Imbacu [exhibition review]

Mario Pissarra, 31 August 2007

From the outset I welcomed this exhibition since exile (‘Imbacu’ in isiXhosa) has received scant attention from South African curators and art historians, despite being perhaps the earliest form of resistance practiced by our artists. I was also curious whether Loyiso Qanya’s curatorial debut represented a shift within the SANG, an institution that has done little to create meaningful curatorial opportunities for trainees.

Comparatively modest in scale, Imbacu turns out to be bold in its scope. Notably it transcends traditional interpretations of exile by positing that the prohibitive restrictions imposed on black South Africans amounted to exile of a special type. Hence the figure of the migrant worker, an ‘alien’ in his or her own land, looms large over the exhibition through works by Lucas Seage, Sue Williamson and Samson Mudzunga. Extending this theme of dispossession Imbacu includes images that allude to forced removals and imprisonment, as well as torture and death in detention. There are also several representations of prominent political activists Chief Albert Luthuli and Steve Biko, both of whom were restricted (and in Biko’s case, killed). Indeed, in terms of narrating exile through imagery, Imbacu does more to explore and test the boundaries of what could be termed ‘internal exile’, than it does in representing the experiences of exile as it more commonly understood.

In contrast with the unorthodox emphasis on internal exile, Imbacu adopts a more conservative approach in its representation of exiled artists, since these are generally well known examples of artists who left the country between the late 1930s and the late 1980s. Even if limited to art in the SANG collection, Imbacu excludes examples of artists who experienced punitive measures, not least restricted movement, because of their political activities or moral convictions (e.g. Omar Badsha, Willem Boshoff). Brett Murray, who left to avoid military conscription, is also overlooked. Despite these shortcomings, Imbacu provides a useful opportunity for reflecting on the blurred boundaries between migration and exile, serving to highlight that even the notion of external exile is a construct, subject to contesting perceptions.

Another interesting feature of the work by externally exiled artists is that, certainly at first glance, none of it seems to be about the experience of living inexile itself. In fact they appear to have been included simply because they were made by exiled artists. However there are cases where exile can be read as subject, although it is possible that this may not have been the intention of the artists themselves. For example Albert Adams’ Figure Study VI, where the regimented stripes of a jacket are contrasted with the amorphous absence that appears in place of a face, powerfully represents violent rupture, dissolution, dispersal and loss of identity, qualities that characterized exile for many. Similarly Ernest Mancoba’s dematerialized figure [Untitled, no date) can be read as representing a liminal state of being that can be equated with the psychological and spiritual alienation of exile. In contrast Gerard Sekoto’s forms are more defined, but his use of bright colours does little to conceal the melancholic tone and painful nostalgia that envelops his family study [Untitled, c. 1980).

Where I am least convinced is by the claim (featured in the text accompanying the exhibition) that Imbacu takes Biko as its point of departure. Exile (external or internal) preceded Biko by decades, and there is also the anomaly that Luthuli is as present as Biko. I suspect that Imbacu’s already busy agenda has been conflated with the unrealized project of commemorating 30 years since Biko’s death, a project deserving of its own focus. I also wonder whether we are seeing the results of ‘curating by consensus’ since Qanya was supported by SANG stalwarts Marilyn Martin and Joe Dolby, and this may have inadvertently diluted the focus.

Overall Imbacu succeeds in problematizing the notion of exile in the South African context; and creates a space to facilitate deeper understandings of exile as a critical current in our art history.
An edited version appeared in Art South Africa vol. 6 no. 1, 2007, p. 90

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