GalleriesArtists 18-11-2016

Adding a quiet voice to a conversation of change in South Africa

President Jacob Zuma stands gazing pensively over his right shoulder, his chest out, stomach in – authoritative and leaderly as it befits South Africa’s citizen number one.

But then your gaze is diverted downward, and you notice the unzipped trousers, his penis hanging from the open fly. Based on Viktor Ivanov’s iconic image of Lenin, Brett Murray’s The Spear of the Nation is one of the most controversial works in contemporary South African art.

Mere days after it was put on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg as part of the exhibition “Hail to the Thief” in May 2012, the work was condemned by Zuma and various government officials, vandalized, and eventually triggered a defamation lawsuit by the ANC. The picture itself clearly alluded to the president’s apparently exuberant sexuality, and implied the widespread abuse of power within the ANC government. Zuma has also frequently been the subject of a series of works by Ayanda Mabulu; most recently #Zupta state capture which depicts the president in a sexual act with Atul Gupta, an Indian-South African businessman whose family has become controversial for their close relationship with Zuma.

The Spear of the Nation, Brett Murray


There can be no misconceptions or false impressions when viewing these satirical works – they convey a very focused, loud message about the state of affairs in South Africa.

On an unusually cool spring evening in Cape Town, Igshaan Adams’ exhibition at blank gallery has its visitors mesmerised. In “Oorskot”, meaning both excess and remnant in Afrikaans, Adams uses discarded materials, carefully organized into new forms and processes, changing the material almost to appear as something else completely. The result is a visually seductive exhibition, its power in the intricate detail and its shiny objects.

“I love using aesthetics to disarm people,” says Adams. “It’s a much more effective way of getting your message across.” He believes that taking an aggressive stance isn’t as effective as engaging his audience with themes and ideas he likes to grapple with in his work, like his religion. We spoke on the eve of his installation of a new piece at Artissima, a shimmering tapestry titled Takbir (which sold for €10,000 at the fair), consisting of transparent beads that his family strings for him. A subtle detail on the work is the spray painted calligraphy, a detail easily missed.

    Igshaan Adams, As Grace Opens — photos via DIPTYCH


Being Muslim, Islam is a strong feature in his work. “The truth is I do see the world through my beliefs,” says Adams. “The perception of the religion is the complete opposite of my personal experience. I think Islamic calligraphy and the architecture within Islamic art is the best manifestation of the beauty of its teachings.”

“My specific cultural and racial alchemy and position and experiences have been an issue, and I suspect that it’s increasingly becoming an issue I’ve been pulled into, and it will probably show up more [in my work].”

It’s not something everyone will pick up on, he says, but explains that it’s his interpretation of quiet activism. “People really have to engage with the work, or make some kind of effort. And by that time, once they’ve realised what the work is about, or what I’m trying to say, they hopefully have been charmed by the beauty.”

This “quiet activism” is a theme among a new generation of South African artists, like Turiya Magadlela, whose hauntingly beautiful works created with stockings stretched over canvas, which subtly addresses the alarming rate of violence against women in the country.

Mohau Modisakeng, who will be representing South Africa at the 2017 Venice Biennale, uses large-scale photographic prints, installations and performance to examine the way South Africa’s violent history influences the individual’s cultural, political and social identity. In a similar vein, Mary Sibande explores the construction of identity, especially of black women, within a post-apartheid society. Her alter ego, Sophie, dressed in a domestic worker’s “uniform”, escapes her post-apartheid slavery by means of dreams where she is finally emancipated from this oppressing power relationship. This quiet activism might be a trend among young South African artists, but it is certainly not new. The 1970’s under apartheid was characterised by so-called “resistance art”, like the works of Sue Williamson, who often exposed the racist system’s moral bankruptcy, her subtle outrage challenging the imbalances of power.

Does art still have the power to lead to political change, then? And is it a question of the squeakiest wheel that gets the grease? The messages in works by artists like Ayanda Mabulu is quite clear, yet the quiet resolution of this new generation of quiet activist artists manage to pierce even the most hardened observer.

“I never really like to think of what art should or shouldn’t be,” Adams emphasizes. “I think there’s space for both [approaches] and there should be both.”

“I often wonder: ‘is art really that powerful?’ But there’s something about art that activates something inside you, it makes you more human. It also instils a sense of wisdom, where you are able to look at something beyond the surface, or at least realise that it’s in your best interest to look at something from as many points of view as possible before you make a judgement about it.”

“Even if nothing else, it can at least add to a conversation of change.”


image : Igshaan Adams, As Grace Opens
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