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Field Notes: Art as a salve, buildings as witnesses

By David Mann

“What’s happening here tonight?” asked the Uber driver as I climbed into his car, escaping the howling wind and chatter outside the Cape Town Convention Centre.
It was shortly after 21:00 and the 10th annual Investec Cape Town Art Fair (ICTAF) had just wrapped up its opening night. Champagne and conversation had been flowing since the afternoon. In front of us, a group of people stumbled into another Uber, likely en-route to the next party.
“It’s an art event,” I told the driver.
“I thought it was fancy-dress party,” he replied.

Mmangaliso Nzuza Investec Cape Town Art Fair
Mmangaliso Nzuza. PHOTO David Mann
Patrick Bongoy Investec Cape Town Art Fair
Patrick Bongoy. PHOTO David Mann

Admittedly, I didn’t invest a great deal of time in this year’s ICTAF. I was only in town for a short while, so a quick whip around the fair on its opening day it was. Still, amidst the endless clamour and festivity that characterises the fair, I saw some brilliant work.

At the This is Not a White Cube booth, I came across the work of Patrick Bongoy who repurposes rubber tubes and tyres in the form of sculptural wall pieces that convey complex notions of trade, labour and migration. I was too excited about finally seeing Senzeni Marasela’s textile works in person to take note of the booth they were shown at, but her works were immediately recognisable through the crowds. Marasela’s series of cotton thread on linen works are at once complex and accessible on a material and thematic level. Here, embroidery gives way to portraiture, landscapes, compelling narratives and enduring cosmologies, all through a set of fine, red lines. Isaac Zavale’s paintings of Johannesburg’s street scenes were a welcome sight at the Kalashnikovv booth. His use of narrative in these paintings is what makes them so persuasive, but it’s the inclusion of the finer details of the city – such as the tags of its local graffiti writers – that make them such a joy to look at.

Senzeni Marasela Investec Cape Town Art Fair
Senzeni Marasela. PHOTO David Mann
Isaac Zavale detail Investec Cape Town Art Fair
Isaac Zavale detail. PHOTO David Mann

What else? Too much to contain in this text, really. The works of Chris Soal and Cameron Platter stand out, as does Sahlah Davids’ assemblage work ‘Mother Of The Bride’. Tony Gum’s self-portraits were a vision in green and Ricardo Baruzzi’s ‘Fioritura su finestra’ was another wonderfully simple work – a still life animated through its use of colour and playful line-work that dances across the canvas. Julio Rizhi’s ‘What is on the Inside V’ was another striking sculptural piece, while the photographs of Johno Mellish, presented by Sean O’Toole as part of SOLO, offered a series of quiet, black and white scenes in which to lose oneself, if only for a moment.

Lastly, there was the work of Mmangaliso Nzuza whose paintings I encountered for the first time at the fair. Nzuza’s figurative oil paintings are a sublime meeting of colour and form, almost all of them featuring softly rendered characters held by solid, soothing lines.

Outside of the branded frenzy that is Cape Town during ICTAF, I also managed to escape to the Norval Foundation for an afternoon. Here, the solo exhibition of Bonolo Kavula served as a welcome respite – a moment to contemplate memory, lineage and materiality through the collection of punched shweshwe artworks that make up Lewatle.

Bonolo Kavula Lewatle Norval Foundation
Bonolo Kavula’s Lewatle exhibition. PHOTO David Mann
Bonolo Kavula Lewatle Norval Foundation
Bonolo Kavula’s Lewatle exhibition. PHOTO David Mann

Kavula’s exhibition is a result of winning the 2022 Norval Sovereign African Art Prize. Downstairs, the winner and finalists of the 2023 prize were also on exhibition. I had seen overall winner, Malian artist Famakan Magassa‘s work ‘La Ballade Noctambule’ online, but viewing it in person reveals all of the comedy and tragedy jostling around within the frame – a teetering procession of desire and desperation.

