GHADA AMER | HANK WILLIS THOMAS | SHIRIN NESHAT | DAVID GOLDBLATT | NICHOLAS HLOBO | ALFREDO JAAR | NOLAN OSWALD DENNIS | KAPWANI KIWANGA | SUE WILLIAMSON | WILLIAM KENTRIDGE | MISHECK MASAMVU | YINKA SHONIBARE CBE | PAMELA PHATSIMO SUNSTRUM | DOR GUEZ | LEONARDO DREW
The African Library is a commemoration of the fight for independence in previous European colonies across the African continent and celebrates the achievements made by Africans since liberation. It consists of an installation of thousands of books covered in the artist’s signature Dutch wax printed cotton textile. As excerpts of the broader library, The African Library Collections focus on contributors from specific disciplines; namely: Musicians, Actors, Sports People, Activists, Business Leaders, Designers, Teachers and Scholars, Filmmakers and Theatre Practitioners. The collections are constituted of approximately 200 books and are presented on a bookshelf with a bespoke card catalogue box.
The Library highlights significant figures from Kwame Nkruma, Ada Udechukwu, Adelaide Tambo to Nelson Mandela, who were all involved in the struggle for independence. The African Library pays particular attention to the role of women who supported the struggle for African emancipation and seeks to present a comprehensive list of those involved in the struggle.
In uMphanga Wesilokazi Sasentlango, Hlobo uses ribbons and leather on Belgian linen to create organic forms. The work indicates what the artist considers a “slipperiness” to the artmaking process — referencing the aspect of his practice that is formulated on the unconscious. The gestural and free-flowing arrangement of ribbon draws attention to Hlobo’s interest and fascination with water as a source that allows energy to flow. He explains; "Water is central to our existence and everything we are. We are constantly flowing through it.”
Within his practice, Hlobo seeks to capture a feeling (or a thought) which is then illustrated through abstracted forms. Specifically, his work is imbued with meaning through the specific choices of material that have resonance to him — such as leather, copper, bronze and ribbons.
Leonardo Drew is known for his haptic and texturally rich works combining natural and synthetic materials. Within his practice, Drew is influenced by the grid as a formal structure through which to realise composition. The grid allows a systematic understructure upon which undulating abstract landscapes are built. Number 295 is a wall-mounted sculpture where wood is transformed into a visual arrangement that draws attention to the tension between order and chaos.
Ghada Amer is a multimedia artist whose body of work is anchored and informed by ongoing ideological and aesthetic concerns. The submission of women to the tyranny of domestic life, the celebration of female sexuality and pleasure, the incomprehensibility of love, the foolishness of war and violence, and an overall quest for formal beauty, constitute the territory that she explores and expresses in her artistic practice.
White - RFGA depicts female forms through the delicacy of needle, thread and acrylic paint. The choice of subject matter and of material speaks to the artist’s interest in subverting assumptions related to societal roles attributed to women, rejecting both religious-driven laws that govern women’s bodies as well as contemporary ideas that reject expressions of conventional femininity as a form of empowerment.
Drawing for City Deep (A Fault To Be Discovered Later)e Discovered Later) is a charcoal and red pencil drawing made as part of Kentridge’s film City Deep. The film is the 11th in Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection series, a collection of animated films drawn over 30 years, featuring the protagonist Soho Eckstein. The work explores South Africa’s political transition from the violent years of apartheid to democracy, paying particular attention to the saga of loss, love, anger, compassion, guilt and forgiveness. The films revolve around the power-hungry mining magnate Soho Eckstein, his wife Mrs. Eckstein and her lover, the solitary artist Felix Teitlebaum. As the story unfolds, Soho’s empire crumbles as he comes to terms with his own frailties and the first signs of mortality.
Like previous films in the series, City Deep is grounded within Kentridge’s home city of Johannesburg and can be viewed as a counterpoint to the 1990 film, Mine, which depicts images of the deep level mining industry. City Deep extends this depiction to the informal, surface-level “zama zama” miners of current day Johannesburg. Translated from Zulu as ‘try your luck’ or ‘take a chance’, “zama zama” is the name given to the miners who illegally work decommissioned mines on the edges of the formal mining economy. Manual labour replaces large machines, creating open scars in the Highveld landscape.
