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Column: Kid's eye view of Gaba and Bopape

First appeared
Thursday, 11 July 2013


Recently I’ve been taking my four-year-old daughter with me to art galleries. As an advocate of the arts in education, I could pretend that these visits are part of some grand early learning programme – but the truth is that they’re driven by the logistical necessities of nursery school holidays.

Nonetheless, there are advantages to a multi-generational reviewing practice. For example, when a piece of lazy concept art or a pseudo-avant-garde squiggle makes me want to throw up my hands and declare, “A child could do that!”, I can actually test this claim. (Fortunately, a glance at her merry crayon doodling is usually enough to reassure me to the contrary.) 

It’s also a good opportunity to apply the “Out of the mouths of babes” principle to contemporary art. Does a work appeal to an intuitive visual sense of beauty or elicit some other aesthetic response? In other words, as she would say, is it “pretty”? And does it offer any hermeneutic purchase – some useful hints and clues in the meaning-making process? For my daughter (as for any art viewer), this means recognising certain forms or ideas, separating them from and assimilating them into the work as a whole.

Lord knows, she tried to do this when we encountered Kgoro ya go tswa: Even if you fall from a circle, an exhibition of work by Dineo Seshee Bopape that is sharing the space of the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town (160 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock) with Meschac Gaba’s Le Monde until 20th July.

We walked through rooms hung with tatters of fabric and labeled with obscure scraps of language (“Can you dispossess a void?”; “No parts of which survive here”; “I didn’t cross the border, the border crossed me”). We passed television sets of various vintages and entered dark projection rooms, puzzling over the apparently random streams of images and patterns.

My daughter ventured a few observations. “Daddy, these are ribbons tied together ... These are clothes hanging out to dry.” She suggested an interpretation of a piece of material, torn or cut to create a gaping hole in the middle: “Maybe it’s a face with a big mouth.” She listed the objects that passed on a screen: “Glasses ... a yellow duck ...”

I was none the wiser. This, it seemed to me, was pretentious obfuscation. Sadly, I left the gallery with that impression. It was only later, as I trawled through the artist’s statement on her work, that I discovered the key: Bopape’s father has Alzheimer’s. Reflecting on this, she writes about how the disease “eats at one’s brain and memory ... everything collapses. Things that once made perfect sense become illogical and alien ... it is impossible to hold a cohesive narrative.”

My daughter and I had been walking, then, through “a parallel space where the rules are otherwise, where another perforated logic exists.” The “dissolution of context” – the disorienting effect of dementia for both parent and child – had been devastatingly recreated for us.

Still, I can’t help feeling that the communicative act was unnecessarily impeded by Bopape’s recourse to the much-abused postmodern mannerisms of disruption and fragmentation. More coherent, and therefore more effective, are Gaba’s installations. The Beninese artist reinvigorates the tropes of globalisation, forced migration and social conflict that are ineluctably linked to daily life in the developing world (specifically, for Gaba, Francophone African countries).

In “Ensemble”, “Citoyen du Monde” (Citizen of the World) and “Project Voyage”, Gaba uses the colourful iconography of national flags both to celebrate and to problematise what is often glibly referred to as “internationalisation”.

“Bibliotheque Roulante” (Moving Library) records an experiment undertaken in Gaba’s hometown of Cotonou in 2010. To realise his ambition, “sortir l’art du musee” – getting art out of galleries and into the streets – and to stimulate conversation about the Benin Biennale, he replaced the licence plates of motorbike taxis with quotations about the role of art.

A much more disturbing work, “La Monde en Miniature et la Mode en Miniature”, replicates a kids’ clothing shop in which fashionable items are branded with the evils children have to face as they grow up: drugs, racism, warfare, sickness ... the list is long. It’s an intimidating prospect for a father-and-daughter duo. 



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