MAVERICK LIFE OP-ED

A conversation with Capetonians, expressions in art

By Keith Bain 22 October 2020

"There's plenty of space to make your own meaning copy" (Image Keith Bain)

Cape Town’s Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa has reopened with an extraordinary exhibition, groundbreaking not for the star status of its artists, but for its inclusivity and spirit of solidarity.

“It’s a love letter to Cape Town,” said Tandazani Dhlakama, one of Zeitz MOCAA’s assistant curators, speaking at the media preview of the museum’s reopening exhibition, Home Is Where The Art Is.

This, the Cape Town art museum’s first live showing of work in 219 days represents a watershed moment for the young institution, a shift in perspective, and a Herculean effort by the curatorial team to make the space more accessible to its primary interlocutors: Capetonians.

The show is the result of an open call for submission. Members of the public were invited to contribute their work for a mass exhibition. From professional artists, amateurs, Sunday painters and hobbyists, to children who draw for the love of it, folks inspired by the solitude of lockdown, and anyone who happened to have work in their home they wanted to show, anyone and everyone was invited to contribute; and all artworks will be returned to their owners once the exhibition is over.

Predictably, Instagram and other social media channels have been burning up with participants encouraging their friends and family to see their creations displayed in this extraordinary context. And, while it’s a brilliant endeavour to drive public attendance and fuel viral interest in the museum’s reopening, there’s a lot more to it than crafty marketing.

According to Koyo Kouoh, MOCAA’s executive director, the exhibition is an expression of the institution’s desire to actively make Capetonians part of the museum itself. And to make it a museum for all Capetonians, not just for tourists, and not just for a high-brow elite.

She says that with the exhibition, MOCAA aims to open a conversation with its core audience – people who live and work in Cape Town. It is also an exhibition marking the fundamental shift in our pre- and post-covid realities, recognising that our world is forever altered.

It’s a packed, packed exhibition – vibrant, remarkable in its scope, and somehow, even with some 2,000-odd vastly diverse works, magically comes together. It just clicks.

Rather beautifully, too.

Most striking – for me at least – is the sheer profusion of creativity that’s on display. It is a remarkable celebration of what it means to be human; what it means to possess the need or desire to express ourselves; what it means to imagine beyond the confines of one’s internal world. To share with others some part of who we are.

Gathered together are works representing a phenomenally broad range of tastes and backgrounds and interests. In other words, it is real evidence of inclusivity – at an unprecedented scale – within an institutional cultural environment.

There are expressions of joy and representations of beauty; figures suggesting pain and outbursts of anger and disquiet; there are strange surreal figures, studious portraits, pretty landscapes, works of photorealism; and highly abstract images, too.

The exhibition’s portraits cover a range of styles and subjects, including ones inspired by covid-19 (Image Keith Bain)
“Some faces you’ll recognise, some will keep you wondering” (Image Keith Bain)

In one room, on a long table overflowing with sculptural pieces and craft objects, there’s a crawling baby with an oxygen tank on its back. And, behind it, on a wooden platter, a Kewpie doll riding a miniature lion. Shift your gaze slightly, and some new and unexpected piece comes into view. And then another, and another.

“The exhibition has a section dedicated to what we do inside” (Image Keith Bain)
(Image Keith Bain)
“There are surprises throughout this exhibition” (Image Keith Bain)

It is a busy collection – so much to see, and a lot to distract you.

This is the fascinating thing about this exhibition: The curators relinquished utterly all personal taste and opinion. They took the decision to respect the choices made by the people who contributed work.

Around 98% of what was submitted – handed over at collection points as far away as Khayelitsha, Muizenberg and Stellenbosch – has been hung or displayed. Exclusions were limited to problematically defamatory or otherwise unexhibitable works. For the rest – all manner of paintings, sculptures, drawings, embroideries, installations and even graffiti pieces – have been put out for inspection.

What can be hung is displayed, salon-style, so that massive expanses of wall space are covered.

One assistant curator referred to the experience of receiving work from the public as “humbling”. From child artists to professionals, everyone was treated like William Kentridge at the moment of collection, she said.

Not that the exhibition is about individual excellence or star status recognition. It is principally about the collective. And about knitting together various members of a diverse art community.

And, to be honest, seeing all these diverse works collected together, really does create a heart-warming sense of home. There is something strangely comforting about being surrounded by so many extraordinarily different creative articulations.

It is worth taking your time, getting lost in the experience. There’s great joy to be  had discovering the surprises, the mini triumphs, and the manifold ways in which Capetonians have expressed themselves.

The exhibition was put together in astoundingly rapid time. Once works had been collected, curators went through submissions and five broad themes revealed themselves: The Garden, Outside, Inside, Relations, and Time. So the exhibition evolved quite organically, revealing its own patterns and connections, and almost magically clicking together in time for the launch.

In one room, you can’t help but become aware of the impact that living in a seaside city has on its people. There’s ocean, and beaches, and surfers, and so much that’s blatantly Muizenberg. Our mountains feature, of course.

You also see an awful lot of animals and gardenscapes and still life, too.

“Pets have their place, too” (Image Keith Bain)

A lot of the work responds directly to the pandemic and its horrors, and to the emotions generated by lockdown. Whether they’re expressions of ennui or a desire to escape through the imagination. Some people challenged themselves to create an artwork for each day of their confinement.

There’s a seemingly endless array of stories, beautiful and bountiful. And heartbreaking.

One man entered three works by his late wife. They were the last artworks she created before passing away two months ago. Such a tribute; just imagine.

And how delightful to spot, between mature works, the evolving talents of young children? Imagine being hung on walls usually occupied by masters, and you still have your entire life ahead of you.

Something that’s striking is that there are few signatures and no labels at all on the works. It’s an exhibition for looking, not reading. A simplified numbering system lets you look up a piece online to find out who created it, or who submitted it. If you’re attending with the sole purpose of finding work by a friend or loved one, you might be in for a bit of a treasure hunt. You’ll likely have a lot of fun as you search high and low, and hopefully get distracted along the way.

The preview happened less than 18 hours before the exhibition was due to open – on 22 October – and there was still work to be hung and bits and pieces here and there requiring attention. Somehow the unfinished nature of what we saw only added to the sense of where Zeitz MOCAA is heading, of it being a kind of work in progress, an institution on the move and determined to engage with us.

The exhibition is, in short, a pretty generous, quite profound love letter to Cape Town. And it’s hard not to love it back. DM/ ML

Home Is Where The Art Is is showing at Zeitz MOCAA until 10 January 2021. Running concurrently is Line in the Sand, an experimental open-studio project by Cape Town artist Haroon Gunn-Salie. The museum is open 10am–6pm, Thursday to Sunday. Tickets bought during October and November will be valid for three months and can be used for multiple visits; masks must be worn throughout your visit. zeitzmocaa.museum

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