Art that finds clarity in South Africa's fraught terrain

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Art that finds clarity in South Africa's fraught terrain
“Bonteheuwel/Epping,” a vast woven work by Igshaan Adams, inspired by an Indigenous tale about diamond extraction, at the 2022 Biennale, in Venice, Italy, April 20, 2022. Adams and Bronwyn Katz, another South African artist, use abstraction and humble materials to make sense of a fraught terrain at the Venice Biennale. Gus Powell/The New York Times

by Siddhartha Mitter

CHICAGO, IL.- On a recent afternoon, artist Igshaan Adams instructed me to pull up Cape Town, South Africa, on Google Earth on my phone. We thumbed away from the waterfront and the verdant enclaves that hug the iconic Table Mountain, and over to the sprawling Cape Flats, all dusty brown.

This was where the apartheid regime forcibly relocated nonwhite people into commuter suburbs, designated by race. Adams, who is “Coloured” by that rubric — a holdover term that remains widely employed as a cultural designation for South Africa’s mixed-race communities — grew up in a place called Bonteheuwel.

We found his block, low houses cheek by jowl. Across the tracks lay Epping, a big industrial zone of factories and hangars. In between was open land. We zoomed in and saw them: the paths formed by people trekking between the two zones.

“I almost died there once,” Adams said. Urban planners call such tracks desire lines — a poetic technical term. But these ones got crossed by necessity. “I’ve been robbed there many times,” Adams said. “You knew going there that it was dangerous, but you had to. You had to go and find a job or whatever you needed.”

We were at the Art Institute of Chicago, where Adams was installing his first museum exhibition in the United States, “Desire Lines.” His work features exquisite tapestries woven with thousands of beads — glass, stone, shell, acrylic, wood. The works are at first view entirely abstract. Yet they are thick with references — to home, to community, to the land. Many, indeed, retrace his own footfall.

Adams, 39, is in the main exhibition at this year’s Venice Biennale, with an immense woven piece, “Bonteheuwel/Epping,” with greenish and cream accents over pink dominant tones, in the Arsenale. Three broad diagonal streaks reproduce ones on the section of open land that he showed me. The tapestry is a stylized land-use document, a kind of map.

But the land is never neutral, especially in South Africa, where colonization, mining and apartheid produced extreme inequality — white people form 9% of the population but still own 72% of arable land. So what you can do in the terrain hews close to what you can do in life.

“When I was growing up, there was a set ceiling for a Coloured person — you could become a manager at a shop. That was the height your aims could reach,” Adams told me. “Everyone had a clear path that was laid out for you. And so the desire line represents finding your own path.”

An Artistic Kinship

Sculptor Bronwyn Katz also grew up in South African terrain where the land was heavily punctured: Kimberley, a mining hub, notably for diamonds. “There were all these holes in the landscape,” Katz told me. One, called the Big Hole, was a 700-foot open mine in the city center, now a tourist attraction. Mine dumps strewn around town polluted water and gardens.

Like Adams — with whom she is good friends — Katz is Coloured: in her case Indigenous Khoe, which the racist bureaucrats filed into that broader category. Although “born free” after apartheid, as the South African saying goes, in 1993, she, too, grew up in a Coloured area, Green Point, where people had mining-related jobs. Her father is a metalworker.

Katz is also in the Venice Biennale, and at 28, one of the fastest-rising stars in South Africa’s art scene. She had a solo exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris in 2018, just three years out of art school at the University of Cape Town; recently her work appeared in the United States for the first time in the New Museum Triennial.

And, like Adams, she works with household and mass-market objects to make works that are formally abstract yet charged with memories and histories of people in South Africa simply trying to exist on the land.

Her work in Venice, “Gõegõe,” is made from bed spring metal and pot scourers rendered into a bristling, geometric form. At the New Museum, she showed “Xãe,” a mini-forest of cylinders made of pot scourers and steel wool. “Gõegõe” is inspired by Khoe myth, Katz told me by video from her studio in Cape Town. There was a river snake with a diamond for an eye. One day it awoke to find that a man had stolen its eye, and it entered a blind destructive rage. “The story has many layers,” she said.

Using hydrochloric acid, she instigated a slow rusting that will result in the sculpture shedding flakes. “It takes me a while to figure out the intentions of the work,” she said. “What I know for sure is that this work speaks about extraction, our relationship with extraction and the destruction that extraction causes.”

Adams and Katz are not the only South Africans in the Biennale. The international exhibition also includes film and installation artist Simnikiwe Buhlungu, and separately the South Africa pavilion features Roger Ballen, Lebohang Kganye and Phumulani Ntuli. Even these form only a slice of the dynamic South African scene.

