The man watched the bus go all the way up the road and then turn and disappear around the town boundary curve. Behind it, the green paint was brightened with an inscription carefully lettered to form an oval shape:
THE BEAUTYFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN
In the centre of the oval was a single flower, solitary, unexplainable and very beautiful.
The group exhibition The Beautyful Ones takes a cue, spelling mistake included, from the 1968 novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah. In one of the last paragraphs in his text (quoted above), Armah articulates an apt metaphor for what precedes the utopian yearning of the title. Armah viscerally and brutally recounts an unnamed man’s struggle in a society rotten to the core as a result of the aftermath of colonialism and the failures of a new regime. A dream deferred…
Whilst the exhibition is not intended as an illustration of Armah’s book, and knowledge of its content not necessary in reading or accessing the show, some core themes informed my thinking about the selection of artists and artworks. The exhibition brings together international artists who are exemplary of a generation of artists from and interested in Southern Africa, who create and work in an international context, whilst their practices remain connected to the social and political contexts of their home countries.
With an understanding of, and empathy with the ongoing debates within the larger contemporary African art communities about notions of ›Africanness‹ and African diasporas, the exhibition does not attempt to present narrow visions of any singular African identity, but aims instead to challenge and contribute to debates regarding artists operating in an international context and articulating an open engagement with regard to many contexts, histories, homes, and the self.
A first thematic strand, and impulse for the exhibition, is the borrowing of the poetic title from Armah – The Beautyful Ones, which suggests a special group of people. An open-ended reading is possible here – a suggestion that the artists in the exhibition are the special ones, the anointed ones. For their entries in the exhibition publication, the artists were asked who they think The Beautyful Ones are, and their responses are telling, and mostly political. A common feature, however, is an understanding of the term to refer to a generation, to the possibility of new beginnings and realities, and, as mentioned above, a certain utopian yearning for a better time, for a better future.
Although The Beautyful Ones could be celebrated and longed for, ›beauty‹ is not a neutral and innocent concept, as it involves prejudice, exclusion and contextual differences. It is this paradox and tension which inform the practice of many artists in the exhibition.
Dineo Seshee Bopape’s site-specific installation, Sketch of Landscape Painting (2013), is a continuation of the artist’s development of an idiosyncratic aesthetic language, utilizing found objects, drawing elements and video. These spatial experiments consist of interconnected elements, physically tied and attached to each other, either via strings, ribbons and fabric, or through visual and conceptual associations. Considered by the artist as process-based and ongoing research, the work is infused with playfulness. Whilst referencing intimate experiences in relation to social and political concerns, Bopape resists reductive readings of her work, as well as classifications based on her biography. The installation consists of found objects mined and scavenged for in Berlin, resulting in the interweaving of her own narratives with objects infused with the spirit of that city.
The results of urban scavenging are (literally) embedded in the work by Gerhard Marx selected for the exhibition. Daily walks from his home to his studio in suburban Johannesburg, South Africa, drew Marx’s interest to the suburban garden as a metaphorical site of control in the urban landscape. He became interested in what is discarded and ejected from this ›safe‹ zone into the ›unsafe‹ public space outside, which in its most mundane and banal form manifests as unwanted plant materials or weeds. The collecting, sifting and ordering of this material led to a body of work which expanded an ongoing interest in mark-making (drawing) and mapping. By cutting, splicing and grafting, methods associated with hortus siccus and horticultural traditions, Marx creates intricate, delicate and visually complex drawings and sculptures. The works included in the exhibition simultaneously engage aspects of decay and death, but paradoxically also growth, familial connections and birth, as expressed in the haunting bronze sculpture, Scion (Mother and Child) (2013).
Georgina Gratrix’s main subject matter is her closest social connections, including artworld friends and family, evident in keenly observed portraits that are both beautiful and absurd. Inspired by mainstream celebrity culture and the gutter press, Gratrix covers surfaces in globby paint to reveal startling and emotive likenesses in her subjects. Sharp-witted titles and word play also add to her observations. In many of her works, the ›likeness‹ she searches for and achieves encompasses the dualities and complexities of her relationship with the person painted. There is also a strong sense that Gratrix brings to the fore her own and her subjects’ vulnerability, which at times borders on the uncomfortable.
The portraits by Andrew Gilbert are representations that are foreign, exotic and from another time. He interrogates and critiques England’s violent colonial presence in Africa in the series of drawings titled Queen Victoria’s Enemies (2013). A major influence in his practice is the British film Zulu, a 1964 ›historical‹ war film, featuring the actor Michael Cane in a heroic lead role. The film depicts the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British Army and Zulu warriors in January 1879, during the AngloZulu War. Gilbert’s fiction stems from an internalized obsession with the horror and violence depicted in the film, and the uncritical reception of its unbalanced and problematic viewpoint. Gilbert’s practice centers on complex and contradictory positions that subversively play on historical facts and fictional flights of fancy.
