He can't travel, but his art can

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Saturday, September 23, 2023

He can't travel, but his art can
The artist Serge Alain Nitegeka with his work, “Form Ephemeral XIII” (2018), in his studio in Johannesburg, March 16, 2020. For over five years, the Johannesburg artist has been unable to leave South Africa as he waits for his case for citizenship there to be resolved. Gulshan Khan/The New York Times.

by Siddhartha Mitter

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Serge Alain Nitegeka hasn’t been free to roam in a while. For over five years, the Johannesburg artist has been unable to leave South Africa as he waits for his case for citizenship there to be resolved. (He was born in Rwanda.)

Overseas exhibitions, commissions — he’s had them. But from a remove. Paintings are easy enough: You pack them and give instructions for how they need to hang. Installations are more complicated. One new work involves a plot of fresh soil, a bundle of twigs, as in firewood, and Nitegeka’s sculptures of makeshift objects that migrants and refugees often carry.

The work represents a pit stop on a forced journey; its spirit requires that the dirt and wood be local. For Nitegeka’s exhibition “Black Migrant,” his fourth with Marianne Boesky Gallery, in New York City (it is viewable by appointment or on the gallery website), he relied on the gallery team to gather New York dirt, which turned out darker and mulchier than the reddish soil Nitegeka had pictured. That was fine — adaptation was the point of the piece. But the more tactile and sensory these decisions, the more the distance frustrated him.

“It gets in the way of progress,” he said by telephone from Johannesburg recently. “You need to be in there, smell it, feel the presence.”

Nevertheless, he added, “that’s the beauty of art in this day and age; things can go and you can have a show still.” His situation has given him practice in the remote work that many artists will likely confront in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic until travel becomes feasible.

Perhaps fittingly, Nitegeka’s work is all about displacement and obstacles. Forced migration, he said, is his “lifelong exploration.” Its roots are specific and intense. He was an 11-year-old in Rwanda when the 1994 genocide occurred. The family left in a hurry.

“I didn’t even have a chance to go back in the house,” he said. “Someone arrived, and my dad was like — your sister, your brother, your mum, you’ve got to go now.” There wasn’t time to put together the “fragile cargo,” the migrant’s bag of essential or treasured items.

Across the Congolese border in Goma, a cholera epidemic swept through the city. The boy roamed the town on his own, from the hillside where the family rented a room on the edge of the refugee camp, down to the lake. “There were dead bodies in the street, rolled up in mats, some not even covered,” he said. “And there was this stench.”

Nitegeka made it to Nairobi, Kenya, where he attended high school, and then to Johannesburg. “I had nothing,” he said. “I could survive on $5, even $3, for a month.” He found his way to art school at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg.

Since his first exhibition in 2008, his career has flourished. In 2015 he had a solo show at SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia, and Boesky devoted its Armory Show booth to his work. The same year, he participated in the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Nitegeka is best known for his use of abstraction, notably his dramatic installations that involve forests of crisscrossing plywood planks, connected at irregular angles, painted black. Each is built to fit the space: a gallery, a museum hallway or in a spectacular example recently, the atrium of the Norval Foundation in Cape Town.

The installations have a mathematical beauty — a geometry. But they are also unruly, bristling. Visitors have to pick their way through the maze. Though rendered in an elegant formalized language — Nitegeka, a student of minimalism, has cited Richard Serra as an influence, along with architects like Louis Kahn — the works are an obstacle course that symbolizes the migrant’s journey.

His paintings, too, operate in a narrow palette: black, red, yellow, a specific blue. They are made on wood, often leaving sections exposed. The sense of carpentry runs through all his projects, as when he includes in his installations the wood crates used to ship the art, as ready-mades.

They invoke the art trade, but also, as curator Hansi Momodu-Gordon observed in a 2015 essay, “the artist’s personal story of forced migration and perhaps also the forced transportation of African people during the slave trade.”

In the past decade, as the global refugee and migrant crisis became a salient topic for artists, Nitegeka’s language set him apart from more literal approaches.

“He has a different way of engaging political metaphors,” said curator Mari-Ann Yemsi, who has included Nitegeka in an upcoming show at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris. “These questions of desperation, of loss, are present in his work in an abstract fashion, but at the same time anchor it in the tumult of the world.”

In Johannesburg, Nitegeka rents a large studio in an industrial zone across the freeway from downtown. The city has a busy art scene, but Nitegeka keeps his own company. When not at home with his wife and two children or working late in the studio, he’s more likely to be cycling the city on an aimless six-hour ride.

Privacy is his default mode. Speaking with me in his studio last year, he had brushed away talk of his personal journey. “It’s a story I don’t want to engage,” he said.

