The SABC Collection staged SCAPE, an exhibition at the International Convention Centre, where the COP17 negotiations took place – curated by Koulla Xinisteris, the exhibition of artworks from the Collection reflects on, questions and reimagines our relationship with land and in all of its historical, social and political complexity. The exhibition also included a specially commissioned showcasing of South African contemporary video artwork featuring William Kentridge, Stefanus Rademeyer, Marcus Neustetter, Nandipha Mntambo, Jeremy Wafer, Stephen Hobbs, Tracey Rose and Johan Thom. The video loop was also shown at the EXPO space adjacent to the CCR and at the Ministerial Launch of the Mzansi Golden Economy Guide on November 29 2011.
This exhibition, which was adapted for the COP17 Climate Change Summit from an initial showing at the South African Broadcasting Corporation in Johannesburg, explores the theme of landscape in South African art. It featured both historical and contemporary artworks in a range of media, from traditional landscape on canvas to contemporary video.
Landscape is particularly well represented in the SABC Collection, with much of the work having been acquired before 1994, and many exceptional acquisitions since. The works are displayed to suggest both similarities and stylistic contrasts between an earlier South African landscape tradition derived from European Romanticism (which drew heavily on notions of the picturesque and the sublime), and the emergent local tradition, in which the energy that informs the image is often more fiercely emotive and politically challenging.
Although this is not an exhibition of environmental art and the works do not deal didactically with themes of ecology, ownership or power, as imaginative representations of material realities they invite new readings at this moment of increased urgency in global climate change debates. Aesthetic expression and nature have always been and remain interconnected, and the varied works on this show express complex ideas and feelings about beauty, belonging, access to resources and relations with nature.
They include a range of sites, spaces, places and landscapes across urban, rural and metaphysical terrains. Many of the works can be read as showing the effect of human settlement and production on natural space, whether focused on agriculture and livestock in rural settings (Sam Nhlengethwa, Pranas Domsaitis, Diane Victor), divisive spatial planning (Durant Sihlali, Santu Mofokeng), Modernist grids, congestion, pollution and wreckage in urban or peri-urban settings (Stephen Hobbs, Jo Ractliffe) or the unsettling proximity between waste management and human labour/survival (Victor, Sabelo Mlangeni). Several images are set in the landscape around Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s first industrial centres, which is marked by exploitation of the earth, mine dumps, flat plains and sudden disused wastelands. Works by Nhlengethwa, Sihlali, William Kentridge, Dorothy Kay and Julian Motau evidence the human and environmental impact of mining and its centrality in South Africa’s history.
Other works explore human frailty and vulnerability when pitted against the unpredictable epic force of the elements, whether earth (Minette Vari), wind (Berni Searle), fire (Ismail Farouk), or water (Neels Coetzee, Sanell Aggenbach). Some of the artists represented here explore the primordial connection between the land and the animal human, or the fine line between human and animal subjectivity (Mofokeng, Ractliffe, Judith Mason, Nandipha Mntambo).scape
a selection of works from the SABC art collection for COP17 December 2011
Our perceptions of the environment tend to be conditioned by cultural forms and historical processes, and some works touch on the ways in which our understandings of landscape can be shaped by culture and ideology, so land becomes a metaphor or signifier. Through his photography, David Goldblatt gives meaning to the relationship between the political and physical geography of South Africa, while Mofokeng's landscapes are spaces invested with public memory and spirituality. For Paul Emmanuel, the vast emptiness of a body of water becomes the medium for a cathartic airing of a private revelation, while, for Julia Teale, the earth serves as a kind of crypt, holding the secret remains of our human history.
In a more abstract vein, some of the artworks presented here explore the ur-shapes and intricate structures in nature (Jeremy Wafer, Stefanus Rademeyer). Meanwhile, Marcus Neustetter’s cartographic improvisations in motion evidence an embodied sense of spatial depth in viewing landscape from above.
Some of the most powerfully affecting works on this show explore how our emotions and psychic states are intrinsically bound up in or determined by our physical contexts (Mofokeng, Victor, Searle, Abrie Fourie). In some instances, there is even a haunting sense of prescient knowledge about possible futures, perhaps no more chillingly so than in Vari’s Quake, a reflection on contemporary geopolitics that draws on narratives of tumult handed down from ancient mythologies through to contemporary popular science fiction, and the portrayals and posturings of global news. In this video piece, constantly mutating figures emerge from the landscape and collapse back into it, as the impossible metropolis decays into the ground and bleeds into the sand, nourishing the desert with the dark mass of its ruins. But all is not lost. The apocalyptic spirit of this piece is offset by the unfailing impulse for relentless self-renewal.
Through its exploration of the psychic claims that human beings have made on nature and the ways in which landscape is shaped by myth and memory, it is hoped that this exhibition will contribute to raising consciousness about the key role that nature will play in the challenges of the 21st century.