Masked Men and Mythical Beasts: Five Cape Town Shows Employ Fiction to Radical Ends

Several exhibitions across the city ask: do we need another hero?

BY Rebecca Anne Proctor in Critic's Guides | 04 MAR 19

At precisely 17:30 on Wednesday, 13 February, a startlingly lifelike sculpture of the South African artist Ed Young dressed in a superman costume was unveiled as part of ‘Open 24 Hours’ at The Harrington in Cape Town. Young’s long red cape is suspended in the air and extends out to the far corners of the lobby, as though he has been caught mid-flight. It seems strange, then, that he’s stooped over, lighting a cigarette – perhaps taking a break from saving lives. Was Young’s show, titled simply ‘Hero.,’ a reminder of our desire for super heroes to fix our problems or the failure of our current leaders to make the grade?

Loyiso Mkhize, The Heroic Age, 2018, mixed media. Courtesy: Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town

Such questions came to mind as I perused the works on view in ‘Still Here Tomorrow to High Five You Today, Chapter 1’ at Zeitz MOCAA. Here a mix of references to Afrofuturism and the notions of utopias in contemporary African culture prompted a re-reading of both real and imaginary narratives. The show borrows its title from a quote by Pendleton Ward, the author of the book and animated series Adventure Time, which is set in the post-apocalyptic magical Land of Ooo. ‘This cosmic dance of bursting decadence and withheld permissions twists all our arms collectively, but if sweetness can win, and it can, then I’ll still be here tomorrow to high-five you yesterday, my friend,’ writes Ward in his book. In the exhibition, works by 20 artists from the continent and its diaspora explore ideas of progress in post-colonial Africa, some with direct reference to animated worlds. Kumasi Barnett’s The Amazing Black Man (2017), for instance, recasts traditional superhero fiction with black characters, offering a counternarrative to the negative stereotypes and racial myopias of popular fiction. Loyiso Mkhize’s large wall mural Exodus: The Heroic Age (2019) creolises popular icons from the screen and stage, such as Nelson Mandela, who appears in a Cyper-Spaza vehicle offering the Vulcan greeting popularised by the 1960s television series Star Trek – a gesture that also appears in Gerald Machona’s Live Long and Prosper (2018), one of the opening works in the show. ‘Fiction has a critical role to play in shaping imaginations and directing ideas for contemporary Africa,’ said the exhibition’s co-curator, Precious Mhone. The visions of utopia included within the show are fundamental to many Africans’ sense of possibility as well as their ideas for change.

A desire for change is addressed at the level of street politics in a solo exhibition by Marinella Senatore at SMAC Gallery, nestled in the city’s Woodstock suburb. In November 2018, Senatore invited the Russian activist group Pussy Riot to visit Cape Town, and a slew of works in diverse media – paintings, photographs, light sculptures and audio-visual installations – record them dancing in vibrantly coloured dresses and balaklavas at EVOL, an underground nightclub on Hope Street. The show’s title, ‘Bodies in Alliance/Politics of the Street,’ takes its title from a lecture Judith Butler delivered in Italy in 2011, which addressed protest movements such as the Arab Spring.

Gabrielle Goliath, ‘Elegy’, 2015-ongoing. Courtesy: Goodman Gallery, Cape Town

At nearby Goodman Gallery, Gabrielle Goliath’s Elegy (2015-ongoing) strikes a more transcendent note. The seven-channel video installation comprises footage from seven different performances of the titular work, which Goliath began in 2015. In it, a group of female vocalists perform a collective mourning ritual in order to evoke the absence of another person. The physically and emotionally taxing performance acknowledges the effects of rape culture in South Africa.

Simphiwe Ndzube, ‘Uncharted Lands and Trackless Seas’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town

At Stevenson Gallery, meanwhile, Simphiwe Ndzube’s debut exhibition with the gallery may be the finest show in town. ‘Uncharted Lands and Trackless Seas’ introduces visitors to the LA-based artist’s world of mythological characters through paintings, wall-mounted sculptures and an installation. These visions, which the artist calls ‘Echoes of the First Stories’, offer an introduction to Ndzube’s imaginative universe. They include mixed media sculptures of men and four-legged creatures  or ‘totem spirit animals’ with orange conical heads grazing on piles of dirt, as well as large paintings in acrylic, spray paint, resin and found objects on linen. Nzube’s blend of magical realism recalls literary forbears such as Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami, Ben Okri, Gabriel García Márquez and Zakes Mda, in the way its grounding in recognisable reality allows us, in the artists words, to then ‘enter a fabulist tale in progress.’ It’s unclear whether Ndzube’s figures are heroes or villains, or a mixture of both; but their singular forms are a reminder to trust in the power of the imagination.

Main Image: Ed Young, ‘HERO’, 2019, exhibition view. Courtesy: OPEN 24 HOURS, Cape Town

Rebecca Anne Proctor is an independent journalist, editor and broadcaster based between Dubai and Rome. She is the former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia.