Literated Subjects – Present Tense
April 19 – July 11, 2015
Ernest Mancoba, Yto Barrada, Marlene Dumas, Meschac Gaba, Theaster Gates, Nicholas Hlobo, Julie Mehretu, Robin Rhode, Pascale Marthine Tayou, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Jack Whitten, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Portia Zvavahera
The first exhibition, Liberated Subjects: Pioneers, was rooted in the early twentieth century. Paintings by South African born artist Ernest Mancoba (1904-2002) were shown alongside works by three living women artists from the same generation: Etel Adnan, Monir Farmanfarmaian and Carmen Herrera. All four artists, who studied and worked in Europe or America, were amongst the first to interpret the aesthetics of their respective countries through the medium of Western abstraction.
Ernest Mancoba, who left Africa to study art in Paris in 1938, infused modern European art with a unique African spirit. One of the founding members of the CoBrA group, his unique style is characterised by subtle colours, dynamic compositions and diffuse, enigmatic forms. In the words of Rasheed Araeen: ‘With Mancoba, the place of Africa in modernity is no longer that of an appropriated object but that of a liberated subject … Africa’s place is no longer peripheral to the mainstream history of modernism but central within it.’
Mancoba’s oeuvre is also central to the second instalment of the project, Liberated Subjects: Present Tense. This exhibition brings the story, which began almost a century ago, up to date. In this presentation, the focus is upon more recent developments in contemporary art, with Mancoba’s paintings providing an historical counterpoint to the work produced by a younger generation of African artists. While their practices are very varied, they all share a common denominator: like Mancoba, they depart from their cultural legacy and roots, and create work that touches upon universal concerns. Each of the artists represented in Present Tense expresses, in a unique way, the search for a sense of self, or an interpretation of identity.
Liberated Subjects: Present Tense builds on the themes developed in the first exhibition – the ability of art to transcend geographical, political or cultural limitations – and also looks at the urgent issues of globalisation and identity, and the legacies of colonialism, nationalism and modernity.
Sean O’Toole describes what this means today: ‘Contemporary African art isn’t something exclusively made in or from Africa; it comes from Addis Ababa, Algiers, Amsterdam, Bamako, Berlin, Cairo, Cape Town, Cotonou, Dakar, Douala, Johannesburg, Lagos, London, Lubumbashi, Marrakesh, Munich, Nairobi, New York, Paris, Tangiers and elsewhere. These cities sometimes share affinities, but mostly not. One word designating a continent is a poor proxy for what in reality is an atomised, dynamic and geographically imprecise set of practices.’
(‘Artists not Geographies should be our Focus’ in C&, column, www.contemporaryand.com)
Yto Barrada (Moroccan, b.1971, Paris, France, lives and works between Tangiers and New York City)
She studied history and political science at the Sorbonne and photography in New York. Multimedia artist Barrada is known for documenting the vicinity around the Strait of Gibraltar, near her hometown of Tangier. She turns her attention to the local residents, natural landscape, urban development, and political issues of the area—though she documents both sides of the aquatic divide, her primary focus is on Morocco. Selecting scenes of everyday culture, Barrada constructs images that are simultaneously straightforward and documentary, often colored by subtle conceptual allusions. Her work includes photography, film, sculpture, prints and installations.
Marlene Dumas (b.1953, Capetown, South Africa, lives and works in Amsterdam, the Netherlands)
Marlene Dumas studied at the University of Cape Town before moving to The Netherlands in the late 1970s to study painting and psychology. Dumas is known for her unique approach to canvas and her thought-provoking subject matter. Her work is characterized by a sensual and gestural technique that is also swift, dry, and minimal, as if under pressure to leave only what is necessary. Born and raised in South Africa, her paintings have often drawn from her own experiences of living with apartheid. For over thirty years, Dumas has merged political discourse, personal experience, and art historical references in a richly layered body of work. Her paintings integrate complex themes, ranging from segregation, eroticism, or, more generally, the politics of love and war.
Meschac Gaba (b.1961, Cotonou, Benin, lives and works between Cotonou and Rotterdam)
He studied at the Rijksakademie voor Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam in 1996-7.
‘The Museum of Contemporary African Art’, a project in which the artist installed 12 ‘rooms’ of a nomadic museum in various institutions, made him emerge onto the international art scene. Gaba argued that the Museum of Contemporary African Art is ‘not a model… it’s only a question.’ It is temporary and mutable, a conceptual space more than a physical one, a provocation to the Western art establishment not only to attend to contemporary African art, but to question why the boundaries existed in the first place.
