Life, etc

The carnival rolls into town: Jaco Sieberhagen’s subversive sculptures

By J Brooks Spector 25 April 2013

Jaco Sieberhagen’s exhibition, “The Carnival (No dogs allowed)”, though nowhere nearly as in-your-face as Brett Murray’s “Hail to the Thief”, which featured “The Spear”, is arguably far more critical of the current regime’s iniquities and two-facedness. Yet the official response to the sculptor’s work has been a profound silence. J BROOKS SPECTOR examines the startlingly different responses to two exhibitions.

Across the street from that now infamous gallery space where Brett Murray’s The Spear became the object of so much angry dialogue, debate and, ultimately, desecration last year; this time around, it is another gallery, Artspace, that is hosting its own display of dangerous art. Jaco Sieberhagen’s sculptures are now on display, grouped together in a show entitled: “The Carnival (No dogs allowed)”. This clearly seems a wink-wink-nudge-nudge reference to a certain recent comment by the South African president about the now-misaligned relationship between dogs and men, juxtaposed with the human carnival that is contemporary South African politics.

Photo: Follow My Leader

His works are beautifully crafted out of flat steel, precisely laser-cut, and then carefully painted matte black. While they are two-dimensional silhouettes, they take on a more solid sense of depth and dimensionality when they are displayed on a continuous rail mounted on plinths, with the whole ensemble placed in a stark white room with no other decoration. The rail undulates through the full length of the gallery space, turning the individual works into a procession, a carnival parade, and a caravan of jesters, fools, knaves and liars. In fact, Sieberhagen’s works are at least as subversive as Murray’s highly controversial exhibition ever was – but they take a bit more time to work their magic as the viewer reads into the jokes or feels the subtle but sharp pinpricks as they draw their blood.

Photo: Friends

Sieberhagen has actually tapped into a deep vein of art that protests and rails against all the iniquities and two-facedness of those on top. To look at the imagery in Sieberhagen’s seemingly simple silhouettes is also to feel echoes from Hogarth, Daumier, and Grosz, and – more contemporarily and locally – from William Kentridge as well. Hidden among the Sieberhagen images, for example, there are even some small dogs and an old fashioned gramophone or two with its amplifying horn, a megaphone for political messages. Perhaps this is a deliberate – or even an unconscious – homage to Kentridge’s use of that iconography in many of his graphic and film works from the 1990s.

Photo: Dung Beetle

There was a time in South Africa when politically and socially potent protest art – drawing upon subjects that clearly deserved to be protested vigorously – was often most effective when it came in the form of posters, illustrations for sometimes-ephemeral political broadsides, banners at demonstrations – and even on T-shirts. Sieberhagen has drawn upon this tradition too, but he has flattened out the images into precisely made, solid steel cut-outs that refer to more standard representational art, but without actually being that kind of work.

Photo: Keep Marching Comrades

Still, to look at work like Tender-risers is to find meaning in both the visuals as well as in the title. The piece features a man and woman – both wearing those floppy court jester hats with bells on the end of the points. The couple are pushing shopping trolleys, each containing a large box with the treacherous word “tender” emblazoned on it. The couple and their carts are on a flatbed trailer – and a hyena is pulling the trailer, not surprisingly. Right at the beginning of the parade, there is a cut-out of a young African child with a protuberant belly. He is holding a small flag behind his back and he is standing next to a seated dog, presumably man’s best friend, despite the president’s words.

Photo: Bugler’s call

The second float in line depicts a dung beetle – Africa’s most ubiquitous insect. The beetle is pushing a large ball of what dung beetles push – with the words “Blame apartheid” on the side of the ball. In the centre of the dung ball is another one of those old-fashioned gramaphones, reminiscent of the old Kentridge leitmotif from a caustic work like The Negotiations Begin that he produced right at the end of Apartheid.