Written by: Luso Mnthali, Cape Town
Walking into Cape Town’s Goodman Gallery, the monochromatic exhibit exudes a quiet explosiveness. If you know Kendell Geers’ work, then you know to expect something of a confrontation with ideas that are discomfiting. If, like me, you have never heard of him, and are a South African art world novice, then Geers is a study in polarity, and an introduction to visceral experiences with the visual.
When you see things that others don’t, you’re either called mad, a genius or simply an artist. Explanations of his work highlight Geers’ need to associate with an evolution in the art world, which is consistently white, male and privileged. It’s been ten years since he exhibited in his home country, and titling it ‘Third World Disorder’ suggests the qualms he has about South Africa. Having lived in Belgium since 1997, the returnee artist wants to maintain his edge. He explains that his interest in this part of the exhibition is with the attempt to build monuments to earthly gods (men) that is thwarted by the gods of the universe men worship. In executing some of the pieces, he says he was interested in addressing why the gods would have destroyed the mythical tower of Babel – which might be a reference to how governments organise, and sometimes fail, and are having to be made to fail when they fail the people they are in control of. Or it could be a reference to how nature simply cannot be built or bettered, and is something Western patterns of behaviour suggest is a failing of man. If that is so, and nature has thrown down its gauntlet, and can easily destroy what man builds, then the answer from man has been to destroy nature. To test its limits and endurance, culminating in the paths we now find ourselves on.
Geers does not say it in just this way, but walking through the exhibit you might find that he is extremely conscious that his days as South Africa’s answer to the artist as l’enfant terrible are over. Simply because there is no state of emergency, and creating one relies on fear. The fear present in South African society is one that many white South African artists are deeply engrossed with, as evident at the Spier Contemporary Art exhibit this year.
The message is that art must inform, shock, deliver, be masticated or chewed whole and swallowed, whether the viewer is ready or not. These artists are confronting society’s notions about violence and taking on subjects deeply embedded in the South African psyche. Geers himself takes on the notion that we are comfortable with violence, and have become almost complacent about it. He confronts us with patterns of violence. The piece with police batons placed in three star shapes, notably a pentagonal, a hexagonal and a heptagonal shape, show how symbols have power – and a readily available instrument of violence can connect with those symbols.
The confrontational aspects of Geers’ work are slightly less evident in this showing than in his previous forays into the language of a society on edge, and in danger of imploding due to a set of factors. The artist forces us to question things as they are and to think about things as they are not, yet, in this showing, there is something contrived, and a little plastic about it - even when he sets out to explore the dangerously closed aspects (at least to Western/European notions of art and culture) of Ndebele women’s lives. Geers describes this foray into a traditional black South African culture as his quest to understand, and possibly mimic, animistic cultures. One can argue whether the only true remnants of an animistic culture in Southern Africa are among the descendants of the Khoisan or Nama, but Geers is sincere about his quest.
The in-between is what the artist is involved with in his work. It is not enough to be an established artist, or a pre-eminent artist in a country he left behind. Reinvention is a theme for many artists, and the timing of his return to the South African art scene hot on the heels of the World Cup shows that this reinvention also had to be cultural. The re-interpretation of Ndebele women’s beaded aprons, from colourful to monochromatic, and from a culture-specific dialogue within the beading to the Greco-Roman lettering festooning much of his recent work, contains Geers’ personal interest in and involvement with a culture separate from his own. Reinvention is not always about being comfortable, and Geers’ Western ethos weaved with African sensibilities and aesthetics makes one think that this cultural marriage has never been an easy one. The journey has begun, but there’s still a long way to go.
At best, the showing contains a piece called ‘Mined’ which is a fascinating object in that it can lead one on a journey. As simple to behold as it is, the jagged edges of the shape of the top of a wine or beer bottle, formed in 18ct gold, is terrifying. The artist here manages to tell his story (it is a self-portrait) without saying much, as he has had to with most of the other pieces. What is very clear is that he is a hard-working artist, and puts much thought into how he expresses his inner world. That inner world seems a little baffled by what he’s been met with on arrival, after the long hiatus. “There are other, newer artists in South Africa who are apparently dancing on my grave…” he says this twice as though to silence the rumours, or more appropriately, to silence the contentious gods who might make it so.
This is a closed world he inhabits, and it is exclusive in a way that, like any family, tribe or secret society, its rules remain unquestioned even when the family business is to deliver a communiqué to the larger world.
Is Third World Disorder, a hollow pyramidal shape that is patterned in cut-outs of words significant to the artist (he uses fear, hope, riot and revolution in some works) a message that our past is still in the present and that over-lapping languages can create rather than destroy? Each work has a lot to say, and if you’re patient enough, you can have the opportunity to listen to the dialogues between art, artist and art viewer. Is language creating a negative space, or even a scared space? Can culture be reinvented? If you walk into the Goodman Gallery, in Woodstock, Cape Town, between the 9th of June and 10 of July, you can view pieces that might be cultural moments or monuments, and inhabit the negative spaces as Geers calls them, and find out for yourself.