Head 29 November 2018 – 31 January 2019

November 2018 / January 2019

Mary Corrigall [ Cape Town based writer, researcher and art consultant ]

” Through the lens of some of this country’s most celebrated artists ‘Head’ brings their distinctive approaches into focus. This diversity and the differing decades from which the works come – from the 40s onwards – adds just the right amount of tension. “

It wouldn’t be accurate to describe Cecil Skotnes’s striking Shaka (1970-1976) as a portrait of the renowned Zulu leader. Without the title you wouldn’t know it to be a representation of Shaka, unless, of course, you were familiar with Skotnes’s Assassination of Shaka series perhaps – which was famously captioned by the writer and academic Stephen Gray. In that collection of prints and in this impressive work on this exhibition, Head, curated by Stefan Hundt for WALL, it appears that Skotnes did not set out to accurately describe Shaka’s appearance, or relay particular traits as per the convention attached to portraiture.

It takes a bit of time to make out Shaka’s head, a distorted triangular shape. Skotnes offers an unusual view. Beyond a flap, pulled back, you can look past the surface of Shaka’s skin taking in the ribbons of muscles beneath it, rendered in black and white lines.

His fascination for this “African national hero”, as he described him in an interview with James Ambrose Brown in 1984, was clearly more than skin-deep. In this artwork, he appears to have been more consumed with relaying ‘the African essence’ of this leader via an appropriately ‘African’ visual language, though it would be inspired by modernism, cubism and German expressionism.“At the time, around 1976, making a work of Shaka would have been viewed as a strong political statement,” suggests Hundt.

Yet the work remarkably still resonates now. This is largely because it is formally compelling; the bold colours, the certain lines, etched into the wooden surface, and the contrasting textures. Hundt believes this work exemplifies Skotnes’s Afro-modernist-German-expressionist inspired language at its height.“The works that would come after this became very decorative, sweet even at times,” observes Hundt.

It is the imposing scale of Shaka’s head that lends it a presence. It is the scale of the titular ‘heads’ in this exhibition that held fascination for Hundt. From Walter Oltmann’s Child Skull (2015), to Lucas Sithole’s 1968 bronze portrait of his wife, to Harry Trevor’s Self Portrait (1940) the size of the subjects’ heads are much larger than they would be in real life. This is revealing of the high technical ability and/or artistic mastery the diverse group of artists possess(ed), observes Hundt. The calibre of artists represented in this group exhibition, which also include Edoardo Villa (recently the subject of a comprehensive retrospective curated by artist and academic Karel Nel at the Norval Foundation) and William Kentridge, make the rendering of this ‘heady’ subject-matter appear effortless.

Of course, bigger is always better in the realm of art. The enlarged scale of the heads in each artwork in this exhibition, however, has purpose beyond simply stopping the viewer in their tracks. It works at accentuating the haunting presence of the subjects as well as the object-ness of the human face, which is typically subject to more artistic, metaphorical interest than any other body-part. This is driven home by Norman Catherine’s inimitable sardonic take on (self) portraiture or self-analysis in A la Carte (1990), which presents a man facing a disembodied head on a table in front of him. The title and the presence of a fork suggest he might dine on this head (his mirror image) – unfortunately he doesn’t have any hands. In other words, he simply is not equipped to dissect, ingest or face-up-to his inner-self, his mirror image.

The ‘head’ serves as a mirror for viewers, forcing us to (re)consider our vanity, this mad anthropogenic age. Works such as Oltmann’s force you to reflect back to the beginning of humanity, our origins, which are gleaned through skulls. In the context of this exhibition, Villa’s steel sculptures representing African masks – rendered in softer lines in the 60s version compared to the hard, angular modernist language in the one from the mid-90s – evoke the tension between African and Western representations of humans. The mask may function as an object concealing the true identity of the wearer (as is the case in certain West African rituals) allowing them to narrate moral tales from an objective position, while historical Western portrait is supposed to be revealing of the subject, sitter.

Coming to grips with Kentridge’s Lulu (2015) might rely on knowing about the eponymous opera which he staged (among other venues) at the New York Metropolitan in 2015. Kentridge’s interest in film, theatre and performance is most certainly rooted in his dissatisfaction with a single fixed image or the limits of it – as he is driven by narrative and how that shapes identity. The ‘collaged’ look – the jagged mismatched lines that cut through Lulu’s face suggest this linocut is the confluence of several, different images spliced together.

A focus on ‘heads’ as an artistic preoccupation engages with qualities beyond narratives, and unexpectedly, personal identity though a face is always the focus. Through the lens of some of this country’s most celebrated artists Head brings their distinctive approaches into focus. This diversity and the differing decades from which the works come – from the 40s onwards – adds just the right amount of tension. In juxtaposition with each other, new questions and new insights should keep our heads busy.WALL showcases a selection of works by artists such as Norman Catherine , Dumile Feni, Robert Hodgins, William Kentridge, Gerard Sekoto, Lucas Sithole, Cecil Skotnes, Harry Trevor, and Edoardo Villa.