/ 22 August 2001

Bonita Alice on her own turf

Bonita Alice’s Giving and Not Giving is about desire; the desire to discover the source of, or motivation for, a need. This need is based on what is expected of you, how you should feel towards a sense of place.

Grass, flesh and hospitable objects comprise the iconography of Giving and Not Giving: acres of tended or forested land; fish piled and filleted; swatches of flesh nestling on bright white china; steaming bowls burdened with an indeterminate white foodstuff — sugar (luxury) or rice (necessity); ladles, jugs, washboards … and then Russian religious architecture a nd a well-known historical political figure lording over a landscape: Seriously Contemplating History.

This collection of works comprises painting, sculpture and documentation of site-specific works, and marks a shift from Alice’s previous offerings that centred on figurative or portrait carvings in painted wood.

The appearance of these older works was initially smooth, relatively seamless, and almost decorative — but not quite.

The dramatic change in both subject matter and approach was fuelled by a three-month residency at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris in 1996. The time away planted the seed for pointed ruminations on that amorphous phantom we refer to as place — to have a sense of place equals a complete and fulfilled sense of identity that is both autonomous and collective.

Historical and recent political upheaval has created a South African culture of flux. Millions of dispossessed, whether local or immigrant, are trying to find a place within the new dispensation, while many of the middle and upper classes are emigrating. For Alice, this is part of her personal family history. A third generation South African, her family recently emigrated.

So what constitutes “home turf”? For Alice, the question is more personal than academic, but it did lead her to conduct in-depth research into the properties and cultivation of turf — as if the empirical data would reveal an existential or at least an emotional truth — what could lie beneath?

Alice’s interrogation of the semantics of sport-turf in the context of the playing fields of Johannesburg’s Barnato Park High School for Turf extends the metaphor into the realm of the personal. Many of her parents’ and grandparents’ contemporaries were schooled there when the suburb of Berea was considered respectable and middle class. Alice worked with a commercial company that specialises in painting corporate logos on to sports fields.

Before this Turf was executed on a football field between Nieu-Bethesda and its satellite township of Pienaarsig in the Eastern Cape. It was formerly — tellingly — titled Illusions of Permanence.

At first appearing quite separate to her usual modes of production, her take on turf begins to reveal neat segues to her broader concerns, as the detail surrenders to the fundamentals.

The underlying question addressed by the exhibition is whether places of birth or origin carry a built-in pull. Or is that notion the product of a culture (especially cultures of the dispossessed) held on to as a kind of false hope.

And then what if we were to go there — Jews to Israel (or now, perhaps, Sydney or Canada?), African-Americans to Liberia. What if the place doesn’t deliver on the promise? What happens to this lack and how do we begin to compensate?

References in the work to specific locations — Bykovnia Wood and Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev — bring together the intractability of land and culture as signifiers of sanctification and transience. In attempting to image the impotent or melancholic space between nourishment and excess, and its connection to place, Alice has created something of an intimate sublimation. Where identity is concerned, that’s about the size of it.

This is an adaptation of the text Kathryn Smith has written for the exhibition catalogue

Giving and Not Giving is on at the Bell-Roberts Contemporary art gallery, 199 Loop Street, Cape Town, until September 15. For more information contact Tel: (021) 422 1100