Ambitious project sees Southern African art on show in Mexico

'Crossing Night' explores the two regions' shared postcolonial histories and artistic attitudes to death, writes Sean O'Toole

09 December 2018 - 00:00 By Sean O'Toole

At just 28, Francisco Berzunza, a former cultural attaché to Mexico's embassy in SA, has pulled off something audacious: the first group exhibition of Southern African artists in Mexico.
"Exhibition" is an understatement for what this thin, lightly bearded Mexican has achieved with Crossing Night. A sprawling project that includes artist residencies, community workshops and talks, Crossing Night kicked off in early November with five exhibitions.
Two are group presentations of mostly South African art that explores the theme of death, while the remainder are solo outings by William Kentridge and photographers Jo Ractliffe and Pieter Hugo.
The five exhibitions occupy four plum venues in Oaxaca (pronounced as "wuh-hah-kuh"), a vibrant city in the valleys of southern Mexico. Picture Bo-Kaap relocated to Grahamstown/Makhanda. Oaxaca is famous for its Zapotec textiles, boutique mezcal distillers and ritzy eateries.
Berzunza was, however, drawn to Oaxaca by its many new museums. His two group shows, which showcase works by three generations of South African artists including Helen Sebidi, Santu Mofokeng, Zanele Muholi and Haroon Gunn-Salie, are installed in two former Dominican monasteries now functioning as art centres, Santo Domingo and San Pablo.
Kentridge's much-travelled video installation, More Sweetly Play the Dance (2015), which depicts a cast of silhouetted figures including a brass band marching across eight screens, is showing at the San Agustín Arts Centre. This former textile mill in the mountain village of Etla is a fitting venue for Kentridge's elegiac film.
Etla is the best place in Mexico to view the country's spirited Day of the Dead festivities. During this three-day pause from normality, which kicks off annually on October 31, Etla locals dress up in ghoulish costumes festooned with bells and mirrors, and dance to the sounds of a brass band.
Three days before the launch of Kentridge's film, a group of slack-jawed South African artists - including Hugo, Ractliffe, Jared Ginsburg, Georgina Gratrix and Penny Siopis - watched the mezcal-fuelled celebrations. The presence of these artists, and Angolan Tiago Borges, was integral to Berzunza's plans for Crossing Night.
Berzunza said he conceived this ambitious project, his first foray into exhibition making, as a way to explore Mexico and Southern Africa's shared postcolonial histories. Mostly, though, his interest was in exploring South African artistic attitudes to death.
In two heated public exchanges shortly before Crossing Night opened, he spoke more plainly about his project, describing Crossing Night as a "personal exhibition" that involved "fulfilling my commitments to the people who were so generous to me during my stay in SA". It was also about "building bridges and opportunities", he said.
To this end Berzunza's foundation, which unintentionally shares its name with Turkey's homophobic interior minister, Idris Naim, invited artists to spend time in Oaxaca.
Siopis worked on a series of paintings made from cochineal, a red pigment derived from a scale insect that feeds on prickly pear cacti. The pigment was a source of great wealth in 18th-century Oaxaca.
Gratrix shrugged off news that her floral still life, I Love You All the Time (2011), had sold for a world record R591,760 at a Johannesburg auction, and simply painted marigold flowers. In the lead-up to the Day of the Dead, locals in Oaxaca create elaborate altars festooned with marigolds, sugarcane leaves, fruit and bread.
Earlier this year, Hugo, whose vivid colour work is on view at the Álvarez Bravo Photographic Centre, spent a month in Oaxaca. He photographed a Passion play in a prison and a theatre group who work with garbage collectors at a local market. He also posed a man he met in a mezcal bar naked astride a donkey and set a cactus bush on fire.
Tamar Garb, a Cape Town-born art historian, said of Hugo's new work that it was "completely saturated with the history of art". Hugo was more tentative, admitting that he was still uncertain about the meaning of his new work, though he conceded: "I came out of a photojournalist tradition. The one thing I've kept from that is being an outsider."
"Do you feel vulnerable in these situations?" wondered Garb of his portraits of transgender sex workers. Yes, admitted Hugo, who "works quickly" to get around it.
One artist who can't work quickly anymore is Ractliffe. Her life was altered by a spinal injury three years ago, days before her 2015 solo exhibition opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Ractliffe's visit to Oaxaca was her first big trip abroad since learning to walk again.
