Home Truths: Domestic Interiors in South African Collections
Curated by Professor Michael Godby
Iziko South African National Gallery
19 May – 23 October 2016
‘Private life’ seems like a concept that is almost as outmoded as, if not the CD, then perhaps the cassette tape. In an age of Instagram, Twitter, location tracking and data logging of steps taken via our cellphones; security cameras on every street corner, data mining of one’s commercial transactions and the plethora of unsolicited emails and phone calls all offering us something we are told we need and (creepily) often tailored to our purported interests, crunched through an algorithm that makes equations from the traces left by our online existence, it is easy to think that there is absolutely nothing ‘private’ in our lives anymore.
Yet, when we close the door of our homes at the end of the day (making sure to double lock and perhaps, for some, to set the outside perimeter alarm) we can settle into the belief that this space is, in some way, more sacrosanct, and truly private… that is until a family member pulls out their cellphone and snaps the family meal for instant upload onto Facebook.
Michael Godby, Emeritus Professor of History of Art at UCT, has put together a remarkable and compelling exhibition that examines, through artworks depicting the contradictions and complexities of domestic space, as well as the trajectories of difference that such space exists in over time, location and politics. In many ways following on from two previous exhibitions, ‘Is There Still Life? Continuity and Change in South African Still Life Painting’ (2007) and ‘The Lie of the Land: Representations of the South African Landscape’ (2010), both held at the Iziko Michaelis Collection at the Townhouse on Greenmarket Square, this focus on the interior in art has been much anticipated after the unqualified success of those two earlier shows. ‘Home Truths’ does not disappoint: Godby’s deft hand, cool and immensely well-attuned eye and deep research and thinking about his subject all come into play here and the result is a curatorial tour-de-force.
One moves from room to room (fittingly the small rooms to the extreme right of the gallery and the usual curatorial ‘graveyard’ of the connecting oval interspace have been wonderfully energised and activated along with a larger room) and between the four stated sub-themes (‘Interior Worlds’, ‘Behind Closed Doors’, ‘The World Outside’ and ‘Inside Out’) one sees wonderful flow between works and unexpected and telling juxtapositions. The works chosen have been drawn from several local institutional collections, private collections, artists’ holdings and even commercial galleries’ stocks and include works ranging from 16th century Dutch Golden Age masterpieces, through to European art of the nineteenth century to a strong representation of South African art of twentieth century as well as more contemporary artistry.
As one enters the exhibition Lisa Brice’s 1995 installation Make Your Home Your Castle greets the viewer, offering a mock-up of protected domestic bliss, complete with the kitsch accoutrements of white suburban paranoia which is contrasted with Jon Riordan’s photographs of outdoor sleeping places from his Signs of Life series ( 2012-2013) and Dave Southwood’s image of an informal settlement, Victoria Mxenge TT, Cape Town (2013). While this is perhaps the most ‘in your face’ juxtaposition in the exhibition – and such juxtapositions have become something of a trademark seen in the two earlier shows – there are many others to give pause for thought, prick the conscience and perhaps even elicit a smile. Godby’s genius in this regard can be seen in his decision to place a Tommy Motswai, Happy Mother’s Day Mom (1989) between a Pieter de Hooch and a painting from the studio of Paulus Moreelse (both 17th century).
One thing that is palpably consistent in this exhibition is the quality of works chosen. Another curator could easily have selected any number of works fitting the theme but Godby has sought out exceptional works (and if perhaps for some they are not so, they are made so by their company). This is really a text-book case of what careful and considered curating can do to occasion thought, show unexpected links and oppositions and well … generally do what art is supposed to do, make one think.
I am sad that ‘Home Truths’ was not able to be shown in the Townhouse, as I believe was intended. The unexpected closure of that space for repairs meant it moved to the Iziko National Gallery and one wonders how the exhibition may have changed on viewing it in that strangely domestic-seeming space. Nevertheless it still sings and cries and groans and shouts out in its four rooms of the National Gallery and should not be missed by anyone who cares for looking at art, old or new. As with Godby’s other exhibitions, it is accompanied by a well-illustrated catalogue with substantial text by the curator.
Instagramming and cellphone photography is not permitted in the exhibition – not the choice of the curator, but a rule of the Gallery – but looking is definitely a requirement.