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Breathing Space | Projects

[in review] | editor’s letter

Breathing Space

[in review] is a project by Cape Town based writer and editor Keely Shinners and supported by a Breathing Space grant. In this editor’s letter, Keely introduces the concept behind their “visual arts diary-of-sorts” and picks up on some of the themes that emerged between the 30 contributing writers’ pieces.

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That a review might be synonymous with examination or a judgment passed is a relatively recent semantic phenomenon. To review meant, simply, to look again. To look again might be contrary to the project of contemporary art—as both a market and a discourse—which is propelled by an accelerating desire for the up-and-coming, next-thing. The reviewer’s role is to decide what (and who) has been undone, outdone, or overdone—in other words, to augment (and to reassure) this insatiable form of value creation. In such an ecosystem, cynicism abounds for both reader and reviewer.

To look again is no revolutionary act. It might, however, remind both reader and reviewer of the latent life of images that subverts dialects of consume-or-be-consumed. Artworks can still speak to us. They can strike a chord. They can return to us as monuments, and we return to them as pilgrims. The good ones ruin the ways we think about the world. Sometimes, even the bad ones prompt reflection, demand restitution.

[in review] sprung out of a fascination with the relationships viewers have with artworks and wondered how those relationships might be reviewed. Ultimately, 30 writers were asked to choose an artwork which, for them, has been life-giving, thought-provoking, or soul-soothing and share a short meditation. The artwork could be by anyone, from anywhere, from any time period, an opportunity (and challenge) art writers—particularly art writers working in, around, and about Southern Africa—are seldom afforded. The resulting collection of essays gave rise to much surprise and delight.

Considering not only how we look at images, but how images look back at us, Misha Krynauw considers how Toyin Ojih Odutola’s charcoal portrait insists on “a mutual meeting, with levelled gazes and intense introspection. Like a conversation long overdue, and maybe even a little tense, if I’m lucky.” Lindiwe Mngxitama writes about Chaim Soutine’s image of a carcass which still seems to retain the “stench of decaying Flesh” in a “certain poetrics of (un)living,” while Vusumzi Nkomo poeticises “abattoir aesthetics” and “black hard living” in Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo’s photographs of the neighbourhood tavern.

Thulile Gamedze attempts to resolve the equation “dust minus zero” embedded in Randy Hartzenberg’s Map of the Neighbourhood, whereby we, “all of us, collapse to dust inevitably, and that’s all, until the dust un-collapses back into flesh, etc. So ‘dust minus zero,’ where dust is human, can be a familial sum, an anti-colonial sum, a Queer sum, a sum against patriarchy, a Black sum.” Francis Alÿs embodies an extreme form of returning to dust in Lucienne Bestall’s reading of Tornado. Kim Gurney sees the self-made paths, called “desire lines” by architectus and geologists, mapped out in Igshaan Adams’s large-scale installation-in-progress Kicking Dust, while Barnabas Muvhuti reads Wallen Mapondera’s Pahasha as a map of violence converging in Zimbabwe’s urban zones.

“For the most part, the life of a painting is inglorious,” writes Sean O’Toole. One intriguing exception to this rule is Vusi Mbulali’s oil painting of the Economic Freedom Fighters’ commander in chief Julius Malema, which made the rounds at political rallies in 2014-15, though “its life as an artwork, a painting, a thing with a submerged history of influences and associations, networks and lineages, was studiously ignored.” Percy Mabandu and Luvuyo Equiano Nyawose consider how photographic portraits—respectively, Alf Khumalo’s Winston Mankunku and Bob Gosani’s Dolly Rathebe—come to immortalise public figures and embody the histories they represent. When these monumental images begin to fracture under their own weight, Nkgopoleng Moloi argues that opacity might afford a kind of fugitivity, where “fugitivity becomes less about criminality but a possibility towards emancipation.”

