Christiaan Diedericks' new art exhibit poses tough questions for post-'94 SA

The artist's 50th solo exhibition, 'In Search of a New King', is a call for our country to heal

26 May 2019 - 00:00 By Ang Lloyd

In Search of a New King is Christiaan Diedericks' 50th solo show and his second at The Melrose Gallery in Johannesburg. His latest work - which includes everything from huge monotypes to delicate ceramic plates - explores themes that sit uncomfortably in post-apartheid SA such as racism, white privilege, colonialism and corruption.
One can be forgiven for initially thinking that Diedericks is simply giving a hat tip to the prerequisite -isms of 2019. In Search of a New King is - to use millennial parlance - decidedly "woke", but, spend a little time with the works and layers upon layers of meaning start to emerge.
The title of the exhibition is taken from the song Without Blame, a duet by Ismael Lo and Marianne Faithfull. "I am gone, gone with the wind, I am gone in search of a new king," they sing; not only did these lyrics spark the idea for Diedericks' latest body of work, but they also capture his political homelessness in SA today.
For many years Diedericks, a gay, white Afrikaner, voted for the ANC, but he did not vote in this election. "There's not one party who I believe will make a difference," he says. "I'm completely in search of a new king - or queen."
Diedericks is one of the country's pre-eminent printmakers, and the work on display is testament to that. The exhibition, which is curated by Melissa Goba, includes a number of large-scale, single-edition monotypes.
Essentially unique printed paintings, Diedericks uses a plexiglass plate as his canvas, and after painting and drawing on the plate, the image is transferred onto dampened paper via the pressure of a printing press. It's a process that requires precision as well as speed: there's a one-day window in which to print the image, because as soon as the paint dries on the plate the image can't be transferred.
The centrepiece of In Search of a New King is a monstrous 2.5m-wide monotype entitled These Bones will Rise Again. It's Diedericks' most technically challenging work to date: it took weeks of planning and had to be printed in three panels over three days, as his press was not big enough to accommodate its size.

The title of this work is borrowed from the eponymous book by Zimbabwean author Panashe Chigumadzi, which is a response to the November 2017 ousting of Robert Mugabe. The monotype depicts a young black man in an unbuttoned shirt, and in the background are lines of skulls. He's holding a crowned skull above his head; the movement of hands to head is captured in what looks like red blood splatter tinged with gold.
It's a macabre coronation that has multiple interpretations: is the man crowning himself anew, rising from the ashes of colonial atrocities? Or is he the quintessential African dictator, proclaiming himself king and about to repeat the horrors of a violent history?
In Search of a New King asks many questions, including a question that often comes up at white, middle-class dinner tables: "What is wrong with Africa?"
Diedericks maintains he doesn't have any answers. Instead he provides multiple and rich narratives within each work, leaving it up to us to see what we see. In Penitence, Weight, and Redemption, his figures emerge from textured darkness in swirls and stains of colour.
"Those are the layers of a skewed history," he explains. "They are the stains that we as white people - specifically white heterosexual men - left on the world, on fellow South Africans, and on each other."Diedericks takes a gentle approach with this body of work. There's often a devil's advocate at play but he is able to provoke debate about contentious topics in a sensitive manner - something that is, at times, sorely lacking within the contemporary SA arts scene.
Most importantly, he says, In Search of a New King is about healing.
"It's about finding ways to embrace the past, present and future without causing more pain; we have to move on, we have no alternative," he adds. "Our ship is sinking and we're going to kill each other if we don't."
• 'In Search of a New King' is at The Melrose Gallery, Joburg, until June 9...

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