In City Deep, the “zama zama” miners and the landscape merge into artworks hanging in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, itself built during the heyday of gold mining in Johannesburg. Wandering the exhibition spaces is a deeply contemplative Soho gazing at the artworks and into vitrines. Towards the end of the film the gallery collapses in on itself, an imagined demise of an institution in a state of increasing dereliction.
In a sequence of quilt works created out of cotton treated with pigment and saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean, Kiwanga extends the intangible components of her narrative compositions, continuing her investigation into the transatlantic slave trade. For the artist, the sea is an archive and witness of violent pasts.
The cloth work, Triangulation 3 (2021) combines and materializes her analysis of forced movement and liberatory strategies. Kiwanga’s use of symbols on textiles allude to the safe houses along the Underground Railroad, often indicated by a quilt hanging from a clothesline or windowsill as a mode of communication. The geometric shapes function as conceptual coordinates of flight, escape and safety —by reading the motifs sewn into the design, an enslaved person on the run could assess immediate dangers. Various triangles, pointing upward, or to the right or left, indicate the direction towards safety whilst a black square indicates a place of safety and rest.
The worlds we tell: Nü Gua (2021) evokes the Chinese myth of the great mother goddess who created the earth. The red silk embroidery and coloured concrete allude to the establishment of class which is tied to the separation between the upper classes and the common people, crafted by a superior being. Notions of class difference are captured in the tales but also in the materials themselves, which embody opulence and affluence.
Action forms part of the Lexicon series, which is an accumulation of elemental symbols within the artist’s larger practice. The series of bronze sculptures functions as a form of visual dictionary. These sculptures are symbols, glyphs, suggested words and icons, many of which have been used repeatedly across projects and bodies of work. The glyphs can be arranged in order to construct sculptural sentences and rearranged to deny meaning. In late 2017 and early 2018, Kentridge chose a group of ten glyphs from the small-scale Lexicon set and made medium-scale versions, each of close to a metre in height.
“The glyphs started as a collection of ink drawings and paper cut-outs, each on a single page from a dictionary. Previously I had taken a drawing or silhouette and given it just enough body to stand on its own feet - paper, added to cardboard and put on a stand. With the glyphs, I wanted a silhouette with the weight that the shape suggested. A shape not just balancing in space, but filling space. Something to hold in your hand, with both shape and heft.”
— William Kentridge, Why Should I Hesitate: Sculpture (2019), Norval Foundation
Employing the visual language of mass media, and appropriating symbols and images from popular culture, Hank Willis Thomas questions established definitions and positions with regards to personal identity and the narrative of race.
The work, Will you fly or will you vanish (dragon), is a quilt made with football jerseys. The work references both the function and aesthetics of the Asafo flags, made by the Fante people of Ghana. At the height of colonialism and the slave trade, the flags were used to deliver messages of resistance between colonised peoples. In a 2018 interview with ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA, Thomas explains; “I see the work that I make as asking questions. What is the influence of traditional African art and contemporary African art on Western artists? What is the relationship between authorship and appropriation? How does mythology go both ways (because we see references to European mythology, like the dragon in certain elements of African art)? We see different proverbs that are related to globalisation, transnational trade, and technology in the Asafo, so is it traditional or is it modern? Where does performance fall into that? By adding a reference to sports jerseys, I’m asking what the link is to tribalism and to our military instincts as a species. The jerseys also speak to sports as an accelerator to global commerce, cultural hegemony, and migration. A lot of questions.”
Shirin Neshat’s photographic series "Women of Allah" examine the complexities of women’s identities, both through their personal and public lives. The series also explores notions of femininity in relation to Islamic fundamentalism and militancy in her home country of Iran. This is done both through the lens of Western representations of Muslim women, and through the more intimate subject of personal and religious conviction. This particular image was one of only a few taken by Neshat in Iran.
Writing on Neshat’s practice for Gentlewoman in 2018, Cristina Ruiz notes;
“Her works are lyrical, dreamlike reflections on the place of women in Iranian society, on the two very different cultures – Eastern and Western – that have shaped her life, and on the far-reaching impact of historic political events – revolutions, coups, uprisings – on ordinary lives. She is a masterful image-maker who delivers powerful political messages by stealth, first seducing you through the beauty of her visual style and the music that accompanies her videos and films (she has worked with composers such as Sussan Deyhim, Philip Glass and Ryuichi Sakamoto), then making you think deeply about some of the most pressing issues of our time.”
