Going Public: Art programme digs into politics of space

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Eric Rantisi's It’s my Right is a dramatic depiction of the Rhodes Must Fall protest at the University of Cape Town. (Supplied)
Eric Rantisi's It’s my Right is a dramatic depiction of the Rhodes Must Fall protest at the University of Cape Town. (Supplied)
  • Artists have always been commissioned to populate public spaces with everything from murals to monuments. 
  • They have also almost always displayed an interest in how politics play out in public spaces. 
  • Adding to this work of public art or art about the public are  Eric Rantisi and Mongezi Ncombo.

South Africans have had a loaded relationship with public space. This may be due to a number of reasons.  Perhaps it’s because in the past, the sense of belonging in a public space was racially determined. Or because of how more recently, Covid-19  safety rules and regulations have determined how we occupy it.  

Over time, artists have been commissioned to populate public spaces with everything from murals to monuments. In addition to accepting the commissions, artists have almost always displayed an interest in how our social and political norms are performed in the very public spaces that they are to make art for.  

Think of the late documentary photographer David Goldblatt. During the apartheid era he captured the moment by photographing everything from innocuous park scenes to beauty contests in malls. If not Goldblatt then consider Athi-Patra Ruga. His performance has seen him donning women’s clothing at taxi ranks or striding down city streets in a dress made of party balloons.  

Adding to this work of public art or art about the public, two winners for the 2021 Nando’s Creative Exchange, Eric Rantisi and Mongezi Ncombo, chose to address our complex relationship with public space through a series of works created during this programme. 

Aimed at emerging artists, the Nando’s Creative Exchange affords artists the resources to create a new body of work under the mentorship of senior practitioners. This year the artists worked with curatorial input from the Spier Arts Trust and mentorship from artist Bretten-Anne Moolman. Currently living in Gqeberha as a professional artist, she’s also been teaching art to children and adults since 2000. The programme then culminated into in a touring and online exhibition of their works.    

Growing up in Tembisa, Rantisi’s work takes a critical look at the social, political and cultural issues and how they shape our psyches. Working with oil paints and mass media, Rantisi says he, “explores the grey, uncertain areas in identity formation while referencing dominant discourse on representation.” 

Working primarily in acrylic drawing ink, acrylic paint and fine liner, Ncombo investigates historical records, mass media, communication, tradition, culture, forms of education and other sources of information. In so doing it asks what these influences mean to us. 

Through his depiction of the events surrounding the Rhodes Must Fall movement Rantisi digs into the destruction of historical monuments, and in contrast Ncombo zones in on the psychic barriers preventing people from connecting with each other in urban throngs.  

Although they adopt different styles, interestingly, both artists turned to painting for these bodies of work.  

Rantisi’s renderings of events surrounding the destruction of a monument and the creation of new ones is delivered through realism. His three paintings quietly chart some of the seismic events surrounding the Rhodes Must Fall movement. It’s my Right presents the protest against the Rhodes Memorial on the University of Cape Town’s campus, and the aftermath of a protest is depicted in people cleaning up a public space in Our Community Garden. In The Commission an artist is seen working on a new sculpture. In the foreground are a range of monuments, implying he is haunted by the works that have come before.  

To make this triptych about the lifecycle of art from destruction to creation, Rantisi was inspired by talks of censorship. “It triggered an interest in who gets to decide what artworks are appropriate to show in public … how does one work that out? I started looking at images relating to the destruction of works from the UCT art collection. I could see this issue had become important internationally too where monuments were being questioned elsewhere. It is a subjective topic,” he says.  

As such he doesn’t stake out a particular view. “I want to get the conversation going. I am posing questions instead of providing answers,” he adds. 

No doubt viewers will also be asking questions about Ncombo’s paintings. With taxis, informal traders and throngs of people on the streets, his works are defined by familiar South African city scenes. However, this motif is disrupted by the presence of figures rendered in a black and white grid that appear to be exploding in different directions.  

Mongezi Ncombo’s Maziphume ezigcweleyo, depicts an
Mongezi Ncombo’s Maziphume ezigcweleyo, depicts an atomized figure in a typical urban setting. Covid 19 has made it harder for people to connect in public space, says the artist. (Supplied)

Through this unusual motif, which has become a signature of Ncombo’s work, he intends to represent the “vibrations of people you can feel in your own body… and the vibrations of the city,” he says. Ncombo believes that when people walk in busy city centres an unknown part of themselves is triggered by the collective energy surrounding them. This often generates a sense of foreboding. 

“When you see a lot of people coming towards you, you can feel afraid. Many people are afraid of the city – they expect the worst, that they might get mugged. Everyone is minding their own business, they don’t see each other, they just make assumptions,” he says. 

For someone like Ncombo who feeds off the energy people bring to city streets, naturally, Covid-19 had a terrible psychic impact on him. “I missed seeing people’s faces, it was very painful,” he says. 

As Ncombo suggests the pandemic added another layer of complexity to how South Africans inhabit public spaces.  

Mongezi Ncombo and Eric Rantisi’s works are being exhibited on Latitudes Online. From 28 January 2022, they will be exhibited in person at the GFI Gallery in Port Elizabeth.  

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