Theaster Gates (b.1973, Chicago, USA, lives and works in Chicago)
Gates trained as both a sculptor and an urban planner and his works are rooted in a social responsibility as well as underpinned by a deep belief system. His installations and sculptures mostly incorporate found materials – often from the neighborhoods where he is engaged and have historical and iconic significance.
Theaster Gates’ practice includes sculpture, installation, performance and urban interventions that aim to bridge the gap between art and life. Gates works as an artist, curator, urbanist and facilitator and his projects attempt to instigate the creation of cultural communities by acting as catalysts for social engagement that leads to political and spatial change.
Nicholas Hlobo (b. 1975, Cape Town, South Africa, lives and works in Johannesburg)
He has a B Tech degree from the Wits Technikon, Johannesburg (2002).
Anchored in dense Xhosa cultural references and his experiences of living in post-apartheid South Africa, his work is highly individual and seductively tactile. Nicholas Hlobo weaves, plaits and stitches together disparate materials such as satin ribbon and the inner tubes of car tyres to create intricate and seductively tactile sculptures and drawings.
He always titles his work in his native language, Xhosa. Hlobo’s use of the language, with all its poetic idioms, proverbs, and double entendres, is as much about defining himself as it is an effort to emphasise the challenges of openly talking about gender issues in South Africa.
Ernest Mancoba (b.1904, Johannesburg, South Africa, †2002, Paris, France)
He trained as a teacher in Pietersburg, and received a BA in Journalism from the University of Fort Hare. In 1938 he left South Africa for Paris, where he studied at l’École des Arts Décoratifs. He was interned during the war. In 1942 he married a Danish artist, Sonja Ferlov, and the two of them lived between Paris and Copenhagen for the rest of their lives. He exhibited as part of the legendary CoBrA group of abstract artists between 1948 and the group’s dissolution in 1951. Throughout Mancoba’s life, he searched for the universal in art and humanity in the belief that art was ‘a means to favour a greater consciousness in Man, which … is part of the struggle for any human liberation’. Over the course of his life, Mancoba was dedicated to recreating a single image, loosely based on the human form as represented by the West African Kota reliquary figures. As time went by, its expression was reduced further and further in his search for the purest essence of the figurative form. In his words: ‘In my painting, it is difficult to say whether the central form is figurative or abstract. But that does not bother me. What I am concerned with is whether the form can bring to life and transmit, with the strongest effect and by the lightest means possible, the being, which has been in me and aspires to expression in the stuff, or any material that is at hand. Partly because of his own modest persona and partly because he spent most of his artistic career in exile, Mancoba’s remarkable contribution to African modernism was only recently recognized, and much research still needs to be done on his radically innovative modernist vocabulary, in which a concern with the pure properties of form complement his lifelong concern with humanitarian spiritual values.
Julie Mehretu (b. 1970, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, lives and works in New York City)
Julie Mehretu studied at Kalamazoo College in Michigan (BA, 1992) and at the Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal (1990–91). She received an MFA in painting and printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1997. Julie Mehretu makes large-scale, gestural paintings that are built up through layers of acrylic paint on canvas overlaid with mark-making using pencil, pen, ink and thick streams of paint. Mehretu’s work conveys a layering and compression of time, space and place and a collapse of art historical references, from the dynamism of the Italian Futurists and the geometric abstraction of Malevich to the enveloping scale of Abstract Expressionist colour field painting. In her highly worked canvases, Mehretu creates new narratives using abstracted images of cities, histories, wars and geographies with a frenetic mark making that for the artist becomes a way of signifying social agency as well suggesting an unravelling of a personal biography. Mehretu has described her rich canvases as “story maps of no location”, seeing them as pictures into an imagined, rather than actual reality.
Robin Rhode (b. 1976, Cape Town, South Africa, lives and works in Berlin.)
He graduated from the South African School of Film, Television and Dramatic Arts, Johannesburg in 2000.
The multidisciplinary artist engages a variety of visual languages such as photography, performance, drawing and sculpture to create arrestingly beautiful narratives that are brought to life using quotidian materials such as soap, charcoal, chalk and paint. Coming of age in a newly post-apartheid South Africa, Rhode was exposed to new forms of creative expression motivated by the spirit of the individual rather than dictated by a political or social agenda. The growing influence of hip-hop, film, and popular sports on youth culture as well as the community’s reliance on storytelling in the form of colorful murals encouraged the development of Rhode’s hybrid street-based aesthetic, transforming urban landscapes into imaginary world. Melding individual expressionism with broader socio-economic concerns, Rhode’s work reveals a mastery of illusion, a rich range of historical and contemporary references, and an innate skill for blending high and low art forms.