The rest of the works in this exhibition provide a good overview of the kinds of contemporary art-making practices and thematic concerns evident across Africa now. Walking through the show, I heard different groups of people talking amongst themselves in French, Dutch, and American English – tourists escaping another long winter back home. The French couple recognised the Esther Mahlangu work immediately.

Berni Searle’s retrospective, Having But Little Gold, was the main event. A new work, commissioned by Norval, occupies the atrium space and focusses on the 2021 fire that burned through a number of the University of Cape Town’s buildings and destroyed, among other things, parts of the rare African Studies collection. Black soot and ash, remnants of a performance that activated the installation, still mark the space, but it’s the floor-to-ceiling photographic slivers blowing in the breeze that are the main event. Together, they form an image of a charred campus building, with a figure draped in gold bearing witness to it all.

Berni Searle Norval Foundation
From Berni Searle’s Interlaced body of work. PHOTO David Mann

Overall, Searle’s retrospective is profound and poetic, punctuated by deep reds and browns, awash with the cold, blue ebb and flow of the ocean, and charged with her unique way of reconciling historical traumas with contemporary injustices. All of the important works are there – the Colour Me series, the ‘Snow White’ films, and her Interlaced body of work made in Bruges.

A timeline of her career, printed in vinyl on the walls of the main passage, also serves as an interesting point of entry into Searle’s life and work. From 2000 – 2010, for example, much of her work took place outside of South Africa, perhaps contributing to a shift in focus for the artist, from her highly personal works concerned with personal history and identity, to a series like the Black Smoke Rising trilogy which focusses more on historical and contemporary injustices in South Africa.

Her Shimmer body of work, evoking the atrocities of Belgium in the Congo, was there, too. I had seen the installation in Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation’s Liminal Identities in the Global South already, where I sat with the short, looped video works and gilded elephant bones for ages. But in the Norval building, with endless amounts of light streaming through the glass walls and into parts of the small black box in which Shimmer is installed, the work loses some of its impact.

Berni Searle Norval Foundation
Berni Searle’s Untitled (red, white, yellow, brown), from the Colour Me series, 1998. PHOTO David Mann
Berni Searle Norval Foundation
Berni Searle, Having But Little Gold PHOTO David Mann

I didn’t manage to see everything I wanted to in Cape Town. I missed Siphokazi Jonas performing Misheck Masamvu’s poem, ‘Safety Pin’ at the Goodman on Friday, Oupa Sibeko’s performance at the art fair on Saturday, and I never made it to the Baxter to see Oedipus at Colonus #aftersophocles. So it goes.

Arriving back in Johannesburg on Saturday evening, I bumped into a friend at the baggage claim in O.R. Tambo. We’d seen each other just the other night at the art fair. Waiting for our bags, we discussed our experience of the fair, who we saw, what we liked, and the art of leaving the party while you’re still having fun. Cape Town, we agreed, is good for a holiday, but it was great to be back in Johannesburg.

February was a brilliant month for art and performance in Johannesburg. The Iyabuya iPopArt Festival has been bringing some of South Africa’s most incredible works of theatre to stages across the city. Chant!, Kafka’s Ape, Born Naked, and Cottonwool Kid are a few of the performances on the line-up. On a Thursday evening I took two friends to see Tswalo by Billy Langa and Mahlatsi Makgonyana aka the Theatre Duo. I’ve seen the performance three times now and Langa’s epic performance poem never fails to move me. The festival continues its incredible line-up of South African theatre into March. Don’t hesitate!

Goodman Gallery Carlos Garaicoa
Carlos Garaicoa, GOQA, PHOTO David Mann

At The Goodman, Carlos Garaicoa has been offering up the keys to the city. His solo exhibition GOQA is mostly about the relationship between buildings, people, land, mobility, and access.

