Hlobo Ndize.
Hlobo Ndize.
Image: Graham De Lacy

The Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF) launched its new exhibition programme last week, which runs for the rest of the year. Otherscapes features installations by four contemporary South African artists: Siemon Allen, Wim Botha, Nicholas Hlobo and Sethembile Msezane.

JCAF is a singular art institution in the current South African contemporary art landscape. Defiantly non-commercial and self-sustaining, it has been responsible since its opening for a range of important and intellectually thorough and challenging shows. Memorably, the foundation has exhibited work by renowned contemporary feminist installation artist Ana Mendieta and showed the first work in SA by Frida Kahlo as part of a cycle of exhibitions under the rubric of Contemporary Female Identities in the Global South. The institution combines an academic research institute, an innovative technology laboratory and a platform for museum-quality exhibitions.

JCAF is a non-collecting foundation, which does not own art or house a private art collection, and curates its programmes according to a three-year themed cycle.

The current exhibition uses four different large-scale onsite installation works to explore “narratives around people and nation, identity and place, body and space” in the current South African moment.

As such it is a useful and clear-eyed corrective to much revisionist contemporary art in the country, which seems to follow certain zeitgeists in material, mediums and subjects to trace utopian trajectories about the country’s current identity. 

The installations explicitly address, in very different ways, the idea of a collective sense of belonging in present-day SA, beset as it is by social and political problems and having largely failed to live up to the utopian promise of the “rainbow nation” moment of the mid-1990s.

The works are all immersive and interactive spatial environments, demanding that the viewer walk around, in or through them to make sense of them. Each of them grapples with the notion of a contemporary South African identity that lies between the poles of a utopian, rainbow nation fantasy and the looming prospect of a failed state.

Allen StampsV.
Allen StampsV.
Image: Graham De Lacy

Msezane’s synthetic hair installation manifests as a cloud, dropping strands of hair with domestic clothes irons attached, gesturing to the material identities of class structure.

Hlobo’s labyrinth of ribbons conceals two mannequin-like figures at its centre, the meaning of which is unclear. The materiality of the labyrinth itself does the work however, a confused and claustrophobic experience not unlike dealing with local bureaucracy.

Botha’s chaotic jumble of sculptural installations and neon tubing doesn’t stray far from his usual repertoire of refashioned classical sculptural tropes. These winged figures and rearing horses comprise clean-cut yet fragile polystyrene, its delicacy as material in counterpoint to the classical marbles it resembles and its toxic disposability in our age of climate crisis.

Botha SolipsisI.
Botha SolipsisI.
Image: Graham De Lacy

The centrepiece is perhaps the grandly obsessive circular wall of South African postage stamps, put painstakingly together in chronological order by Siemon Allen. The postage stamp has an ineluctably poignant nature; it is at once an obsolete marker of civic time, national identity and a channel of official communication. Here it is staged by Allen in the manner of a monumental amphitheatre, its sweeping semicircular layout and daunting dimensions imposing on the viewer situated within the installation in much the same way old monuments would have dwarfed the citizens of the country in a display of nationalist grandiosity.   

Allen’s work most pointedly asks the curatorial question posed by Clive Kellner, executive director at JCAF: “How can art reflect on the current South African situation, not through direct representation but through ideas that reflexively raise important questions about our democracy?”

Msezane Avuleka Amazulu.
Msezane Avuleka Amazulu.
Image: Graham De Lacy

Otherscapes introduces the South African-focused programme taking place at JCAF during 2023, which will culminate in December with the inaugural launch of JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South and performances by Robin Rhode (Pictures Reframed) and Mandla Mlangeni (Elusive Dreams in Jozi).

Until 4 November 2023

Exhibition viewing is by appointment only.

Visit www.jcaf.org.za for further information.

Instagram: @foundation_jcaf

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