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Public Intimacy @ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Handspring Puppet Company, still from Or You Could Just Kiss Me, 2010 
Public Intimacy, a joint venture between YBCA and SFMOMA’s “On the Go” curatorial program, is a daunting, powerful show of 25 South African artists working in performance, photography, painting, video, art books and puppetry.  Text-heavy and weighted toward photography, the exhibit, curated by Bettie-Sue Hertz, Dominic Willsdon, and Frank Smigiel, quotes extensively from the 2013 SFMOMA exhibit South Africa in Apartheid and After, which featured works by David Goldblatt, whose Particulars series provided the seed for what would become this show’s title.  Collectively, the artists take the pulse of post-Apartheid South Africa and ask: Where are we now?  Their responses paint a sad and sobering picture of broken promises and unfulfilled dreams and of racism and discrimination aimed at blacks and gays.  
David Goldblatt, Woman smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg, 1975

Goldblatt’s tightly cropped black and white photo, Woman Smoking, Fordsburg, Johannesburg,could easily serve as the poster image for these conditions. Every aspect of what little we see of this woman’s body — her clasped wrists, her tightly clenched thighs – describes the unease of being a black South African woman in public: sitting, smoking and waiting.  Those themes – waiting and unease – run like twin currents through the show.  Until the rise of democracy in 1994, South Africa was a nation that codified and controlled every aspect of black life.  Today it has one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, yet its people still suffer under the decaying weight of a past that the artists express in bodily terms.  

While a substantial portion of the show’s photography is given over to quiet personal moments, Zanele Muholi chooses to be loud.  Her activist Faces and Phases series of black-and-white portraits demand recognition and justice for black lesbian and transgender men: a group often seen by regressive elements in South Africa as “broken” women that can, in a baffling and tragic form of thinking, be “fixed” by violence.  “Corrective rape” and other atrocities are visited on LGBT individuals with staggering frequency.  Muholi seeks to reverse that situation.

Nicholas Hlobo, Umphanda ongazaliyo, 2008

Nicholas Hlobo’s Umphanda ongazaliyo and Ngumgudu nemizano consist of two large “stomachs” seemingly connected to each other through an appendage that penetrates a wall, its waist-high tendrils resembling the mouth of some flamboyant black rubber sea anemone.  One resembles a creature suspended off the ground in a bulbous patchwork of inner tube rubber and brightly colored ribbon, woven together like a taxidermic re-creation of a once-living thing.  The other, strewn on the floor of the main gallery and attached to a wearable rubber suit, appears emptied out.  It speaks of devouring and exhaustion, mirroring its Xhosa title (“a vessel that never fills up”) to echo, all too clearly, themes sounded elsewhere by the show, among them blackness, Xhosa culture, queer identity and sex.

Photographers Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse explore Ponte City, an iconic high-rise apartment building built for wealthy whites in apartheid-era Johannesburg that is today a symbol of repeated redevelopment failures.  The duo cast the tower in a mythic light, presenting quotidian views with a quasi-religious air.  Scenes of everyday life from the perspective of residents are projected in rolling sequence

Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, Ponte City, 2008-13

across glass, giving the desolation parity with the lives of saints on cathedral windows.  Two large photo prints continue the mock consecration.  One shows white-robed “shepherds” praying among decaying skyscrapers, the other depicts the cylindrical city’s open-air interior as ruins of a Gothic church or an excavated tomb.

Handspring Puppet Company, a group long associated with William Kentridge, issues a powerful meditation on mortality in the form of a video of their play, Or you Could Kiss Me.  It features near-life-size wood puppets of old men operated by four to six people.  Each shifts seamlessly between the role of a puppeteer moving figures along a runway to actors portraying caregivers who help their dependents perform daily tasks, which include – rather ominously – the repeated lighting and insertion of cigarettes into the lips of their charges.  It’s a poignant and frightening spectacle of how independence is erased with age, and how private moments are constantly exposed, and not necessarily to anyone’s betterment.  More broadly, this haunting display of bodily deterioration and dependence — intercut with memories of the men as independent young lovers – mirrors the failings of the South African state.  These remarkably pliant prosthetic figures and the skillful manner with which they are manipulated only magnify the impact of that message.   They are the absolute highlight of the show.  

Ahti-Patra Ruga, Documentation of Performa Obscura, Future White Women of Anzania, South Africa, 2012

Penny Siopis’ Shame series pushes bodily vulnerability further still.  The 90 intaglio prints, each about the size of a greeting card, are etched with a sugarlift technique that belies the trauma depicted in bloody images of young women abused, attacked or insulted.  Many carry horribly ironic messages (“forgive as you hope to be forgiven” or “may your day be full of love, smiles, sunshine”) that contrast sharply with the brutality pictured.  

Sometimes, when faced with adversity on such a monumental scale, all a person can do is dream. Athi-Patra Ruga does it flamboyantly and with a big dose of irony.  In his performance series, The Future White Women of Anzania, he ridicules South Africa’s utopian dreams by playing a high-heeled white woman in a “dress” made of dye-filled balloons.  That façade, like so many politicians’ promises, quickly becomes undone when the balloons pop, staining the ground and the artist’s clothes. 
All throughout the gallery you can hear, faintly, on a continuous loop, OK Jazz’s Likambo Ya Ngana; its soothing rhythms stand out amid the intensity of the work on view.  The song is the background for William Kentridge’s Tide Table, a typically playful and melancholy animation about Kentridge’s character Soho Eckstein, the pinstripe suited and regretful businessman, and his younger self who plays in the tide and skips rocks across breaking waves.  The story seems to end with a reconciliation of the man with his younger ideals, but in between there is great violence.  Cattle and people are treated as commodities in many symbolic and claustrophobic scenes of suffering.   In a way, this show is having a conversation with South Africa’s younger self; 20 years after the triumph of democracy, it wants to reclaim the hope of 1994 before utopian promises were broken, before it was obvious how unrealistic those hopes were to begin with.  
“Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa” @ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through June 29, 2014.
About the Author:
Mikko Lautamo is an artist living and working in Sacramento.  His work uses programming to create never-repeating loops of digital animations based on social systems, biological entities and interactions.  His work has been exhibited at the Center for Contemporary Art, Sacramento and at Axis Gallery and online.

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