An Interview with Heinrich Groenewald by Juliana Caffé
The collective exhibition Dress Code opened on the 11th of May at Gallery MOMO. The show, which runs until the 17th of June, presents the work of twelve South African artists ranging from emerging to well-established, who explore the medium of costume – from photography and video, through to performance and sculpture, as a way of add meaning to their artworks.
The following is an interview with the curator Heinrich Groenewald – who is also a part of the Gallery MOMO team – about his research and curatorial method. For Groenewald, who completed his honours in curatorship at Michaels School of Fine Arts in 2016 with a thesis on the life of the artist Jan Schoeman and his patchwork, the costume is a new emerging media to be explored within the contemporary art world.
J.: Can you talk a little bit about the exhibition and the selection of artists?
H.: It is a combination of well-established artists, well known artists, like Mary Sibande, Maurice Mbikayi, Ayana V. Jackson, Sethembile Msezane, represented by Gallery MOMO, and also new artists. We are always excited to do work with new, emerging artists. We feel that it is a good platform for them to show their work at Gallery MOMO. It’s a mutually beneficial way for artists to get exposed to the gallery world, and also to get an opportunity to show alongside big names like Mary Sibande.
But then, because we are looking for works that look to this idea: that of dress as a medium, I was looking at many artists and I started to do studio visits. So, I went and met these artists and saw what they practice was about, and I engaged with they work personally and then decided, ‘hmm ok lets try them out’. This was the kind of process. It is a clear focus on having artists that are well established and also combining new artists with new works, and exciting new perspectives.
J.: What was the starting point for your curatorial research? What drew your attention to this theme?
H.: I don’t want to call it a trend, but even art works in trends, as fashion does. And fashion is a very relevant thing in this exhibition. But, it was kind of spotting a trend in contemporary art, right now. There is a stretch of new media, that is coming to play. And that is being used in so many different ways, especially if you look at performance work, where the dress starts to instruct the perception. I was just starting to see that. And there are so many artists that play with this idea of dress, and use it as one of their mediums, or their first medium of expression. Viewing that, I thought ‘oh yes, this is very interesting’, lets start to look at some of these artists that are dealing with this.
And then it becomes even more interesting, because actually this whole thing of dressing is so loaded, and coded, and dress coded, right? For instance, the exploration of gender, our clothes are so incredibly gendered; it forces you to accept certain answers about my identity before you can question it. But then, when you start playing with this idea of traces, you start blurring the lines of what the rules around gender are. That was kind of how I rooted it. It was just kind of spotting something, and there were so many things that I could touch on, that started to seem interesting as a mixed media study exhibition.
STEVENSON gallery just had that exhibition called “Painting Today”, which had a new painting come out every day for fifty days, it is essentially a media study exhibition around the media of paint. And this kind of exhibition we see all the time, exploring these traditional mediums. But we don’t see this in costume, yet. I think it is new and just emerging. That is the way this became interesting to me, to look at this as a media study, and what this media can translate or express about our exploration around the environmental impact that humans have, around gender, or around class, or around culture, or around identity formation, it just goes on and on and on.
J.: Two months ago, I saw the exhibition “The Work of Women: Crafting Stories, Subverting Narratives” at Iziko South African National Gallery. And then I saw your exhibition at Gallery MOMO about the medium of costume. Both exhibitions, feature works by South African artists. Do you believe that craft and sewing are mediums that mark South African contemporary art in some way?
H.: I think that this kind of pyramid between what is craft and what is art, that is an old discussion. I think that it is a dated discussion, but I think that there is something about these mediums that have more truth to – maybe, perhaps, African and the non-western creative expression.
The craft idea, what people would like to define as a craft, will transcend this conversation, this whole border between what is craft and what is art, its blurred. And it is kind of reductive to say ‘this needs to exist in this box, and this in this box’. But there is something about that craft box that, whatever it be, would not be like a French box, that perhaps it is more truthful to African expression. If you look at these works, if you look at dress, as a whole, as an expression of identity in Africa, you will notice this presence. So, I can see why it becomes so prevalent in the expression of art in a contemporary South African setting.
It is also exciting to see how the art word becomes open to this as an expression, and how artists are fitting into this new open acceptance of different ways of expression, new medias of art, and how it kind of propels all these different expressions. What was the question? (Laughs).
J.: Another thing that caught my attention in the exhibition was the number of works that use mannequins. What do you think about this?
H.: What I think about the use of the mannequins? It is interesting, because some artists actually chose to use their own body to dress in these things, and others artists decides to use the mannequins, so the works become sculptural. I think that, from a practical point of view, the mannequin has the ability to keep the object static, so it can transcend to sculpture.
J.: I noticed that some of the artists also work with design and fashion. What do you think about this intersection between fashion and art?
H.: That was what the discussion was all about on Saturday. How to look at fashion as this whole anthropological study around the human, and how it becomes this kind of signify as to who you are, and how it is instructed, in so many ways, around global trades.
For example, for instance, the suit, a man suit, is not African, South African, South American, or Asian; it is a European design, right? And what it represents is this idea of success, influence, and male power. It represents masculinity and a certain level of class. And it’s rooted in this kind of European or western idea.
So, what do we do in trying to start to dismantled that, in trying to shift that, making unstable this thing that is supposed to represent what all we are? Just flip it over a little bit, and start making us question what this fashion ideology represents. And we can do that in art. That is the cool thing about art, there are no rules, and you can literally have the freedom to completely strip it all away. Like, I don’t have the bravery to just walk away here wearing my pants on my head, or something like that, but in art you can do that.