pulls works from SFMOMA’s photography collection and various South African institutions. Betti-Sue Hertz (Director of Visual Arts, YBCA), Frank Smigiel (Associate Curator of Public Programs, SFMOMA), and Dominic Willsdon (Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs, SFMOMA) co-curated the exhibition, which occupies the ground floor galleries of YBCA. The first works visible opposite the exhibition’s title wall—large, colorful prints by Anton Kannemeyer—immediately push open the category of intimacy as their display of the visages of public, political figures (such as former Minister of Law and Order Adriaan Vlok and anti-apartheid activist Reverend Frank Chikane) metaphorize recent national drama using the communicative visual language of a grade-school classroom. Interspersed with reproductions of newspaper excerpts—large, vertical white sheets of thick paper inscribed with graphite—the lithographs sample from Kannemeyer’s Alphabet of Democracy series (2005–ongoing). The pedantic, repetitive coloring-book style of the prints and text distills the complex positions of political debate into the pared-down aesthetic forms of public instruction. Without reconciling the logical gaps and paradoxes within and between these positions, Kannemeyer’s work plays ambivalently at their shortcomings. For example, the subtle variation in statements made by pro-apartheid and post-apartheid politicians—on display in E Is for the Enemy of Democracy—gestures at historical difference while uncovering deep and resounding consistencies across time and parties. The quotations become meaningless in their pairings, in their ability to speak for “the enemy” on both sides. This unmooring points to the power of figureheads as ciphers through which public discourse becomes visible and circulates. In his refusal to directly criticize or support a specific set of political positions, Kannemeyer launches a critique not of these particular figures, but of the terms of political debate itself. The work suggests that these political arguments—and the reconciliatory gestures that complement them—tidily conceal painful and irreducible complexities of South African identity.

In display cases below Kannemeyer’s work, aesthetically varied, though equally vibrant, ijusi magazine spreads continue this exploration of national identity through plurality. Established by graphic designer Garth Walker in 1995, ijusi proposes and circulates a uniquely South African visual culture by bringing together a diverse array of vernacular design and contributions from successful as well as lesser-known artists. This entry wall shares the first gallery with, most notably, three video displays of performances from 2011–14 by Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie with the Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theatre as well as a grouping of twenty black-and-white photographic portraits by Zanele Muholi. Pesa and Sadie’s Inhabitant, performed in Johannesburg, Istanbul, and San Francisco, engages the built environment through direct bodily contact. Rolling and writhing on the surfaces of buildings and across traffic-filled streets, performers’ bodies mark urban sites of economic and social change with physical grace, restraint, and precarity. Along with an adjacent wall of Muholi’s stoic portraits of black South African lesbians, these videos bring particular, vulnerable bodies to the gallery’s exploration of the stakes and claims of South African identity. Muholi’s photographs, culled from her Faces and Phases series (2006–ongoing), present individual portraits collectively. Each photograph centers a woman looking directly into Muholi’s camera. Together, these faces propose a community subjected to discrimination and brutal acts of violence. The exhibition provides this context through other works by Muholi: a pair of beadwork mosaics in the form of newspaper headlines reports on the country’s policy toward queer rights and the recent murder of a young lesbian, and a video produced by Human Rights Watch titled Zanele Muholi, Visual Activist (2013) presents Muholi working with her activist community and photographic subjects.

