As a permanent fixture, the figure is a stalwart of art history. It is the figurative practice-ground for shy first years with their sticks of charcoal, the domain of the tasteful nude, the plump and nameless model in all of those semi-pornographic baroque paintings. It is, for the most part, a passive thing – a receptacle for the gaze – a representation of an archetypal (usually feminine), unblemished body.
But the figure is not the body. It is the shape the skin makes around the body; the shape that the body makes when backlit; the shape of the body according to the forms of various fruits, as prescribed by Cosmopolitan Magazine. It is a body without innards or inner workings. It is closer to representation via shapes and lines (the nude; the reclining nude; the nude descending a staircase) than it is to the shitting and pissing thing that drags us through this world.
Perhaps it is apt then that the figure is almost entirely relegated to the space of the (non-performative) plastic arts. As a represented thing, an object, its choice as the thematic unifier for blank’s holiday season showcase is slightly odd. Out of all of the works on the show, none of them deal with the figure in a straight-forward fashion.
Herman Mbamba paints over and distorts ready-made images, obscuring the particularities of identity such as gender and race, and even in the paintings of Cinga Samson, titled Hliso Street III and IV – the only representational works on the show – the figure is hewn from a black base coat whilst clothing, fruits and flowers are rendered in luscious pinks, blues and yellows. These paintings are, of course, not purely representational: they are not figurative studies, but rather representations of an absence, of a body half-forgotten, only able to be depicted by its silhouette and those decisively recognisable human commonalities of lips, hands and the whites of the eyes.
This theme of bodily absence seems to run far more strongly through the work in general than that of the figure in its art historical incarnation. Bronwyn Katz’s Blommetjies – an old foam mattress, stripped of its fabric cover and standing against the wall – again connotes the body (or the outline of the body) intimately. Stains left by the body (a body; some bodies; somebody’s body) blossom over the surface of the mattress. Here is a figure study in abjection, the traces of a living thing formed by living. The blommetjies themselves are small steel tendrils – mimicking bed springs – stitched into the foam, extending outwards like the fruiting bodies of a fungus, their rhizome feeding off of sweat, shed skin, human leftovers. It is memory here that forms the figure and allows it to grow, to transform and turn itself inside out.
A bodily imprint appears again in Gerda Scheepers’ 62 A/B (1) which mirrors Blommetjies in the second, smaller room of the gallery. The pink canvas with its breasts, in combination with Kyle Morland’s Pink Pype (or piel) and Sweet Pea (also pink) appears as some kind of disjointed Frankenstein’s monster; an exquisite corpse composed by a bunch of naughty kids who’ve just learnt about sex stuff. Markedly, these works are neither figures nor bodies, but neatly dismembered body-parts, and in combination with Julien Creuzet’s sculpture, the title of which is an entire poem, the monster itself has a total of four penises (depending on how rude you want to be).
Turiya Magadlela’s wonderfully named Fat Swan Lake, a canvas stretched over with the gussets of black pantyhose balances the monster out a little, whilst at the same time acting as foil to the ballet-tight-pink – described as in the press release as “flesh tone” – of Scheepers’ and Morland’s work. Magadlela’s attempt to call out the normalisation of whiteness in relation to the idealised body (figure) is thrown into relief in this room, and her point proven by the insidiousness of this normalisation in the spaces (or press releases) outside of it.
Sipumelelo 2, another of Magadlela’s pantyhose canvases, hangs opposite blank’s desk space like an afterthought. Pink, with the stockings elongated – it is not the black gusset that is present but the thin pink legs of the ballerina. Between these two works the distinction between body and figure is made – in that the figure is not politicised; it is not racialised. When it becomes these things, it becomes a body – an abject thing – bearing the marks of life and history.
Back in the front room, these marks of history are clarified in Donna Kukama’s 365 and still counting, which marks out, in Khoekhoe and Setswana, the years since the arrival of colonisers in Cape Town in 1652 across a series of handkerchiefs. Where the body is abstracted and signified through words and numbers written in blood, sweat and soil, the violence of colonial history is given no figurative hiding-place. The work implicates the figure in a different sense – that of a system through which to make sense of things, a way of categorising, tabling and recording colonial violences.
Installed on the floor in front of Kukama’s handkerchiefs is Lumka, a sculptural work by Buhlebezwe Siwani. Siwani’s sculptures are little hillocks of green soap – reminiscent of aspic jelly moulds from ‘70s cookbooks – some of which have dried rose petals embedded in them. In combination with Kukama’s kerchiefs, these green mounds do something particularly interesting: whilst both of them are of the least direct in reference to the figure on the show, It seems as though the two pieces combined come closest to speaking about the body and its strangeness, its dirtiness and particularity.
The soap is a direct reference to Siwani’s memories of being washed in public by her aunt and grandmother and of skin irritation that the detergent caused. This split image of the public and private body – which extends outside of how many people view it and into how it is viewed – in conjunction with these mythologised notions of sin (body) and pureness (figure) cracks the distinction between representation and reality open.
Soap, for all of its symbolic weight, is the thing we use to wash our dirty bits: it is something that knows the body so well, with such intimacy, that the two meld together. Its intention is to make invisible what is deemed unsightly and in doing so acquaints us in a uniquely physical way with those parts of the body so strongly associated with sin. The rose petals look less like pot-pourri and more like blood and guts; wounds manifested not only on the skin but inside of it; ruptures on a membrane or an ideal of purity too wide to breach or fix with scrubbing.
Siwani’s green protuberances are the stuff of leftovers, of the erased parts of being, and those parts that refuse to be erased regardless of washing. The size and shape of the mounds pushes them away from their everyday use however and towards a kind of monumentalisation, as traces of something – memory and erasure – negotiated, remade and rendered physical. Similarly to Blommetjies, meaning is made in the gaps between or after the body.
In Senzeni Marasela’s two embroidered canvases the movement of a body is abstractly traced through a half-fabricated memory. Titled Last Seen I and II, Marasela’s images are more memorials than they are monuments, unreliable recollections of a path walked (disappeared into) or a radar image – the subject always at the centre. In a different way, they are a microcosm of the missing person, the mitochondria, a single missing cell of a whole missing body which, in its zoomed-in cross-section, is equally important; equally worthy of mourning over and searching for. It figures (lol) the body as a subject: viewed from outside of the skin, departed and watched and watching and waiting and being waited for.
Similarly, Jared Ginsburg’s Curtain 2 as well as Igshaan Adams’ Ayatul Kursi (The Throne Verse) implicate a figure outside of, or behind the work itself – a nervous stage actor and a God of some sort made only of words, respectively. They throw the body outside of itself, straight through the membrane between subject and object, inverting its gaze.
It is with the intimacy of soap that this dual relationship is created – it is not an outward representation of the figure, but one that is constructed from inside of the body. It is the relationship that Julien Creuzet evokes in the final sentence of his title: “Him [you / I / we] inside, a turd covered in bubbles, my sex lying underwater in the plastic bottle”.
In a way, there is no figure or body at all – only the bits that get left behind, and the bits that get taken with it. It is only ever partially visible: cloaked in curtains and semi-translucent membranes or traced out but long gone; imprinted through blood, earth, sweat and soap scum, bra cups and laddered tights; waterlogged and inaccessible; enamelled out of existence; obscured with dollops of paint or barely painted at all.
It is characterised by such absence – still receiving a gaze, but this gaze is configured with so much more nuance than the tasteful, edible nude. It is the unaffected gaze on an embarrassed child, a wife searching for her husband, a theatre audience; of Dr Frankenstein or God or history itself.