Michael MacGarry, “A Private Grammar I” (2011), District 9 assault rifle, cleat nails, nails, screws, epoxy. Photo courtesy Stevenson Gallery

MIAMI — With all the visual overload and glimpses between suited shoulders it’s hard to find something that resonates amongst the Lego blocks of art fair booths at the massive Art Basel Miami Beach. With over 260 galleries and over 2,000 artists, of which I probably saw half and absorbed a twentieth, it feels like an accomplishment to come away with an artwork that truly resonates days after.

Hellraiser lead character has a similar “look”. Photo courtesy www.backseatcuddler.com

Maybe it’s because I’m from South Africa that the African fetish aesthetic of Michael MacGarry’s “A Private Grammar I” jumped out a me, or maybe it was the unusual shape of the assault rifle that was caught my attention. Hung against the wall like a prized object (all it needed was a glass cabinet or perhaps a gun case) the weapon looked not only peculiar because of the numerous rusty nails sticking out of it like the face of horror film Hellraiser’s lead character, but there was also something strange about its shape.

Stevenson Gallery director David Brodie sidles up and tells me with a grin that it’s a prop from the award-winning South African science fiction film District 9 that became an international sensation two years ago. Aside from being one of my favorite movies of all time (who can resist the brilliant metaphorical analogy between alien “Prawns” being pitted up against an oppressive authority), it also makes this work wonderfully ironic. This complex layering and juxtaposition of cultural references and sociopolitical implications transforms the dialogue of the piece from straightforward “Africanizing” of a symbolic object rendering it inanimate and useless, to a combination of statement, contemporary situation, Hollywood and humor.

Born in the city of Durban, MacGarry moved abroad to study in Ireland and later returned to Johannesburg, to complete his Masters degree. As one of the members of the nomadic artist group Avant Car Guard, a staple on the South African art scene, MacGarry received major local recognition winning the 2010 Standard Bank Young Artist Award (think South African Turner prize). Preoccupied with “failed Utopias and obsolete technologies,” “A Private Grammar I” forms part of a larger series where MacGarry has intervened with the symbol of the gun, specifically the AK 47 that has come to symbolize strife and war in Africa. As he says:

My ongoing interest and investigation in to the role of the AK-47 assault rifle within the context of the African continent, sits with broader field of querying a multitude of other forms of imported commodities, cultural products, political ideologies and socio-economic policies that litter the landscape of far too many nationstates within the continent like beached ships.

Artist Michael MacGarry. (Photo courtesy brettrubin.com)

Here, MacGarry represents the weapon in a position of neither violence nor defense, rather as a wall relief objectified in to a passive state. Interested in questioning the presence of imperialism within Africa and the fallback of investment made on the African continent, it is ironic that the object in the context of the art fair is displaced in its role of commodity. Gallery director David Brodie describes the reception to MacGarry’s work at the Art Basel Miami Art Fair:

People had an amazing engagement with the work: some were utterly confused yet intrigued by the object; some (more than I thought would) recognized it as a gun from the movie.

Rifle used in the movie District 9. Photo courtesy Summit Entertainment/Sony Pictures

District 9 was one of the first movies directed by a South African (Neill Blomkamp), made in South Africa with an all South African cast to make it on to the mainstream movie and science fiction platform. Brodie continues:

A number [of people] recognized the aesthetic of the traditional African fetish object, and were compelled as to why this sci-fi prop had been treated as such. Really great discussions unfolded around the idea of the fetish as power object/visual fetish/Africa as spectacle.

In many senses Western idealism is meeting African stereotype — now art collectors can purchase an African fetish object in both the traditional and contemporary sense in one complete object.

Quote from District 9 Automated MNU Instructional Voice:

When dealing with aliens, try to be polite, but firm. And always remember that a smile is cheaper than a bullet.

Claire Breukel

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...