Meleko Mokgosi is known for his large-scale paintings and installations, and an approach that is concerned with Africa-centered history and representation. The title of his recent painting, Africanis (2013), is also the name of a humble Southern African dog breed, still found today in rural areas. Superbly adapted to its environment, and a loyal, tenacious and intelligent companion, Africanis has also been considered a mongrel, or inferior dog breed. The impact of rapid economic change and migration on rural societies, together with a certain disdain for the traditional dog and the status that the ownership of an exotic breed provides, poses an increasing threat to the survival of this ancient and only indigenous African dog breed. Mokgosi re-images the animal, and through the monumental scale of the painting, elevates its status.
Central to the practice of Kudzanai Chiurai is a critique of the representation of political power and the pictorial manifestations thereof. His interrogation of the pomp and ceremony associated with the political ruling classes results in large-scale installations and video works. The bronze sculpture, State of the Nation (2011), is the focal point of a ›tableau‹ mounted to resemble an ornate ceremonial throne, which the artist created for a fictional inauguration of a new president or revolutionary leader. The sitter is ensconced between two awkwardly distorted, albeit symmetrically conjoined human figures, bearing a likeness to the artist and referencing the artist’s position within a volatile political milieu as court jester or agent provocateur, or perhaps also as victim. In the video work, Creation (2012), Chiurai retells a Setswana creation myth, a spiritual counterpoint to the subjugation of societies by power-hungry political elites.
Kiluanji Kia Henda presents new works based on the abandoned and soon to be demolished Feira Popular de Luanda (Luanda Funfair) in Angola. The series marks a continuation of the artist’s interest in the physical traces left by colonialism, and the fictionalization and reinterpretation of symbolic sites. The funfair, established during colonial times, functioned intermittently during the civil war in Angola and was finally abandoned in the late 2000s. The funfair, as a site of dreams, magic and childhood innocence, can be likened to a utopia, and the metaphor extended, as it now resembles, in its decay and neglect, a dystopia. The works also foreground Henda’s interest in playing with and distorting our perceptions of time; there is uncertainty whether these images are of relics from the past or the vision of an apocalyptic future.
The science fiction created by Gerald Machona developed from performative works based on his experiences as a foreigner/alien in an often hostile environment. Central to the film People from Other Places (2013) are detailed props and costumes made from defunct South African and Zimbabwean currencies. This stems from earlier works and takes its cue from masked ritual performances, where Machona, wearing masks constructed from banknotes, act out the problematic stereotypes of Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa. The work is concerned with precarious notions of value, and is analogous with immigrant experiences elsewhere in the world. Although we are living in an era of unprecedented interconnectedness, paradoxically, we are also negotiating increasingly restrictive economical and physical borders.
Athi-Patra Ruga’s practice challenges neat and clear boundaries of race, gender and sexuality. Included in the exhibition are a series of photographic works and a tapestry which take their cue from his interventionist performances. His genderfuck actions manifest as larger than life spectacles in public spaces, and are based on a series of female/ shemale/male characters. The exhibition also contains photographic works indicative of his interest in role play and masquerade; Deadboyz Auto Exotica (2009) is a charged engagement with the objectification of the black male body. Ruga considers the two-dimensional works as an important aspect of his art. His interest in tapestries developed from ›readymade‹ printed fabrics that he would adapt and use to create new narratives and characters, in an approach similar to that in his performance work.
The Beautyful Ones brings together a diverse and dynamic range of artistic practices and visual languages intended to create tensions, collisions and, ultimately, conversations. The exhibition would not have been possible without a large and supportive network of collaborators, and I join Juerg Judin in thanking the following individuals and institutions: Tony East, Neil Dundas, Liza Essers and Damon Garston of Goodman Gallery; Joost Bosland, Lerato Bereng and Andrew da Conceicao of Stevenson; Baylon Sandri and Marelize van Zyl of SMAC Gallery; Justin Rhodes, Ashleigh McLean and Pamella Dlungwana of Whatiftheworld Gallery; Kai Erdmann of power galerie; Honor Fraser; Hoosein Mahomed; Philippe Dutilleul-Francoeur; Francisca Bagulho; Daghild and Busso Bartels.
Lastly, and most importantly, we would like to thank the participating artists for their commitment and enthusiasm about being part of The Beautyful Ones.