/ 21 May 2015

Breeze Yoko & Mary Evans: Spaces and intersections in African art

Work by South African street artist Breeze Yoko.
Work by South African street artist Breeze Yoko.

Over a dozen artists from across Africa and the diaspora, and disciplines, will present their work in a month-long programme, commemorating Africa month and the upcoming Africa Day, on May 25. 

Titled Towards Intersections: Negotiating Subjects, Objects and Contexts, the show will feature visual exhibitions, discussions and a music event, to name a few, as “an exploration to establish seams and points of exchanges: it is a contact zone in which to transact cultural economies and intellectual perspectives articulated from personal and socio-political interests”, according to the programme curator Thembinkosi Goniwe.

Taking place in venues across Pretoria and Johannesburg, the programme – presented by !Kauru Contemporary Art from Africa and the Black Collectors Forum, with support from the department of arts and culture – will include artists such as Kay Hassan (South Africa), Abduraza Awofeso (Nigeria), Steve Bandoma (DRC), Rael Salley (USA), Berry Bickle (Mozambique), Andrew Tshabangu (South Africa), Anthea Moys (South Africa), Blessing Ngobeni (South Africa), Neliswa Xaba (South Africa) and Dana Whabira (Zimbabwe).

We caught up with two artists taking part in the group exhibition ahead of its opening on Thursday, May 21: Cape Town-born, Johannesburg-based filmmaker and multimedia and graffiti artist Vuyisa “Breeze” Yoko, and Nigeria-born, London-based Nigerian wallscape or installation artist Mary Evans.

Breeze Yoko

Hi Breeze. What can audiences expect to see by you at Towards Intersections: Negotiating Subjects, Objects and Contexts

There are two things that I’m presenting. The first one is a video piece that puts the audience in a position that I like to call “culture vulture”; looking into people’s livelihood. I made the video while on a trip around parts of Africa and Europe [with other artists] called Invisible Borders

While in this neighbourhood called Makoko in Lagos, Nigeria, we were put in a position where we felt like we were prying in on people’s private lives. We were the tourists that we were not supposed to be. Plus-minus 400 years ago, a tribe from Benin settled down in Nigeria [and many of the Makoko residents are the descendants of these migrants]. It’s an interesting neighbourhood but also problematic because a lot of people go there to take beautiful pictures, and it’s often not with permission or respect for the space and its inhabitants. (Read more on Makoko). 

For the second project, I’m painting the pillars in Museum Africa. And on the pillars, I’m trying to play around with the idea of security and holding onto things, and how we as people seem to grabbing something and looking for that intersection. I’m going to play around with visuals using some of Credo Mutwa’s work, Indaba My Children.

Why did you choose to reference Mutwa’s literary epic, Indaba My Children

It’s a form of reclaiming ourselves and our ancientness. And I think it’s one of the oldest reference we have to something authentically written for the Southern African and Nguni, as well as black people, that is not the hieroglyphics. 

Its interesting in it’s nature because it’s very graphic. What I am doing, is making up my text from the letters that have been provided in Indaba My Children. So I’m trying to put meaning in it for myself. 

“Because of a lack of resources and
funding, people have created something
totally authentic and totally new.”

What message do you attempt to drive home in your art? 

It’s seldom that we [South Africans] get to travel within the continent; most of our artists have travelled outside the continent. And to see the similarities within our differences has been liberating and educating. The more exposure you have to the so-called other, the more the other becomes less of an other. 

So my work attempts to expose you to another world; another struggle; another joy and reality of how people exist beyond South Africa. And the second part of my contribution, the graffiti, attempts to speak to our Africanness and what holds us together. Hence, there will be images of hands wrapping around one or two of the pillars.  

You’ve recently come off the Invisible Borders road trip, where you painted  around parts of Africa and Europe. What were some of the highlights of the trip? 

We travelled over eight countries around the continent and through parts of Europe. And wow! It was four months’ long and it didn’t really end well. It was supposed to be five months’ long, but six out of seven people quit due to unhappiness with what was going on in terms of the management of the trip. 

But the highlight for me was the interaction with the artists that we met along the way. Senegal is always a special place for me and Ghana was amazing; while Mauritania was a very strange place but I found a lot of hope there as well as untapped energy.

As diverse as countries on our continent are, from your travels last year, what were your general thoughts on Africa and its approach to the arts and its artists? 

There’s a lot going on in Africa and people are turning to the arts as an outlet for expressions that are prohibited, maybe politically or otherwise. There’s a lot of creativity in the sense that they’re not boxed into these formats that those living in the architecturally developed world try to adhere to. 