Amie Soudien connects disastrous climate conditions to their colonial foundations as seen through “3-D animated renderings of hurricane forecasts and cellphone clips of palm trees weathering storms” in Alberta Whittle’s Between a Whisper and a Cry. Similarly, Tabita Rezaire’s film Deep Down Title traces the infrastructure of submarine fibre optic cable networks along the same lines as transatlantic slave trade routes. “Soothing seascapes are also thrown into the mix, connecting the historical, cosmological, spiritual, political, and technological impetuses of water and its pivotal role in carrying messages,” writes Lindsey Raymond. “These moments of connectivity are encoded into the video to shift our behavioural responses… the same manipulation tactic used to drive user engagement for the benefit of third parties.”

Mmabatho Thobejane sees liberatory potential in these sustained relations between present-future-past in Kitso Lynn Lelliott’s work. So too writes Gemma Hart of Tammi Mbambo, whose shrine-painting “explores the fantastical and surreal aspects of dreaming as a means to import the potential of the future into the present. In considering temporal shifts, the shrine offers an ancestral tether, in which duality of life and death is honoured.” Julie Nxadi approaches Puleng Mongale’s digital collage as an ancestral shrine with an offering in the form of a poem about her grandmother, Ida.

“Half prayer, half mosh pit,” writes Kopano Maroga of Jamila Johnson-Small’s BASICTENSION, which combines post-modern dance’s “tenets of non-glamorousness and non-virtuosity” with improvisation and “techno-poetics” to create a work “that is neither thesis nor antithesis, but a negotiation and reckoning.” BŪJIN engages techno-poetics in Black sonic cultures on the periphery of academic thought. “With its sonic influences of sghubu and yaadt music,” says Amogelang Maledu, “Techna Respectademica embeds the cultural flux of taxi music, street bashes, and backyard jols as legitimate forms of cultural and artistic knowledge.” Conversely, Sinazo Chiya considers what happens when so-called legitimate—some might say sublime—forms of artistic knowledge don’t live up to expectations. “The symbol and its myth remain breathtaking,” writes Chiya, taking Barnett Newman’s much-acclaimed Cathedra as a case study, “while actuality has been rendered pathetic.”

Isabella Kuijers pokes fun at the art world’s self-aggrandising tendencies in her revisitation of BANK’s Fax-bak series, while Max Thesen Law proposes making like Lee Lozano and dropping out of the art world altogether. “Where many other women in conceptual art at the time were concerned with reproductive labour and the work of maintenance focalising their practices on their own bodies,” they write, “Lozano chose to withdraw her labour – her body – entirely.” Gerdra Scheepers withdraws her body and leaves a sculpture behind, creating a work which Khanya Mashabela calls an “abstracted yet precise expression of everyday, bodily discomfort.” Christa Dee questions how “the everyday or mundane can become an archive” in her piece on Steven Cohen’s Make-up research, and Khumo Sebambo traces rituals of rest and balance which “transform the ordinary and everyday” in Billie Zangewa’s tapestry in my solitude.

Enos Nyamor writes about an everyday domestic scene which captures “a point of slippage” as a mother is about to spank her son in Noah Davis’s Bad Boy For Life. Catherine Rudolph meditates on a staple of her own domestic life—her grandmother’s tapestry rendition of a Walter Battiss—and how it has come to represent “a particular entanglement of whiteness, love, and privilege.” The objects entangled in Constantin Brancusi’s Atelier coalesce in ever-shifting metaphors: “Bones. A graveyard of sorts,” writes Robin Kirsten. “A mausoleum really, or certainly a period room. Setting a museum, the kind that Nikolai Federov could use. To waken the dead, and reignite this, the idling machine, into beeping again.”

“It is time for one last dance upon the cremation grounds,” writes Holly Beaton in her battle cry against submission, as inspired by Tiago Rodgrigues’s Hell Bent which sets the word alight. Keely Shinners meditates on a world set alight as an antidote to breathlessness, embodied poetically in Michel Groisman’s performance Transference. Finally, Maneo Mohale reads an Andile Buka photograph as a “brittle work” of poetry. “It’s no wonder why I draw close to photography whenever I lose sight of myself & my pen’s ability to reflect,” they write. “That I don’t have to capture anything. All I have to do is wait, fiddle, and invite the light in.”