Landscapes of political denial

The comically infamous Anton Kannemeyer of Bitterkomix is extending his reach to curate.

He has put together an exhibition at Joburg’s Stevenson gallery exploring the landscape in contemporary South African art. It is titled Loom of the Land. Included in the spread of selected works are artists such as Brett Murray, Peter Clarke, David Goldblatt, Deborah Poynton, Zanele Muholi and Johan Louw.

There’s a catch though. Kannemeyer is not approaching his chosen theme in the regular polemical way.

The South African landscape as a form has always been wrapped up in the politics of ownership and our bodied colonial history.

The accompanying curatorial notes inform us that this exhibition reflects Kannemeyer’s curiosity about images of the South African landscape that in some way disrupt expectations – whether of landscape as a genre or a particular artist’s body of work.

This is most evident in artists, like himself, who usually focus on other issues and subjects and then also choose to depict landscapes.

“His selection of works for the exhibition try to challenge perceptions of the landscape rather than issues identified with the land or clever conceptual plays like masturbating on a Pierneef painting, or exhibiting a landscape canvas with the front facing the wall,” reads a curatorial note.

This may set him up for trouble. We must ask whether the curator can excuse himself from the politicised historical moment demanded by the land and its depictions.

This in a country where MPs like Pieter Mulder are accused of racist historical revisionism.

Mulder caused a major stir by saying there was sufficient proof that there were no Bantu-speaking people in the Western Cape and north Western Cape when Europeans landed in 1652.

Kannemeyer’s choice to ignore the politics of his chosen subject is resisted by some work on show.

The work of Louw, the Stellenbosch-based painter, is a case in point. Louw is unparalleled in contemporary South African art.

He contributes two landscapes here titled Sees Kap1 and Sees Kap4.

His work directs us to the relationship of his docile human subjects to the bare land as possession and site of history.

Louw’s works depict naked figures flung into a desolate and dark land.

The naked humans bear no apparent relation to their setting, except for being there. We can read them as disconnected from it.

Hence the figures become vulnerable dispossessed objects susceptible to whatever definition and situation is visited upon them at the artist’s whim.

Louw’s gaze projects a fantasy of a colonising settler.

The landscapes are dark and menaced by emptiness, thus available for settlement, definition and exploitation.

The landscape is depicted without or denied the inherent stories it might yearn to tell.

Perhaps because any acknowledgement of these stories would mean the land is not available for settlement.

Kannemeyer also includes a piece by the controversial Murray titled Rainbow Over Nkandla.

It’s an oil on canvas painting of President Jacob Zuma’s much-talked-about homestead.

The politics are unavoidable. Zuma and Murray have a public relationship that began with his controversial painting, The Spear Of The Nation, which saw the country outraged about six months ago at the sight of the exposed presidential penis.

Kannemeyer’s disruption theme will, however, find lush points with creatives like Zanele Muholi, known more for her gay rights-related photography than pretty depictions of land.

Even Kannemeyer’s own two drawings – titled Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town – can’t escape politicisation, where history and economy conspire to manage access to these beaches.

The land demands to be addressed with all its loaded politics, even if only in a curated show of artworks by Kannemeyer and his mates.

»? The Loom of the Land is on until March 1 at the Stevenson gallery in Braamfontein

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