His new work at Boesky strikes a different tone, lyrical and intimate. The installation of dirt has a pathos and directness absent from his geometric pieces. His new paintings mark a return to the figurative, with a series of charcoal self-portraits: He is nude, standing or crouching, his body barred by black blotches of paint as if pressed by a burden.

If abstraction was his protective fortress, he is starting to lower the walls.

“I wanted to go back to figuration because there is that vulnerability,” Nitegeka said. “There’s a kind of self-evaluation that comes from looking at myself, the exercise of taking pictures of myself in the studio. It’s quite exhausting.”

He has also made, for the first time, an audio piece, in which a speaker inside an art crate plays his voice, reading an excerpt from his journal. It describes a border crossing: the uncertainty that you will be let through, the moment of fear, and then the march forward.

The entry, from 2012, describes a moment when memories of leaving Rwanda came rushing at him.

“It’s part of a kind of healing process,” he said. “Some of the things in there, my wife keeps urging me to talk about them: ‘Have you seen someone? Have you told your friends?’ Dealing with some of this stuff, especially at a young age — my path has been slowly, slowly, slowly. This time felt right to start unpacking.”

For Nitegeka, one consequence of his displacement is that he is stateless. He has managed to travel but on temporary papers. His application for South African citizenship is underway, he said, but the process takes time.

Since late March, South Africa has been under lockdown as the government tries to get ahead of the coronavirus, shrinking Nitegeka’s world even further. From Johannesburg, he sent a message by WhatsApp, expressing concern for New York City.

“I haven’t left the confines of my home,” he wrote. “Appreciating the surreal silence, the sudden halt to almost everything, spending more time with my loved ones.” He added, “Trying to focus on the positives.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

Today's News

April 27, 2020

INAH archaeologists locate a Post-Classical Mayan village in Mahahual, Quintana Roo

Toomey & Co. to offer 17 Oak Park Art League paintings in 'Interiors' auction on May 6

Rehs Contemporary presents 50 affordable works to help you fill in those nooks and crannies around your home

Are your frames properly appraised?

He can't travel, but his art can

Visitors asked to picture 'staying in' as National Gallery's new digital programme brings art to the home during closure

Hauser & Wirth announces details of 'Beside Itself,' its first Virtual Reality exhibition using new HWVR technology

Acclaimed Swedish author Per Olov Enquist dies aged 85

Bored Russians posted silly art parodies. The world has joined in.

Ludwig Museum Budapest's Slow Life exhibition goes online

Art for the soul: Virtual exhibition showcases the Asian American artists of Chicago & the Midwest

Casula Powerhouse innovate with virtual exhibition

A tribute to the 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T from the film 'Vanishing Point' for sale by H&H

Gavin Gardiner sells rare Purdley rifle, built for the Prince of Wales' Indian tour of 1875/6 for £10,000

Collecting Covid: The Museum of London seeks to mark unprecedented pandemic for the future

Shelburne Museum launches Museum at Home, new online exhibitions designed for remote delivery

Public can demo new online music-mixing app to celebrate library's 220th birthday

Extremeley rare silver penny sells for £11,160 at Dix Noonan Webb

Daylight Books to publish 'Phil Bergerson: A Retrospective'

Isolate > Create > Connect: A global creative response to social isolation by children

The ballet world needs Robert Garland. Why isn't it calling?

Bye bye tutus, hello masks: French opera houses join COVID battle

Rothko Chapel announces 2020 Óscar Romero Award recipients

The Museum of Neon Art launches bright new online initiatives

Will Buying Facebook Likes do Harm to Your Business? Find Out

Online Poker Strategy Guides

Museums, Exhibits, Artists, Milestones, Digital Art, Architecture, Photography,
Photographers, Special Photos, Special Reports, Featured Stories, Auctions, Art Fairs,
Anecdotes, Art Quiz, Education, Mythology, 3D Images, Last Week, .


Ignacio Villarreal
(1941 - 2019)
Editor & Publisher: Jose Villarreal
Art Director: Juan José Sepúlveda Ramírez

sa gaming free credit
Truck Accident Attorneys
Accident Attorneys

Royalville Communications, Inc

ignaciovillarreal.org juncodelavega.com facundocabral-elfinal.org
Founder's Site. Hommage
to a Mexican poet.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net. The Best Versions Of Ave Maria Song Junco de la Vega Site Ignacio Villarreal Site Parroquia Natividad del Señor
Tell a Friend
Dear User, please complete the form below in order to recommend the Artdaily newsletter to someone you know.
Please complete all fields marked *.
Sending Mail
Sending Successful