Lloyd Pollak is an art historian and lecturer, who writes monthly columns for Creative Feel.
The group exhibition Disclosure, which took place at SMAC Gallery in Cape Town, brought together artworks that investigate alternative means of combining medium, subject and theme, with each piece individually created to engage with the framework of its specific geopolitical context.
Disclosure not only attempted to divulge to audiences a slice of artistic practice on the African continent, but also served to impart an atmosphere of innovation – displaying commonalities in theme, aesthetic or subject matter with other artists practising in parallel. Art lecturer and historian, Lloyd Pollak, spoke to one of the exhibiting artists, Katlego Tlabela. From 1908 to 1915, Jack Johnson, reigned supreme as the world’s first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. In a country riven by segregation, virulent racial prejudice and an unquestioned belief in white supremacy, Johnson’s title, and his very existence, were fiercely resented. As the champ remained undefeated, the animosity escalated. In 1910, John Jeffries, the former white world heavyweight champion, fought Johnson in Reno, Nevada. By the fifteenth round, Jeffries had been knocked down twice and his manager threw in the towel. In the aftermath of Johnson’s decisive victory, the seething, pent-up, white rage unleashed itself. Riots flared up in 50 cities: and hundreds of Black Americans were beaten up, while 20 were lynched.
Tlabela’s decisive mark making orchestrates clash, conflict and stress
Any conversational response seems inadequate in the face of such barbarity, particularly when the tale is told by an impassioned young black man, so wordless I remained. Katlego Tlabela, a contributor to the group show Disclosure at SMAC, explained that Johnson epitomised an ideal Black historical figure who could serve as a model of pride, dignity and achievement for his generation. Tlabela is an artist, and Johnson’s ringing challenge ‘I’m black alright. I’ll never let them forget it’ forms the basis of one of his own works.
Typically, text works consist of instantly legible typography, and although the sentiment may be searing, the visual impact remains bland. Tlabela’s screen-prints retain the painterly gesture, and thus transcend the limits of typesetting, asserting a compelling visual presence
Typically, text works consist of instantly legible typography, and although the sentiment may be searing, the visual impact remains bland. Tlabela’s screen-prints retain the painterly gesture, and thus transcend the limits of typesetting, asserting a compelling visual presence. In his Black Mirror sestet, the black area carrying the words is enclosed by broad margins of tempestuous swirling brushwork in which Tlabela’s decisive mark making orchestrates clash, conflict and stress. Deciphering the black-on-black words forces you to grapple with the piece, revolve around it, and survey it from varying viewpoints, before the reflective pearl base in the lettering catches the light, and suddenly – hey presto – the message reveals itself. The glass frame becomes a mirror: your reflection becomes part of the work, and if you are white, you realise you belong to the race which provoked the statement, and who is incriminated by it. The texts range from the inflammatory like We want the whole thing! to wittily satiric as in Last week I was in my other, other, other, other Benz to the poetic eloquence of Blackness. A priceless currency that brings new growth, where beauty, pride and an unapologetic defiance is born out of the ashes.
Tlabela’s art is redemptive: it seeks to liberate Black minds from all the demeaning white stereotypes that the previously and currently oppressed have internalised vis-à-vis their supposed inferiority
Tlabela claims his work is pro-black, not anti-white, and his warm, friendly manner bears this out. One of his principal goals is the reinvention of the Black body shorn of its associations with slavery, servitude and abjection. In Levitate Tlabela presents himself as a lordly bare-chested chief sporting a Lesotho crown as he commandingly gazes outwards as if the world were his oyster. His partner’s portrait is heart-stoppingly beautiful, and even more poised, regal and invested with authority. The portraits form ‘a display of power’ in which the Black African body assumes a ‘hyper-visible, hyper-fetishistic and hyper-real’ magnificence, instead of remaining unassertive, unremarked and ignored. Tlabela’s art is redemptive: it seeks to liberate Black minds from all the demeaning white stereotypes that the previously and currently oppressed have internalised vis-à-vis their supposed inferiority. The Black body assumes triumphal abstract form in Tlabela’s sculpture, Black People, are you ready to smash white things, a title derived from a Nina Simone torch song in which she aggressively taunts her audience:
‘Are you ready to call the wrath of Black Gods?
… Are you ready to love Black?
Are you ready to change yourself?’
Black People… consists of a black plinth surrounded by the smashed busts of discredited colonial figures, like Rhodes. By contrast, the ascending black plinth soaring above the detritus of history symbolises a new era far more favourably attuned to Black hopes and aspirations. It also epitomises the decline of the West and the collapse of belief in the paramountcy of European culture and civilisation. After the gallery, the pub, where we share a few convivial pints. When Tlabela remarks that his generation possesses scant faith in the political process, I ask what he would ideally like to see happen in South Africa. ‘We want it all back,’ he says. ‘The land, the minerals, the wealth that is rightfully ours.’ ‘But nothing will be left for us poor whiteys!’ I exclaim. ‘Then you’ll just have to suffer like we did,’ Tlabela replies with a finality that brings our conversation to an abrupt halt.