It’s time to touch wood

Exhibition at the Kim Sacks Gallery provides new perspectives on what you can do with wood

10 July 2024 - 11:49
By Robyn Sassen
Touch Wood Installation featuring works by Leila Walter (woven tapestry), Allan Schwarz, Geoffrey Armstrong and Paul Kristafor (vessels).
Image: Kim Sacks Touch Wood Installation featuring works by Leila Walter (woven tapestry), Allan Schwarz, Geoffrey Armstrong and Paul Kristafor (vessels).

A little naked wooden lady sits in a glass container. Her gaze is head-on. She wears flip-flops. This distinguishes her from anything you might anticipate from traditional Ewe society in Ghana, from which she originates. You might need to look for her carefully in Touch Wood, a curated exhibition of work on show at the Kim Sacks Gallery in Parktown North, Johannesburg but it will be a very rewarding search.

African art in the contemporary exhibiting space in South Africa is heir to conflicting values and often confusion on the part of the audience. It’s about the violence of how colonisers acquired objects from Africa and the art-craft debate, which for centuries has separated objects made many years ago in Africa from an accessible understanding of what art is.

Together with that distinction between art and not-art came a release of objects from within a social-anthropological containment and a subsequent bending over backwards towards objects made in a traditional African context, whether they were aesthetically fine or not. And genuine or not. Ultimately, it was the politics of urgently redressing past ignorance that opened patronising tourists’ pockets to buying things that were African-made, but not necessarily well-made, beautiful or sophisticated.

Enter Kim Sacks. The founder of the space, curator of the exhibition and a maker of objects in her own capacity, she has been on the art-making scene for decades and remains arguably one of South Africa’s best set of eyes in terms of recognising the magnificently made.

The show, couched in a purpose-built exhibition space behind the gallery itself, confronts the opened can of problematic worms the melding of traditional African art with contemporary works has always been for art aficionados. Only it faces the issues with candour. And rather than tiptoeing around the politics of poverty and pity, it proudly celebrates the unequivocally beautifully made.

Here everything is made of wood, or a wood derivative. This enables the extraordinary and ancient milk jugs from the Tutsi community in the Congo, their cracks and seams mended lovingly with pieces of metal, to sit alongside bowls made of coconut wood by Allan Schwarz, the Mozambique-based founder of the Mezimbite Forest Centre. Cattle and hedgehogs meticulously created from the roots of the jacaranda and the albizia (known as muriranyenze in Shona) by Lameck Tayengwa, who originates from Zimbabwe, are backed by raw silk drops printed with plant material by self-described botanical nomad Ira Bekker.

Cow by Lameck Tayengwa made of jacaranda root.
Image: Kim Sacks Cow by Lameck Tayengwa made of jacaranda root.

There’s a gorgeous example of the work of Wides Mtshali from the Hluhluwe region of KwaZulu-Natal, celebrating the splendour of a pineapple with pokerwork and leaves that point in all directions. There’s a comb from the Ewe people of Ghana that would make the exercise of combing your hair into a sacred ritual.

The titular phrase “touch wood” touches on belief systems and hope, and the exhibition itself takes these values with a robustness that doesn’t allow the ideas to sink into whimsical platitudes. Here, you can really grasp the issues that matter. Everything in the show derives from plants, including the finely folded drawings by Maia Levan Lehr-Sacks. There are easily more than 200 pieces in this pristine space, but there is a principle of Feng Shui — or simple respect, perhaps for each object on show here — that gives each the breathing space it warrants to hold its own.

Unlike other contexts where similar objects from Africa are often squeezed together on display, here not one of the works has to vie for your attention. As you walk through the space, the deep and rich odour of the vetiver roots from Madagascar in nests woven by human hand rather than birds filters through your sensibilities, you feel an urge — maybe a spiritual one, or one conjured up by the breathing spaces between the works on show — to stop and imbibe each object, whether it is a spoon or a bowl, a bird or a wild dog.

Woven tapestry by Leila Walter and turned vessels by Allan Schwarz and Paul Kristafor.
Image: Kim Sacks Woven tapestry by Leila Walter and turned vessels by Allan Schwarz and Paul Kristafor.

The curious thing about the space, which you cannot access by popping your head into the building’s front gallery that serves to show other bodies of work, is that it exists as a perfectly self-contained bubble away from the busy noisiness of Jan Smuts Avenue. As you enter the main space, through Zanzibari door frames and a frontage that evokes Malian architecture, coupled with a flaming bougainvillea, to the sound of cattle bells, it is like you have entered another world. A sacred one.

The beautiful show, which is unabashedly commercial, but is not interrupted by the presence of labels or prices, is replete with the kind of highlights that will shift your perspectives on what is possible to make with wood. This is wood that has been adored, polished to a sheen, turned on a lathe to be paper thin but robust enough to stand its own ground. This is wood that draws from all over Africa, embraced, listened to, understood.  

• Touch Wood is on at the Kim Sacks Gallery in Parktown North until August 31.