“As I fall in love I also grieve, because falling can feel like digging and because love can feel like a form of death,” reads one of the diary entries that Paul Maheke wrote at the height of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, which he spent in Paris in the heat of July.
His latest exhibition, Vanille Bleue, which opened at the Johannesburg branch of the Goodman Gallery in mid-April, feeds directly from these intimate musings, penned in a moment of uncertainty and fragility.
Maheke’s private thoughts float through the gallery, printed in white onto sheer, dark-blue fabric that falls in curtains from the ceiling. When looked at from afar and all together, the room is peppered with soft, dreamy sheets on which the words hover, not unlike mist.
The piece, called As Saturn and Jupiter Conjunct, is one variation among several manifestations of Maheke’s inner thoughts. Hanging on the walls there are copper etches of amorphous shapes, half-formed figures in sketchy lines, and lanterns made of wicker, all bathed in a soundscape of deep-bass frequencies, composed as a sonic means of healing.
Publicising thoughts (or writings) made in private is, in and of itself, a terrifying and boundary-breaking feat. As American artist David Wojnarowicz once put it, “to make the private public is an action that has terrific repercussions in the pre-invented world”.
Maheke, whose artistic practice is an evolving rumination on decolonial and emancipatory thought, uses his diary to open up a space of vulnerability. He envisions the healing values of trauma, the creativity of destruction and the suggestive nature of unfinished, unpolished thoughts.
The power of Vanille Bleue really lies in its lack of punctuation.
In the reveries of the private realm there is no need to follow straight lines or rules (who cares if you capitalised proper nouns in your diary?) There is also no need for a finished thought, a final product neatly packaged with a cherry on top. Thoughts can run wild and far; we can think from new directions; the dark and taboo can be illuminated. As Maheke puts it, “alternate positions can inform and alter knowledge production”.
The works in the exhibition are still in process. There are no hard endings or concrete full-stops. The floating curtains of diary excerpts are an evolved remnant of Maheke’s prior works, a curtain to him signifying a “permeable membrane or fluid border that contains as much as it hosts”.
“I find some other places where my mind can wonder if yesterday’s dreams are removed from me,” reads one of the deep-blue curtains. And then, “is it what people call resilience? Would resilience be a form of reinvention then? Like an endless process of redreaming the dream according to what’s left of it? – Or settling for less than what you deserve?”
The unanswered questions leave space for a multitude of different answers in varying voices. There are so many meanings that we could lend to these thought fragments. Just like the scratchy sketch-figures of Maheke’s prints, nothing here is fully formed or fixed.
The copper works show a looseness, too. One piece, titled A Tidal Panic, is without a central focal point; the cube-like shapes at the bottom of the copper plate seamlessly morphing into waves at the top, creating a stillness out of total movement. It is possibly paired with a second copper piece, Turn the Tide: Redo, whose marks are more violent and chaotic.
The shapes in question are roughly etched with ferric chloride, a substance that attacks the surface of the copper plates, revealing the size and shape of its natural grain selectively. The erosion that results, ultimately, in the creation of the work mirrors the imaginative potential of Maheke’s diary; of baring one’s inner thoughts to the world and becoming vulnerable to outside forces and opinions.
It also makes physical or visible an invisible chemical reaction that takes place, much like Maheke’s attempted manifestation of free-thinking.
While Maheke reminds us of the power of this vulnerability, we simultaneously question the extent to which it is true, or possible, to share with the world truly interior moments.
The artworks in Vanille Bleue are free-flowing and ever-changing, to some extent. But Maheke’s words are too beautiful, too poetically sound, his prints too aesthetically pleasing, for it to be a truly believable and authentic version of his private self. All humans have a sordid and ugly side. We have bad thoughts and moments of weakness; Maheke’s insides simply cannot be this pretty.
The exhibition shows the beginnings of vulnerability, of tenderness – but, like the curtains that fall from the ceiling, subtly covering/obscuring/changing this view or that, Maheke’s teases us. There is so much more than meets the eye. DM/ML