Recent Histories @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A group show containing photographs and videos from 5 different photographers/artists, variously framed and matted, and displayed against white walls in the main gallery space (with one hanging partition) and in the book alcove.

The following photographers/artists have been included the show, with the number of works and their details as background. The checklist provided only limited data on processes and dates, and no information on physical sizes or editions:

  • Simon Gush: 2 black and white videos, 2014, 2015, 8 black and white images/3 text panels, 2015
  • Délio Jasse: 12 cyanotypes, 2014
  • Lebohang Kganye: 12 color images, 2013, 1 family album, 2013
  • Dawit L. Petros: 3 color images, 2016
  • Zina Saro-Wiwa: 2 color videos 2014, 2015, 1 color video (in six parts), 2014-2016

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: The fundamental human questions of “who am I” and “where did I come from” lie at the heart of countless artistic journeys. Understanding our selves, our histories, and our place in the world isn’t always easy, and oftentimes, art (and in this case photography/video) plays an important role in the ongoing investigation process. By making pictures with deliberation and care, we can slowly excavate emotional terrain that resists more straightforward attention.

For many Africans (the term almost meaningless in its breadth I realize), the struggle for identity has been made more all the more difficult by the fact that so much of African history has been written by someone else – by colonists, by invaders, by warring factions, by foreigners of various kinds – that finding somewhere solid to stand becomes tricky. What this has produced is a generation of contemporary artists who are intent on probing these personal mysteries, trying to find themselves in the available clues that surround them.

This quietly subtle group show gathers together a diverse selection of recent work from across Africa, offering a spectrum of visual approaches to plumbing the depths of individuality. Lebohang Kganye starts where many of us would – with family, or in this case, with family album snapshots of her mother. In the pictures, we are introduced to a confident, fashionable woman, full of strength and determination, and using her mother as a model, Kganye has styled herself in similar clothing and taken on the same performative poses, digitally inserting herself into the original scenes. The effect is something like a doppelganger, with daughter echoing mother with surprising fidelity, time and distance collapsing before our eyes. Ghosts seem to shift through the recreations, the daughter following so closely in the footsteps of the mother that perhaps for the first time she discovered hints of who that parent really was. The images smartly dig into questions like “could I be her” or “is she like me” with both love and respect.

Zina Saro-Wiwa’s videos look for traces of identity in traditions, in particular, in the eating of special local foods. In her Table Manners series, a single individual sits at a table (often visually punctuated by a bright colored wall or surroundings) and slowly consumes a regional specialty, like garri and egusi soup, roasted ice fish and mu, or cocoyam and palm oil. What might have been a kind of ethnographic study turns into something altogether personal, as we watch closely as each intimate bite is taken and chewed. Fingers rip and squeeze, mop up and scoop, the sitters’ eyes never wavering from a direct gaze with the viewer. Time seems to elongate as the meal is eaten, the slow, deliberate process almost like a silent confrontation. These personal connections are never boring – instead, they have an engrossing almost hypnotizing quality. Important cultural heritage is being shown to us in these tiny gestures and behaviors, and we are drawn into paying close attention.

The other artists included in the show look to the land for answers. Délio Jasse makes contemporary cyanotypes of the urban details of Luanda, using textured circular areas to create areas of blur and distortion like flares of light. His pictures offer a sense of transition and movement, a city never quite at rest with its past. Dawit L. Petros intervenes in a different way, using a wide mirror as his visual interrupter. Alternately held like a boombox or over the shoulders like a yoke, the mirror obscures our view of the protagonist, adding a reflected view down the beach or around the corner, making the person a composite of perspectives rather than an individual. And Simon Gush settles into the stillness of what is overlooked, from the sweaty weight of decaying Modernist buildings and open wastelands on a trip to Maputo to the European roots of Calvinism and the severity of the Afrikaner work ethic. In each body of work, we discover signs of searching, of making active observations in the hopes of drawing conclusions that might provide the missing context for grounded identity.

In the end, this show is understated, and that measured thinking makes its muted findings all the more resonant. The work of fleshing out a framework for identity (African or otherwise) is decidedly unfinished, but each of these artists seems to have found at least one pathway forward or one aesthetic idea that might lead somewhere durably useful. There is a sense that the process of coming to terms with the long arm of history and finding its rightful place in a larger identity will take time, and that each small discovery is just one step on a much longer road.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. The included photographers/artists are represented by the following galleries:

  • Simon Gush: Stevenson, Johannesburg (here)
  • Délio Jasse: Tiwani Contemporary, London (here)
  • Lebohang Kganye: Afronova, Johannesburg (here)
  • Dawit L. Petros: Tiwani Contemporary, London (here)
  • Zina Saro-Wiwa: artist website (in sidebar)

Read more about: Dawit L. Petros, Délio Jasse, Lebohang Kganye, Simon Gush, Zina Saro-Wiwa, Walther Collection (NY Project Space)

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