Creative Design: Sculptor turns gallery into a work of art

27 October 2015 - 02:09 By Sean O'Toole

In 2008, when Cape Town dealer Michael Stevenson moved his base of operations from cramped De Waterkant to edgy Woodstock, art audiences cooed with delight. His new retail space had cathedral-like high ceilings, bleached parquet flooring and seemingly endless rooms devoted to exhibition space. Over time, though, the thrill wore off as successive artists politely occupied the gallery with their stuff. But then along comes Burundian-born sculptor Serge Alain Nitegeka and shows us all what it means to creatively stage an occupation.Much of the delight of his new exhibition, titled Black Passage, comes from how he has reconfigured the gallery. Familiar passageways have been blocked off with raw timber, and new access points carved through the existing dry wall.The rudimentary maze that Nitegeka has constructed defines a new walking route through the gallery. The journey it invites is studded with his familiar boxish sculptures and paintings.The paintings are of two types: discrete hard-edged abstract works on raw timber (for sale) and large geometric blocks of colour (yellow, maroon, muted blues) painted directly onto the gallery walls.On evidence, you would think Nitegeka is a painter. He is, but also isn't.Nitegeka is a Wits graduate. Winner in 2008 of the Robert Hodgins Prize, an award given to a promising third-year student, and his mentor was sculptor Jeremy Wafer.In a 2011 interview Nitegeka spoke of how Wafer cultivated in him an "appreciation of form in space".Wafer, with whom Nitegeka is currently exhibiting in the South African Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, also encouraged his student to not overwork things."He taught me a philosophy of allowing things to unfold, of being patient with one's way of working, reminding me that it is a process."These lessons have come into perfect focus in his new exhibition. On one level, Black Passage is a canny distillation of diverse modernist tangents in painting: from Piet Mondrian's grid to Odili Donald Odita's jagged murals, via Cape Town homeboy Erik Laubscher's mid-century abstractions.But Nitegeka's paintings, which often reference his sculptural forms, also possess their own autonomy. They declare an ambition that has outgrown the limits of a frame...

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