Commune: Parallels and points of intersection across the archive and today by Sumayya Menezes

Commune: Parallels and points of intersection across the archive and today
Sumayya Menezes

At first glance, drawing parallels between the work of two icons of modernist South African painting and four young creatives entering the industry today is not immediately apparent. Gladys Mgudlandlu and Maggie Laubser lived and painted in a politically dysfunctional South Africa deeply marred by the institutionalized racism of apartheid law. Neither found critical understanding or acceptance of her work in the conservative communities to which each belonged; both were instead reprehended and derided for renderings that were considered naïve and childlike.

Half a century later, Commune is a virtual exhibition of work by Karla Nixon, Mandisa Buthelezi, Kylie Wentzel and Vuyolwethu Ndakisa. The exhibition showcases four young women living and working in a democratic post-apartheid South Africa. There have been no failed first solo exhibitions for any of these four artists, as was Laubser’s experience at the Argus Gallery in Cape Town in 1925, when her unorthodox ideas on colour and form were ridiculed and harshly criticized. Nor, on the opposite end of the spectrum, did any of these artists generate the frenzied hype that attended Mgudlandlu at the Rodin Gallery in Cape Town in 1962, when she was one of the first black woman artists in apartheid South Africa to have a solo exhibition at a gallery. At surface level, the casual viewer may be forgiven for seeing little to nothing to connect these six women across the archive.

And yet, upon closer consideration, intriguing parallels and points of intersection begin to emerge, as the viewer begins to understand that for each of these women the visual arts is a language used to articulate her lived experience in an inconstant, changing world. In each body of work, one begins to see evidence of dialogue and tensions between internal and external, with introspective learnings rendered visually in imagined, constructed or fantastical landscapes. Reflections of the self within social, cultural and political constructs become a thread that can be traced woven through each women’s process, as do considerations of home and where that lies.

Questions around personal and collective or community space begin to surface; both physical space as well as memory and mind space. Considerations of tensions between ideas of oppression and freedom arise, and between reality and escapism; post-democracy, there is the lawful possibility of freedom of movement through physical space without the enforced racial divides that kept Mgudladlu and Laubser on such separate, if at times parallel, paths. It can, however, be argued that this concept of freedom under democracy remains a utopian ideal almost wholly unrealized as socio-economic injustices continue to ensure a nation of unequal opportunity for most.

Similarly, notions of gender equality and the position and power given – or not given – to women are encountered. Each artist explores, at some level, relationships between the self and the environment, be it built or natural or a fusion thereof and the varying political, cultural and social conflicts that result at this uneasy intersection. Positioning becomes significant as these women alternately consider, analyze and interrogate negotiations between the individual and the community, and the space that culture, lore and tradition occupy in a world that seemingly has little to no time for such

romance or naivety, yet continues to uphold subversive constructs of patriarchy and female oppression.

For Mgudlandlu, criticized for embracing a largely white audience and for making work that did not directly condemn the condition of black people under apartheid rule, the contrast between her rural and township scenes becomes poignant; the starkness of the township scenes indicate clear awareness of the cold, brutal reality of life in such places compared to the idyllic peace and tranquility she harnessed with her brush to describe rural life. A teacher by day and painter by night, she rendered shadowy memories and dreams rooted in the Xhosa myths remembered from her grandmother’s telling. Birds of the Eastern Cape were often to be found in Mgudlandlu’s paintings, but, more importantly, her use of a birds eye view in her landscapes became a recognizable trait of her practice – significant, perhaps, of girlhood memories climbing the rock of a Xhosa mystic and looking down over the world, tiny and quiet, far below.

Mystical qualities of spirituality or tradition and lore can be seen, too, in Laubser and Buthelezi’s work. Laubser, a devout follower of the Christian Science Church, made no secret of her intention to express and praise the harmonious qualities of God’s creation on earth, and this can be seen particularly in her always considered application of light. Buthelezi, in contrast, draws from a wealth of lore and Zulu royal tradition in the story of Mkabayi, the aunt of King Shaka, emphasizing in her image making the grainy tangibility of a tale nostalgically retold. In illustrating the story of Mkabayi, she examines gender position, patriarchy and power as she frames a heroine disregarded and unwanted, almost unseen by her own people because she was not born a male. Echoes of both Mgudlandlu and Laubser can be seen in this heroine, also invisible within their own communities, if for different reasons.

Ndakisa’s approach to tradition and ritual is less subtly nuanced; unapologetically curious, upfront and direct, she analyses and questions, particularly the intersection between private and community space. While Buthelezi, Nixon and Wentzel have defined relationships with medium (photography, paper and paint respectively – all traditional media, applied in new and innovative ways), Ndakisa works in ways that allows the concepts and ideas of the work to inform the medium she uses for the final application, incorporating traditional fabrics and household utensils rich in symbolism to reference ceremonies and rituals that form part of her experience as a young black female. She positions herself as a commentator, observing and articulating visually to make sense of her experiences.

Wentzel, too, is an observer. A deep thinker, her process of applying paint to canvas is deliberately less considered – her style is loose, expressive and uncontrived. The birds that feature so regularly in Laubser and Mgudladlu’s work appear in her paintings too; for Wentzel, birds – particularly, pigeons – symbolize the meeting point between the natural and the constructed, which for her has resonance with the human condition; humans also are resilient beings crafted by nature, trying as hard as the pigeons to survive in the harsh, gigantic, urban concrete environment we’ve built up around us.

Nixon, through the binaries of construction and deconstruction and also using the pigeon as a metaphor, examines how what is built frequently draws inspiration in

concept and design from the natural world, and yet, in the process of building and manufacturing, the natural world is harmed or destroyed to achieve these goals. In her newer work, there is a shift toward using expressive colour to convey an idea or a feeling, distilled down into colour, texture, rhythm and movement; this is not unsimilar to the bold hues distinctive of Laubser and Mgudlandlu, although it is interesting to observe that Nixon maintains the same qualities of structure and order that characterize her pure white paper pieces.

In all, the work of these six women resonate with conscious, intentional choices made by each on their unique but parallel journeys through womanhood in a pre- and post- democracy South Africa. For Buthelezi and Ndakisa, notions of self and the need for an uncompromised understanding of identity continue to give pause, leading each to further her probing of tradition, lore and cultural heritage. Wentzel and Nixon, poised at the tense intersection of the natural and urban world, continue to grapple with the harshness of constructed urbanity and nature’s eternal struggle to survive. For these four young women, new visual vocabularies will evolve as they keep striving to visually articulate their changing experience. For Mgudlandlu and Laubser, half a century later, there is better appreciation of the visual language they bravely explored. Both displayed a contemporary understanding of vivid hues and vigourous, intensified form to push their subjects beyond depictions of reality, seeking to convey an unseen essence of the world as she saw it. Now, decades later, both are recognized as forerunners for their distinctive use of abstract, expressionist mark-making and bold colour, and hold their own in a contemporary new world.


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