Cape Town’s Norval Foundation is currently presenting Mixed Company, a thematic group exhibition curated by Khanya Mashabela that explores the act of gathering, pictured through the eyes of 11 modern and contemporary artists from Southern Africa.
Spanning from 1941 – with Gerard Sekoto’s painting titled Workers on a Saturday – to 2020, the exhibition presents a selection of artworks depicting people meeting with one another. The act of social gathering has gained significance due to its relative absence as a result of the pandemic. Mixed Company hopes to use the perspective gained by this absence to reconsider an aspect of our lives that we may have taken for granted. While it is too soon to fully account for the events of the past year, we can think more deeply about what it means to us to be physically close to one another, whether we yearn for it or are quietly dreading a return to our ‘normal’ social obligations.
Each artist contributes a unique approach to the thematic focus of the exhibition. For younger artists such as Dada Khanyisa and Musa N Nxumalo, coming together feels jubilant and celebratory, depicting contemporary, youth culture-driven nightlife.
Both artists’ works celebrate revelry, overt sexuality, public intimacy, and spectatorship. In contrast, Kresiah Mukhwazi’s Chemical Reactions (2019) is more abstract, the textured collage of fabric, with the evocative power of tinsel, bringing to mind a vibrant, buzzing party. While this theme could be dismissed as frivolous, history gives it added weight. Social gatherings of Black people have been overly politicised and policed throughout history, with the apartheid-era destruction of cultural hubs like Sophiatown, as well as the brutality and unequal treatment levelled towards working-class, Black people during the lockdown period in 2020. This party theme can also be seen in the works of the twentieth-century artists Leonard Matsotso and John Muafangejo, though they both take an aesthetic approach that feels decidedly less light-hearted than the contemporary works, perhaps a reflection of their time.
Muafangejo’s Fr Stephen H. Shimbode is… (1981) and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s Ceremony (2020), both show regimented gatherings of people who have come together with a shared goal, grief, and athletic achievement respectively. Muafangejo unifies the group by giving them more or less the same face, while Nkosi does so by making the young gymnasts in her painting faceless, with matching pink leotards and skin in varying shades of brown. Though Muafangejo’s lithograph appears, at first glance, to more directly engage with the politics of race, Nkosi has said that painting young Black gymnasts is her way of subverting a sport that is predominantly white and historically racist. She gives them each anonymity in order to allow Black girls everywhere to see themselves in her paintings.
In Sekoto’s paintings we see more commonplace moments of gathering – neighbours on the street corner or workers in their hostel – imbued with a melancholy, mysterious atmosphere. David Goldblatt’s photographs of mineworkers show hazy groupings of men, whose identities are subsumed by their uniforms and their collective labour. In contrast, Selby Mvusi’s Workers (1955) focuses intently on each subject’s individual features. Each face is so detailed that we see the wrinkles above their furrowed brows, contorted by the intense effort of hauling an object that lies out of frame. It is significant that many of the artworks in the Homestead Collection’s twentieth-century holdings show people gathered together in acts of labour. It is a reminder that work and social life, which we are often told to keep separate, are in fact deeply intertwined.
One of the most immediately evocative works in the exhibition is a photograph of the tightly clasped hands of a mother and daughter, Jody Brand’s All that you touch you change. All that you Change. Changes you. (2018). Their luxurious dress with its Victorian-esque accents and accessories is both aspirational and discomforting, with formality undercutting the expected domestic comfort of a contemporary family portrait. We see a subtle clash between the expectation of a traditional, heteronormative family structure, and the reality of a matriarchal, queer vision of family. Brand’s photograph is exhibited alongside drawings by Omar Badsha, more well-known for his documentary photography. Badsha’s drawings are largely figurative, but focused on interiority and the psychological. Each figure is shaped more like a rough wooden carving than a human body. We see exchanges between a rounded, maternalistic body and encroaching figures that suggest both impending violence and expressive dance.
Mixed Company brings together works from the Homestead Collection with loans from talented young artists. In the case of renowned artists like Sekoto and Goldblatt, who worked in the twentieth century, the exhibition encourages viewers to look at their works with fresh eyes and reconsider their content. For the less widely cited artists, such as Matsoso, Muafangejo and Mvusi, the exhibition asserts their continued relevance. In regard to the contemporary artworks, Mixed Company highlights the artistic practices that may define this complicated present moment in the future, some of which the Homestead Collection has acquired.
In light of the ongoing health crisis, an online public programme will accompany the exhibition over the course of its presentation with conversations and presentations taking place on digital platforms such as Instagram, YouTube and Zoom. Visit the Norval Foundation’s website for more information. Mixed Company appears alongside The Reunion: Georgina Gratrix, Alt and Omega: Jackson Hlungwani and iiNyanga Zonyaka: Athi-Patra Ruga.