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The Art of Disruptions as a whole is an eye-opener for the would-be gallery goer as there is a general sense of Disruption: a challenge to traditional media while retaining classics, writes Danny Shorkend.

Nestled within the beautiful Company Gardens, the South African National Gallery is a significant cultural institution that both bridges the gap between the wider public and the cloistered art-world as well as been a space that brings South African art to the fore, amongst other things.

This exhibition coincides with a number of milestones: the 60th anniversary of the 1956 woman’s march to Pretoria against the pass laws; the 40th anniversary of the 1976 youth protest and the 1986 declaration of the state of emergency.

In this light, Disruptions is an arena in which artists use various stylistic means to comment on society then and now – issues such as racism, migration, sexism and inequality, both locally and abroad. Curators Ernestine White-Mifetu, Andrea Lewis and Ingrid Masondo have done a fine job in bringing together artists who certainly do talk to these issues in their work.

The exhibition as a whole is an eye-opener for the would-be gallery goer as there is a general sense of Disruption: a challenge to traditional media while retaining classics such Sekoto; the use of multi-media rather than fixating on the “masterpiece” polemic and some quite blatant, “in your face art”.

For example, Dean Hutton’s work consists of printed words, a chair with a repetition of these words and odd shoes. Without saying precisely what these words say so as not to offset the impact of the work, it certainly will elicit a response in the viewer – one of distaste or a means through which to rethink the subject. In fact, it is unclear to whom it is directed at and whether its message is simply a letting off steam catharsis, or simply reignites fear and hatred. Does the make-believe world of culture quell violence or fight against it through, for example depicting violence? Does fantasy – culture – remains the purview of the imagination or actually affect, create and “advertise” how reality ought to be perceived?

A reconciliation is perhaps found in Tracey Rose’s “The kiss”, a photographic print of great strength. Here the protagonists on a pedestal or plinth embrace passionately. It vies against sculptural stiffness; it re-orientates the viewer into a “new world”, wherein the traditional borders between people and artistic media are called into question and instead a powerful, sexual and yet staged scene confronts the viewer.

Simphiewe Ndzube’s “raft” is equally enthralling: the use of found material, especially various clothing materials has been stitched together. Its speaks about the suffering the body (the mind) has been subjected to, whether this has to do with colonial history, wars, forced removal and the resultant displacement and migrations.

This is then echoed in Haroon Salie’s work, “History after apartheid”, a lithographic print and video wherein coloured watered dyes are used in various parts of the world to subdue protesters. It is a curious aesthetic fact that is contradicted by very real, dangerous skirmishes the world over. It is probably harmless (the watered dye that is), but assists authorities to pick out would-be culprits – depending on which side you are on. Clearly as much as (some) artists are social commentators, there is no Archimedean point of objectivity, so that their work is in itself necessarily subjective and politically loaded.

There are some very strong pieces here, not least of all Johannes Phokela’s oil work that draws from traditional Flemish and Dutch “masters” of a few hundred years ago, giving that fine style a modern twist in which power relations are highlighted. It shows a rather warped and disturbed image of what appears to be an ordinary mealtime. Instead, debauchery and indulgence seem to be emblematic of humanity as whole? A rather extreme observation, but one that perhaps holds a kernel of truth, one that art need not ignore, has not ignored or is often complicit in bringing to the fore the more negative side of the self and (a) society as a whole.

The beauty of the exhibition is its rich diversity of approaches, the heartfelt concern for truth or at least a version of the way a particular artist frames truth and the indignation at the violence that forms the pages of our history, of history as such.

Whether art simply titillates, whether it is a call for action and change or whether in protest it forms part of that change as it is backed up by other spheres of knowledge and culture, is debatable.

What can be said is that a society free to express and create is a good sign. Though an institution such as the South African National Gallery also has a mandate to live up to, in which case the government and politics perhaps neutralises freedom in the arts?

This review by Danny Shorkend  first appeared in the Cape Times

WHERE & WHEN: Iziko South African National Gallery, Comany’s Gardens, Cape Town 8001. 16 June -23 October 2016

PHOTO CREDIT: Sethembile Msezane, ‘Chapungu – The Day Rhodes Fell’ (2015) Photographic print (On loan from the artist)