What everyone doesn’t know

2012-02-03 08:56

There’s a retrospective exhibition celebrating the work of the late sculptor and printmaker Nhlanhla Xaba at the Gallery AOP (art on paper) at 44 Stanley in Milpark, Joburg.

Titled What Everyone Knows, the show should move us to wonder about the opposite: what everyone doesn’t know– perhaps by first confronting the meaning of what was lost when Xaba made his mortal transition through the fire that gutted the Artist Proof studios in March 2003.

Everybody knows that, physically, the artist died that fateful night in Newtown, Joburg.

Xaba was known to sleep at the studios. At the time, he was working on a body of work that would have become part of a solo exhibition later that year.

So in a way, the current show tries to answer the question of what we would have known about the artist had he made that exhibition.

The curators of the current show have included one print that was salvaged from the gutted studio’s remains. It’s titled Devastated, Desolated Home – Sharpeville (2001).

Though this etching originally formed part of the Sharpeville Remembered portfolio, it now sits with more biting poetics of disaster in this retrospective.

It depicts the squalor of a devastated township neighbourhood of tin houses. Presumably a post-massacre view of Sharpeville itself, the houses appear hollow and without any sign of human inhabitants, except for the wreckage that suggests some brutal human activity.

These political themes in Xaba’s work are credited to the influences he enjoyed from Matsemela Manaka, the late artist-activist with black consciousness leanings. The two worked together from 1986 after Xaba enrolled at the African Institute of Art at Funda Centre in Diepkloof, Soweto.

The work produced around that time bears witness to these politics, both in style and theme. The three linocuts, two sharing the title of Homeward Bound II and On Freedom Road depict a scene of rural African life.

The one Homeward Bound II features a boy herding cows towards a waterhole. It’s rendered in a three colour reduction technique.

The second in that duet is a light hearted motif of two children receiving a parent who returns home on the back of a donkey with some treats.

However, the political euphoria of the mid 90s gave way to the sobering social challenges of a teething democracy at the turn of the century.

In 2001, he created South Africa Between A Dungeon of Hope. It’s a gloomy and brooding triptych with thick crimson motif. Here, the artist sells very little hope, if any.

However, it is Xaba’s mid-90s work that gives this exhibition its exciting colour. He was experimenting with a background technique called rainbow roll.

It involves printing an abstract colour pattern as a base before pressing the etched plate with the intended image on top.

The Making Of Inauguration, which represents one of the wings of the Union Buildings reflects on the moment of the first installation of the first democratically-elected president.

Political Turmoil and Culture Vulture at the Crossroads, also from 1944, is done in the same style. However, as we celebrated the political breakthrough, Xaba was already concerned with the plight and role of artists in a changed country.

He would later be awarded the highest accolade, Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year, in 1998.

» See more of Xaba’s work: citypress.co.za/Multimedia

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