My first visit to the 2015 Michaelis Gradshow was on its opening night, the 11th of December. Recovering from a bad case of the stomach flu, I took in the effervescence of emotions emanating from the sizeable crowd of students, parents, staff, and art enthusiasts in a bit of a feverish daze. There was, in that effervescence, a strange mix of relief and anticipation - the journey is done, the journey begins again. Often, while strolling from one exhibit to another, I found myself pausing at the windows that looked over the main centre of the campus, and gazed extendedly at the crowds humming below the oak leaves, as if they were artworks in themselves.
My second visit was a few days later, when the crowds had calmed somewhat. We were informed by the student attendants that there was a power outage, and directed to the buildings with the best natural light. Other exhibitions were left completely in the dark: serendipitously, I experienced Ruby Swinney's sold out exhibition Half Light in just that. The room was almost completely darkened, and her paintings glowed like ghosts. I couldn't make out colours, only forms swimming towards me through the dim.
Melani-Rene Louwrens' exhibition Sit Sy Reg?
In fact, I thought the power outage was quite a serendipitous symbol in itself. It immediately brought the variable of access into mind. Those exhibitions which had natural light streaming into them remained mostly unaffected, those exhibitions in dark rooms, those consisting of video, sound or lighting installations, were not so lucky. And the idea of access is an idea that is central to the country's current tumultuous political climate – access to education was, of course, central to the #FeesMustFall student movement, and the preceding RhodesMustFall movement addressed, among numerous other issues, access to the processes of decision making behind the construction of national and institutional systems of representation and symbolization. Hiddingh campus itself, like other UCT campuses, was rendered inaccessible for two weeks during the nation wide student protests in October.
Thinking about the issue of access made me ruminate in turn on the effect that the heightened political tensions of the past year might have had on the graduating students. The interaction between the personal and the political must always play some role in any artistic practice, but the work on show this year suggests that that interaction - and the way it plays itself out within notions of identity, memory and the body - has perhaps become a keener and more pressing concern. What made this show so strong, however, are how variable the considerations of and responses to that interaction proved to be among the large group of students. Some exhibits considered expectations of feminity, gender normativity, submission and dominance, like Melani Rene Louwrens' collection of readymades and Sandy Harris' humorous fabric sculptures. Other exhibits, like Bronwyn Katz' Grond Herinnering (which won a Simon Gerson prize for an exceptional body of work) meditated on how memory and place determine one another on both a personal and political scale.
Siwaphiwe Mgoboza's exhibition, Africardia
But the most powerful exploration of the personal/political on show was undoubtedly Simphiwe Ndubze's Imithungo Yezivubeko, which won the prestigious Michaelis Prize for the most outstanding body of work produced by a student in the year. "Black bodies have been, and continue to be, sites of physical, psychic and symbolic violence," reads the exhibition text. "While this violence has broken and disintegrated them, they can also be read as battlegrounds: each a locus of history, resistance and pride." His sculptures and canvases use what Ndubze terms "a certain violence inherent in the cutting and stitching, the pulling together of thread, and the assembling of objects and articles of clothing on canvas to invoke bodies fraying at the seam." The collection of works, with their array of various patterned fabrics, inevitably brings to mind the work of Nigerian-British artist Yinka Shonibare, and yet the works remain wholly their own creation. It is rare for such a young artist to display both a sophistication of conceptual thought and a sophistication of craftsmanship, even rarer for that sophistication to read so intuitively and powerfully in one collection of work.
Another artist who displayed such fine sophistication of both thought and craft was Martin Wilson, whose astounding collection of sculptures made of pure wood ash also won a Simon Gerson prize. Siwaphiwe Mgoboza's show, which won the Cecil Skotnes Scholarship, was another strong contribution. Other prizewinners included Gitte Moller, Lauren Theunissen, and Julia Kabat. Overall, the Gradshow was undoubtedly one of the strongest I have seen in recent years, a triumph for the graduating class after a most unusual and challenging year. The high standard of work and the evidence of rigorous conceptual engagement bode well for the next generation of young South African artists, who now begin their careers at a watershed moment in the country's history.
Martin Wilson's exhibition, the Lacuna and the Pit
Charis de Kock is a recent graduate of the Michaelis School of Fine Arts' Honours in Curatorship Programme. She currently works at the Barnard Gallery in Newlands.
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