From this initial gallery of contemporary work, visitors continue to the photographic core of the exhibition, first encountering a corridor lined with photographs from two series by artist Sabelo Mlangeni. Men Only (2008–9) and Country Girls (2003–9) explore close-knit communities in small-scale, tightly framed photographs of interacting bodies and parts of bodies. These images feature black South African and migrant men in conversation, urinating outside, and posing gleefully or daringly for Mlangeni’s camera. Dark hands, feet, and hair cut silhouettes into lighter backgrounds in several of these works. The geometric shapes of streets, walls, furniture, and floors contrast the sinewy limbs of bodies touching, walking, or lounging. Two small rooms of photographs flank either side of this corridor. To the left, recent works—large-format inkjet prints by contemporary photographers David Goldblatt and Jo Ractliffe, a triptych of gelatin silver prints by Ractliffe, and several color pigment prints by Santu Mofokeng—thematize the South African landscape. The opposing small room contains earlier gelatin silver prints by Goldblatt, Billy Monk, and Ernest Cole. The intimate geometry of Goldblatt’s seminal Particulars series (1975) juxtaposes the slumped figures of Monk’s intoxicated subjects in The Catacombs (1967–69). These alternately serene and obstreperous photographs present an apartheid-era South Africa enduring a social fever—through the camera’s lens, bodies come into contact with the environment and with each other in ways both forbidden and confused. Another gallery space at the end of the Mlangeni corridor continues this conversation. British-born photographer Ian Berry’s 1959 Cape Moffie Drag series not only prefigures some of the poses of Mlangeni’s Men Only series; it also advances queer identity as a potent subject of photographic explorations in South Africa stretching from the late 1950s through Muholi’s ongoing work. Selections from Santu Mofokeng’s haunting 1986 gelatin silver Train Church series and three large chromogenic prints from Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s 2008 Life Portrait series join Berni Searle’s Black Smoke Rising video trilogy (2009–10) in this space as well.

The remaining galleries of Public Intimacy feature a wide array of contemporary art, cutting across media and aesthetics. Twelve projections and two prints by Subotzky and Waterhouse lead the transition from the photography gallery to the large room dominated by Wa Lehulere’s installation The Grass Is Always Greener on the Other Side (2014)—a work prominently displaying artificial grass, music stands, and a wall-sized chalkboard surface. The installation serves as site for a pair of performances that centered on deceased black South African anti-apartheid writer and journalist Nat Nakasa.

Publications by the Chimurenga collective (established 2002)—a group dedicated to Pan-African culture and politics—fill a narrow corridor accessible via this large room. Colorfully stitched rubber sculptures by Nicholas Hlobo, including Umphanda ongazaliyo (2008)—a work reminiscent of a kidney that through a small opening in one gallery expands into a large rubber sack in another—join Penny Siopis’s Shame Series (2002–5). Works by Athi-Patra Ruga, Anthea Moys, Donna Kukama, Terry Kurgan, Lindeka Qampi, William Kentridge, and Handspring Puppet Company include performance documentary (Ruga, Handspring Puppet Company, Moys, Kukama), charcoal drawing (Kentridge), color photography (Qampi, Muholi, Kurgan) and tapestry (Ruga). Outside the YBCA building hangs a banner in paperback style bearing an aphorism “Bring Back Lost Lover” by Cameron Platter (2014).

Public Intimacy proposes a broad array of manifestations and functions of intimacy as an artistic theme in South Africa. It places intimacies on the human body, on the built environment, and within visual culture as forms of circulation of meaning and values. In the exhibition, intimacy becomes both an instrument of resistance and a coping mechanism in and after an era of extensive political and social repression. Rather than presenting a tightly cohering set of works that convey a particular sense of intimacy current to South African culture and politics, the exhibition allows the theme to weave in and out of disparate artistic practices as a loosely fitting framework. At times, this lack of precision leaves one grasping for a common thread where contrast could better illuminate the works. The inclusion of works by Kentridge, for example, appears more institutionally obligatory than curatorially justified. Queerness as an exhibition theme also suffers from a lack of explicit curatorial framing. However, the photography galleries paired with the stunning and emotive works of Kannemeyer, Pesa and Sadie, and Muholi carry a sense of South African art and politics with vim and poignancy. These keynotes leave room for other works in the exhibition to obliquely explore intimacy without sacrificing a broadly brushed coherence. Together, the works culled together at YBCA successfully cast the human body and its social points of contact as the necessary vehicle for continuing conversation—and reconciliation—around South Africa’s apartheid past.

Sarah Louise Cowan
PhD candidate, History of Art Department, University of California, Berkeley

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