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Gallery 9, Norval Foundation

Congress: The Social Body in Three Figurative Painters opens at the Norval Foundation on Saturday 2 October. This thematic exhibition places the work of three multigenerational South African painters —Trevor Makhoba (1956–2003), George Pemba (1912–2001) and Sthembiso Sibisi (1976–2006) — in conversation.

Inheritors of an earlier naturalist tradition of painting, Makhoba, Pemba and Sibisi developed a graphic urban style that tested and strained the bounds of realism in their depiction of familial bonding, spiritual practice, shared pleasure, social upheaval and political action. Despite significant overlap in style, subject and theme, Makhoba, Pemba and Sibisi have not been grouped together before in a dedicated exhibition.

Congress is purposefully an exhibition about artistic lineages, in particular the tradition of urban realism in South African painting, and the centrality of the human figure in this tradition. But, principally, Congress is an exhibition about the everyday situations that Makhoba, Pemba and Sibisi habitually opted to depict: scenes of family and community, congress and mutuality.
Emerging out of two distinct regional localities with their own histories of painting — Pemba from the Eastern Cape, and Makhoba and Sibisi from KwaZulu-Natal — Congress looks at their shared interest in depicting people gathered in verifiable places like trains, taxis, private homes, taverns, churches, beaches, hospitals, urban streets and rural fields, engaging in acts of community, faith and solidarity in the face of social upheaval.

Congtress, Trevor Makhoba

Trevor Makhoba, Inguyazane (Caucus), 1995, oil on canvas board

WHAT: Congress: The Social Body in Three Figurative Painters
WHERE: Gallery 9, Norval Foundation, 4 Steenberg Road, Tokai, Cape Town 7945
WHEN: 2 October 2021 – 10 January 2022
INFO: T +27 (0)87 654 5900 | info@norvalfoundation.org | www.norvalfoundation.org

Congress: The Social Body in Three Figurative Painters

The social contexts in which the painters worked strongly influenced their choice of subject.

  • Pemba depicted police harassment, forced removals and the strict racial segregation that were a hallmark of the high apartheid years (1948-90).
  • Makhoba’s figural scenes depicting white-minority rule and HIV/Aids health crisis of the 1990-2000s are uncompromising and hard-hitting, as well as chauvinistic and allusive.
  • Sibisi’s mature output postdates the advent of South Africa’s non-racial democracy, but rehearses subjects and themes recognisable in Pemba and Makhoba, as well as the rural moods captured by pioneer naturalists like Gerard Bhengu, Arthur Butelezi and Simoni Mnguni.

Makhoba, Pemba and Sibisi produced figure paintings at a time when white artists (and their audiences) went abstract, embraced the political, became conceptual, got entangled in photography. Their unwavering commitment to figurative painting, as medium and style, is therefore noteworthy. It is hoped that Congress will provide audiences interested in the contemporary turn to figuration in painting with a historical lens for engaging this practice and its sublimated ambitions amidst our own health, social and cultural crises.

Congress

Sthembiso Sibisi, Baptism spiritual healing in the sea, oil on canvas

These insights and arguments will emerge in a thematic hang. Drawing on works from the Homestead Collection, with a few strategic loans, Congress will be arranged into three themes: communion, disorder and transcendence. Communion proposes states of kinship and mutuality. Disorder refers to both social and psychic disarray. Transcendence is achieved through faith or more visceral pleasures. Makhoba, Pemba and Sibisi explicitly figure these themes in their work.

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LEAD PHOTO: George Pemba, At the clinic, 1979, oil on board