Nala Xaba reviews the In Print/ In Focus exhibition at the Michaelis Galleries (on till 17 April)

South Africa has spent the last decade or so in fierce negotiations with her citizens over the social relevance of historical representations and symbols. Streets, airports and entire cities are being renamed, and now “Rhodes has fallen”, in aggressive pursuit of the transformation agenda. Where better to start than to ensure that the public, physical landscape is sensitive to the trauma of its inhabitants, commemorative of their achievements and aspirational about their collective and individual future(s)? In a society still searching for itself, efforts to decolonize public imagery have lent themselves to the representative essentialisation of occupations, buildings, historical personas and events, as these are molded around narratives not yet agreed upon.

Since 2005, the Africa South Art Institute (ASAI) has concerned itself with widening art discourses in post-colonial contexts through the facilitation of deeper engagement between Southern African artists, art historians and curators. In Print/ In Focus: Or, what are those people doing in the gallery? is showing at the Michaelis Gallery, UCT until the 17th of April, as one example. The group exhibition poses questions around education, access, redress and transformation by turning the spotlight on lithography as a symbol of elitism: resource demands of lithographic print-making are intensive (read inherently exclusionary). The fifteen prints were created in November of 2014 during a two-week workshop on lithograph printing entitled In Print and have been curated by ASAI founder Mario Pissarra. The ten artists invited to participate work across eleven mediums; nine have a formal education in fine art; four have had solo exhibitions; eight have had their work shown abroad; five are included in public collections, four are – or have been – teachers of art and yet only one had had any experience producing lithographs.
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unnamedMany of the artists have transposed their established styles and recurring themes to the new medium. The works of Donavan Ward, Gabrielle Goliath, Randolph Hartzenberg, Garth Erasmus, Lizette Chirrime, Saara Nekombe, Jarret Erasmus, Zemba Luzamba, Lionel Davis, and Patricia de Villiers create for their audience tiny windows into the societal contexts that have made independent organisation interventions, such as In Print, necessary in the arts and other sectors. The works range from realist to abstract, from commemorative to critical, to autobiographical. Pieces have been exhibited alongside photographs of the artists taken by Capetownian photographer George Hallett. In this way the subject of the exhibition is not only lithography as a medium and the works produced through it but the artists as well. As one walks into the gallery, it quickly becomes clear that the curator has intended for the work to speak largely for itself. The wall text is straightforward and labels were a complete afterthought. The overriding essence of the show is a hopeful one though some of the works’ content is bleak.

Pissarra’s message is clear: the merits of lithography continue to justify concerted efforts to subvert its symbolic value rather than relegate it to obscurity. Assuming a continued relevance, he has presented the show as a work in progress. The workshop setting is subtly mimicked within the gallery, including the positioning of working ASAI personnel within the space. Documentary images from the workshop are rough in appearance and presentation but call attention to the emphasis the lithographic medium places on process.

R50 gets you an exhibition catalogue, and other ASAI publications are available for sale at the entrance.

734454_10151379791971313_685930720_nIn Print/In Focus has been on exhibition at the Michaelis Galleries from the 31st of March and ends on Friday the 17th of April.  |  Review by Nala Xaba. Nala is a curatorship honours student – see her student profile here.