My own private Africa
To understand artist Michael MacGarry’s solo show, True / Story, you have to turn to a visual guide on a signboard . This offers explanatory text about the making of the works that unmasks a reality far from the viewers’ initial stereotypical reading of the piece.
MacGarry says True / Story extracts components from his work in an attempt to unravel artistic production, ‘giving them a life of their own. To undo the mysticism and the hidden stuff behind the pictures by explaining how much everything costs and who the people are.”
This is against the backdrop of his continuous questioning of lazy, stereotypical Western representations of ‘starving, violent” Africa and political concerns about ‘the ongoing ramifications of imperialism on the continent” and the effects of iniquitous globalised trade.
The photograph The Time, for example, appears to capture three African soldiers taking respite from a bout of jungle bloodletting—the lush, green, dark backdrop almost insinuates gorilla carcasses and conjures images of blood having been drunk.
Read the accompanying text and it’s MacGarry’s girlfriend’s parent’s gardener, Main Road Ncube, and his two sons, Nicholas and Silas, armed with toy AK-47s made by the artist.
‘I paid them R100 each for a three-hour shoot,” the text states. The toy AK-47, which he ‘aged with sandpaper and carved the wooden elements from pine timber, gluing them to the plastic gun with epoxy”, and the panga are part of the exhibition.
The props MacGarry uses in his installation work are allowed centre stage. They ‘leap out of the frame” to reveal their ‘true selves” and follow one of the threads of MacGarry’s work—what you think you see is not necessarily what you really see.
There is a table weighed down by a blob of white foam resembling an albino elephant dropping. On another sits a reconstructed 30-06 Mauser rifle for which MacGarry sourced and improvised components.
There is a model aeroplane bearing a fictitious African Airways logo and a photocopied Fang mask from a short video titled White Skin, Black Masks—a ‘critical mimicry” of white guilt and paranoia in post-apartheid South Africa, informed by Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.
A life-sized action-man figure, complete with AK-47, panga and trailing parachute stands guard over this debris of a boy-child fascination with toys and African archetypes.
Many of MacGarry’s fictitious characters operate within the space of ‘Africa, as an idea, being this homogenous thing”, which, he says, ‘does not exist”. MacGarry seeks truth in Africa as a geographical entity.
On his website and the exhibition signboard MacGarry matter-of-factly relates the organic processes, influences and costing of his various works: the R300 he paid Gisele, a Nigerian prostitute he contacted through the adult entertainment section of a newspaper for his shoot of The Classicist.
A brown paper bag mask with eight symmetrical eyeholes appearing in a photograph titled Spiderman is ‘equal parts a pseudo-Cubist rendering of a face as it is a terrorist’s ski-mask”. He says the mask was influenced as much by David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man as by the cartoon motif of a brown bag concealing identity, embarrassment or pimples.
The mask also draws from the documentary One Day in September, about the terrorist kidnapping of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Also on exhibition is an AK-47 filled with nails that stands like a fetish object from a dungeon of archaic power. ‘I invest a lot of time and energy in making these things,” MacGarry says. Although ‘they exist to a large extent as props in photographs ... the objects themselves radiate their own kind of bullshit”.
Haemorrhaged from photographs and video installations on to the table, MacGarry’s props retain a horrifying menace. A menace that lies equally in their unconventional realism as in our own perceptions of reality and notions of ‘truth”.
Michael MacGarry is part of Avant Car Guard.
True / Story is on exhibition at the KZNSA until March 9