February 15, 2014 - Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) - Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa
February 15, 2014

Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa

Athi-Patra Ruga, The Future White Women of Azania, 2012.*

Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa
February 21–June 29, 2014

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Downstairs Galleries
701 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94103


Jointly organized by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa brings together 25 artists and collectives who disrupt expected images of a country known largely through its apartheid history. Public Intimacy was not deliberately timed to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of South Africa’s first fully democratic elections. Instead, the exhibition presents another critical arc that existed but was possibly overlooked during apartheid and which has emerged in recent years as a dominant approach—the expression of the poetics and politics of the “ordinary act.” The exhibition is curated by Betti-Sue Hertz, director of visual arts at YBCA; Frank Smigiel, associate curator of public programs at SFMOMA; and Dominic Willsdon, Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs at SFMOMA.

The exhibition focuses on artists who opt for close views, small actions or gestures that occur in public. This contemporary tendency is prefigured in the work of photographers who emerged during apartheid, including Ian Berry, Ernest Cole, Billy Monk, David Goldblatt, Santu Mofokeng and Jo Ractliffe, all of whom have approached politics through interpersonal and social exchanges. The body is always key, even if absent. Goldblatt’s photographs—especially his Particulars series, featuring close-ups of partially revealed bodies in public spaces—have been especially generative for this exhibition. Zanele Muholi, a graduate of the Market Photo Workshop started by David Goldblatt, contributes Faces and Phases, a series of portraits of black lesbians living throughout South Africa, as well as video and beadwork. Her “visual activism” has increased awareness of the vulnerability of lesbians in a country where violence against them has not ceded.

Place gives context to the complexity of social relations and the ways people are willing to risk crossing visible and invisible lines drawn by norms: from Ernest Cole’s apartheid era images of an interracial couple dancing at a shebeen in Pretoria in 1962, to Santu Mofokeng’s stirring photographs of mobile churches on commuter trains in 1986 and from gay men exhibiting tenderness with each other in a park in Sabelo Mlangeni’s photograph from 2008 to Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s case study of the iconic 54-story Ponte City building’s transitions from 2008–11, photographers have observed in unique locations the presence of intimate moments happening all around.

Performance art often lends itself to exaggerating the revolutionary potential of performativity in everyday life. Performances in Johannesburg have pointed out the vulnerability and potential dangers of living in the city, while approaching art practice as a space of pleasurable experimentation. From Anthea Moys’ Nessun Dorman (None Shall Sleep Tonight) performance in Joubert Park to Donna Kukama swinging from a freeway bridge over the Mai Mai Market, to Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie’s street performance in the Maboneng neighborhood, the location chosen is a reference to a condition or incident including personal safety and gentrification. Pesa and Sadie will create a new version of their Inhabitant performance adapted to San Francisco’s Mission District, where there is a rise of tensions between long-standing residents and new gentrifiers. Other performances include Kemang Wa Lehulere’s The Grass Is Always Greener On The Other Side, which explores the suspicious circumstances of anti-apartheid activist Nat Nakasa’s death in New York in 1965, and Athi-Patra Ruga’s The Elder of Azania, the newest iteration of his ongoing The Future White Women of Azania saga.

The exhibition includes works by artists in SFMOMA’s permanent collection such as David Goldblatt, ijusi (Garth Walker), William Kentridge, Sabelo Mlangeni, Santu Mofokeng, Billy Monk, Zanele Muholi, Lindeka Qampi and Jo Ractliffe. Also included are works by Ian Berry, Ernest Cole, Handspring Puppet Company, Nicholas Hlobo, Anton Kannemeyer, Donna Kukama, Terry Kurgan, Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie with Ntsoana Contemporary Dance Theatre, Cameron Platter, Athi-Patra Ruga, Berni Searle, Penny Siopis, Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse, and Kemang Wa Lehulere.

*Athi-Patra Ruga, The Future White Women of Azania, 2012. Aqueous inkjet print. Performed as part of Performa Obscura in collaboration with Mikhael Subotzky. Commissioned for the exhibition Making Way, Grahamstown, South Africa. Photo: Ruth Simboa. Courtesy Athi-Patra Ruga and WHATIFTHEWORLD/GALLERY.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA)
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