Sean O’Toole

January 12, 2021
the gallery, Johannesburg
November 27, 2020–January 31, 2021

In 2019, two years after completing her MFA at the Glasgow School of Art and shortly after returning to her native Johannesburg, artist and curator Chloë Reid initiated gallery, gallery as a platform to encourage collaboration among arts practitioners. To date Reid has produced six exhibitions in cooperation with a host of artists and under-the-radar curators, all of them held under the auspices of “the gallery,” an exhibition space carved out of an annex of printmaker Fiona Pole and framer Didier Presse’s working studio and frame shop, The Atelier. Reid’s exhibition initiative, which foregrounds exchange and embodiment, fills an important gap in South Africa’s structurally imbalanced art system.

Project spaces—and for that matter experiments by freelance curators—are few and far between in South Africa, more so in the period since the emergence of the art-fair model in 2008. In the absence of viable non-commercial formats like a biennale, art fairs have come to define the agenda. The opening of Reid’s debut exhibition “Rocks” in 2019, for example, coincided with the launch of two new fairs in Johannesburg. The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily changed the rules, allowing Reid’s plucky co-operative model of low-key, physical exhibition-making to flourish.

“Holdfast” reprises Reid’s collaborations with Zimbabwean artist Kundai Moyo, who first exhibited in 2019 and in early 2020 jointly curated the flower-themed exhibition “Proxies” with Reid and painter Nabeeha Mohamed. Named after a noun that denotes grip, “Holdfast” features works by a dozen artists whose work explores the agency of hands, holding, or being held. Opened shortly before news of a malignant new strain of the coronavirus, the exhibition’s defining motif—the hand—speaks to a longstanding anxiety around touch; in the early 2000s health experts frequently counselled South Africans that it was okay to touch persons with HIV/Aids.

Touch may currently be proscribed, but even in a pandemic hands perform vital functions of communication and care. Hands are not simply tools of work; they are also mobile implements of creative articulation. They feature as literal subjects in prehistoric art, and their images remain yardsticks of technical facility, especially for artists dedicated to naturalism. “Holdfast” includes a fair number of straightforward renderings of limbs and hands. Natasha Brown’s figurative paintings Lice Forever and Baby Arms Forever (both 2019) respectively portray Caucasian hands agitatedly scratching at an itchy scalp and delicately extracting gunk from a kitchen sink. The works are excerpted from the artist’s disarming and loosely connected series of cartoonish oil and pastel works engaged with suburban horror and white privilege.

Interspersed throughout the exhibition, Kundai Moyo’s untitled series of nine relief and fabric chine-collé prints operate as vital pause points. Based on photographs and produced in collaboration with printmaker Sara-Aimee Verity in late 2020, Moyo’s subjects are here rendered in silhouette as well as shown in gregarious assemblies of bold colors. Whether portrayed alone or in congress, the hands are always active: they point, touch, and hold. Tenderness is also the focus of Hemali Khoosal’s camera in her two-channel projection, Between Two (2019). The action of this scrappily ambitious short film is split between a dark body of water, shown at left, and the hands of a French-Algerian father tenderly caressing his daughter’s hair while unburdening his sense of unbelonging before declaring his fealty to the Mediterranean Sea. “That’s my country,” he says.

Publishing is integral to Reid’s practices as an artist and curator. In a previous exhibition she invited artist Terry Kurgan, well known as a doyen of teamwork, to expand on her award-winning 2018 book about photography and biography, Everyone is Present, during a gallery residency. “Holdfast” rehearses this curatorial gambit, albeit with fresh nuance. In early December artist and writer Thulile Gamedze, who is represented by two collage works mapping out scenarios from a work-in-progress novel featuring a ten-year-old kidnap victim, performed a reading for a small audience. The gallery’s Instagram page includes a recording of Gamedze reading an excerpt from Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World.

Jonah Sack’s hanging book installation, A picture dictionary: hold construction – growing the ships knee – wooden knucklebones (2020), is one of two applied books by this artist on show; Sack’s bold iconography translates the passage from tree to lumber in brushy ink marks on calico. His work hangs adjacent to a display copy of artists Bridget Baker and Bianca Baldi’s Risograph-printed book, made for their 2013 collaborative exhibition inspired by the American magician Carl Hertz, who in 1896 gave the first public screening of a film in South Africa. The centerpiece of that exhibition was a dual-channel film, Act 1: Aerolithe Illusion, its tightly framed portrayal of costumed female magician providing the source for a gaudily menacing CMYK lithograph titled The Conjurer (2014). Sleight-of-hand manipulations, like the red-ochre handprints marking caves across the world, are another instance of the human hand’s varied and magical capabilities.

Covid-19, Subjectivity, Art Collectives, Publishing

Sean O’Toole is writer and curator based in Cape Town. His recent chapbooks include The Object and The Green Interior, both 2023.

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January 12, 2021

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