Connecting the Dots: “Congress” at the Norval Foundation

Curated by South African arts reporter Sean O’Toole, “Congress: The Social Body in Three Figurative Painters” checkedout Black subjectivity through the styles of kinship and mutuality. The exhibit at the Norval Foundation in Cape Town brought together works by 3 artists from 3 generations—George Pemba (1912–2001), Trevor Makhoba (1956–2003), and Sthembiso Sibisi (1976–2006)—with a focus on group pictures they produced over a duration of more than 5 years (1950–2005). The images capture couples and groups as they walk (Sibisi, Going Home [Chicken Couple], 2005), work (Pemba, Harvesters, 1976), praise (Sibisi, Ocean Baptism, 2005), commemorate (Sibisi, Imfene Stokvel, 2005), and even passaway (Makhoba, They Were Deeply in Love, 2002).

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The title “Congress” recommended a coming together for some shared function; the exhibit stressed scenes of social, political, and spiritual events, which the manager explained as “images of communion, condition and transcendence.” These events take location versus the background of South Africa’s spatial politics, especially the segregationist system of apartheid and the procedures of urbanization that saw numerous Black individuals moving from the countryside to cities in search of work. Several paintings information required eliminations of Black individuals from locations stated as “whites just” by the federalgovernment (Makhoba, Removals, Cato Manor, 2001), realestate insecurity (Pemba, Homeless, 1973), and precarious working conditions (Makhoba, Gumboot Dance in the Old Mine, 2002). These are provided alongwith images of leisure, rest, and play: Pemba’s The Audience (1960) reveals a young couple at a film theater entirely absorbed in each other and Makhoba’s Amagendi Kids (Cato Manor), 2001, portrays kids playing the coordination videogame understood as diketo, which includes illustration a circle on the ground and moving little stones in and out of the circle while tossing another in the air and capturing it priorto it strikes the ground.

A horizontal painting depicts a couple sitting in a movie theater. The overall hues are earthy. Globe lights decorate the ceiling and a crowd of people is visible in the background.

George Pemba, The Audience, oil on canvas board, 14 by 18 inches. Courtesy Norval Foundation

Drawing its own kind of circle throughout time, “Congress” was arranged at a vital minute in the history of realism, now that figuration is under analysis due to its enormous expansion, especially in the type of works portraying Black individuals and Black life. By providing early works by artists skilled in that category, the exhibit anchored modern figuration in an art historic familytree. In South Africa particularly, the present blossoming of representational art-making comes after a hiatus throughout which lotsof young artists—including Igshaan Adams, Nandipha Mntambo, and Nicholas Hlobo—worked in abstraction that regularly engaged materiality.

The exhibit drew intriguing parallels inbetween the 3 painters and their particular social contexts. Pemba’s sketches, notations, and researchstudies expose how he moved from watercolors to oil painting on the guidance of his coach Gerard Sekoto, a fellow artist who pushed him away from rendering idealized pastoral variations of his individuals and towards showing the world as he knowledgeable it. Sibisi made a comparable shift in his profession: though he began working in printmaking, other Black painters (including Pemba) influenced him to shift to oil painting. Like his contemporaries, he moved away from picturesque and nostalgic representations of Black life to start painting what he observed around him—as seen in Taxi Group (2003), a brilliant and remarkable canvas showing commuters in a car, most of whom appearance with inconvenience at a fellow guest bring a live chicken on his lap. Later, as he lookedfor to endedupbeing a spiritual therapist, Sibisi significantly integrated spiritual styles into his work; one of his last series of paintings focuses on ocean baptisms. While Sibisi and particularly Pemba gothere at a subtle, earthy scheme with the practical usage of color, Makhoba preferred expressive, severe, and dark schemes. This might outcome from his scenarios—he offered his work on the Durban beachfront, where it was routinely exposed to sunshine. Often thoughtabout a moralist painter, Makhoba was deeply invested in Christian worths and a individual cosmology. More than that of Pemba and Sibisi, his work is didactic, caution youth about the scourges of HIV/AIDS, gender-based violence, and alcoholaddiction.

Within a painted ocean scene, several figures in the foreground wear religious attire featuring crosses and are shown standing together in the process of a baptism. Nearby, a woman holding a surfboard looks on.

Sthembiso Sibisi, Baptism: Spiritual Healing in the Sea, 2005, oil on canvas, 39 by 25 ¼ inches. Courtesy Norval Foundation

Although this exhibit might be checkout as a file of Black life in a really particular time frame, a simply historic reading would missouton the artists’ nuanced engagement with surrealist looks: Pemba, Makhoba, and Sibisi typically explored with dream and distortion in attempting both to make pickup of the conditions of life under apartheid and to stretch the limitations of what was possible. Just as the criteria of the artists’ work stayed open, the criteria of the exhibit were provisionary, recommending methods in which group pictures may contribute to increased understanding of common life in South Africa.

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