Carry-all becomes catch-all

A large map of the world dominates Dan Halter’s latest solo exhibition. At almost 4m by 2m large, it is made of used and new “China bags”, the ubiquitous plastic-mesh carry-alls often associated with migrants and refugees, sewn together to show migration patterns around the world.

The work is titled Rifugiato Mappa del Mondo, a nod to Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa, key to the Arte Povera, the “poor art” movement, which used commonplace materials in an attempt to knock high art off its privileged pedestal.

In many ways, this is the key work to his exhibition The Truth Lies Here.
The ironic title can be read into the use of cutting-edge “info graphics” in the construction of Halter’s refugee map. Statistics can lie and, in the map, the wear and tear, literally, of the bags used are perhaps more telling than any data provided by the internet.

Halter, a Zimbabwean living in South Africa, is keenly aware of the vicissitudes faced by refugees and this is illustrated in all the works.

Cheap woven bags come to the fore in latest show
He has used these cheap woven bags in his art for many years, but in The Truth Lies Here they become the dominant note and theme that run through the show. Found bags, worn to the point of uselessness, are carefully embroidered with sayings such as “Efiewura sua me” (“Help me carry this bag” in the Twi language of Ghana) and “Ghana must go”, a reference to the name of the bags in Nigeria in the 1990s when, during outbreaks of xenophobia, Ghanaians were forcibly expelled.

The flow of humans—expelled, migratory, returning and expelled again—can be traced in the fraying and scuff marks on the bags Halter uses as his source material. For him these bags—so quotidian, even reviled, as cheap markers of movement, informal trade and emergency travel—take on a heroic quality.

During a Glenfiddich residency in Scotland in 2010, Halter approached the leading manufacturer of Highland tartans and kilts, Johnstons of Elgin, and had them weave a fabric in the finest wool that matched the pattern of the Chinese bag. An untitled work in the show gives a key to this process and documents his correspondence with Johnstons.

It is perhaps significant that Halter is playing with notions of “high” and “low”—art, manufacturing, commercial production and citizenship—in his work. The font he selected for his embroidery on the bags is the same as that used by Louis Vuitton, which gives the line “When the bag tears, the shoulders get a rest” a doubly ironic meaning, given the locus of production for both the cheap “China bags” and the fake Louis Vuitton handbags, ersatz status symbols. Here we are forced to question the modes of manufacture and the trade routes that bring these goods into our orbit.

Quilt speaks of human migration
Another major work that uses the bags is Ghana Must Go Quilt 1, a quilt displaying the well-known “tumbling blocks” pattern. The blocks, made of different colours of bags showing differing degrees of wear, speak of the endless tumble of human migration that is inscribed in the erosion of detail in the plastic weave.

Halter is keenly aware of the history of slaves communicating through quilting in the American South when slaves were forbidden to read and write.

This exhibition is conceptually dense and unified by a single overriding theme. Although there are a few works that do not utilise the plastic-mesh pattern, they too refer to being an outsider in a foreign land, such as Indlala inamanyala (“If you misbehave, don’t blame us, blame our stomachs”), which shows the word “awakwerekwere” (foreigners) floating in mid-air and made of matches.

Paired with this work is Necklace, which has the words “Go Home or Die Here”, also made of matches encircling a worn-out tyre.

Halter has come of age in this, his third solo show in South Africa. Gone are the spectacular set pieces of the past. He also does not rely on the video art for which he is justly well known.

This exhibition comprises seemingly calm, prone, two-dimensional works that, on reflection—and reflection is needed to appreciate the show—jump out and grab the viewer by the throat, shouting at us that the truth, in its way, really does lie here.

Dan Halter’s The Truth Lies Here is on at the whatiftheworld Gallery, 1 Argyle Street, Woodstock, Cape Town, until April 14

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