“I just want to give you what really happens,” says the projected video of Griffiths Sokuyeka, an older black South African man with a skinny face and a lone front tooth. He’s giving a personal tour of the 1820 Settlers’ National Monument, which honors the contributions of English settlers to South Africa. Sokuyeka shares his struggle to find education and work in the midst of South Africa’s political tensions — on one side of the room, that is. On an opposite screen, he’s giving a separate tour, this time to a public audience — he reviews key dates, points out commissioned murals and speaks of the “common motherland.”
A second man gives his personal and public tours of the Grahamstown Observatory Museum on a separate set of two screens. I check the description of the piece, a little lost in the conflicting and overlapping voices. “Four-channel color projection with sound on 4 HD video projectors and 4 Perspex screens, 18 min., 30 secs.” I let the videos play through again and give the four voices of the two guides another chance to reverberate around me, some of the stories collected, some impassioned — a tortured soundscape that speaks too much, but also perhaps not enough.
Mikhael Subotzky’s “Moses and Griffiths” is one of several experimental pieces featured at the Yale University Art Gallery’s “Contemporary Art/South Africa” exhibit, open until Sept. 14. Organized by past and current Yale undergraduates and Ph.D. candidates, the display coincides with the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s election. Combining some of Yale’s existing collection with borrowed pieces, it doesn’t pretend to give an overview of contemporary South African artwork. Instead, it offers a crisp and thoughtful representation of three conflicted relationships in South Africa’s recent history: art and politics, personal life and social issues, place and identity.
These themes are briefly but sufficiently introduced at the beginning of the exhibit, and then the visitor is left to wander through the two-story display. Since multiple issues are often explored in individual pieces, this organization succeeds. But beyond the tensions identified in the exhibit, this collection is really a story of communication: Through contemporary artwork, South Africa can begin to share the stifled trauma of its past and push forward into an optimistic future.
Barely-muted frustration frequently manifests itself in the exhibit, as in Robin Rhode’s short video “Piano Chair.” The animation presents a man who hammers, burns and hangs a piano. Along another wall, Sue Williamson’s “For Thirty Years next to His Heart” is an arrangement of 49 frames containing photos of passbook pages meant to give proof of employment — some stamped, some bare — which black South Africans were required to carry at all times. These yellowed documents, stretching from floor to ceiling, confront the viewer with the turmoil of apartheid.
But buried within this tension is an unexpected hopefulness, as in Gary Schneider’s “HandPrint Portraits,” one of the exhibit’s most innovative works. Schneider captured the sweat and heat from South African artists’ hands on film over 10-minute exposure periods. At a glance, the images look like X-rays, and you expect to be able to see straight through to the bone. Instead, in the chilly, metallic image, you find conveyed the warmth of the artist’s touch, a desperate drive to create something beautiful. It is this sort of paradoxical emotional complexity that makes “Contemporary Art/South Africa” a difficult but successfully compelling display.
As he finishes his personal tour of the Settlers’ Monument, Griffiths recounts that following a fire at his foundation’s building, his employer unjustifiably brought him to the police station. Now, he says, the building has sprinklers installed. Gesturing at his audience with clasped hands, he says that this kind of treatment has made him “aggressive.”
Still, Griffiths is hopeful for the future. “I love this place,” he says, adding that the employer still owes him an apology.
There’s not enough here to glean a sweeping sense of this artistic tradition — but in setting out to say just a little, this exhibit says plenty through its complicated, thoughtfully displayed emotional tensions. Just a few pieces are enough to leave visitors thinking about what has been in South Africa, and what could be.