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LAUNCH OF SPIER CONTEMPORARY (article first published : 2007-12-17; last edited : [an error occurred while processing this directive])

Courtesy of the organisers, I was fortunate enough to have been able to attend the launch of the first Spier Contemporary Art Exhibition which was held on the Spier Estate just outside Cape Town on December 12 on a clear evening under a slim sickle moon.

The 121 artworks and ideas on show have been produced over the last two years and the exhibition space is a piece of contemporary landscape art in itself. A temporary structure, it reflects the Africa Centre’s interest in designing temporary spaces specifically for the artistic production housed within them. Using retired shipping containers donated by Safmarine and placed in a wide open space, the structure features an expansive entrance gallery and a sequence of three galleries punctuated by exterior courtyards. The containers are stacked to create thickened walls, with a majority of the exhibit mounted within the space created by those walls. A few select containers are occupied for smaller installations such as sound and video. The structure also serves to mark one of the Africa Centre’s future sites.

Prior to the official opening, guests were treated to one of the several performance art pieces on the exhibition. After the speeches, the performance art continued as a striking black woman in a white wedding dress was carried atop a cart pulled by a black man bound by scarlet ties like thin streams of blood. Alongside walked a white man and a white woman dressed in Voortrekker outfits, one carrying an apron filled with doll “babies”. The curtains were drawn aside and we were presented with a wooden sculpture by Phula Richard Chauke of William Shakespeare, arms outstretched, welcoming us into the exhibition space itself. Talk about taking the old and making it new - can’t get more contemporary than that!

The brief for selection was to search for work that engaged contemporary times in a contemporary way. Several pieces caught my interest on my fairly brisk exploration of the exhibition – you really need to give this showing a lot of time to take it all in – and one of these was Marco Cianfanelli’s Vessel (microbrial) which on first impression is a large oval structure covered in what looks like protruding nails. Closer inspection shows these nails to be a mass of humanity, tiny images of people individually or in groups, going about their business.

Ryan Arenson’s In My Live I have Been Brave Enough is a fascinating mixed media piece revealing new aspects each time you look at it. Another mixed media piece is Tamlin Blake’s Baby Skins with glass beads on cloth and board with leather and buttons. I was most impressed by Pamela Stretton’s powerful Pieces of Me made up of digital inkjet print (shellac coated), foam and medium density fibre board – created through a painstaking process of tiny strips making up six sections dealing with food, measurements and parts of the body.

No contemporary performance art venture would be complete without Steven Cohen. His Cleaning Time (Vienna) … a shandeh und a charpeh (a shame and a disgrace) is a powerful and horrifying reminder of the time when Jews in Vienna during the time of the holocaust were forced to clean the streets with toothbrushes. Fred du Preez’s Twinkle twinkle little star … is a selection of miniature pieces that shows scenes depicting children in various states of abuse, the impeccable nature of their execution belying the horrendous nature of their content.

When Bronwen Findlay left Durban, she was focusing mainly in small pieces but for this exhibition she has produced two large works (200 x 300 cm each) titled A Field of flowers and Belongings, successfully expanding her skilful attention to eloquent detail. Then there’s Gerrit Hattingh’s fascinating Mother and Child licked by farm animals (before) and (after). Sculpted salt in the shape of a seated mother and child was left on a hunting farm to be completed by the licking action of buck and cattle. The result is uncanny.

In his notes in the impressive catalogue, which is a vital accessory to the exhibition, Clive van den Berg states: “Nelson Mandela is undiminished as a popular subject. No other political figure seems to even make a blip on the exhibition on the imagination of artists. A large exhibition could be assembled around Madiba, showing how he is the conduit for many desires.” One such piece is Lekatsile Ruth Makgahleta’s Black Fish Smiling, a wooden sculpture with the head of Mandela.

There are a number of video installations and here the container village is perfect, offering a quiet area dedicated to the work.

Other works that caught my eye were KZN artist Themba Shibase’s large images of Robert Mugabe ironically titled Wena Wendlovu (His Excellency); Doreen Southwood’s The Dancer with dancers in floating fabric teetering on a hoop, and Sicelo Victor Ziqubu’s Woza 2010 Soccer [FIFA] World Cup Throne made up of found waste materials

The Ethekwini Municipality logo was much in evidence, a reminder that the exhibition is coming to Durban. However, if you are interested in contemporary art, I would advise you to get to Cape Town to see this exhibition in this venue as it will definitely lose its challenging and exciting character when moved to a formal exhibition space like the Johannesburg Art Gallery (March to May) and the Durban Art Gallery (August 15 to November 1). Then later, when it reaches Durban, you can explore the works in more detail. Believe me, there is much to see! – Caroline Smart

NB: See separate article for the names of the winners




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