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Umlungu by Christopher Swift



Having won both the Michaelis Prize in 2009 and the Spier Contemporary Prize in 2010 Swift has arrived a “serious” South African artist. Now with the opening of the new Commune.1 gallery – formerly a funeral parlour, a church and a life insurance building – in Cape Town, Swift launches his first solo show, Umlungu.


For Swift, Umlungu is about investigating what his white African status means living in South Africa. ‘In order to make a difference, its imperative that I understand who I am, and what I represent, what is of value, and what needs readdressing.’ And the metaphor for that investigation is a tree. In this case it’s the Stone Pine, massive imposing landscape trees, panoramic additives to how the tourist world sees the first world nature of Cape Town.”


Umlungu features 7 installations, using a range of materials from wood to glass and even those telephone directories that arrive once a year at your doorstep. They look like an entire study of environmental works, botanical studies and the study of the stone pine.


1. Trunk Call
Over 1000 telephone directories, yellow and white pages. “As recycled paper, they come from wood, but we print 7.2 million of them in SA alone. It’s a redundant technology.”
The white pages create the silhouette of a stone pine tree while the rest create the negative space around it.


Chris Swift


2. The Magic Faraway Tree
Made from planks of reclaimed wood (school desks, crutches, ladders…you name it) Swift has been collecting for the better part of two years. From the detritus of society, Swift reconstitutes the tree, its trunk literally sprouting from the floor of the gallery, twisting its way two-stories up and out the skylight.


3. Botanical studies
Six beautifully framed botanical and landscape prints (editioned).


4. The Bridge
Confessional booth doors framing a passage, an exterior bridge built of horizontal ladders joins two parts of the gallery, but like the unfinished highways of Cape Town, it doesn’t necessarily go anywhere. Bridges to spaces, talks about going from one place to another, offers a solution but doesn’t deliver the full passage. The work speaks both to the culpability of Christianity’s role in Colonization as well as a more personal matter for Swift in his expression of disappointment in marriage as an appropriate cradle for the dynamics of a family unit in contemporary living.


5. Hanging Glass
21 pieces of old shower glass detailing the silhouette of vertical slivers of a tree, that suspended in a translucent uniform format create the illusion of a 3D tree.


7. King Protea
An installation from purely found wood that creates simulacra of a giant King Protea.


8. Self Portrait
Dark Cherry Gum and lighter Stone Pine wood. In typical Swift style, the artist manages to take the for grantedness of stacking firewood to draw his ‘self portrait’ represented by the Stone Pine. While this representation echoes the theme of the exhibition, it does also bring home a more sinister subject for the artist and that is the Cape Town market and consumption of the Namibian Kameel Dooring Boom.


9. Wooden Horns
Swift parodies the day in the not to distant future where wood is valued as much as a prize stag’s head. 2056 is the estimated date that the planet will run out of unprotected natural forest at the current rate of extraction.


Chris Swift


10. Backlit Reduction Drawings
3 mono forest scapes. A technique Swift discovered during the process of monoprinting, the artist stops at the point of printing so that the matrix becomes the one-off artwork that is able to be backlit because of its Perspex surface.


This post is a summary of info on Chris Swift and Umlungu written by Tudor Caradoc Davies.

Umlungu by Christopher Swift opens tomorrow 1 September – 13 October 2011. See it at Commune.1 gallery – 64 Wale Street, Cape Town.


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