Gallery Momo’s group exhibition, which closed off 2014’s art calendar and begins the new season, is neither titled nor arbitrarily framed around some “serious” theme. The omission of titling artwork is largely about freeing art from the burden of “meaning” to allow the viewer a chance to read the work without the directive of titles, content and context.
Meaning has been like a stain most difficult to remove or not expect. But in the evolution of art, meaning has been both inevitable and central, whether contested or radically rejected.
After all, real abstraction is not an escape from the material world, but an attempt to redefine perception and understanding. Gallery Momo’s untitled show does not free itself from meaning, but rather invites us to engage in our own understanding of the work.
Largely consisting of traditional media such as drawing, collages, paintings and photographs, it features works by seasoned artists and rising stars such as Ayana V Jackson, Mary Sibande and Blessing Ngobeni. Jackson’s dark photographic series, titled Before the Law, shows the artist dressed in Muslim robes, squatting on a plinth-like object and staring steadfastly at us.
In the tradition of Cuban-American performance artist Ana Mendieta, who once covered her face with a beard, Jackson dresses in religious clothes worn by men. Here cross-dressing isn’t a gesture highlighting repressed masculinist fantasies. Almost in Susan Sontag’s sense, Jackson alerts us to the foggy interface between the patriarchal nature of the law and the misogynistic practices in religion.
A decontextualised world
With her performative masculinity positioned before a background of scribbled foliage, Jackson reminds us about the arbitrariness, and thus instability, of religious and legal institutions. One can contingently replace rules almost in the same way we can erase the background or change our attire.
Sibande’s work changes not so much the concerns raised but the geography. She snatches us out of the excessive, often infertile, moments of reality into the intangible plains of the imaginary. With her famous heroine black maid, Sophie, she unlocks our scenes of fantasy and flight.
In Admiration of the Purple Figure, a photographic reproduction of her sculptural installation appears in a monochromatic purple surrounded by creatures with an oceanic feel. Unlike Jackson’s boys, whose eyes gander at viewers, Sibande’s Sophie, with eyes wide shut, appears to be in a world of her own seemingly unmoved by events around her. More often than not, we never know the world that surrounds Sophie – a decontextualised world.
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world,” slave abolitionist Harriet Tubman once remarked.
No common theme
In Kimathi Donkor’s Harriet Tubman en route to Canada, we see her depicted as a statuesque figure, towering over a man as she points him to the distance with one hand and carries a firearm in the other. The man is lying down as if refusing to follow or escape.
Tubman is also known to have said: “I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Ngobeni’s Painting History series is an adaptation of Dumile Feni’s sculpture, also titled History, which shows the terrible condition of human exploitation and slavery.
Though the work draws from the famous sculpture, Ngobeni’s piece also draws on other works from Feni’s combative oeuvre. In his own signature style that reminds us of the surrealist work of Salvador Dali’s elongated and melting figures or Joan Miró’s thin figurines, Ngobeni’s translation of Feni is an acknowledgement of his mastery as well an attempt to reconfigure his message.
Perhaps it is good that the works are not framed under a common theme that would curate the viewers into some assumption. Within the myriad discussions, it seems that the works speak, reinforce and echo each other.