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A deep dive into the classic and contemporary genres of African art

STIR looks at the diversity of African art styles, by focusing on three artists and galleries, shaping the African art landscape with progressive aestheticism.

by Bongo MeiPublished on : Mar 03, 2023

There are different art styles prevalent in South Africa, that connect the worlds of classical and contemporary arts. While most are not well versed with the art scene of the region, through an exploration of three South African galleries—showcasing a diversity of perception, philosophy, and technique—STIR conversed with three artists who are shaping the African art landscape with progressive aestheticism.

Deborah Poynton, a South Africa-based artist with 25 years of experience as a professional painter, has exhibited around the world, in Germany, California, Mauritius, the Netherlands, and UAE, to mention a few. Her 13th exhibition with the Stevenson gallery, Vertigo, comprises oil paintings on canvas and drawings on black paper. The scale of her artworks, of which some are self-portraits, is often large and immersive.

When asked if she considers herself a giant in the art world, she replies with a giggle, saying, "I want the person looking at the artificial illusion I have created to feel like they could enter the visual space (...) the larger they are the more there’s a physical interaction.” While, to an ordinary eye her paintings might seem and be attributed to hyperrealism, Poynton explains how she is more classical with her application approach, much like classical realists who gathered references from everywhere for the drawings. "They pursued an idea of an image called invention, where they constructed landscapes and environments that only exist on the canvas, they don’t exist in real life," she says.

Vertigo, 2022, Oil on Canvas, Deborah Poynton | African Art | STIRworld
Vertigo, 2022, Oil on Canvas, Deborah Poynton Image: Courtesy of Deborah Poynton and Stevenson Gallery

Citing herself as an ‘Invention Realist,’ Poynton collects references from different surroundings to create her own setting on the canvas, always mindful of the desired outcome, which is that of accommodating the audience. The titular artwork, Vertigo, 2022, is somewhat illustrative of this and seems to depict a person who has fallen from a state of dizziness into a cluster of mess. A mirror occupying two thirds of the painting reflects two feet in a third of its circumference, leaving the interior point vacant, reflecting a white wall or a sense of nothingness.

Poynton’s artworks such as, Meaning and Purpose, Hominids, Mind’s Eye, Great Ape, and Vertigo capture an inclusive context of the environment with a white space, which is tactfully implemented to suggest nothingness, imposing visual philosophical critiques—of whether absence should be embraced in the same light as that of recognition? Or could the white space be a white wall representative of the gallery, alluding to how as a film director constructs a setting, she, an invention realist, creates artificial illusions, thereby shown in the setting of a gallery.

Anniversary, 2015, Installation; collection of 37 stamps, magnifying glass, metal, keys and table, Carlos Garaicoa I African Art | STIRworld
Anniversary, 2015, Installation; collection of 37 stamps, magnifying glass, metal, keys and table, Carlos Garaicoa Image: Elba Benitez; Courtesy of Carlos Garaicoa

Carlos Garaicoa is a multidisciplinary Cuban artist with 34 years of experience in the art industry, internationally. GOQA marks his second exhibition with the Goodman gallery, his return to Johannesburg since participating in the first Johannesburg Biennale (1995), and him bringing new and historical works, previously unseen within South Africa.

Tracing back to his roots, Cuban artists of the 90s were known for incorporating ‘artisanal techniques’ into their works, so, when asked if there’s a difference between an artisan and artist, Garaicoa replies, “Art is about being meaningful, (with the) use of forms in order to give (a) sense and significance, to great ideas (...) of course with (the) contemporary art of the 20th century up to now, the way we (have) diversified language and forms, these materials have become close, but more important is what you are saying.”

Installation detail | African Art | STIRworld
Installation detail Image: Elba Benitez, Courtesy of the Frieze Elba Benitez

Explaining the title of the exhibitionGOQA—Garaicoa expresses an element of alienation or being a foreigner in cities around the world that he has visited, including Johannesburg. GOQA, the word translates to mean 'special key' in slang, and is used to enter a building illegally; Garaicoa says that is how he feels in some spaces, but also expresses that he was looking for a respectful way to showcase the other side of a city, where it can be considered dangerous. Garaicoa perceives the exhibition,GOQA as the special key—serving many purposes, whether it be as a weapon or an opportunity to open doors. Among his works is Anniversary, 2015, an art installation of a collection of 37 stamps, magnifying glass, metal, keys and table, demonstrative of the artist’s style of using common materials to relay familiar narratives within the industrial society.

Hospital baleado, 1997 – 2008, Photograph, Carlos Garaicoa | African Art | STIRworld
Hospital baleado, 1997 – 2008, Photograph, Carlos Garaicoa Image: Courtesy of the Carlos Garaicoa and Goodman gallery

Garaicoa's exhibition also includes elements of Memorias Intímas: Marcas (Intimate Memories: Marks), a historically significant project produced in collaboration with Fernando Alvim (Angola) and Gavin Younge (South Africa) in 1997. The work reexamines fragments of the Angolan Civil War, in the territory of Cuito Cuanavale, where Angola and Cuba joined forces against a common enemy under apartheid—the South African Defence Force. Here, Garaicoa’s photographs draw temporal and geo-political connections between Cuba, Angola and South Africa, where images of dilapidated hospital buildings have bullet holes.

Exhibition Installation: LION’S BREATH, Ferdi B Dick | African Art | STIRworld
Exhibition Installation: LION’S BREATH, Ferdi B Dick Image: Courtesy of Ferdi B Dick and Everard Read Gallery

Ferdi B. Dick is a mid-career artist, currently based in Cape Town, who started off with 3D animation and has subsequently established himself as a contemporary sculptor. His utilisation of cutting-edge computational technology, combined with ancient techniques of lost-wax bronze casting and recent explorations into modern stainless-steel sculpting, result in a body of three-dimensional works with exaggerated features and forms, directly influenced by cartoons and animation. He uses innocent, child-like characters with strong personal emotional connections, thus re-appropriating popular culture and placing it in the realm of fine art.