"For a time this injury was at the forefront of everything," said Ractliffe. "I felt mixed up with the dead. There are good things to be found there. But of course the real struggle inside is to untether the world of the dead from the world of the living, to make life anew, in this world."
An idiosyncratic survey of her black-and-white photos, starting with a photo of a dead crow made in 1986 and incorporating photos made in Angola, Ractliffe's exhibition is a highlight. It evidences photography's ability to transform the mundane - a burial mound, a headless bust - into something akin to myth.
Berzunza agreed to a business-class flight for Ractliffe to enable her easy passage to Mexico. He declined a similar request for VIP billing from Cinga Samson, a young painter whose enigmatic portraits blend whimsical pop references with a Gothic sensibility.
Samson, whose paintings have soared in value from nearly nothing to R250,000 in about the same time as Ractliffe's recovery, has two portraits on show. They are juxtaposed with Simphiwe Ndzube's The Rain Prayers. Ndzube's installation conjures a parade from a tangle of split poles, shoes, wigs, gloves and umbrellas sourced locally by the artist. The work is a remake of a 2016 piece shown in Cape Town shortly before he relocated to Los Angeles. It invoked the carnival spirit of Cape Town's annual minstrel festival, and also spoke to SA's crippling drought. Oaxaca has amplified the work's possibilities.
"I had no idea Francisco looked at it in a way that transcended what I'd done in 2016," said Ndzube during an interview with Crossing Night's co-curator, Ery Camara, an influential Senegal-born curator who moved to Mexico in 1975. "I was excited when he proposed this piece, especially in a town where there are celebrations that link to precolonial traditions and rituals."
Other noteworthy contributors to the group shows include Ernest Mancoba. Installed in a niche adjacent to Kemang wa Lehulere's 2016 drawing and sculpture installation Cosmic Interluded Orbit, Mancoba's untitled 1955 abstract painting is the oldest work on show.
Ancestors like Mancoba and sculptors Jackson Hlungwani, Samson Madzunga and Nelson Mukhuba fared better on the group shows. Mukhuba's wood skeleton from 1985 was a potent addition, as was Johannes Segogela's macabre Satan's Fresh Meat Market (1993), in which painted wood demons consume human figures.
At San Pablo, Tracey Rose's 42-minute video projection Die Wit Man (2015) presents the artist in costume walking 7km from WIELS, a contemporary art centre in Brussels, to the Church of Our Lady of Laeken, where Belgium's royal family are interred in a crypt. Throughout the walk she chants the name of Congo's murdered prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.
One of the accusations pitched at Crossing Night was its lack of representation of young black women. "It was a major oversight and I regret it substantially," said Berzunza.
Berzunza refuses the titles "artistic director" or "chief curator", preferring the neutral term "facilitator". "Precocious millennial" also fits this smarty-pants in the mould of Holden Caulfield and Max Fischer - fictional archetypes of the cocksure romantic growing into their own skin.
The son of a former government minister, Berzunza attended boarding school in England. He has two master's degrees, one from the University of Cape Town.
Crossing Night represents his ambitious play to start a biennial art project in Oaxaca.
His project happened because of WhatsApp and the goodwill of a tight circle of friends, including up-and-coming actor Dario Bernal, younger brother of film star Gael Garcia Bernal.
"Oh, so I should be seen with you," joked Ractliffe over lunch at Restaurante Catedral.
"If you want to improve your Instagram following, yes," quipped Bernal.
A marching band playing songs composed by Cape Town musician Philip Miller heralded the well-received opening of Crossing Night. As was the style of this project, Miller was invited to participate two weeks before the opening. This meant previewing the brass band in a thunderstorm days before the opening parade and clipping sheet music to the collars of band members for the procession - there were no lyres (music pegs) to be had in Oaxaca.
Interpretations of Crossing Night will likely vary. For my part, I agree with a local street dog known for its love of parades. It followed the South African spectacle as it briefly overflowed into the streets of Mexico's ambitious city of art and culture, loudly barking its approval.

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