Friday, July 17, 2009

Review of X2, a group exhibition curated by Zach Taljaard at the Albany History Museum Transformation Gallery, Grahamstown

The Grahamstown National Arts Festival prides itself in having had a long and prestigious history in providing a platform for contemporary and emerging artists in the fields performance, music and the visual arts. Unfortunately, with the exception of one or two corporate shows limited to gallery spaces in the 1820 Settler’s monument, the visual arts seem to have become the ‘ugly sister’ in this fairytale of creative collaboration: amounting to little more than flea-market cubicles crammed with beige lounge suite paintings. Granted, there are few visible platforms available to local artists and everybody has to make a living, but this seems to happen at the expense of any real injection of creative energy and provocative content.

So it was with great expectation that I went to the Albany Museum complex (usual home to the nauseatingly mundane) to see X2 curated by Zach Taljaard, not only because it included works by some of the more well known Grahamstown-based artists in conversation with emerging artists, or because Taljaard’s approach to curating is particularly cognizant of spatial context, but because a sculptural work depicting a hermaphroditic body mask by Mark Hipper had been censored by the Albany Museum board prior to the exhibition being opened for public viewing. It would be interesting to engage with what by virtue of exclusion from, had become the most talked about exhibition at the festival. I was also interested to see the context that would provoke such a unilateral act towards what, in description, sounded like a relatively standard art object.

The title X2 (Times Two), immediately brings to mind a number of the proposed intentions of the exhibition: bringing together two works from each selected artist, proposing a conversation about duality, pairs, coupling and binaries. This often used device can seem a little thin considering our culture of focusing on difference, however it does draw one’s attention to the spaces between binary parentheses and it is in these spaces that inclusion and omission, what is looked at and what is merely seen become apparent.

Held in the Transformation Gallery (previously the Military Gallery) X2 occupies a space that is surrounded by typical museum paraphernalia: one can only enter this “L-shaped” gallery through either the museum’s colonial display or it’s ‘indigenous peoples’ display. On first entering, the gallery feels incredibly small in the presence of the large-scale Brother and Sister paintings by Kate Arthur that frame the central axis of the exhibition. These oils depict closed eyed portraits of the artist and her brother exuding an aura of quiet introspection as well as an imposing yet passive confrontation with the viewer. Confrontation of a more obvious nature is communicated through the stances of Tanya Poole’s Fighters. Although dressed in the uniforms of martial artists, this male female pairing seems to suggest antagonisms that lie uncomfortably close to that of unbounded violence. Hung on one of two walls that diagonally break the regularity of the gallery space, the antagonism inherent in Fighters is projected outwards, creating a pocket of exclusion from the central space. This device is mirrored towards the other entrance as Christine Dixie’s Albany Gold I & II projects a similar pocket of isolation.

Central to the space, are two beautifully rendered 18th Century wooden sculptures of a Satyr and Fauna respectively. These pieces, taken from the museum’s collection, frame what I believe to be the strongest curatorial tenets of X2: placed in conjunction with contemporary artworks, they focus one’s attention on the context of the history museum and how one looks at either artwork or ethnographic exhibit within the space. Together with other miscellaneous objects brought in from the museum collection as well as those found in the curator’s house, subtle nuances are added and questions as to what one considers art and how those objects are viewed are problematised.

This made me think about how Hipper’s BodyMask would have contributed to the show and why the Albany Museum could have possibly overruled the curator’s decision to include it in the first place. Surely the sexualized nature of the work, cited by the museum, could not have been an issue. If anything, it would have placed a sharper lens on what we consider ‘other’ to art. Perhaps BodyMask sits uncomfortably close to the History Museum’s already problematic displays of colonial appropriation of African imagery? In my mind it is precisely these displays and how they are viewed that need to be further interrogated, an interrogation that perhaps X2 began but possibly was unsuccessful in conveying due to the route that the media debate has taken. In any respect the exclusion of Hipper’s work and the controversy that has grown in its wake has highlighted a significant need at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival to rethink the role that institutions regulate what is seen, and for artists to become more proactive in challenging the mediocrity that has dominated visual arts in Grahamstown over the last few years.

It’s time for new blood.