Confused Clutter at the South African National Gallery

The South African National Gallery in Cape Town. (All photos courtesy the author).

CAPE TOWN — What do Ghanaian photographer James Barnor, local Simonstown painter Peter Clarke, British superstar artist Richard Long and Russian World War II posters have in common? Aside from a show at the South African National Gallery, it seems nothing at all.

Normally, when I take visitors to the National Gallery I am proud to walk them through the introductory permanent collection exhibition, specifically touting Jane Alexander’s seminal and haunting Butcher Boys sculpture, and I’m excited to discover a usually insightful and pertinent exhibition selection. Instead, the exhibition program I walked into in Cape Town last week caused me a twinge of embarrassment.

A room of hundreds of Peter Clarke's drawings, prints and paintings.

Rounding the first corner, I come across a pleasant selection of James Barnor’s black and white photographs, collectively entitled Ever Young after the name of his photography studio in Accra, Ghana. I’m not sure if this is a retrospective or a long series of his work and there is little hint at the social dialogue or “African” context. In short, the exhibition appears vapid and offers little rhyme or reason for it being shown at the National Gallery in South Africa. Mildly disappointed, yet optimistic, I walk on to two large rooms of paintings. Hung in what seems to be an attempt at a “salon style”, I encounter Peter Clarke’s work — a mish-mash displayed in a manner akin to that of a flea market. If this were intentional it may have been quite cool — but alas, not.  In the middle of the every-square-inch-covered wall is a video room with a short film of Peter Clarke being interviewed in his home. I walk to this for redemption. It’s mildly interesting except I can’t help but think of the sensational William Kentridge video I had seen in the same room a year and a half prior.

A tired Richard Long pinwheel and installation.

Moving away from the two African artists (this is the only connection I can find between Barnor and Clarke), I move on to the third room that has an exhibition by British artist Richard Long. A culmination of his research in Southern Africa as well a recent residency in South Africa, Long spent time walking in the Karoo (a South African desert-like landscape), resulting in a circular rock installation in his signature style. This ‘recognizability’ is perhaps what the gallery curators were going for, however, the pieces feel repetitive and obscure, isolated in the National Gallery room. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled living in New York, and I can’t help thinking, “So what?” The work feels dated and I wonder if this is even interesting to a newcomer to his work who I would suggest would find a disconnect between their own experience of the landscape and Long’s land art experiments that have been appropriated to “Africa.”

A dynamic intervention by visitors as part of the Richard Long exhibition.

Thankfully, I find an unintentional moment of salvation — a side space adjoined to the education room as part of the Richard Long exhibition. It’s a small curtained room filled with mud and water that invites the audience to create wall drawings and rearrange a pile of rocks “Long-style” in any desired format.

The security guard excitedly tells me that I can do whatever I want and to have fun. The wall drawings that are already there are phenomenal with their raw and playful aesthetic and I feel like I’m finally bearing witness to the first honest and relevant interaction. I want to contribute, but there is no more mud and water.

I proceed to the last two rooms of the gallery to find my brief moment of enjoyment quashed by another disconnected presentation (the South Africa connection is a push), this time of Russian World War II posters hung like a high school project. I decide that I am indeed spoiled, having enjoyed a tour of the Wolfsonian museum propaganda poster exhibition in Miami last September that felt vast, interrogative and informational. I can’t help but feel the curators of this show would have benefited from that experience.

Maybe this is harsh as I know the National Gallery curators and they are, in fact, very aware. This is perhaps why I feel so disappointed. I’ve tried hard to find correlations between these four exhibitions that seem to have haphazardly happened. It appears that a once very sharp and interrogative program has fallen victim to a “take what we can get” mantra that results in putting everything up in the hopes that something may resonate.

The result is a random grouping of obscure exhibitions that, if pushed further, may have succeeded individually, but that together have no correlation and no overarching thematic intention — and least of all a cohesive dialogue with its local or international visitors. I leave wracking my brain for relevance.

The South African National Gallery is located at Government Avenue, Gardens, Cape Town. Ever Young: Jmaes Barnor continues until January 29. Listening to Distant Thunder: The Art of Peter Clarke continues until February 19. Richard Long continues until April 10. Windows on War – Russian Posters from World War II continues until November 24.

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