​Gunn-Salie sculpts the presence of the past

Power cycle: Haroon Gunn-Salie’s work tackles the Marikana massacre, colonialism, racism and capitalism. (Photo: Scott Rudd)

Power cycle: Haroon Gunn-Salie’s work tackles the Marikana massacre, colonialism, racism and capitalism. (Photo: Scott Rudd)

Seventeen figures crouch, headless and handless. There’s singing. Sounds of gunshots usher in expressions of mourning and memory. Upon looking at this work, one feels something akin to sorrow. Your heart breaks —heavily, sharply.

Senzeni na is Haroon Gunn-Salie’s site-specific, mixed-media installation created in response to the 2012 Marikana massacre. The 17 ghosts represent the 17 striking miners killed at what would later be known as scene 1. Through his artistic mirror, the scene is transformed into a pathetic tragedy.

Seventeen more were killed at scene 2. In total, 44 people were killed in a week during that fateful August.

Cape Town-born Gunn-Salie is a visual artist and social activist best known for his interventions and installations dissecting and articulating history and memory. In 2012, he completed his BA Honours in sculpture at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town, where he first captured attention through his graduate exhibition, Witness. Working with residents of District Six in Cape Town, he focused on the forced removals that took place from 1968 and through the 1970s.

His works have been exhibited around the world, including at the Venice Biennale and the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain in 2015.

Later that year, he presented his first solo exhibition, History After Apartheid, at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. The exhibition scrutinised the transitional state of contemporary South Africa in relation to violence and radicalism in the global context.

The exhibition’s press release said: “The first truck-mounted water cannon was used for riot control in 1930s Nazi Germany. It was appropriated by the apartheid security police adding dye to the water stream. This image of purple-stained people fleeing police has become iconographic of the mass liberation movement against apartheid and persists throughout the Global South.”

Addressing the apartheid government’s use of purple dye to mark protesters at democracy marches, History After Apartheid drew connections between mass democracy movements that now seem prescient.

Gunn-Salie is also the winner of this year’s FNB Joburg Art Fair prize. The prize — cash and an opportunity to showcase works at the fair — gives significant support to artists who are creating important dialogues within the African landscape.

Gunn-Salie’s Senzeni na installation takes the viewer to the site of the Marikana killings. It attempts to bring home and make visible the moments before that fateful event.

Through Senzeni na, the body is shown as a contorted column, hunted and abused. Gunn-Salie uses this dramatic imagery to reveal where memory has fallen short. His work is a reminder that the past is still unfolding.

The artist continues to attract international acclaim and recognition. Recently, held in New York, he participated in the 2018 New Museum Triennial: Songs for Sabotage. The triennial sought to investigate how individual and collective artists might effectively address connections between images, culture and forces that structure our society. It provided an important platform for a new generation of artists shaping the global discourse in contemporary art.

This year’s participants included artists Cian Dayrit, a Filipino multimedia artist from Manila; Manuel Solano, a blind painter and performance artist from Mexico City; Kenyan painter Chemu Ng’ok; new media artist Lydia Ourahmane from Saïda, Algeria; and Los Angeles painter Janiva Ellis.

Gunn-Salie’s work remains important, with his artistic formations casting light on cycles of histories and unthinkable events. He allows us to reflect on the different architectures of dominance linked to entrenched powers of colonialism, racism and relentless capitalism. In his work, we experience a sense of time frozen —always post-event, but not past our own mourning.

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