Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: Cape Town hip and Kendell Geers

First appeared
Thursday, 08 January 2015


If you're a hip Capetonian – I hesitate to write “Cape Town hipster”, as that would explicitly betray my prejudice – there are various ways to spend a sunny Saturday. Traditional leisure options like cricket at Newlands, a wine farm picnic or a visit to the beach are, however, almost passé; if you really want to share your credentials with the beautiful and good, then you can’t do better than the Woodstock strip.

Your starting point must be the Old Biscuit Mill, the self-styled “little village” where “talented people” can enjoy organic food markets, designer stores and the like. Setting aside inconvenient debates about the pros and cons of gentrification and selective urban regeneration, you can follow Albert Road for a few not-so-stylish, not-so-wealthy, not-so-healthy blocks and have lunch at Bread Café or drinks at the Fat Cactus in the trendy Foundry development.

If you’re feeling adventurous, emboldened by craft beer and margaritas, you can head up to Fairweather House on Main Road: a model of industrial chic containing, among creative offices and studios, the Goodman Gallery. Here, Kendell Geers’ AniMystikAKtivist has been on display over the summer holiday season (it continues until 17th January).

It is, of course, unfair to lump the Goodman and nearby galleries in with the rather unneighbourly “Neighbourgoods Market effect” – conspicuous consumption, albeit of wholesome food, in close proximity to the poverty of many Woodstock residents – but the problematic relationship between art and gentrification is well established. Matt Bolton, writing about one manifestation of this phenomenon (Peckham in London), asks: “It seems that wherever artists go, rising property prices, cafes and low-level ethnic cleansing follow: is art itself to blame?”

This is a rhetorical simplification of a complex economic syndrome, but it serves as a useful caveat to artists and gallerists nonetheless.

If Woodstock – or, at least, pockets of Woodstock – may be described as “fashionable”, it is perhaps only appropriate that Kendell Geers’ latest work is exhibited here. After all, it has at various points over the last couple of decades been fashionable either to love Geers or to hate him, to laud his provocations as enfant terrible of the South African art scene or to dismiss him for being out of touch, for “trying too hard”.

My own response is that, like the cool cats of Cape Town (a species also plentiful in Johannesburg, admittedly, but without the appeal of alliteration), AniMystikAKtivist is somehow tooknowing, too sure of its own cleverness, too self-congratulatory even when it purports to be self-ironising. Upon entering the gallery, visitors are confronted by a wall of text in which Geers presents us with a kind of “contract” – by turns inviting, promising, cajoling, demanding and lecturing – that frames and directs the art-viewing experience to follow.

The works themselves touch on a number of “big issues”, from racial conflict to environmental degradation, which are expressed through overdetermined symbolism: Nkisi nail fetish figures from the Congo (key to the “animist” aspect of the exhibition) are “painted over with the white primer of colonial practice” and “bleed out the silent tears of words unwritten in black ink”, while the Four Letter Brand series includes symmetrical and inverted letters made from “the burned wooden shards of recycled dead trees” set against perspex mirrors, which are by-products of oil manufacturing and “a stark reminder of the price that nature has to pay to support our lifestyles”.

These mirrors rather too obviously ask us to reflect upon ourselves as viewers and upon our reactions to the work. They have a pleasing visual effect in the gallery space but are not exactly novel or profound – despite the prolix texts produced by and about the artist for AniMystikAKtivist, which enjoin us to seek and find profundity.

Indeed, the polysyllabic words and pseudo-mystic jargon in the prose are at odds with the professed interest in simple, “profane” four letter words that express primal human emotions and desires: “love, hate, fear, fate and so forth” (“fuck” and “cunt” are also prominent, as one might expect from Geers). What is missing is the sense that the artist has held the mirror up to himself – not in a narcissistic way, but with an ironic or mocking gaze that might offer some self-critical insights. 



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