Local is Lekker: Both, And Stevenson Gallery Exhibition Review

In recent years, the role of the ‘curator’ within the discipline of Visual Arts has undergone significant transformation and still continues its contemporary evolution. Such evolution in perspective has created rich opportunity for the re-definition and repositioning of the essential relationships between artist, spectator and curator, each as co-contributors within curatorial practice. It is thus imperative to more fully analyse the purpose and significance of the curatorial function within an exhibition space. This essay considers the Johannesburg based Stevenson Gallery exhibition ‘Both, And’ curated by Sisipho Ngodwana and Alexander Richards, and reviews the exhibition against the academic contributions of O’Doherty (1986), Farquharson (2003), Fowle (2005), O’Neill (2007) and Lind (2013).

As O’Niell (2007, p14) makes clear, group exhibitions constitute one of the principal means through which contemporary art is displayed and experienced. Both, And, is a collaborative exhibition unveiled in the Cape Town and Johannesburg Stevenson Galleries to celebrate its fifteenth anniversary. Since its inception in 2003, the gallery has fostered many significant collaborations with artists including Penny Siopis and Meschac Gaba. Both, And, sets-out to acclaim such partnerships whilst simultaneously highlighting the history of the gallery and how exhibiting artists have collectively inspired and shaped the gallery to its contemporary format (Ngodwana and Richards, 2018).
As O’Niell (2007, p.14) relates, such exhibitions have become fertile sites for “curatorial experimentation” and have prompted the emergence of a “new discursive space around artistic practise”. The coming together of unrelated artists and the creative synthesis of their works allows for a rich and purposeful representation of diverse techniques and engagement with varying and often disparate interests (O’Niell, 2007).

Farquharson (2003, p.269) further considers the ‘complexities of curatorship’ and highlights recent shifts in the conceptualisation and interpretation of curatorship. In particular he notes how the very emergence of the verb ‘to curate’ has stimulated the more proactive and creative production of artistic works and exhibitions. Farquharson (2003, p.269) specifically notes how the curator has become increasingly responsible for redefining the underlying conceptual framework and structure of an exhibition. As such, the role of ‘curator’ has evolved from one of ‘unassuming overseer’ to one of ‘proactive co-contributor’ (Fowle 2005, p.11). Such has been the role of Sisipho Ngodwana and Alexander Richards in the exhibition of ‘Both, And’.

The title ‘Both, And’ highlights the apparent “paradox of a commercial gallery” – namely the duality between the sentimentality of the artists and their unique creative works, and the inevitable modern-day focus on commercial profit. In ‘Both, And’ the dual role of the gallery and the exhibition is contrasted against more traditional ‘either/or’ approaches (Ngodwana and Richards, 2018). As Lind (2013, p.100) notes, Alfred Barr embraced an educational approach to his exhibitions that were more visually and spatially inclined than discursive. In this way, Lind (2013, p.100) further highlights how “the selection of works and the display strategies” used were critical elements in the success of an exhibition, and that such ‘success’ lies ultimately in the hands of the curators.

O’ Doherty (1986, p.7) explains how ‘modern gallery’ spaces are “constructed” using criteria similar to medieval churches into which entry from the ‘outside world’ is restricted. As such, the Stevenson Gallery consists of impenetrable windows and white painted walls – a ‘white cube’- but allowing the ceiling to become a substantial source of light. Modifying O’Doherty’s (1986) white cube ideal however, Ngodwana and Richards add one wall of deep crimson red against which Penny Siopis’ Will (1997-) is positioned. With respect to ‘Both, And’, Ngodwana (2018) explains how the Johannesburg exhibition focused on awareness of “movement, migration and time” with the artists and their pieces identified and selected with this theme in mind (Ngodwana and Richards, 2018).

Penny Siopis’ art is characterised by her accumulation of “found objects” and material memory and reflects a sense of “intimacy and closeness” through the narratives of her work (South African History Online, 2011). Her works reflect her active participation in societal change and transformation within South Africa and are internationally acclaimed.

Figure 1: Penny Siopis, Will (1997-).

Figure 1 illustrates Penny Siopis’ Will (1997-), a display of the ‘found objects’ sourced from disparate walks of life and thence combined to create an expanding timepiece of society. The work lends comment to the binary relationship between ‘disintegration and regeneration’. This work-in-progress piece will be complete only once Siopis dies, and her intention thereafter is to impart the ‘found objects’ to new owners. The items, having existed within a ‘former life’, must then become ‘regenerated’ into their new-found future. The crimson wall portrays sentiments of homeliness, intimacy and closeness akin to a homely living-room, and thus stands in stark contrast to the lingering spaces and bare white walls predominant elsewhere. Thus, through thoughtful curatorship, Siopis is able to simultaneously convey both the intimacy and publicity of Will (1997-).

O’Doherty (1986, p.10) reviews Marcel Duchamp’s anti-formalist traditions and the presentation of Mile of String (1942) in which his art steps beyond traditional confines and transforms the gallery space into the ‘primary medium of alteration’. He expresses how the “communal mind” of contemporary culture has experienced a radical shift in thinking, and thereafter identified the gallery space as the “central material and expressive mode of art, as a fashionable style of displaying it” (O’ Doherty, 1986, p.11). In such manner, curators Ngodwana and Richards have utilised the gallery space as a means to effectively portray the connotations and nuances within each artist’s work, whilst once again ensuring the rightful acclaim of the artists and acknowledging the accomplishments of the gallery itself.

figure 2: Meschac Gaba, Zimbabwe Survival 92016).

Meschac Gaba is a Beninese artist whose works explore the themes of globalisation, consumerism and the development of Western museums “through acts of artistic appropriation” (Artsy.net, 2018). Figure 2 illustrates Gaba’s Zimbabwe Survival (2016) – a gathering of small metal birds positioned in relation to a beaded cash-bowl. In this display, Gaba’s inspiration derives from the complex symbolic inter-relationships between the notions of art, craft, migration and commerce (Stevenson, 2018).

The display (Figure 2) further emphasises O’Doherty’s (1986) observation that the creative utilisation of gallery space can be the fundamental foundation for the sincere expression of art. In Gaba’s ‘Zimbabwe Survival’ display for example, meticulous exploitation of the expansive dark wooden floor allows the art to fully utilise the exhibition space whilst still engaging and embracing harmoniously with the balance of the exhibition (Farquharson 2003, p.269).

In conclusion, this review illustrates clearly how the once benign role of the curator within the visual arts industry is now set to continue its evolution and impose increasing influence upon the visual space within contemporary society. As curators, Sisipho Ngodwana and Alexander Richards have utilised their collective creative skills and inspired collaborative engagement with selected artists to successfully celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Stevenson Gallery through the exhibition display of ‘Both, And’ 2018. This trend in curatorship, now established, will inevitably evolve further in novel and exciting ways.

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