Adolf Tegas The End, mixed media on canvas, reminds the writer of German expressionism.
Adolf Tegas The End, mixed media on canvas, reminds the writer of German expressionism.

AT THE Association for Visual Arts in Church Street, Cape Town, two exhibitions tug at the boundaries of our notions of experience.

The juxtaposition of white lesbian senior photography lecturer Jean Brundrit’s shadowgrams and photographs in Nature Study and the paintings of eight black artists in At Night We Dream During The Day We See is a canny exploration into realms of technical skill that evokes art movements from the past. But in fact, in the words of curator Kirsty Cockerill, the group show is linked by political surrealism that reveals a world of twilight and dawn as experienced in the corrugated patchwork that serves as home to a vast proportion of South Africa’s population.

The Association for Visual Arts gallery was purchased from Metropolitan Life by Hollard’s Dick Enthoven in 2002 who, as a silent partner, elected Spier to be associated with the AVA mandate.

“If AVA wasn’t here these artists wouldn’t have the opportunity to contribute to this country’s cultural currency,” Cockerill says. On the wall following his recent solo show at World Art Gallery, Zolani Siphungela’s child soldiers from Namibia and versatile Mncedi Bodlo’s clever, accomplished oil-on-canvas paintings reveal a sense of irony with a hint of pre-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) while recording the dichotomy of progress.

Humour is effervescent in young Anathi Tyawa’s self portraits with the artist portrayed wearing a headdress of barbed wire wrapped around his skull and paintbrushes extending from this headband as triumphant plumes of victory.

Adolf Tega’s The End is a mixed media, textured scene of a crowded (soup kitchen?) interior where rows of benches and tables are populated by diners with the viewer left to speculate about the end referred to in the title – the end of a shift, or a day, prompting thoughts of art movements like German expressionism.

Bangikaya Maqoqa’s House of Prayer oil on canvas conveys elements of reality that an escape to religion obscures for many, while recent addition to the committee at AVA Richard Mudariki’s Political Rubbish resonates a style akin to that of the late painter Robert Hodgins. Mudariki studied anthropology and museum heritage in Zimbabwe and works from the Good Hope Studios at the Castle in Cape Town.

Cinga Sampson recently held his first one-man show at AVA; he studied commercial photography at Stellenbosch Academy and his oil-on-canvas painting displays a beautiful irony.

Ndikhumbule Ngqinambi’s paintings have Cockerill believing that he has become one of the most exciting painters in this country – his work on this show was sold before the exhibition opened. Stairway to Heaven is a sensitively skilled image combining imagination with a realisation of our temporary secular existence on the planet.

Could these paintings be prophetic by leading the way as examples of initiative and self-taught skills development? Some of the artists have benefited from the AVA artreach fund which provides materials to applicants, and others have slotted independently into courses at institutions such as the Frank Joubert Art Centre, Greatmore Studios and the Community Arts Project. The negotiation of realities unique to each individual reveals tension about power inequalities, layered symbols of oral tradition and a challenging view of a political hyperreality.

“The work is not didactic, there aren’t lots of degrees and diplomas but the dynamic and competent paintings are exciting,” says Cockerill.

The question of how we poison ourselves with bigotry and ignorance on some levels is challenged by Michaelis School of Fine art senior photography lecturer Jean Brundrit in her examination of animals and their historic relationship as symbols to humans. Taking The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798) as her departure point she focuses on the endangered albatross as part of an increasing threat to global environmental balance. Her work consists of the photographic technique of shadowgram traces and photographs. The former composed by placing an albatross, a significantly large bird onto the light-sensitive surface of photographic paper which is exposed to light leaving a silhouette of the object when the paper is processed. In a pamphlet accompanying the exhibition Brundrit alerts us to the reality of plastic pollution in the Midway Atoll where adult albatrosses fish below the surface of the sea, harvesting plastic detritus with fish that, when fed to their chicks kill them.

Wanting to impress viewers with the consequences of neglect on a global and personal level, Brundrit also introduces the snake in photographic and shadowgram trace of a shed snakeskin as a Judeo-Christian origin of gender prejudice.

In her pamphlet she points out the paradoxical nature of the biblical myth and the reality of the reptile’s significance in Western symbology. Its role in Eastern mythology is no less significant where it is associated with water and the deities. The baboon also features because of Brundrit’s interest in the writings of Barbara Smuts (Lives of Animals 1999). A fascinating observation about humans using themselves as the standard to compare and measure to others resulted in her four colour photographic studies Nature Study 1 – 4 where she has scientifically depicted her specimens (including herself) in a style commonly found in nature study illustration. A shallow camera focus forces the viewer to step closer to the prints to observe finely rendered detail and determine whether the specimens are alive or dead.

The exhibition is based upon research supported by the National Research Foundation.

l The Association for Visual Arts is at 35 Church Street. Call 021 424 7436 or visit www.ava.co.za.