Johannesburg in Print: Self and the City

Johannesburg in Print
September 1-October 17, 2015

Margaret Robe ’16

“Johannesburg in Print” presents a selection of richly expressive and emotive contemporary works on paper made by artists working at the David Krut Workshop (DKW) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Situated in the Maboneng Precinct in downtown Johannesburg, DKW promotes close collaboration with emerging and established artists, and Master Printer, Jillian Ross. Curated by director of the Beard and Weil Galleries Michele L’Heureux, “Johannesburg in Print” displays the results of this ongoing collaboration, featuring artists Deborah Bell, Endale Desalegn, Faith47, Locust Jones, Vusi Khumalo, and Senzo Shabangu. At first glance, the exhibition seems to present a puzzling paradox of spiritual motifs and politics, marrying archaic symbolism with exploding, invasive urbanism. These themes combined create a rhythmic display of personal and political dialogue between the changing, industrialized city, and the searching individual.

Upon viewing the exhibition the gallery goer may first spot the smooth blue walls of Senzo Shabangu’s 2011 print Endless Journey 1, an expressive linocut that depicts a cityscape gouged and sliced into the cushions of a couch. The raw incisions seen in Endless Journey 1 are juxtaposed to the precise and meticulous lines of Diane Victor’s Good Magician, 2012, yet another piece that touches upon urban life with a swelling utopia monopolized by a single towering magician, almost a piece of architecture himself. From this initial impression, the viewer may assume that “Johannesburg in Print” expresses the frenzied industrialization and political issues sweeping South Africa.

Yet as the viewer continues further down the row of prints, they may pause to behold Deborah Bell’s aquatint and drypoint Flux III, State II (2008, 2010) a fluid abstraction of a horse and rider expressed with brisk swipes and dashes of shocking red. The dynamic color zips across the surface in webs of freely, yet thoughtfully, constructed patterns suggesting the leaping form of a horse or the hunched contour of a human figure. The image is humanizing and intimate: it is assumed to be personal to the artist, a trope that is special and unique to her identity. Spiritual and bright, the image forces one to pause.   Its ancient appearance allows the viewer to conjure their own unique historical inferences, further humanizing the image. Gestural sweeps and personal touches manifest together as a story, one that is innately and distinctly human. Far from the cool palette and methodical city scape of Endless Journey 1, Bell provides an electrifying palette of warmth and energy.

Thus, although the array of cityscapes displayed next to symbolic forms and individual contemplation mystifies and confounds, such choices inspire a rhythmic dialogue between the city dweller and the city itself. The exhibition as a whole presents the search for identity within a changing, industrialized environment. By alternating between the expressive human self and the towering urban landscape, Michele L’Heureux created a distinct rhythm of quiet introspective moments and loud political upheavals.

“Johannesburg in Print” is successful in two ways. First, the collection of works forces the viewer to pause. Without the aid of interpretive wall text, viewers must synthesize meaning on their own, thus resulting in a lasting, meaningful impression. Second, works selected combine two themes that manifest coherently into a layered complex story. This story, although tinged with dark politics and bursting industrialization, successfully explores the personal journey and motifs unique to the individual.