Urban iconography is a throughline in Garaicoa’s exhibition. Escala 1:1 [Scale 1:1] is an installation of wooden rulers that have been cut to resemble buildings. Together, they produce a fictional, yet recognisable cityscape. His Puzzles series depicts buildings in states of disrepair, first as a printed image below and then, through a second layer, a puzzle. Resting at the bottom of the plexiglass vitrines are loose puzzle pieces – fragments of history and the detritus of a crumbling city.

The titular work takes its name from the isiZulu slang for a “special key” made to enter a building illegally. Here, Garaicoa has paired sets of blank keys held on rings alongside key holders containing photographs of Johannesburg’s buildings. A single brass key is fixed to each keyring. These are abstract, architectural shapes, almost speculative in their design. Some appear to speak to the buildings they’re fixed to, others simply form part of the broader installation.

At the exhibition’s opening, the pianist Jill Richards and I tried to see how many of the buildings we could recognise in the black and white images. It was only after she’d left that I found an image of the graffiti-laden pillars of Maboneng, not far from the Arts on Main building where we’d first met in 2018. Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys came to mind – “The city is no more than a mnemonic.”

  • Goodman Gallery Carlos Garaicoa
  • Goodman Gallery Carlos Garaicoa
  • Goodman Gallery Carlos Garaicoa
  • Goodman Gallery Carlos Garaicoa

Altogether, GOQA is a subtle body of work that muses on a long and far-reaching history of access, ruin, aspiration and degradation. Buildings, posits Garaicoa, have always been witnesses to this history, whether they’re white cube spaces in Joburg North or neglected heritage buildings in the inner-city.

A few weeks later I found myself driving through the city, talking about its buildings and history with two Scottish artists who were in South Africa for a residency through The Centre for the Less Good Idea. We were making our way to the Standard Bank Gallery for the opening of Buhlebezwe Siwani’s iYeza.

Buhlebezwe Siwani IYEZA Standard Bank Gallery
Buhlebezwe Siwani, IYEZA, image courtesy Standard Bank Gallery

Siwani is the 2021 Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Visual Art and I’d seen her exhibition at last year’s National Arts Festival, spread across two separate buildings in Makhanda, namely the 1820 Settler’s Monument and the Black Power Station. At the Standard Bank Gallery, champagne and conversation flowed as eagerly as they did in Cape Town. There were speeches, canapés, and poetry readings. A number of past and present Standard Bank Young Artists were there too, including the Theatre Duo and musician Cara Stacey.  

Buhlebezwe Siwani IYEZA Standard Bank Gallery
Buhlebezwe Siwani, IYEZA, image courtesy Standard Bank Gallery
Buhlebezwe Siwani IYEZA Standard Bank Gallery
Buhlebezwe Siwani, IYEZA, image courtesy David Mann

Eventually, drinks were set down and we were ushered into the gallery space. Siwani’s video works were projected on the walls and into a body of water in the centre of the space. Stacey was stationed off to the side of the exhibition, playing a few gentle notes on her Nyunga Nyunga mbira. The tone of the evening had shifted and a natural reverence for the work emerged. Downstairs, Siwani had placed soil and hanging sculptures. The invitation was clear: remove your shoes and walk, engage.

For iYeza, Siwani, an initiated traditional healer, engages art as a practice that can allow for healing, by unpacking the many forms and uses of plants in traditional medicines, rituals, and everyday practices.

As I moved through Siwani’s exhibition, I realised how rare it is to feel this comfortable at an exhibition opening, and also that I might never experience the Standard Bank Gallery in the same way again. I thought about art as a salve, buildings as sites of memory, and the potential for art and performance to open up new points of entry into stubborn histories and brittle archives. Outside, the city grew quieter, slower, its streets no longer gridlocked by labour. In the gallery, we continued to walk, our bare feet on the cool soil.

David Mann is a writer and editor from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes at the intersections of art, architecture, performance, and fiction. He is a contributing editor at Creative Feel.

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