Voices heard above the babble

CINEMA

This year’s FNB Vita Art Now Awards were strengthened by being selective rather than widely inclusive, writes HAZEL FRIEDMAN.

BABBIAGE” is the French word for a babble of noise, in which one voice is indistinguishable from another and sense is subsumed in a barrage of sound. If you looked for a visual equivalent, you might have found it at last year’s FNB Vita Art Now Awards Exhibition, with its seemingly undifferentiated clutter of works merging into an amorphous eyesore.

In other words, if Vita offers an accurate barometer of contemporary South African art at a specific historical moment, last year’s exercise in curatorial dysfunction served as a sterling illustration of how low art can go before it hits basement level.

At the opening of this year’s show, however, there was an almost palpable sense of relief. And it wasn’t simply because of the widespread support for this year’s winners, Jane Alexander and Kevin Brand, nor due to the fact that guest speaker Denis Beckett provided some crisp populist relief in an event often characterised by stodgy pretension.

Skilfully curated by Natasha Fuller of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the 1995 Vita Arts Now Exhibition seems to be predicated on selective representation rather than nebulously inclusivist principles of one-for- all-all-for-one.

And the way in which the works have been displayed—there are samplings from separate bodies of work by 35 artists from galleries around Johannesburg—provides spaces of contemplation. It even inspires conversation of sorts between artwork and viewer—an often impossible indulgence at densely curated group shows.

Surprisingly, works from the 1995 Africus Biennale have been included in the 1995 Vita arena. Although the logic behind this decision is not unfathomable (many artists concentrated all their energies during 1995 on producing work for group shows represented in the exhibition), the Biennale functioned as an exercise in foreign relations. By contrast, Vita is propelled, in theory anyway, by more contained, internalised impulses.

Much has already been written about the works of co-winners Alexander and Brand, and of the magnificent non-sight-specific opus produced by Willem Boshoff, as well as Robert Hodgins’ ireverent painterly treatises on vanity, power and patriarchy. These artists continue to maintain a standard of conceptual sophistication, passion, commitment and technical acumen that some of their brasher peers would be well-advised to emulate.

Included in the “definitely noteworthy” category are works by Durant Sihlali comprising abstracted collages of pigment on hand-made paper, as well as Minette Vari’s skin-sensitive Surface Disclosures, derived from electron-microscopic images of samples taken from the artist’s body and incorporated into a series of clinical bathroom tiles which seem to both erode and simultaneously enhance the pristine surfaces of the tiles.

In the “worth much more than a quick read” category are visceral works by Stefan Blom (which deal with issues of duality and transcendence); Leora Farber’s equally visceral wedding dresses from hell; Lisa Brice’s quirky commentary on domestic metonyms of paranoia and power; Moshekwa Langa’s thought-provoking explorations of identity; and Andrew Putter’s peregrinations into the fetishes and foibles of queer and off-beat iconography.

I guess this means that in retrospect not all the stuffing in art produced during 1995 was either exported overseas or strewn over gallery floors as sloppy shrines to self- indulgence. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Vita ‘95 suggests that amid the babbiage of recent years, quietly coherent and enduring art is still alive and relatively well in Jo’burg, after all.

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