Still, Adams and Katz have affinities. “They have this energy, which is not of chaotic assemblage, but to turn something mundane into something beautiful,” said Cecilia Alemani, curator of the Venice Biennale.

Tandazani Dhlakama, a senior curator at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa in Cape Town, told me that Adams and Katz joined a current of South African artists who buck expectations that art from the country should be figurative or explicitly political. “They are finding poetic ways to talk about personal narrative, history and land,” she said.

And Khanyisile Mbongwa, who curated the 2020 Stellenbosch Triennale, emphasized the intimacy in their work, the journey within. “These are deep conversations with their cultures, with childhood memories and dreaming,” she said.

Ancestral Knowledge

Near the end of art school, Katz asked her grandparents in Kimberley to write her letters.

“I was lucky that my grandparents really enjoyed telling stories,” she said. They wrote to her about ghosts and talking birds; details of the family lineage; and the tale of the gõegõe snake with the diamond eye that inspired her Venice work.

“There’s an overwhelming perception in South Africa that Khoe people are dead,” Katz said. Yet her own family proved that Indigenous culture persisted.

Not far from Kimberley were sites of rock carvings dating back thousands of years, symbolic and patterned — early abstraction, Katz said, noting their inspiration.

Katz studies !Ora, the Khoe language most closely linked to her roots. (The exclamation mark denotes a type of click.) It informs many of her titles, together with Afrikaans, the Coloured lingua franca. Her smaller sculptures — wall-hung wire curtains, glyphlike montages of bent steel and iron ore — represent efforts, she told me, while “archiving” !Ora, to simultaneously script some new “language that I don’t have a name for.”

Adams, too, has partial Indigenous ancestry, with Nama grandparents from the inland Karoo. Along with tapestries, he makes suspended sculptures, tangled but graceful cloudlike forms made from wire, spray-painted in silver, pink or copper tones. In the Chicago show these hang very low, hovering over a huge tapestry on the floor.

Their inspiration is the rieldans, an Indigenous folk dance in which participants kick up dust clouds. Adams read the dance as a metaphor: Sometimes you can’t see a path, he said. But you can tell it is being made when you see “dust particles rising up from the floor.”

Coming to Terms

Adams did not have an easy route. Family circumstances, he said, veered between working class and outright poor. His parents were alcoholics. One grandfather was a police officer. The grandmother who raised him, although illiterate, worked at the Pollsmoor prison — during apartheid, Coloured people often found themselves both victims and enforcers.

His family included Muslims and Christians. Racial trauma was deeply internalized, he said. An older brother who could pass for white got better treatment. “There was no equality, even in the family,” Adams said.

Also, he was gay. “I always felt in this in-between space,” he said. His early 20s, he said, were “very destructive” — drugs, alcohol, lack of direction. “I wanted to know what it feels like to have that internal peace that Islam speaks about. Is this actually possible?”

His path passed through a woman-led Sufi community, graphic design studies at a technical college, and eventually an art school diploma. By then much had changed. For his graduation show he re-created his grandmother’s living room; she came and sat there, “watching her soapies” on TV beneath his embroidered self-portraits.

The Chicago show includes a hall tiled with linoleum squares he collected from homes in Bonteheuwel. Many families, even poor ones, replace their linoleum every Christmas, he said. “That act I find quite hopeful. But a part of me also identifies with things being of no value, and making them valuable.”

Hendrik Folkerts, a former Art Institute curator who organized the show (he is now at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm), said that Adams’ art has grown outward, coming to terms with the home first and gradually the world. “He has gone from a very interior space to the actual land,” Folkerts said.

Their land is fraught, but to them it is compelling. Although Cape Town is known to Black South Africans for its unbothered white privilege, in comparison to Johannesburg, Katz, who has tried both cities, said she found it necessary to stay there. “It’s important to take up space in Cape Town,” she said.

As for Adams, although his desire lines have taken him far, he has never truly left his Bonteheuwel community, where for every social ill there was also some offsetting mechanism of solidarity. Now it’s his turn. His atelier employs friends, neighbors, aunties. His studio manager, Morné Roux, is a childhood pal who got his first passport for the trip to Chicago.

At the atelier, they call Adams “Pa,” or father. He can’t stand it; they won’t stop. “It’s a beautiful community,” he said. If his output is prolific, it’s also because he’s looking after his people. “It’s a massive responsibility,” he said, no complaint in his tone. “I can’t drop the ball.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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