Review: Looking Back at the Zeitz MOCAA Pavillion


Zanele Muholi, Pam Dlungwana, Woodstock, Cape Town, 2010It is a rare and wonderful experience to leave an exhibition with troubled thoughts. For troubled thoughts can be keys to enlightenment.

It is a privilege to be niggled by rampant paradoxes of having been exposed to three visions of the same sky that are as distant from each other as heaven is from hell.

Yet in combination and by their utter contrast, art activists Andrew Putter, Zanele Muholi and Yinka Shonibare blend together to seamlessly map out the far regions of the homosexual experience in South Africa.

The exhibition Looking Back becomes a dialogue between the feminine cheeky flamboyance of Putter and the steely-eyed defiance/compassion of Muholi. It serves to become a his/hers gender inversion which drives home the difference of class, race and their attendant comforts based on social standing. Muholi’s is the defiant spit of a cat cornered in a dirty alley while Putter’s tone is one of a luxuriously ornate, subversively amusing perfumed flamingo standing in a luridly pastel-coloured sunset of a lagoon.

Putter’s deliriously lush and lusty fantasy reflects the mock colonial portraits of European ‘shipwreck survivors’ given an African extreme makeover by their indigenous rescuers. Pretty boys and girls hold archaic poses before the camera of the portrait photographer, proudly bedecked in furs and beads and feathers in a jungle backdrop, yet manage – in Putters’ lens – to preserve a distinctly 1980s look.

Muholi reveals photographs of a sombre vigilant army of beautiful faces at the edge of purgatory: sexual outcasts and potential victims to an archaic outrage and vigilante violence. A resistance movement of unconnected individuals formed against the empathetically disconnected mob mentality, the transgender studies stare out of the black and white prints.

Muholi’s is the sound of breaking glass and the shadow across the doorway at night, a punkish roar of  tribe forced together by blind hate, while Putter’s world is of one sensual delight to the  distant strains of a string quartet. The ecstatic juxtaposition of these two worlds housed under the same roof is the equivalent of a Molotov cocktail in a champagne glass.

The stark contrast between the marginalized worlds of the artists is especially visceral in the short films presented.

Shonibare’s  Addio del Passato (So Closes my Sad Story), is a mildly garish yet sublime mixture of opera and filigree, with a knowing nod to the works of Fellini and Peter Greenaway. It is a short operatic visual chronicle of human love and loss as well as a melancholic ode to the fall of colonial empires; a nostalgic yet cautionary mourning of an era where classic beauty was maintained to a soundtrack of distant cannon fire.

Muholi’s Films4peace is a short brittle film portraying an  urban sisterhood carrying makeshift crosses to the graveside of a comrade, purged from the earth by a sexually puritanical executioner.

Hauntingly jarring, where beauty and pride are common denominators across the marginalized frontier, the uniqueness of this exhibition lies in the savage grandeur with which the unique tribes celebrate their identity and their transcendence from conformity.

New songs for new times for those with open ears and hearts.

Jaroslav Kalac

Looking Back runs at the Zeitz MOCAA Pavillion, V&A Waterfront  from 23 June to 12 October 2014.


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