Lion’s Breath Polka Dots, 2023, Resin Relief, Ferdi B Dick | African Art | STIRworld
Lion’s Breath Polka Dots, 2023, Resin Relief, Ferdi B Dick Image: Courtesy of the Ferdi B Dick and Everard Read Gallery

His recent exhibition, Lion’s Breath at the Everard Read gallery, is inspired by lion’s breath yoga practice—loved by yogis for its ability to inject some humour into their practice, releasing tension and dispelling negative energy. The artist also infers that the playful nature of his work is quite intentional, especially when associating it to the tragic history of South Africa. Elaborating on his creation process of combining the digital with ancient sculpting techniques, he mentions, “I begin my drawings digitally and also create my sculptures on the computer, once I am finished with a shape, I make 10 different options and then decide on one. I have a 3D printer, so I print a prototype; no one, currently, is working with stainless-steel as I am doing.” His sculptures for the current art exhibition extend to lengths of 1.5 m, while other projects include a 4.5m high bull and an upcoming commission of a 9m high whale in China. He expresses that his work is popularly appreciated in China owing to its playful nature.

Lion’s Breath, 2023, stainless-steel sculpture, Ferdi B Dick | African Art | STIRworld
Lion’s Breath, 2023, stainless-steel sculpture, Ferdi B Dick Image: Courtesy of the Ferdi B Dick and Everard Read Gallery

It is also interesting to note how Classical art is admired as traditional in the 21st century, with other cultural elements attached to it being deemed as literature. It is in this context that Poynton’s work operates, reflecting on this, her artist statement narrates, “I am overcome by vertigo, vertigo is the dizzying knowledge that I will die, while acting as if I won’t (...) I creep into the safe embrace of images. I tether myself to illusions and ever so slightly release my grip (...) If I stay here long enough, I will be able to open my eyes.” The artist is a representative for the classical masters of the Renaissance period to the 19th century realists. Her realist and nude portraits are reminiscent of Gustav Courbet, in particular her Great Ape, 2022 that can be viewed in association to Courbet’s The Origin of the World,1866. Visually the artworks are not similar but conceptually allude to the same ideology, Great Ape is a social commentary on humanity and how everyone comes from the same source—referencing Darwinism, that humans evolved from apes.

Deborah Poynton in studio | African Art | STIRworld
Deborah Poynton in studio Image: Courtesy of the Deborah Poynton and Stevenson Gallery

The Origin of the World, on the other hand, is quite visually self-explanatory, as it is a portrait of a nude woman lying on her back, with a focus on female genitalia, considered the birthplace of humanity. Essentially, classical and contemporary art only differs in material and work ethic; a classical painter can take upto a semester, creating one painting using oil paints, and expensive materials, as compared to contemporary art, where artists use found objects, or multiple digital images created on the same program. Conceptually they are the same, because ideas are discarnate. Taking the size of Poynton’s work as a determinant and forethought to engage audiences with illusions— it illustrates how digital technologies such as immersive virtual reality exhibitions are just extensions of classical art.

Portrait of Carlos Garaicoa | African Art | STIRworld
Portrait of Carlos Garaicoa Image: Courtesy of the Carlos Garaicoa and Goodman gallery

Garaicoa, on the other hand, works with both the past and the present, creating new realities and perceptions in the current moment with past experiences. As a multidisciplinary artist he epitomises working in the information age with a variety of materials and devices available. The artwork GOQA, 2022 is an installation of blank keys on key holders with small photographs of Johannesburg's buildings, interpreting unlimited access to the city's architectural scape. Conceptually, it also relates to the reality that everyone who inhabits a space—whether temporarily, as a visitor or permanently, as a resident—shares a common memory and experience of being in a distinctly particular environment, in the course of their lives. The Puzzles (2022) series also further emphasises how the artist takes charge of ordinary materials and elevates them to High Art. The series is made of two layers, one where the images are printed in the foreground on puzzles, and another where it is faded into the background on a photographic paper. Continuing the theme of his exhibition, Garaicoa explores narratives of urban architecture, its conditions and reawakening a consciousness of not taking the history currently present for granted. Speaking to a contemporary society, whether temporary or permanent, his works manifest an ignored connection between living and inanimate matters, including that of human and shelter.

Portrait of Ferdi B Dick | African Art | STIRworld
Portrait of Ferdi B Dick Image: Courtesy of the Ferdi B Dick and Everard Read Gallery

Combining the two approaches, Dick is an artist whose work connects traditional with the contemporary, in terms of the creation process and the resultant product. While artists usually use pensive themes, as they spend most of their time studying and observing society, eventually leaning towards unveiling that which is shielded away—the usually melancholic realities. Dick's work, on the contrary, showcases a happy mood similar to themes of Yue Minjun, who even though is different in art medium, maintains a similar playfulness. Dick creates the prototypes of his work digitally, then casts and polishes his sculptures the classical way. His ambition, as evidenced by the title of his exhibition, is to open up his audience to a new reality, almost dreamlike, where one can choose to be happy.

The three exhibitions and galleries, amongst others, are a testament to the diverse South African art scene, accommodating both the classical and contemporary, putting a high value in both concept and vocation—from the invention realism of Vertigo's artificial illusions, multidisciplinary architectural narratives of GOQA's special key, to the fun and therapeutic stainless-steel Lion's Breath.

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