Black lines

2012-03-09 09:50

When the art movement known as Constructivism first reared its head in the years following World War 1, many conservative critics chided its proponents as anarchists.

Modern art with its avant-garde leanings was cast as a threat bent on subverting everything that was desirable about high art then. But that was in the 1920s and all things radical were seen as rank examples of Bolshevik influences or plainly communist.

Artworks like Monument to the Third International, otherwise known as Tatlin’s Tower, and Column, respectively, the creations of Russian-born artists, Vladimir Tatlin and Naum Gabo are exemplary here.

These artists sought to escape the tyranny of old artistic ideas and celebrate the new creative drives that had arrived thanks to rapid industrialisation.

The functionality of form and the aesthetics of machines were part of the new art’s aspirations. The formal appeals of that work would later find able champions in the work of artists like Martin Puryer, the African-American sculptor. Think here of his 1990s work titled Thicket.

Now enter Serge Alain Nitegeka, who’s currently having his first major solo exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein, Joburg.

His work includes paintings, sculpture and an installation in the Constructivist tradition. However, the Congolese-born artist has found a way to deploy deep sociopolitical themes to a form, which is often fascinating enough as an end in itself.

Through the show’s curatorial notes the artist has made his intentions clear: “I am interested in the possibilities through which the human form can be stripped down and reduced into simple lines that articulate the relationship between movement and load,” he says.

Nitegeka explores the meaning and ideas around displacement in the experience of refugees and asylum seekers. His sculptural constructs and painted forms compose weight and tangled paths. These are two qualities of circumstances that anyone undergoing a displacement of any kind would know. Like the burden of loss, and the tangles of unknown environments or bureaucratic systems.

Gallery visitors are made to experience or perform a displacement of sorts too by the work itself. This is carried out by the site-specific installation that Nitegeka has constructed at the gallery’s entrance.

It is made up of black painted wooden planks formed into an “unsettling” web visitors must first negotiate to gain access to the interior of white cube space where the rest of the work is displayed.

To make their way in, people are forced to crawl, jump and squeeze their way through this wooden maze that extends from the floor to the ceiling and across the room like a thicket. In this way, the work demands participation.

The sculptures, titled Fragile Cargo, and editioned, are made from wooden shipping crates originally used to transport cargo. They are painted primarily in black with red accents. They keep the original rectangular shape of the crate. However, their charm is in the intricately woven contents. You almost sense the discomfort, through a trick in spatial arrangement, of the cargo carried in these Constructivist containers.

The tension which is so eloquently achieved in the sculptures is effortlessly translated into two dimensions with the paintings.

Like the one titledDoor Installation: Alternate Entry,perhaps here the artist is flirting with the poetics of escape from a troubled state of displacement that is centrally addressed by this whole body of work.

These painted works also provide another way of exploring Nitegeka’s formal ideas, which speak to that place where a seeming preoccupation and fascination with form finds fitting content and themes to produce a perfect balance in artistic constructs.

» Black Lines is on at Stevenson Gallery in Braamfontein until March 30
» Follow me on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu

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