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Cape Town exhibition challenges the way gender norms have shaped the creation of art

31 January 2017 - 12:22 By Mary Corrigall
Barend de Wet's 'Beyond the Colour Line'.
Barend de Wet's 'Beyond the Colour Line'.
Image: Supplied

The group exhibition, 'Women's Work: crafting stories, subverting narratives', is well overdue.

Since around the mid-noughties artists have been employing textiles in their art or resorting to traditional craft techniques.

Think Nicholas Hlobo, who at first treated rubber as a fabric, binding it with pink ribbons, before embroidering abstract patterns on a canvas. Or what of Lawrence Lemaoana whose practice continues to rely on crafting political statements with Kanga printed fabrics.

As these two examples suggest, and numerous works by male artists (Athi-Patra Ruga, Igshaan Adams, Siwa Mgoboza, Pierre Fouche, Barend de Wet and Mark Rautenbach) included in this Iziko SA National Gallery exhibition, imply, the adoption of textiles in art creation has represented a desire to challenge the way in which gender norms have shaped art production.

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As the title wryly implies, craft techniques are no longer viewed as ''women's work" and the application of them is considered ''art".

Have male artists legitimised ''women's art"?

In a way, it seems fitting that men's liberation has relied on a vocabulary female artists used as their tool of emancipation in the world of art in the 1960s in the US.

However, there are a number of motivating factors behind this craft/textile turn in contemporary South African art. It counters a digital visual culture, where images are generated en masse and in seconds.

How do you begin to create art in this context? Well, by embroidering, weaving or other labour intensive forms artists are able to reinvest the element of ''time and work" into producing visual forms.

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Certainly this has been the case for Pierre Fouche who evolved a practice employing dated lace-making techniques to reinterpret snapshots.

In two tapestries dubbed 'Invitation, Presentation, Induction' and 'The Glamouring of the Versatile Ivy', Athi-Patra Ruga draws not only from the painterly traditions of Irma Stern and fashion photography but the traditional narrative function - each tapestry presents a historic moment in the evolution of a fictional tale of a Utopian African society.

Adams, Hlobo, Barend De Wet, Liza Grobler and Gina Waldman deny the demand for narrative, embracing abstract compositions in which the tactile qualities of the medium, the textures, colours of the threads drive their expression. Not only are the ''stories" they tell seemingly unclear, but the complex tangle of threads they present in their work suggests the political or social status quo, or indeed their place in it, cannot be clearly plotted.

De Wet's scrambled neon wool work titled 'Beyond the Colour Line' (pictured above), embodies this resistance towards clearly delineating identity via ''threads", overturning the identity-based photographic art practice of the '90s. De Wet's artwork is so visually compelling that the chaotic state it presents is more calming than disorientating.

There are so many ''threads" to this textile turn in South African art and important ones have been omitted in this exhibition.

•  'Women's Work: crafting stories, subverting narratives', an exhibition curated by Ernestine White and Olga Speakes, is at Iziko South African National Galley, Cape Town, until April 30 2017.

• This article was originally published in The Times.

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