“You & I”

A4 Arts Foundation
23‭ ‬Buitenkant Street, District Six
September 13–January 28

Goddy Leye‭, ‬We are the world‭, ‬2006‭, digital video, color, sound, 4‭ ‬minutes 52‭ ‬seconds.

Collectivism has been a major force in South African art pretty much since the New Group, a vanguard of white modernist painters, declared themselves, in 1938, “united against junk.” Rather than didactically survey artistic associations and cooperatives in their home country, though, curators Ziphozenkosi Dayile and Kemang wa Lehulere—both members of the influential Cape Town arts group Gugulective—opted instead to elliptically parse ideas and demonstrations of collectivity for this space’s inaugural exhibition. A ranging and worldly affair, “You & I” dutifully includes works by actual collectives, notably the Propeller Group’s video The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, 2014, an impressionistic documentary of funeral traditions and rituals in south Vietnam, and Avant Car Guard’s Die Verlore Kind, 2007, a granite and enamel tombstone commemorating artist Kendell Geers (who is still very much alive).

The disruptive potential of concerted action, however, extends beyond the tactics and strategies of artists voluntarily coming together. Yoko Ono’s instructional work Mend Piece, 1966/2015, a long table displaying broken china and various bonding agents, locates unity in audience participation—the artist’s Fluxus credentials seem incidental to an appreciation of this piece. By contrast, Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s short Fishermen (Études, No 1), 2007, offers community as something tantamount to everyday fact. Set on a Benin beach, the unembellished video portrays a group of fishermen’s futile struggle to pilot their rudimentary craft out to sea. Cameroonian artist Goddy Leye’s We are the world, 2006, pits individual resolve against a strain of grandstanding associated with world peace ideology: The video depicts the artist, haloed by stars and fruit, performing a nonchalant karaoke version of the 1985 charity song for which his video is named. “We are saving our own lives,” he provocatively sings.

Sean O’Toole

Kudzanai Chiurai

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa
V&A Waterfront, Silo District, S Arm Road
September 22–March 31

View of “Kudzanai Chiurai: Regarding the Ease of Others,” 2017. Center: “Conflict Resolution,” 2012.

“You can’t escape politics,” Kudzanai Chiurai once said to CNN, not that anyone who has followed his meteoric rise to fame would ever accuse him of skirting the issues. Since gaining notoriety (and status as a political exile) for an incendiary portrait of Robert MugabeAbuse of Power, 2009—the thirty-six-year-old Zimbabwean multimedia artist has galvanized contemporary African artists to engage such thorny subjects as corruption, xenophobia, and internecine conflict. His arresting exhibition at this newly inaugurated institution, Cape Town’s first museum of contemporary art, brings together key bodies of work from the past decade or so, including excerpts from his 2012 series “Conflict Resolution” that were shown at Documenta 13.

In what might be a reference to Susan Sontag’s 2003 book on war photography, Regarding the Pain of Others, the show’s title, “Regarding the Ease of Others,” alerts us to the indivisible problem of subjectivity. Like Sontag, Chiurai is concerned with the gendered authorship of history and constructs alternative narratives. His glossy, highly stylized tableaux of fictional militant groups, where women are illustrated as central figures of influence, shine a light on the typically masculine poetics of power and war. Shrewd and often humorous lithographs and photographs of fictional African leaders in his series “Dying to Be Men,” 2009, and “Revelations,” 2011, explore what one might call the iconography of despotism—corybantic warlords and politicians replete with AK-47s, gold chains, and fur coats.

The selection of videos, photographs, drawings, posters, and paintings presented in this survey mount a sustained critique of the Christian and colonial narratives that still mark the political, economic, and social conditions of present-day southern Africa; together, they offer a coruscating meditation on power, paternalism, and patriarchy, while reflecting on symbols of democracy—and their misappropriation.

Genevieve Allison

Mandy Barker

East Wing
Dubai Design District d3, Building 2, #07
December 10–February 10

Mandy Barker, Phoronilasteri crae, 2016, archival pigment print, 23 1/4 x 31".

Floating in disorienting pitch blackness—like outer space or the deep sea—suspended debris indicates life’s pulse. The contextualization is both soothingly familiar and panic inducing. Mandy Barker’s “Plastic Sea” comprises photographs depicting plastic collected from beaches and animal stomachs—a time capsule that suggests how the ocean gifts us not only with crustaceans and seaweed, but also artificial flowers (Soup: Ruinous Remembrance, 2011) and toy turtles (Soup: Turtle, 2011). This stew—a concoction of monochromatic pipes, syringes, and pregnancy tests that coexist with sea creatures (Soup: Every Snow) or candy-hued toothpaste tubes and bottle tops (Soup: Refused, 2011)—is laid out in galactic compositions. The spatial depths and thematically arranged objects, paired with Barker’s meticulous layering and play with perspective and proportion, irreversibly submerge the viewer in the repercussions of the Anthropocene.

The visual poetry belies a harsh wake-up call to the damaging ubiquity of plastics. Accompanying research underlines the gradual supplantation of the sea’s fish with plastic refuse. The series “Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals,” 2016, pays tragic homage to John Vaughan Thompson’s discovery and documentation of plankton in the 1800s, by presenting plastic minutiae as the new microorganisms that are filling both oceans and marine anatomies. Barker provides a visceral punch: The new natural is man-made.

Barker’s surreal photographs capture a current underwater landscape transforming into a distorted replica of what exists above it. Speaking to the pitfalls of indestructible modern comforts, these peaceful cosmologies reveal that despite infinite space, there is little left for the organic, offering us something between an experience of aesthetic pleasure and a haunting visual confrontation with the consequences of a lack of social responsibility.

Katrina Kufer

“Something Living”

Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain
August 19–February 11

Philip Guston, East Tenth, 1977, oil on canvas, 80 x 100 1/2".

Philip Guston is the point of inspiration for this spirited group exhibition—specifically, his painting East Tenth, 1977, which this gallery shrewdly acquired in the early 1980s. Typical of his rather solemn, idiosyncratic experiments from this period, the work features a grimy New York sky above cartoon bottles, red-brick walls, and shapes reminiscent of Guston’s earlier Ku Klux Klan–type profiles. While the curatorial premise, detailed on a gallery wall, is fairly pedestrian—that contemporary artists have continued Guston’s obsession with “formless matter” and “living presence”—it becomes inconsequential for the works themselves. This is especially true of Dana Schutz’s Breastfeeding, 2015, Neo Rauch’s Gebot, 2002, and Jamian Juliano-Villani’s Boom Shot, 2015, all of which, although very different, share art-historical DNA, which might be described as a conflation of Neue Sachlichkeit and Surrealism. Schutz’s work in particular—an almost violent portrayal of breastfeeding—seems as if it could command the entire gallery space, showing a baby’s expressionless face as the stationary focal point amid an unshapen whirlwind of a mother’s slippers, feet, arms, and knees.

Schutz’s zaniness—symbolic of the twenty-first-century subject’s experience of being confronted by too many things at once—is echoed in Chris Ofili’s glittering decorative abstraction, Triple eye vision 2000–2002, 2002, and Katherine Bernhardt’s Lisa Simpson, watermelon, cantaloupe, cigarettes, and chapstick, 2016, which revisits Pop art in the wake of 1990s grunge. Rachel Harrison’s pinky powder-blue Paper Clips, 2016, and Arlene Shechet’s flesh-colored sculptures, Beginning Now, 2016, continue the exhibition’s punk-like treatment of the grotesque, underscoring Guston’s aesthetics of outrage, anxiety, and dejection as a peculiarly American sensibility.

Wes Hill