Pascale Marthine Tayou (b. 1967, Nkongsamba, Cameroon, lives and works in Ghent, Belgium and in Yaoundé, Cameroon)
Tayou’s work is characterized by its variability, since he confines himself in his artistic work neither to one medium nor to a particular set of issues. While his themes may be various, they all use the artist himself as a person as their point of departure. Already at the very outset of his career, Pascale Marthine Tayou added an “e” to his first and middle name to give them a feminine ending, thus distancing himself ironically from the importance of artistic authorship and male/ female ascriptions. This holds for any reduction to a specific geographical or cultural origin as well. His works not only mediate in this sense between cultures, or set man and nature in ambivalent relations to each other, but are produced in the knowledge that they are social, cultural, or political constructions. His work is deliberately mobile, elusive of pre-established schema, heterogeneous. The objects, sculptures, installations, drawings and videos produced by Tayou have a recurrent feature in common: they dwell upon an individual moving through the world and exploring the issue of the global village. And it is in this context that Tayou negociates his African origins and related expectations.
Kemang Wa Lehulere (b. 1984, Cape Town, South Africa, lives and works between Johannesburg and Cape Town)
He has a BA Fine Arts degree from the University of the Witwatersrand (2011).
Wa Lehulere’s visual artworks range across media. He is particular about not conforming to one medium and draws on a range of subjects and being open to the unknown: The Foot Has No Nose- a Xhosa idiom, meaning one doesn’t know where one’s journey is going, or where one is headed in life is Wa Lehulere’s ethos. Theatre also influences his works by using props to change the traditional meaning of spatial relations on stage or in a gallery. He explores themes of boundaries: portals between the living and the dead, the past and the present; segregation, discrimination and identity. Wa Lehulere uses iconic objects as reference points to represent these themes. The longevity of his works are influenced by the medium in which he presents them: from using charcoal and chalk to create works, playing on the idea of preservation.
Jack Whitten (b. 1939, Bessemer, USA, lives and works in New York City)
Whitten went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana to begin studying art and became involved in Civil Rights demonstrations there. Angered by the violent resistance to change he experienced, he moved to New York City in 1960. He enrolled immediately at the Cooper Union, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fine art in 1964.
Jack Whitten’s earliest experiments with painting date back to the 1960s, a period during which he created dynamic works inspired by abstract expressionism. Throughout his career, Whitten has concerned himself with the techniques and materials of painting and the relationship of artworks to their inspirations. The New York Times labeled him the father of a “new abstraction”. He views his studio as a laboratory and his painting as an ongoing experiment. And once oneexperiment is completed, his seemingly boundless curiosity and his quest to make a difference take him to something else. But perhaps because he has been so restless, and his ever-evolving work so challenging to pin down, his name isn’t in the public consciousness as much as some of his more famous mentors and contemporaries who have become brands as much as artists. Whitten’s art is intensely personal, which is perhaps inevitable given his involvement in the civil rights movement and his force of character. But with his rare visual intelligence, humanistic sensibility, political consciousness, historical awareness and mastery of the medium, he also transcends the personal and approaches something more universal.
Lynette Yiadom Boakye (b.1977, London, UK, lives and works in London)
Lynette’s parents were both originally from Ghana. She attended Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, Falmouth College of Arts and the Royal Academy Schools.
Yiadom-Boakye’s figurative paintings are drawn from her own fictitious set of characters and allude to traditions of European portraiture. The way in which an audience might project meaning on to these figures is a key point of interest for Yiadom-Boakye, addressing the very problem of representation – particularly with regards to black subjects – in figurative painting and public spectatorship at large.
Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings suggest a narrative but the people and places depicted are carefully ambiguous ciphers of the imagination. She deploys a consistent painterly strategy and palette of colours, with the works produced at speed, revealing fluid, expressive, brushstrokes; dramatic, dark tones with sharp highlights dominate. The resulting collection of paintings produces a serial effect with an accumulative conversation developing between the works.
Portia Zvavahera (b.1985, Juru, Zimbabwe, lives and works in Harare)
She studied at the BAT Visual Arts Studio under the auspices of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe between 2003 and 2005, after which she obtained a first-class Diploma in Visual Arts from Harare Polytechnic in 2006.
The artist draws upon her deeply held sense of spirituality and accompanying rituals of belief to embody the predominantly female figures within these works, relocating them from the realm of the personal to the transpersonal. Moving beyond literal autobiography and self-portraiture, the figures depicted become archetypal expressions of feminine experiences of faith, relationship and motherhood.
A catalogue of the exhibition will be published.