A physical engagement with art larger than life

Smooth sailing: Mawande ka Zenzile’s wooden steamship.

Smooth sailing: Mawande ka Zenzile’s wooden steamship.

During her walkabout of The Rainbow Nation, an exhibition of South African sculpture in The Hague last year — and now on show in adapted form at Nirox Sculpture Park in Johannesburg — 75-year-old Queen Beatrix of Holland paused in front of a rectangular object made by the gnomic Johannesburg artist Willem Boshoff.

The Dutch royal, whose beach umbrella hat matched the colour of her pink business suit, leant forward and touched its surface. She resembled a Braille reader.

Sculpture, unlike painting, still allows for this kind of encounter. Many of the works currently on display at Nirox, notably newcomer Beth Armstrong’s steel cross-section of an eviscerated landscape, will prompt direct physical engagement. Some, like Boshoff’s work Prison Hacks, now back in Johannesburg from Holland, plainly demand it.

Begun in 2003, Boshoff’s series of upright Zimbabwe black granite slabs features sandblasted geometric grooves tabulating the days spent in prison by the eight Rivonia trial accused, including Nelson Mandela. Prison Hacks offers an entrée into Boshoff’s obsessive world of verbal play and hidden meanings.

While researching the work, Boshoff discovered that seven years in prison is regarded as a long time.

“The prisoners speak of it as a ‘neves’, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as an extended period of prison sentence,” explained Boshoff in a 2007 interview. Read backwards, “neves” spells “seven”. Each sequence of hacks on the rectangular slabs counts seven days.

Generic male figures
Following her tactile encounter with Boshoff’s durable and transportable monument last May, Queen Beatrix was chaperoned into a cordoned-off space on Lange Voorhout Avenue. There she unveiled a large granite bust of a larger-than-life generic man balancing a stone on his head.

Since returned to South Africa and currently also on view at Nirox, the work is by Pretoria sculptor Angus Taylor.

Taylor, who was born in Hillbrow and raised in an atheist home while attending a God-fearing Afrikaans school in the Vaal Triangle, showed four works in Holland. Queen Beatrix bought one, two came home, and one was dumped in the North Sea.

Titled Layers of Being, this liquidated work portrayed a naked male figure kneeling on a patch of grey gravel, hands on his hips. The work was made using a large mould, into which Taylor and his team of assistants rammed steel, stone, grass and, controversially, six tons of red earth imported from South Africa.

“The Hague doesn’t have any dirt or dust or shit,” explained Taylor. “They only have manicured clean.”

Customs officials demanded he fumigate the soil. Easier said than done. The director of the Beelden aan Zee, the Dutch host museum, interceded, as did the mayor of Holland’s third-largest city. A compromise was finally brokered: when The Rainbow Nation closed, Taylor’s work had to be dumped in the sea.

Despite the wrinkled noses his name sometimes prompts among the local art illuminati, Taylor is one of South Africa’s most successful sculptors. His generic male figures decorate malls and private residences. Financier Paul Harris has given the artist much leeway at his swish boutique hotel in Cape Town, Ellerman House.

Taylor is indifferent to his critics, partly because of the wandering path he has travelled.

His first serious work after graduating from the University of Pretoria was a parody of a sculpture by Anton van Wouw, a Dutch-born artist and foundational figure in the history of local white settler art. He recalls deriving pleasure skewering “Afrikaners who disliked outspoken atheists and their sons”.

Mawande ka Zenzile (27) is one of the younger artists appearing at Nirox. Like Taylor when he was younger, Zenzile is involved in an argument with tradition. Born in Lady Frere and currently completing his fine art degree at Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, Zenzile is interested in literature documenting encounters with “the other”, notably Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness.

When Nirox’s owner, former attorney Benji Liebmann, invited him to show in Johannesburg, Zenzile made a wooden steamship similar to those used by the Belgians to navigate the Congo River. Better known for his graphically bold paintings and unapologetic videos, Zenzile was drawn to making a steamship after seeing photographs of Nirox. Once a trout fishery, it has abundant waterways.

In 2008, Joachim Schönfeldt floated a boat at Nirox. Its two occupants, James French and Michael Pelzel, played the tuba and soprano saxophone. Richard Forbes has two works installed where Schönfeldt’s boat wended its way: a steel water lily and a 4.5m steel vortex. Taylor also has two works in the waterways.

Other hardy stalwarts appearing on After the Rainbow Nation, the title of curator Mary-Jane Darroll’s Nirox exhibition, include Gordon Froud, Gavin Younge and Samson Mudzunga. Armstrong and Zenzile aside, new names include Rodan Kane Hart. A recent graduate of Michaelis, Hart is gifted with the same pluckiness as Jared Gilman’s Sam character in Wes Anderson’s endearing flick Moonrise Kingdom.

Like Sam, his ideas are still somewhat caught up in the maze of influence. There are lots of Modernist geometries and Ólafur Elíasson-like gee-whizz optical tricks. He uses phrases like “built ideological forms” and “dematerialisation” to talk you  through his work.

Here’s a plan: put on a Queen Beatrix hat, head out to Nirox over the weekend and test-touch his work. It is how the resident troop of vervet monkeys routinely welcomes new sculptures to the park.

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