Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Column: The Benediction of Shade

First appeared
Thursday, 15 January 2015


The kids are back at school and you’re back at the office. The roads are busy again and, after being lashed by storms in December, look worse than they did last year – more potholes, more broken traffic lights. The electricity grid is under strain once more; load shedding is imminent.

The local and global media machinery has been cranked into gear. The first “big story” has broken – Charlie Hebdo, the event that launched a thousand opinion pieces – and some familiar words have returned to the spotlight: Boko Haram, Chris Gayle, Jacob Zuma, Gwede Mantashe, Helen Zille, Julius Malema, Baleka Mbete. The American awards season is reaching its peak, resulting in a flurry of fatuous celebrity coverage.

Welcome to 2015. 

In Johannesburg, both those who stayed and those who went away are already hankering after the lost quietude that is associated with the metropolis over the festive season. In this almost-mythical atmosphere, nobody minds when the kikuyu grass, uncut and untamed, edges over the concrete confines of pavements to gather in uneven tufts. Parks become jungles – municipal mowers have holidays too – while cats hunt like tigers in thickets of weeds. Hadedas become pterodactyls. Smells are oversweet, overripe.

Hints of that rich, antediluvian wilderness remain into mid-January as Jozi hits its summer straps. Trees make enormous green canopies. Proud citizens are moved to speak about the city as the world’s largest man-made forest. And so it is. But there, fellow Joburgers – cue the reverie-destroying sound effect of a needle scratching vinyl as a record is yanked from its turntable – our lyricism must come to an end.

Large swathes of Johannesburg are in fact tree-less. Set in stark contrast to the leafy suburbs are townships and “grey” areas that did not benefit from tree-planting schemes (it is easy to track the borderlines of apartheid urban geography by seeing where the trees begin and end). There are also arid stretches of current or former industrial activity.

Indeed, as we are reminded in the text introducing The Benediction of Shade II: Joburg, City of Trees (David Krut Projects, 142 Jan Smuts Avenue, until 31st January), most of the early planting was functional and not aesthetic – the trees were there “to supply vast amounts of timber to the booming gold mining industry”. A number of the items in this group exhibition allude to, or directly address, such connections.

Michael Amery’s ink and charcoal drawing Trees, By Man invites us into an artificial forest that is both pleasing in its arboreal symmetry and disconcertingly rigid. Jason Larkin’s photographs of mine dumps and tailings dams show landscapes which are otherworldly yet contain trees as “natural” markers. In Lynda Ballen’s multimedia Strata, the above-ground elements are less evocative than the depths of geological layering beneath them.

Other artists present us with images of trees that do not explicitly invoke Johannesburg’s mining heritage, but that resonate strongly with their previous work in this vein. The trees depicted by David Koloane, William Kentridge, Khehla Chepape Makgato and Willem Boshoff each seem to carry the social, economic and environmental burdens resulting from mineral extraction.

Such associations notwithstanding, Joburg’s trees retain their archetypal qualities. Trees provide refuge and respite, shelter and protection. For millennia humans have gathered underneath them to exchange ideas, to affirm shared beliefs or to commune with that which is greater than ourselves. They were our first places of worship. Something of this sacred or divine presence is captured in the “benediction” of the exhibition’s title.

It is also expressed, in tragicomic mode, through two pieces by Stephen Hobbs. His Midrand Mosque Diptych “casts a medieval eye” on the huge wooden scaffolding used in the construction of the Ottoman-style Nizamiye Masjid in Midrand. In the architectural model Flat Church, Full Tree, he imagines “the emergence of a tree amidst the ruins of a church”.

If the former of these two works affirms some form of continuity in human endeavours across time and space, the latter takes delight in that ancient theme sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes the glory of the world): the structures we build, no matter how grand, will eventually fall into disrepair and decay. No doubt that applies to subterranean mineshafts too. But the trees will survive. 



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