Sihlali gets to grips with found materials

FINE ART: Ivor Powell

THE Bag Factory studio complex in Fordsburg might one day serve as a parable of the new South Africa — a parable whose point is how unusual normality is in this curious country of ours.

The Bag Factory has no real agendas. It provides studio space for professional artists, and just lets the artists — about half are black, half white — do whatever it is they do. Normality: just about everybody who works there has visibly benefited from it.

The black artists — among them David Koloane, Pat Mautloa, Sam Nhlengethwa and Durant Sihlali — have begun to emerge as something that, in outdated jargon, constitutes a movement. Its basic tenets are a suspicion of the way black artists have worked in the past, an urge to work as artists rather than black artists, and a critical engagement with found materials. And here endeth the gospel.

What Durant Sihlali has done in his new exhibition at the Goodman Gallery in Hyde Park could be dismissed as pretty literal. He has taken a formula that has worked for some of the other artists mentioned above, and used it in his own work. Thus, where he used to paint pretty abstracts, he now paints pretty abstracts with words, scraps of posters and so on underneath.

But the new paintings have given the artist — he’s always been a skilful manipulator of paint on canvas — a whole new set of formal problems to get his artistic teeth into. The solidity of the borrowed materials, the words and scraps of stencilling, have made Sihlali redefine his use of colour and brushmark, and work more with the virtual space of the canvas, the space of colour-generated illusion.

And in the confrontation of written language and painterly form, an area of resonance is generated. Though it is almost impossible to talk about, it’s easy enough to experience when you look at the work.

Durant Sihlali exhibits at the Goodman Gallery until June 10

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