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    Into Africa
by Joy Garnett
 
     
 
Santu Mofokeng
Chasing Shadows
1996
 
Santu Mofokeng
 
Santu Mofokeng
 
Willem Boshoff
A Map to Get Lost By
1998
 
Willem Boshoff
The Small Pen 1
 
Siemon Allen
Screen 2000
VHS tape
 
Rudzani Nemasetoni
Legacy
2000
 
Senzeni Marasela
Untitled
1998
 
Senzeni Marasela
Stompie Seipei, Died 1989, Age 14
(detail)
1998
 
Andrew Tshabangu
Germiston
1998
 
Every so often, an ambitious idea takes possession of a modest venue and manages to pack a real punch. In this instance, that venue would be White Box in the Starret-Lehigh Building (611 West 26th) in New York's Chelsea district, where the traveling exhibition, "Translation/ Seduction/ Displacement," is premiering.

Curated by art historians Lauri Firstenberg and John Peffer, this show presents work by two generations of South African artists who use photography and installation to explore classic existential problems -- the crisis of the individual in society, for instance, and the inadequacies of language -- from a South African perspective.

The exhibition is notable because it looks specifically at the ways that a post-apartheid South African sensibility dovetails with distinctly international and post-conceptual art styles. Taken together, the work is spare, concept-driven and socially critical. While intensely rooted in South African cultural issues, it often reaches beyond the post-apartheid horizon to resonate with international ideas.

The incredible sadness of being
Two longtime veterans of the South African art scene are at the core of "Translation/ Seduction/ Displacement" -- Santu Mofokeng, whose stark, moody images line the walls of White Box's first and second galleries, and the conceptual artist Willem Boshoff, who specializes in poetic text montages.

Santu Mofokeng's "Sad Landscapes" is a suite of 20 black and white photographs of places where 20th-century tragedies have occurred. Images of cemeteries and memorials alternate with mute pictures of desert crossroads or a stretch of woods. The photos were made over the past 15 years, and constitute a historical as well as personal pictorial journal.

In a wall text, the artist reflects upon genocide, nature and memory. "How to deal with the memory of the past," it asks. "Who can be trusted with this memory?… would a monument invite remembrance, or through a kind of containment, forgetting?" Mofokeng's photographs offer a tenuous emptiness where nature has effaced all but the barest traces of horror. It is the desire to forget -- or to never forget -- that is rendered visible.

It's startling to then come across Mofokeng's warmly lit cibachromes in the second gallery, showing men doing track work on the New York subway -- out of the jaws of death these soot-smeared workers seem to have arrived, tools brandished, bellies wobbling, lit by the golden glow of the underworld like messengers from Hell.

Beat poet?
Willem Boshoff is a conceptual artist from Johannesburg who represented South Africa in the 23rd Bienal Internacional de São Paulo. He is a collator and dissector of words, preoccupied with the project of human ignorance and the limitations of language. On view at White Box is his project Kykafrikaans (1977-80), which takes the form of a book of visual poetry, displayed in a vitrine in a darkened gallery foyer. In this work, Boshoff dissects the language of white nationalism, weaving it into a poetic gibberish of doubtful meanings and dismantled potency.

The bearded, frowning figure of Boshoff and the etymology-obsessed nature of his work may well conjure the image of an edgy Lawrence Weiner, supplemented by small doses of Jack Kerouac. Past works include Blind Alphabet, a three-dimensional dictionary composed of 338 sculptural units, and The Book That Is Afraid, a cryptic diary of pacifist musings composed in protest of South Africa's once compulsory military service.

The next generation
The younger artists in the show are Siemon Allen (sound pieces; sculpture), Abrie Fourie (slide installation), Kim Lieberman (mixed media, mail art), Senzeni Marasela (photo transfers on cloth), Zwelethu Mthethwa (photo etchings), Rudzani Nemasetoni (photo etchings), Joachim Schonfeldt (video), Marlaine Tosoni (audio CD), Andrew Tshabangu (photographs) and Hentie van der Merwe (photo installation).

In addition to spareness and conceptual rigor, there is a brooding, messy sadness here, a weird, hypnotic beauty which further unifies the show and pulls you in.

Siemon Allen picks up on the theme of unraveling and re-weaving with a room-filling, black rectangular volume whose opaque walls are densely woven from VHS tape. Muteness and blindness are conflated in one monumental gesture. Though visually as monolithic as Mona Hatoum's Socle du Monde -- a large magnetized steel cube covered with black metal filings -- the thinness of Allen's surfaces belies the cube's solidity, literally revealing the inherent frailty of architectural exclusion.

Rudzani Nemasetoni, originally from Soweto, has lived in New York since 1985. His photo etchings were recently included in "Claiming Art/Reclaiming Space: Post-Apartheid Art from South Africa" at the Museum for African Art in Washington, D.C. At White Box we are treated to a series of these etchings, which depict blow-ups of that despised object of apartheid-era oppression, the passbook. These particular passbooks belonged to members of Nemasetoni's family, whose faces stare out stiffly from worn and pitted pages.

Senzeni Marasela is a young Johannesburg-based artist who uses all manner of labor-intensive media, from sand-blasted mirror to photographic transfer onto embroidered calico. Her narrative-based work takes on the events she feels she was shielded from as a child, including images of violent skirmishes and portraits of people who were killed in political struggle. At White Box, her installation of silver tea trays is suspended from the ceiling in a row. Each tray is graced with a silk-screened cloth depicting appropriated images of struggle and grief, strangely elegant and cathartic.

"Translation/Seduction/Displacement" is up for two months, Feb. 4-Apr.1, 2000, and is punctuated by a rotation of works in early March. A catalogue produced by the Artist Press and Santon Civic Art Gallery, Johannesburg will soon be available. Call the gallery at (212) 727-0767 for information.

Heavy metal
Another exhibition up for the duration of March is "Africa's Iron and Copper Currencies" on view in the Rotunda of Low Memorial Library at Columbia University on the Upper West Side. Curated by Philip Gould, professor emeritus of art history in Columbia's Institute of African Studies, the show features over 200 examples of centuries-old African currency, which unlike minted coinage, can range as large as six feet in length and 10 pounds in weight. An opening reception and symposium will take place Monday, Mar. 6 at 6:00 p.m.

Africa online
This month's featured website is "Memory of Africa" -- UNESCO WebWorld (Paris). This small web collection is a part of a UNESCO project designed to preserve and to digitize old and valuable images and texts. This site features African Postcards from Côte d'Ivoire, Bénin and Gambie produced during 1890-1930, Cameroonian masks and statues from the Musée National de Yaoundé and the Musée des Bénédictins du Mont-Febe, and "Eritrean" Christian manuscript illuminations made during the 12th to15th centuries.


JOY GARNETT is a New York artist.