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Probing the dark depths of blackness

It is not often that a curator implores you to listen to visual artworks. Yet strangely this is what Gcotyelwa Mashiqa asks of viewers at the Black Luminosity exhibition currently showing at Smac Gallery in Stellenbosch. This unconventional appeal, which fortunately doesn’t manifest in visitors having to wear an eye mask as well as a face mask, speaks to two concepts that interest this independent South African curator. First; the visibility and invisibility of blackness and how the one might feed the other, and second, the idea that artworks speak to us in ways that

transcend vision. By the latter Mashiqa wishes to draw attention to the way that we view images with a set of expectations and a language that could be a barrier to what the artist might be communicating. Put more simply, in overthinking the visual appearance of an artwork and deducing what it might mean, we often overlook how they make us feel and the ephemeral states they evoke.

For this reason Mashiqa selected artworks for the exhibition that didn’t directly appear to engage with being black or blackness - terms that manifest in this show in multiple ways that stretch beyond racial identity. In the context of Mashiqa’s drive to ‘listen’ to art – the title, Black Luminosity, refers to an absence of seeing – but also the potential in not being able to ‘see’. This makes for an interesting exhibition, particularly given the mix of artists – who are at different stages in their careers from Luyanda Zindela, a Durban-based artists who is garnering attention, to well-known international art stars such as Mary Sibande and Alexandra Karakashian and celebrated mid-career artists such as Usha Seejarim and Wallen Mapondera, who delivers a wonderfully cheeky work fashioned from toilet paper.

A trio of works dominated by black grab your attention as you step into the gallery. An almost life-size installation/sculpture, boleta le bofefo (2019 – 2020) by Cow Mash is characteristically fashioned from a mix of different black materials. The Bloom (2021) series of abstract paintings by Karakashian are all rendered in black oil – also a signature of this artist’s work. There are no aural works on the show – Mashiqa isn’t directing viewers to literally listen to art but to perceive it via other senses and modes.

“There are other ways can we engage with artworks. We shouldn’t just look at them. As Mieka Bal (the Dutch artist and academic) says ‘sight is impure’. We have these biases and we are conditioned to see in a certain way. I wanted people to see differently to relearn how they look at artworks. Listening is about refusing to use the terms that were given to us and told to use while looking at images,” says Mashiqa.

Of course, this approach isn’t only designed to upturn how we might look at art, or at least become more conscious of how our looking is socially conditioned but also pertains to racism, which is grounded in an inherent bias based on appearances.

It is not surprising therefore to learn that the concepts for Black Luminosity were brewing during the first round of lockdown when the death of George Floyd gave rise not only to protests around the world but as a result heightened an awareness racism and prompted efforts to combat it. Black people were gracing covers of magazines and a form of visibility of black identities appeared pronounced. This response naturally coincided with renewed interest in portraits of black people produced by black artists.

Indeed one of the artists with a work on Black Luminosity, Zandile Tshabalala, has noticeably been riding this renewed black portraiture wave with her slick paintings depicting a bald black woman who resembles the artist. Tshabalala reconfigures notions of feminine beauty through these glossy self-portraits often picturing the subject in idyllic tropical settings. Self Check: Lady in pink scarf (2021) celebrates blackness – the subject’s skin is pitch-black and her red lips and painted nails pop against this dark shade. This form of celebratory portraiture has being finding traction not only on Instagram but auctions, yet it is the only artwork in this vein on Black Luminosity.