Paradise – surely one of the most evocative terms since the beginning of time, and a recurring subject of artistic interpretation and contemplation. Five artists were given the same theme: ‘Paradise Regained’, the title of John Milton’s epic poem, written in 1671. Whereas Milton’s masterpiece refers to biblical scenes of Eden, artists Leonard Shapiro, Vincent Osemwegie, KyuSang Lee, Thonton Kabeya and Michael Selekane were given the freedom to explore and interpret the theme in whatever manner they felt inspired to.
Eclectica Contemporary Gallery places the emphasis on exhibiting art from the African continent, clearly taking great care in selecting artwork for their shows. For this specific exhibition, they chose a handful of artists who grew up in (or have experienced) Africa from a unique perspective. Given the problems this continent is facing, a theme with the above title would certainly provide for some very interesting insights into the artists’ souls.
The relatively small space, cleverly used to its fullest potential by the curator, does not allow for many paintings. However, it provides an excellent platform for the observer to focus and spend time on every piece of art.
A good point of departure for this exhibition might be Vincent Osemwegie’s creations ‘Judgement Day 1’ and ‘Judgement Day 2’ (mixed media on Perspex), simply because they stand out due to their size and immediate visual impact. This Nigerian painter’s extraordinary dripping technique lends dynamic energy to his abstract work, one depicting a blind-folded African girl in school uniform carrying a judge’s scale, and the other a strong-armed male clutching what looks like a white roll, surrounded by books and a broken judge’s scale. The refreshing combination of newspaper collage and some colour blotches seem perfectly and neatly placed within the more intricate human shapes. The notion of blind-foldedness points to an idea that Paradise might be lost by all if we can’t (or won’t) wake up.
If there is one word to describe all the current exhibits, it would have to be ‘unusual’ – not only because of the subject matter contained in each one, but also because of the media used.
While most of the exhibits carry a serious, even sombre atmosphere, ‘Kirizenze’ (Walnut powder on sculpted canvas) by Thonton Kabeya caught my eye with its palpable expression of joy. Each of the twenty colourful, tidily arranged works of art depicts a circle of African children playing ‘ring-a-rosies’. The imagery is universal and thus evokes happy childhood memories within anyone, regardless of cultural background. We’ve all played this game: singing, laughing, dancing and falling down. And the notion of innocent, oblivious and blissful childhood is explored as a synonym for Paradise, something everyone longs to regain once grown up.
The rest of the artwork, interestingly all kept in black and white, includes Michael Selekane’s silkscreens, which examine a personal piece of South African history which is not well documented – the uprising in Bophuthatswana in 1994; Leonard Shapiro’s unconventional abstract studies of human heads or skulls, painted in archival ink on cotton paper; and a selection of photographs by KyuSang Lee, which portray a kneeling man capturing a moment of reverence.
Perhaps what was lost in Paradise is not so much something that has eluded us – perhaps it is rather something which we are unable to see. Even in a time of turmoil and political unrest in South Africa, maybe we can recognise Paradise all around us, if we open our eyes to it.