The undertones of Marikana

Mary Wafer has stepped outside of her comfort zone to create a valuable exhibition about the tragedy at Lonmin’s mine.

Mary Wafer has stepped outside of her comfort zone to create a valuable exhibition about the tragedy at Lonmin’s mine.

No contemporary painter can engage landscape painting without feeling the significant weight of the history of this genre and the deeply contested nature of the subject it engages. How then does one proceed in the face of these multiple challenges without getting one’s hands scorched?

Mary Wafer’s work has always skirted the question not only of landscape but also of figuration in general. The “cityscapes” she made before the current body of work — if that is what one might call her chiaroscuros of light and dark, her corners of bridges and suggestions of highway overpasses — elude specificity in relation to either time or place, seeking refuge in the abstraction of scenes that suggest more an endpoint of landscape — a dark junction where land and city meet, or where land is transmuted into soccer stadium or urban park.

Her new exhibition, Mine (at David Krut Projects in Johannesburg), therefore comes as something of a surprise.
A jolt even. Not that one has imagined the artist unequal to the challenges posed by the genre she engages with here, but only that she has so firmly resisted locating her work in a specific political or geographical terrain, preferring opaque explorations, gesture, a grappling with absence — in both literal and figurative terms — and with the relationship of content to form, of light to darkness.

It would seem then that this new body of work has lain quietly in wait and that all of Wafer’s painting thus far has prepared her for this moment. A departure indeed, but by no means a letting go of what she has worked with before. Rather, this is an accumulation of the gestures and marks she has used, and at the same time a gutsy setting aside of some of the formal questions that have engaged her.

Gone are the sheets of black with their shards of light, the deliberate testing of the vanishing-point perspective, the slashes of lines and graphic suggestions of an asymmetrical geometry. Here is only soft yellow — almost lemon — and grey, applied in soft swaths across the canvas, watered down, bleached. Black asserts itself most decisively in the two figures of Waiting, but elsewhere it is applied in strokes and daubs that seem to lie under the yellow, that give way, perhaps for the first time in this painter’s work, to the possibilities of colour.

It feels as though a risk has been taken here, as though the artist has relinquished the comforting obliterating potential of black for something quite different, a kind of laying bare of her subject matter. And she chooses only two colours for this expressive moment, as though to test the terrain with a limited palette before proceeding any further, or to exhaust all of the possibilities of yellow and grey.

Something utterly specific, devastating
Her teachers are all here, the painters she has looked at and absorbed as one must to give oneself, reluctantly no doubt, a DNA: the expressive realism of Walter Meyer or Alan Crump’s earthy washes, perhaps, but also William Kentridge — without whose influence one cannot paint headgear or a crowd of miners. But also, dare one venture, David Goldblatt, whose pale landscapes and piles of grey asbestos are here, too. And the American and European influences: Peter Doig’s landscapes of the mid-1990s, Luc Tuymans’s washed-out yellows, greys and blues, Richard Diebenkorn’s geometries, Richard Serra’s black drawings, Gerhard Richter’s refusal of categories — the latter’s work important here as a kind of benchmark for the younger artist who wishes to escape the constraint of being either a figurative or an abstract painter.

Alongside — or perhaps giving rise to — this risky formal move on Wafer’s part is the artist’s decision to take on a subject, to paint a response to something that has happened in the world, something utterly specific, devastating, uncompromisingly here. What Wafer has managed to avoid, however, is the shock value of Marikana. She has also left judgment to those more qualified to pass it. But her engagement with the subject is no less devastating for its quiet interpretations of photographs of crowd scenes, aerial views of tracks to and from the koppie, power lines, hills of grey stone.

There are no dead bodies here, only people, seated on hillsides, moving over dusty land, their movement, their solidarity and their brooding waiting rendered in expressive marks. But as though taking up her own gauntlet — the near abstraction of crowds and, along with it, her apparently dispassionate stance — Wafer gives us those two immovable figures in Waiting.

I keep returning to this work not because I think it is the strongest, but because it seems to be Wafer’s reminder — to herself, to the viewer — of the human lives at the centre of this drama. Looked at in isolation, the painting makes no grand claims, but taken with the other works here, it is decisive, critical (in both senses), courageous even. It is the smallest painting on the show, a counterpoint to the gloriously ambitious scale of the other works. Perhaps the only criticism of the exhibition is that the long narrow space of the gallery at David Krut Projects does not afford one the same distance from the subject matter that Wafer has imposed on herself.

Here is a painter who has an exceptional grasp of the formal questions, challenges and revelations of her medium, but who has also ventured well outside of her own comfort zone. Her formal rigour is, here, in the employ of an empathy that never gives way to sentimentality or crude answers to a monumental tragedy. This is an important exhibition.

Mine is on at David Krut Projects, 140 Jan Smuts Avenue, Parkwood, Johannesburg, until May 18

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