RedBrick Artspace: 'JCAF Presents: Women Artists of the Global South'

Published 14 November 2022 in Insights

Red Brick Artspace

'JCAF Presents: Women Artists of the Global South'

By Lucelle Bernadette Pillay

RedBrick Artspace - Articles

Published 07 November 2022

Inhabiting Forest Town’s former electrical tram shed and substation that was in operation in the early to mid twentieth century, emerges the sleek 'Johannesburg Contemporary Art Foundation (JCAF)'. Housed behind impressively scaled oxidized solid metal facades, lies a sensitively renovated redbrick service building of the old order. Echoes of the tram rails, now sculpturally reconceptualized as a corridor to the main entrance. The frontage presents with sheets of double-glazed glass supported by a modernist black steel grid. The warmly lit interior spaces visible behind the glass, beckon the curious visitor to explore further.

As the old municipal structure is usurped  by the new, JCAF stands as an architectural metaphor for becoming a beacon within the locally emerging global arena of visual art academic research, museum exhibitions and technology. It describes itself as a non-profit hybrid with an intention to promote the appreciation of modern and contemporary art by stimulating production, sharing and preservation of knowledge. Their current exhibition which exemplifies their mission, is entitled ‘Modernist Identities’ and brings together three integral  female artists from the Global South, namely Frida Kahlo, Amrita Sher-Gil and Irma Stern. A small group tour hosted by the charismatic Emeka Ntone Edjabe takes patrons on an interesting and informative sojourn of the historical context, influences and methodologies of these three enigmatic women.

My point of access to JCAF relates to my PhD research, which focuses on local ‘Indian South African Identities within the Visual Arts’, set against the contemporary tide of global changes. In keeping with their ethos of academic research, JCAF has provided me with three divergent visual narratives, embodied in the life and work of Kahlo, Sher-Gil and Stern. The commonality being that these artists resided in the Southern peripheries of the planet, each an active creative agent, working within the complex and tumultuous socio-political realities of Mexico, India and South Africa during the early to mid twentieth century. Their work bearing visual testament to the Modernist aesthetic, sparks a vibrant, intellectual discourse of how ethnicity, place, gender and culture can inform the construction of female identity.

As global artistic tides, heavily agitated by European sentiment ebbs towards a hinterland or undefined limbo. JCAF affords us a retrospective of the neglected voices, whose narratives have significant sway in how we forge inclusive contemporary art platforms locally. The exhibit highlights how the 'female portrait-artist disrupts the ‘visual politics of representation’ which resided within the domain of the male gaze.

Kahlo’s German-Spanish ethnicity, Sher-Gil’s Hungarian-Indian heritage and Stern’s German-Jewish ancestry are relevant to the 'complexities of multicultural global discourse'. Academics such as Durban-born Professor Sarat Maharaj (1999:1) and Indian-born, Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (De Kock, 1992:41) de-shroud notions of ‘post-colonial diversity and multiculturalism’ from the perspective of a marginalised Indian minority, as 'cloaked essentialism' managed by modernist entities for their own ends. JCAF had recently hosted another very pertinent and resonant voice, that of Arjun Appadurai, who unpacks the complexities of 'universalism' within the global age and its impact on minorities and subaltern identities. All conversations worth having within the context of these three female artists.

Revisionist art literature may find the inclusion of Irma Stern’s ‘Watussi Woman in Red’ (See figure 8) as highly problematic. This is due to a post-apartheid, decolonial stance that denounces the representation of black people by white artists in post-apartheid South Africa. Similar issues abound in the work, ‘Portrait of an Indian woman’ (See Figure 9. *'Note that this painting is not included in this exhibit') which sold for R6.6 million at an auction in Cape Town. Sterns female subject’s avert their gaze from the viewer, they appear passive and disengaged, having no democracy over the representation of their semblance. Stern subverts the sitters personality in favour of an impasto application of brushstrokes and the organisation of colour and compositional elements, reducing the subjects to a German expressionistic still-life. Stern as a product of her socio-political context, whose artwork not only exists as a visual production of her sitters identities, it inadvertently reveals more about her identity and attitude toward them. Appadurai (2004: 121) states that ethnic marginals become engrossed in the melancholy of uncertainties, acting as a mirror to 'white fears' of the loss of status and national identity.