‘Conversations’: the distance between by Geena Wilkinson

15 Apr 2019
15 Apr 2019

‘Conversations’: the distance between

Honours in Curatorship student Geena Wilkinson explores the staff exhibition Conversations on at the Michaelis Gallery:


Walking into Conversations I am greeted by blue bouncing against white, the colours are jarring and neither of them recede. A cyanotype by Svea Josephy commands the eye. It has an industrial look, like a city layout, or some kind of circuit board—immediately drawing me into a space of connections with the frantic array of jagged blocks, like a city plan or a road map. The jagged layout of the asymmetric blocks is jarring, and somewhat dizzying. Sitting quietly alongside this piece, is a cyanotype by Nina Liebenberg – small and silent. It too echoes systems of connections with the depiction of a night sky encapsulated with the faint line of a white circle, however the space it holds feels infinitely wider. This juxtaposition sets the tone for the moments of silence and noise to follow, echoing the complex and undulating rhythms of protest over the past few of years at the University of Cape Town and more specifically, Hiddingh Campus. The selection of art that comprises Conversations is all from teaching and practising artists who are staff members at Michaelis, setting the backdrop against the recent years of conversations engendered by the student protests that centre around restitution and change.

Conservations acknowledges this necessary revolution, but also contemplates the moments of quiet and the healing spaces that have to fill the gaps. Buhlebezwe Siwani’s film, Mhlekazi acts as a guide, first capturing the viewer in a slow and ambiguous, private ritual. The initial sense of voyeurism, is overtaken by the feeling of being an outsider looking in. Siwani is fully submerged in the water as the film ends, and it is unclear whether she comes back up for air. It is a moment of transition, prompting the audience into a subconscious holding of one's breath, offering no relief from the underlying tension and exhaustion of ongoing protest.

Through the doorway, the smaller side-room holds works by Berni Searle, Pippa Skotnes and Rod Sauls. According to Virginia Mackenny who put the show together, the film by Searle, entitled Spirit of ’76, was central to the curation of Conversations and was only added to the exhibition after Searle had seen what else was being included. Perhaps this allows it to function as the heart of the exhibition, grounding the space. 1976 in South Africa, saw the the Soweto uprisings: a series of demonstrations and uprisings, led by black school children, in which 176 recorded deaths occurred. The voice of the youth was heard, and a rapid resistance remained. Spirit of ’76 speaks to this, with a black wreath placed around a circle of red figures. As the figures rotate slowly against the white background, their colour leeches out, creating flames of red. The black wreath begins to dissolve too, merging with the red to create smoke and fire while the least robust section of Wagner’s America Centennial March plays quietly on repeat. This work was actually made in relation to the 1776 Declaration of Independence when a number of American Colonies severed their political ties to Great Britain. Conversations is the first time Spirit of ’76  has been shown in a South African context, perhaps an elegy to America, as “the land of freedom”, not maintaining its liberty: dually symbolic in relation to the student protests, demonstrating how no revolution is ever secure.

Rod Saul’s work echoes the colours of independence in its bright red central piece – a memorial to the carnival as an historical space of finding a voice. The costumes act as the resonance between spaces, the holy trinity of outer wear. Pippa Skotnes’s dollhouse-esque work is approachable and intimate. Beckoning the viewer to peer inside. Its layout is insidious: the bedrooms become cells, and each small detail alludes to a bigger, darker story. The level of attention is meticulous, hinting at its religiosity and ritualistic patterning. It speaks to iterations of sacrifice and religious conquest: uncoupling the dualism of prisoner/imprisoned by examining how oppression and domination cause damage to both parties.

As the exhibition progresses, so do the thematics. Stephen Inggs work, 34° 21’ 24’’ S, 18° 29’ 51’’E, a vast sea scape stitched together from many images captures the sense of the void and human insignificance. It speaks to the pervasive feeling of helplessness and paranoia echoed in Fabian Saptouw’s Gut Knot – approximately 50,000 gut knots tied with 500 metres of fishing line; Johann van der Schijff’s watchful wooden Security Camera; Rowan Smith’s Post-Colony Collapse Disorder I – black trash bags inhabited by bees, symbolic of a society’s health; Jonah Sack’s reductionist drawings At an Angle to the Earth of architectural urban elements juxtaposed against apes and humans; and Martin Wilson’s fragile plaster rocks entitled The man who made himself a mountain: Attempts I-III.

Perhaps the exhibition culminates in Mackenny’s piece, Adapting to the Light – The Picture cannot Hold. The work’s inclination to reflexivity is acknowledged foremost in the depiction of a ribbon that falls across the picture, alongside its straight shadow, denoting the flatness of the canvas against the depth of the other images. This piece could be seen as an offering of perception and memory, entangling and disentangling the two. This is mirrored by Penny Siopis’ work Present Continuous: Hot Water – an explosion of colour and disarray, symbolic of the materiality of the canvas and the unpredictability thereof. Siopis’ work is accompanied by a tightly contained, tiny white plastic Discobolus, alluding to the rigidity of past systems. Both works come as an ode to the disposition of painting as an inherently deceptive act, doubling back as the starting point for Conversations.

Words by Geena Wilkinson.

Photographs by Moeneeb Dalwai.