A revered local artist, Sam Nhlengethwa has long been tracing change and history in the South African context. His subjects, such as jazz musicians, politicians, cityscapes and more, most often lend themselves to larger narratives in the current socio-economic and political landscape. In The Past and the Present…Now is the Time, his latest solo exhibition on at Rosebank’s Goodman gallery, the artist takes on a multiplicity of themes, all unified through their respective areas of focus.
There is the series of Drum tributes, softly paying homage through paint and tapestry. Then there is The Recyclers which brings to the fore the piling detritus and quiet violence that make up the growing levels of poverty in South Africa through Nhlengethwa’s brilliant display of sculptural skill.
Long Walk to Freedom and Mzansi Legends, two illustrated pieces, turn the viewer towards South Africa’s struggle history through highlighting iconic political figures. Viewed from a distance, the works all tie together a theme of retrospectivity – a call to look towards the past and re-assess the present, and ultimately, to take action.
It’s an exhibition that could have been hosted at any given time of the year and still maintain its significance. But now, as institutions burn, police brutality tightens its grip, and student trauma skyrockets, Nhlengethwa’s work pangs with an urgent relevance.
Perhaps the most devastating piece in The Past and the Present…Now is the Time is a simple rectangular glass box, situated against a wall near the centre of the gallery space. In it, there are magazines and newspapers and all of them shout out in bold-print type. “STUDENTS ON TRIAL” reads one headline, while a smaller story towards the back states “International anger over mine firings”. The text inside the faded newspaper columns further cements these shocking parallels between past and present. The violence and systemic racism that is present in almost every modern, liberal institution is laid bare.
You read a while longer. You try and trace the exact point where things went wrong and then you wonder why you ever thought it had gotten better. You leave, and on your way out you thumb through your smartphone and see the rolling headlines: “#FeesMustFall: Eleven students arrested” reads one. “Police state on campuses” reads another. In the comments section, people are drawing parallels between Marikana and the brutish actions of police and private security on campuses across the country. You put your phone away and make a note to yourself to come and see Nhlengethwa’s exhibition one more time. And then another time after that.
The Past and the Present…Now is the Time is on at Goodman gallery in Rosebank, Johannesburg until 9 November 2016. Find out more about the artist here.
Images courtesy of Goodman gallery.