“Mapping connections between historical archives, photography, and performance, Guez’s photographic series mines the rich historical and mythological dimensions of Jerusalem as a site of religious and political projection. Guez’s 'Lilies of the Field' is comprised of luminous prints of pressed floral and plant arrangements that the artist discovered in his research of the American Colony archive.
The flowers represent a diversity of flora indigenous to the holy land, and the areas surrounding the Old City. As popular souvenirs for tourists and missionaries, the pressed flowers in themselves document different forms of devotional labor, from the work of the artisans who pressed the flowers, to those who made the journey and acquired them as souvenirs. Selected by Guez these plant-based objects are embedded with contradictions implied by a discrete piece of nature – the flower – preserved in resin, frozen like taxidermized game captured by a hunter. Equally contradictory is his use of color which belies the natural conditions of the landscape from which the plants emerged.”
— Sara Reisman
after-all (field) forms part of Dennis' body of work, conditions, which is centred around the spherical globe, an idealised figure of the planet in Western cosmology which is seamless, smooth, unitary and knowable. Counter to this image of the world, Dennis proposes a series of transformations of the sphere, stretching and distorting the model in order to find space for other worlds, other world possibilities. Dennis’ explorations of a more awkward language to overwrite the globe builds on feminist, Marxist and postcolonial theorists whose work troubles the singular perspectives of the planet.
Masamvu’s figures are always positioned in relation to abstracted landscapes. Describing his works as “mutants'', he understands the relationship between the landscape and figure as feeding off each other, slowly changing one another. The more abstracted the paintings become, the more the figures metamorphosize, slowly amalgamating into the abstracted space. His works consist of layered painted surfaces, abstracted forms and brushstrokes which are almost visceral and exist as remnants of the physical action of painting. One gets the sense that multiple temporalities have been included in one picture plane and that beneath the surface of one painted image, an infinity of others exists.
In Combed Grass, Masamvu draws attention to the relationality between humans and other beings. He asks; “What does it mean that the tree is there and I am here? What is the relationship?” he elaborates; “[In this painting] I turned the tree upside down and inserted a suspended figure which is feeding from the roots, showing natural cycles and dependencies.”
'Location in the sky' captures guarded buildings in the centre of Johannesburg where migrant workers lived. The buildings reflect the legacies of segregationist policies of the apartheid government which controlled the flow of Black people in and out of cities.
Through this series, Goldblatt captures place as well as the spirit of the people who inhabit the place, he noted; “To me, there is a seamless relationship between people and their places. People are marked by the places in which they have their being, and there are few places unmarked by the passing, the hand, the presence of people….There is a casual intimacy in this mutual relationship that inevitably permeates much photography. I don’t need people in a photograph to know that people are there.”
— David Goldblatt, Photographers References, 2014.
Empathy courses through many of Jaar's works, in part through his avoidance of imagery that aims to shock. Take Embrace (1995), a one-minute video work composed of four still images. The images trace a gradual movement in the distance wiutnessing an event, but we are unable to see it. We can only imagine it through the embrace of the image's subject. "It was a demonstartion," says Jaar, "that there is a way to talk about violence without using violence in the work. You can talk about violence without humiliating the victim."
- Joe Lloyd
Postcards from Africa series considers a critical moment in history and wrestles with the complex history of colonial expansion and conquest captured through the postcard industry. It also continues Williamson’s investigation into the history of slavery, dispossession and displacement, beginning with her 1997 installation, Messages from the Moat, which was a detailed record of the buying and selling of enslaved people in the Cape of Good Hope, and continued with Messages from the Atlantic Passage (2017) which referenced old shipping records to focus on the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
In each drawing within the series, signs of habitation remain visible —dwellings, boats, a pile of coconuts, baskets — but the people who appeared on the original postcard no longer appear. The absence of the people from the landscape presents an uncomfortable tension from which a series of questions emerge — where are the people who used to live here? What happened to them? These questions point to the complexity of subverting the colonial gaze —how does one challenge the gaze while also taking care not to perpetuate violence through recirculation of images that re-invoke their original racist and oppressive context?