Jo’burg art pick: February 25 2011

Two days before the opening of Tracey Rose’s controversial solo exhibition Waiting For God, the Johannesburg Art Gallery’s curatorial staff were called into Director Antoinette Murdoch’s office to make an important call.

As a public institution, with responsibilities to a diverse viewership, how were they to deal with the sexually explicit and sometimes violent imagery in Rose’s show, a mid-career retrospective which has been in the wings of the JAG’s public programme for some years? After legal consultation, deliberation and outrage from some parties at the prospect of censoring Rose’s work, they settled on an inconspicuous public warning that cautions viewers against the papier mache penises and bludgeoned deities beyond the entrance to the exhibition.

In Waiting for God Rose goes far beyond mere provocation, however. Her cynical criticisms of the prejudices — against women, against people of colour, against religious deviants — inherent in ‘normal’ society constitute a vitally defiant voice in the South African art scene, which has all too comfortably settled into the conservative imitation of culture. Rose’s acerbic humour gleams through in Waiting For God like never before, and pieces such as the video Killing God, in which a bearded old man feigns death by beating (with a piece of Styrofoam) are actually, when one’s fear of lightning bolts subsides, extremely funny.

Johannesburg Art Gallery, King George Street, Joubert Park. Until March 17 2011.

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