It is not easy labelling the works in Rich Mnisi’s new exhibition Nyoka (Snake). You could say that Vulthari (Wisdom) is a contemporary chandelier. There are a number of light-bulbs cupped by the curved bronze tentacles that wrap around each other and you could light a room with this work.
However, calling it a chandelier is a huge disservice to it, as it is visually arresting and too large and magical to attract such a pedestrian term. It’s complex design required a combination of technology — algorithms, parametric modelling — with the age-old art of bronze casting. It also enjoys a visual, aesthetic and conceptual link with all the other objects his first solo exhibition at Southern Guild’s V&A gallery in Cape Town. The curved design and shape of the light bulbs bring the titular nyoka to mind.
This is the literal motif that unites the objects in this extraordinary show, which gives expression to an inherited fear of snakes. Conceptually it but also links with Mnisi’s fascination with an alternative creation myth of Bumba, advanced in Congolese folklore, which overturns the role and negative associations with a the snake as in the Christian garden of Eden.
All of these factors appear to situate the works by Mnisi as artworks; as sculptures. The price tags attached to most of them also justify this classification. Yet as there is also a strong relationship between these works and his fashion — the bold, black, curved lines, the vivid colour scheme, the organic shapes in the patterns which Mnisi designs for the textiles he uses. This somehow underscores these works as an extension of his craft as a fashion designer, for which he most well-known.
“I don’t look at furniture or fashion differently. There is a new pattern each season,” he observes during a Zoom call from his Joburg studio a few days before Nyoka is set to open.
Southern Guild have, of course, been pushing and challenging the supposedly hard line dividing art and design since 2008 and have participated in numerous art and design fairs, enjoying the best of both worlds. However, the line between art and design has never seemed more blurred, as functional objects or works alluding to them have been filtering into art spaces more frequently.
Two new art spaces have opened in Cape Town presenting design and art objects side by side — The Fourth, which opened last year, regularly stages exhibitions where each room of the gallery — a large apartment — is dressed with art and other design objects. In September they held an auction of collectable chairs — and are unapologetically selling art and design.
Hub, an initiative established by the Spier Arts Trust, this year pairs designers with artists and artisans to produce functional objects but also they work at curating design objects with artworks. The results of some of the partnerships they have facilitated was on exhibit at their headquarters in Cape Town’s CBD earlier in 2021. Paintings by Zemba Luzamba were paired with wall hooks and hand mirrors by local furniture design makers Saks Corner.
“It’s part of a global movement. For a long-time we were seen as the outsider [gallery] and outliers when we initiated this collectable design category and we kept going. Interestingly, now we are showing a lot more art and going the other way. Ultimately, is about creativity and putting things into the world that have value,” says Trevyn McGowan, co-founder of Southern Guild.
Asemahle Ntlonti’s beaded blanket works that showed in her exhibition, Vuthulula, at Whatiftheworld in Cape Town earlier in 2021 could easily have found traction in a design venue or fair. This gallery also have featured a show of ceramic vessels by Ben Orkin. Smac Gallery currently are showing an exhibition, titled The Long Table, in Stellenbosch featuring many functional design objects from tables, floor lamps, rugs, bowls and vessels.
“Suspend reality and consider the notion that sometimes things are more than one thing at once. Being dynamic and undefined is a definition too,” writes Celeste Jacobs in a text to promote the exhibition.
This perhaps follows on from an exhibition they staged at this gallery last year titled Shaping Things, which focused on presenting ceramic works, which appear to have opened the door to more functional objects being shown and appreciated in art galleries and fairs.
Ebony/Curated have long supported and represented artists working with clay such as John Newdigate but only recently did they stage a solo exhibition of Ian Garrett’s ceramic works.
“It’s the first time we brought an exhibition of ceramic works to our Cape Town gallery,” says Marc Stanes, director of the gallery, which has branches in Franschhoek, where they have tended to show the ceramic works.
With ceramic works by Grayson Perry, the British artist, and Magdalene Odundo, the Kenyan artist, fetching high prices and validating ceramic art, old biases in the art world against objects deemed to be craft or design ones have been eroded, says Stanes.
“I don’t know where the self-policing comes from. Painting is a craft. I am not sure how you make the separation between picking up a brush or pencil or palette knife or using tools to sculpt clay. How different is a carved piece of stone or cast bronze from a one-off ceramic? I can’t see difference,” observes Stanes.
The Iziko SA National Art Gallery have collected many historical and contemporary ceramic works, according to Stanes. This hasn’t extended to other works in the vein of those Mnisi has created, says McGowan. It might still be hard for institutions and art foundations to wrap their heads around less traditional works.
The functional aspect to Mnisi’s works are tenuous. A mirror, titled To Reflect, is so curved you would not really be able to check if your lipstick is smudged in it. In contrast Vumboni (Testimony), an amorphous form fashioned from an inviting white fluffy material is extremely comfortable to sit in.
This level of design “makes you look at your day-to-day differently. You could go and buy a couch with a normal back rest, but this is a piece that embraces you, there is another mission to it. Creating furniture, like art, creates a different mood within yourself and the world and how you interact with certain things,” says Mnisi.
Mnisi’s works stand out from other “furniture” — not only due to the mood they set, or the ideas they are connected to but there are no hard lines and corners.
“There is a rigid way of doing things in the world. Maybe there are other ways of sitting, more comfortable ways, and another way of looking at things,” he says. He is referring to the fluid lines that define his curved rugs and mirror, echoing the snake motif, but the same could be said for the categories that these incredible works summon.
• Nyoka is showing at Southern Guild until February 2022