Sprawling tales of home

In Context is really like a mini-biennale,” Antoinette Murdoch, Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) director, said recently about the wide range of exhibitions and performance events at the Goodman Gallery Project Space in Johannesburg during the Soccer World Cup.

With its cast of important characters from South Africa and abroad, and seven distinct sub-exhibitions and events, In Context may just be the closest Johannesburg has come to a biennale since 1998.

In Context opened at Arts On Main on May 23 with a formidable exhibition of works by several international artists as well as some of South Africa’s prime exports—expatriates Kendell Geers, Candice Breitz and Robin Rhode all make of this a rare sojourn on home turf.

This exhibition constitutes the core component of In Context, although the programme also encompasses, among others, the JAG exhibition of William Kentridge’s eight film fragments, I am not me, the horse is not mine, and a new two-part performance project by Willem Boshoff, Big Druid in His Cubicle and Big Druid Walks in the City.
In the latter, the artist will conduct a daily walking ritual around the Johannesburg inner city from his specially furnished druid’s cubicle at Arts on Main.

Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers writes in her introduction to the catalogue that In Context is about different approaches to the idea of “home”. And home, according to this exhibition, seems less a place where one stays than a place one has left, longs for, returns to or even imagines. The majority of South African artists on this show enjoy greater success in the United States and Europe than at home in South Africa.

Artists from other African countries seem to have been included not because of the relevance of their work to the concept of home but primarily because they are from Africa, a continent where the right to feel at home has been contested historically. Two American artists Kara Walker and Hank Willis Thomas provide a converse view of this dilemma, unpacking the idea of Africa as the imagined rightful home of African-Americans.

As an assembly of strong works by knowledgeably selected artists, this exhibition is just about spotless. Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Labirinto e Grande Pozzo, a maze built from corrugated cardboard folded into the most delicate filigree and occupying the entire Goodman Gallery project room, is evidence of the effort that has gone into producing this project.

As is Malagasi artist Joël Andrianomearisoa’s Tres Cher, a multilayered curtain made from currency notes from around the world.

Surprisingly, one of the most alluring works on the show comes from just a few blocks away from Arts on Main, the Ponte tower in the suburb of Berea. Artists Mikhail Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse have for some time been developing a photographic series about the dreams and lived realities that have played out behind Ponte’s closed doors.

In this manifestation of their work, Ponte City, they have shrunk sprawling montages of different views of Ponte—its hundreds of doors, windows and television sets—into large rectangular light boxes that resemble Ponte as seen from a distance at night.

In spite of its top-end content, it is difficult to read In Context as a conceptually coherent entity. Because the idea of “home” has been interpreted so widely by different artists, the exhibition simply sprawls into a catch-all for political critiques that are related to South Africa in the most tangential of ways.

Yinke Shonibare’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Africa), made after the famous Goya etching by the same name, alludes to colonial trade and culture as reasons for displacement. The sleeper is dressed in one of Shonibare’s elaborate costumes made of Dutch Wax fabric, imported into Africa through Europe and Indonesia.

This hangs alongside Billi Bidjocka’s Modern Pieta, a beadwork line drawing of Michelangelo’s 15th-century sculpture The Pieta, made by Cape Town craft group Beloved Beadworks. Both works cite European masterpieces and root themselves in Africa through specific craft materials.

But instead of illuminating the concept of home, these works seem forced to wear it like a shoe one size too small.