Once a year I get to be the messenger of upbeat art news when I compile the annual best-of list. And yes, theoretically-speaking there is no such thing as “bad” art and retrospective analysis is never as sharp as pronouncements made in the heat of the moment but I enjoy spreading a bit of art-feel-good-ness once a year. While reviewing my Instagram account, which has fast become the most reliable record of my gallery crawls, I was surprised to discover how much art I enjoyed last year. As always I did not get to write about it all; it is impossible given time constraints and the fact that I have A LIFE (artists take note). I have added a new category to my list – the Best Art Fair artwork – due to the fact that art in that setting ought to be weighed-up within that context.
Best Solo Exhibitions:
Two artists’ solo exhibitions really stood out this year. I wish to god they weren’t artists with Stevenson Gallery, as that makes it so predictable and as it is that gallery believes they are far more important than they ought to. Nevertheless, Kemang Wa Lehulere actually pulled out two, not just one, good solo exhibitions in 2015. To Whom it may concern (Stevenson Cape Town) and then his Standard Bank Young Artist Award show, History will Break your Heart. There were a few repetitive elements in the both shows but at the one he debuted at the National Arts Festival he really pushed the boat out, by cleverly intertwining his art with those artists who sit uneasily in SA art history. His work owes much to other artists and curators but it is nonetheless fresh, provocative, evinces a distinctive aesthetic, and blurs the boundary between curating and the nature of collaboration and advances a dialogue with the past in ways that are not easy to reconcile.
Wim Botha’s Pietà (Stevenson Joburg) took me by surprise; I was expecting another one of his suspended black wooden installations and a couple of busts and instead he delivered an exquisite exhibition of paintings in which he deconstructs this famous art motif. Bloody hell. Botha is fucking talented. I hope the gallery sold the lot to a single buyer; I hate to think of that series broken up.
Other solos that caught my attention:
Marlene Steyn, The End is Located Underneath Her Third Armpit (if the muscle is flexed) at Commune 1. As the title of the show suggests, Steyn has a great sense of humour that is combined with a feminist body-conscious-subjectivity drive that is unusually packaged in a sort of medievaleque aesthetic. Brilliant. Love it.
Titus Matiyane’s handdrawn maps simply don’t fail to amaze. His drawings of the Brics Capitals on show at the UJ Gallery were extraordinary – the works have got larger and more ambitious – he captures an entire country and continent. His rendering of the African continent is the most unusual. None of the galleries pick him up because the works are really hard to sell – too big, too naïve or maybe not fashionable enough? Shame on them.
I would have bought a few of the works at Richard Penn’s Surface Detail at the Origins Centre if they had not been sold already. The paintings left me cold; it was the detailed, labour intensive ink drawings that held my attention. He has the ability to create surfaces that are almost like skins, so lifelike and organic though their ‘origin’ is fictional. Superb work.
The female body was at the centre of two incredible shows; Capture by Florine Demosthene, Gallery Momo (Joburg) and Lisa Brice’s Well Worn. Their renderings are completely different though not unexpectedly, the naked female body is under scrutiny. In Demosthene’s works the female figure is rendered as if under a microscope – the body is transparent and flattend as if a huge weight is being placed on it. Brice delivers studies of her female subjects through a striped filter that reads as fabric or a set of blinds. Two really strong shows.
Best Curated Group shows:
Um, this category is always difficult as there are very few curators in South Africa. Commercial galleries do shows that only include their artists, which proves hugely limiting and those that are operating as such outside of these spaces often confuse administration or project management with curating. Others are too lazy to actually go find artists or work, preferring to sit in their offices and send call-outs. Oh dear. The best curated show I saw in 2015 was Other People’s Memories by Emma Laurence at the Goodman Gallery, Joburg. All the art world biggies were included on it – Kentridge, Jaar, Goldblatt, Geers and Candice Breitz – but it still could have been a ballsup. Instead it was a tight show that was interesting and the uniting thread between the works was solid, though not always obvious. Breitz’s Treatment was a standout work – I could have watched it forever.
Thembinkosi Goniwe should get a special mention in this category for creating his rambling set of exhibitions under Towards Intersections title. I appreciated his sensitive and open approach to curating, leaving space within the framing of the show and its display for each work to ‘speak for itself’ and be interpreted by the viewer, though part of me also felt this was a bit of a cop-out.
Best Art Fair work:
What happens at an art fair should stay at an art fair. This should go for the art that goes on display there too. What works at an art fair might not work in the traditional gallery context. This is not to say that such work is vacuous or showy; but just works better because of this visual overload that defines the context. Barend de Wet’s Sculpture Set, which showed at the Smac Stand at the Joburg Art Fair is the best example – packaged in a cardboard box it was designed to be sold, remained a novelty item and was totally viewer centred (the buyer/viewer makes the work). In other words this work is totally art fair friendly while wryly exploiting this, proving that meta-art-fair art is actually possible. Please take note all wannabe abstraction painters.
Best Performance art works:
This may come as a surprise but I was so relieved that the Standard Bank Young Artist Award committee did not select a winner for the Performance Art category for 2016. It was the most ‘real’ gesture they have made in decades. Fact is so few artists are ploughing this particular field because the conditions are not ripe for it and it is not properly supported at educational institutions. Nevertheless there were a few performance works that stood out in 2015.
Alon Nashman as John Hirsch in Hirsch, which showed at the National Arts Festival and then at the 969 Festival at Wits University. It starred a Canadian actor and was based on the life of the titular artist. Nashman elegantly navigated this wonderful space between the mask and the performer, moving between playing himself, an actor and then his interpretation of Hirsch. What a treat.
The Last Attitude by Nelisiwe Xaba and Mamela Nyamza, which debuted at the National Arts Festival contained some compelling performance art moments, such as when the performers moved immobile, plump, white dancers onto the stage in a shopping trolley. This gendered and race centred piece was a fascinating meta-performance study.
In Recycled matter Robin Rhode presented a performance centred work with the props for a filmed performance in one room which take on different meaning or are drained of meaning isolated from a filmic work that charts a character’s pursuit to escape the ‘black box’ – the film set, the theatre – something our performance artists here struggle with.
Best Singular Artworks by Young-Ones:
The title of this category is self-explanatory. Interestingly, all these works were on one exhibition at Whatiftheworld that could have been displayed under the title: The New Cape Town Pop
Daniella Mooney Holywater – A Study in Rainmaking
Chloë Hugo-Hamman’s Cultural Village
Bogosi Sekhukhuni's Dream Diaries
The show I wish I had seen:
Jared Ginsburg 's The Natural World parts 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 – Blank Projects. It is no secret that I am a Ginsberg fan; I love his arte povera, makeshift, kinetic aesthetic. The work is quietly clever. Put me in that time-machine and take me back…
The show I wish I had not seen:
They came from outer space curated by Raimi Gbadamosi at Goethe-Institut Joburg. No and no. It might have been fashionably Science-fiction, Africa-meets-alienation but the most of the works had been seen at other shows. It was such an empty, unsatisfying and banal show.
The most bizarre art world moment that could only happen in South Africa:
The sale of pencil cases featuring the Zeitz Moccaa Museum design. Who needs the museum when you can sell images of it in the gift shop? Just bypass the whole expensive process and sell the museum clobber already.