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Wasted: rubbish and art

A few weeks ago I conducted my first artcrawl, which was centred on the use of the 'found' object in contemporary practice. It was in response to a number of exhibitions on in Cape Town where artists were working with these 'kinds' of materials. My crawl began with a discussion of Marcel Duchamp - sometimes it seems you can't tell an art story without starting with him. He is credited with beginning this practice, though instead of referring to the objects he repurposed as art as 'found' or disused they are dubbed readymades. No doubt he wasn't the first to make art from readymades - Picasso and other modernists employed disused objects in what was termed 'junk-art' - they probably nicked this idea from Africans, but I have not traced this link yet.

Duchamp only produced around 14 artworks in his lifetime, mostly due to the fact that he struggled to find readymade objects which held no emotional pull for him - he limited his selection to objects he was dispassionate about. African artists like Kendell Geers, whose work I touched on next - in particular his 1995 Self Portrait - gravitate towards 'readymades' that crudely encapsulate routes of migration as a view to engaging with a conflicted identity. A broken Heineken bottle served for Geers as a shorthand for his 'fractured, fragmented and shattered' Dutch roots, which somehow prevent him from claiming his African identity or even a Dutch one. I introduced the work of Kay Hassan into my narrative, for he too has been fixated with the use of disused objects, from filming people scavenging at rubbish dumping sites in Joburg to the wonderful installation of second hand clothing at his Urbanation exhibition at JAG in 2008. He arranges clothing in tonal compositions in such a way that he appears to be 'painting' with clothing. In a way he allows the meaning and identities attached to the clothing to be 'emptied out' - he cleanses them in a way in preparation for their new life to serve new people with different identities. The use of readymades in abstract compositions that carry loaded topics linked to identity, gender and race has been continued by the likes of Turiya Magadelela who stretches flesh-coloured stockings over frames.

In my next crawl, titled Fabrication, I will be literally probing the use of 'materials'.

There is a long-held perception that African artists make art from waste products because they don’t have access to, or the means, or education to use more traditional ones. For some reason Westerners enjoy holding onto this idea of the noble impoverished African who rises despite his or her limits. This similarly underpins their admiration of their ability to transform discarded materials into aesthetic objects that overwrite their provenance. You would have thought that the great Ghanian artist El Antasui, famous for generating these incredible glimmering carpets from bottle-tops, would have put these ideas to bed. He uses very specific caps – connected to liquor that originates from the west – as a means of exploring the ambiguous relations between Africans and the West.

The seductive end-products he creates operate as a foil for this underlying concern but also, ironically, allows viewers to revel in the aesthetic beauty rather than confront the ugly truths belying it. Similarly, the manner in which Patrick Bongoy has transformed rubber into incredible sculptures, in his Revenants series showing at Ebony/Curated, are worth marvelling. The deft way in which he has pieced and woven thousands of strips of rubber to form life-size bodies begs interest.

However, unlike Antasui’s sculptures there is no denying the terrible human suffering these incredible works depict. With his head covered by a thick rubber blanket and his hands and legs are bound, one subject appears like a victim of torture. Another has been subjected to such dehumising conditions, its become ‘animal’ – its feet are hooves - and its body is doubled over by the weight of three large balls. The rubber allows Bongoy to literally evoke ‘blackness’ but also the way in which suffering can distort identity and erode a sense of humanity – it is a malleable and durable material. His subjects are built to last and exist despite the extreme pain they endure. A Congolese immigrant, Bongoy refers to the strife and crippling poverty in his former homeland.

Fabrice Monteiro from Benin is showing a series of photographs at Gallery Momo which demonstrate the way he transforms waste into art, well outfits. These unique ensembles fashioned from rubbish bags and other materials are grand enough so as to locate his subjects in a sort of fantasy space, though the slightly grim backgrounds – a shanty town or an empty beach – work against the escapist thrust. These otherworldly figures appear like creatures that have emerged from the sea –like Mermaids. Yet, like Bongoy’s subjects, their entire existence has been shaped, consists of, the detritus of a society. They are products of the waste that finds its way into the bottom of the ocean. It is easy to imagine these creatures rising from these depths, operating as a mirror on society, revealing their ugliness in a way that is at first appealing and seductive. This appears to be the modus operandi of African artists; they reel in their viewers through these dazzling or unbelievable surfaces only to confront them with banal materials that evoke unspeakable truths. - an edited version of this text was first published in The Times, November 22.


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