In other countries, I’ve found that because of a lack of resources and funding, people have created something totally authentic and totally new. And they embrace themselves and their culture within their art, which makes it very different to our art, which tends to be very Eurocentric and hardly with an African basis. The African part of the art becomes the political; like if you say something bad about Mugabe, otherwise it ticks all the Eurocentric boxes. So I found it very liberating to see artists break these boundaries. 

What else are you currently working on?

At the moment I’m working on curating a show in Maboneng on Friday. It’s a group show of predominantly street artists and print making artists, in celebration of the street art and graffiti genres and the artists within these genres, especially within the black community. 

The graffiti and street art genre has grown a lot over the last 20 years in the international market, and it’s catching on a lot in South Africa. For me this is a way of further opening a platform to celebrate these artists, who have put in a lot of work to get the scene to where it is today. 

You’re taking art off the street and placing it in a gallery for your latest exhibition. What are your thoughts on street art existing in the white cube spaces or galleries; does that make it lose its authenticity? 

I think there are two different mediums at play. Once you do take it off the street, it’s not street art. And this art form going into the gallery spaces has been done since the 1980s, when it was getting its fame in New York. And like in the past, today’s graffiti artists aren’t one-dimensional. They draw, they illustrate, they have many things going on, which are informed by their graffiti style and it’s important to give people a chance. 

So if we don’t take the initiative to present our work in those white cube spaces, [someone else will]. We have to take advantage of these spaces that are willing to show our work and earn from the hard work we put in the streets.

Mary Evans

Hi Mary. What can audiences expect to see by you at the Unisa show? 

I’m making a large wallscape, which is a large wall installation of brown paper depicting silhouettes, which are then pasted directly onto the gallery wall. The theme is in perspective and the figures are life-size, so they really confront you as a viewer. The colour of the paper happens to be brown but it’s also significant to my practice that the colour is brown. 

I’ve been working in this way [wallscaping] for over 20 years. I was a painter before and I’ve studied painting, but for me painting was always very much about trying to do something within a certain frame because of the size of the canvas. But the way I work now is, whatever size the gallery is is the size of my work. The space transfers the work and vice versa.

Your art is also kind of transient in its nature. Could you explain how it’s created?

It’s site specific and has to be destroyed or taken down at the end of an exhibition. I make them again and again. Liminal is a 14m long and 3m high piece, so I have a lot of ground to cover. It will take me at least two days [to complete].

“There’s this sadness to do with
migration. Even after half a lifetime in
one place, somewhere else is still home.”

Your work explores the transatlantic slave trade. Is this the case for this body of work?

No, not particularly. The  transatlantic slave trade is an area of interest of mine, and I have made work that has to do with that. 

The piece I’m making for the show is called Liminal. A liminal space is a space that is an in-between kind of space. And for me it could be a holding space or a refugee camp, or it could refer to being in the diaspora or being in limbo. And these figures are kind of itinerant; neither here nor there.

You were born in Lagos, Nigeria, and now reside in London. Is Liminal biographical? 

A lot of my work is. I’m always interested in migration in my work, probably because I migrated from Africa to Europe as a six-year-old. I was young;  and as a child you adjust. So me and my sisters just became British. But for my mum, I saw a difference. I think that there’s this sadness to do with migration. Even after half a lifetime in one place, somewhere else is still home. So my work is about that diasporic sensibility. 

As events like 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair take place around the world, and with Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor curating the current Venice Biennale, there is certainly a pronounced presence of Africans and Africanness in the Western art world. What are your thoughts on this? 

I think it’s good. At Okwui’s biennale, there are over 35 artists of African descent, which is unheard of at the Venice Biennale. I think [the focus on African art in the western world] has been a gradual process. I’ve noticed it [coming along] for almost 20 years. 

In London, there was this huge festival called Africa ’95, with a series of exhibitions and music events. It was a sort of look at Africa. And ever since then, African artists have become more noticeable on the international and mainstream stage. I do hope we will get to a point when there doesn’t have to be a 1:54 London and New York; so that we’re at a place where everything is inclusive. Maybe I’m a bit of an optimist or fantasist but that’s where I think it should be.

Lastly, what has been some of your career highlights? 

The two most recent international residencies! I was an artist fellow at the Smithsonian in Washington; at the Museum for African Art. It was more of a research residency than a making [art] residency. 

And the second one was last April, I spent a month at the Rockerfeller Foundation in Northern Italy. It was fantastic as a place to think and be, and which gives you access to space.

For more information on Towards Intersections: Negotiating Subjects, Objects and Contexts, visit the event’s page.