Friday, March 5, 2010

My View: Made By Hand in Black and White
Robyn Sassen

Robyn Sassen: A cow lies on her side, grinning through blackened lips, her tail a switch of straw. She sets the tone for this extraordinary show of fine craft.

Made of Mpengende wood from KwaZulu-Natal, butter-like in colour and smoothness, by Sibusiso Gumede and Widus Mtshali, this cow's one of the delightful treasures in this wonderland exhibition of some of the finest craft you can imagine, from this continent.

Turning away from the cow, you're assailed by the gaze of a similarly made meerkat, with a lizard-like creature in its mouth, front paws outstretched to you beseechingly. But then the bolshiness and seamlessness of Ian Garrett's pots, sensitive derivations on the traditional Zulu beer pot, shout to you with their utter technical perfection.

The engaging insanity of a nest of wholly impractical tea accoutrements, from cups and saucers on spindly legs to teapots evoking buildings, by architect-turned-potter Carolyn Heydenrych, will turn your head and grab the focus of your tea parties. This potter has also made paper-thin vessels: there're drawings on them in black-on initial careless perusal, these nervous, scratchy images evoke those in Madeline, children's books published from 1939 and written and illustrated by Ludwig Bemelmans. But no: there are naked women's bodies on them, mad and witty in their ambiguous directness. As you look at them, other Zulu beer pots-ones by Jabu Nala-nudge the corner of your eye. They are beautifully satisfying in their perfection, they nourish your soul by dint of their simple presence.

Lisa Firer presents breath-haltingly spectacular porcelain bowls. They're made of small quadrangular flat pieces of white clay, layered upon themselves. The work is so delicate, it seems as though a careless breath would dissolve them, sending each stamp-sized piece of fine clay into the spirit world from where she retrieved them: the work holds your eye with the same kind of "look at me" insistence that you'd hear from a magnificent piece of lace.

Playing delicately and innovatively with the interface between black and white lines is a large series of diversely shaped vessels by Madoda Fani. They stand above a veritable herd of beaded Monkeybiz creatures, hilariously bovine in their glance and gesture, in black and white, but for an odd muzzle or eyeball in red. Then there are embroidered scatter cushions, bolts and bolts of Malian mud-cloth, dyed with a world famous resist technique, developed in this ancient land-locked repository of desert values by the Dogon people, with bold geometry characteristic of the culture.

From tiny crocheted whorls, threaded together to form table- or bodily decoration, to great big pots made of coils of carefully moulded mud, to commercially printed bags by the plenty, mounted on the arched wall of the gallery, to the myriad of tea cups, jugs, saucers and bowls, with walls thick and thin, in black and white, and surprising and delicious combinations of the two, this is an utterly wonderfully cluttered exhibition, which pays no heed to the modernist values of the white cube gallery space. Eleven years in this space, Kim Sacks still manifests one of the best sets of eyes and sensibilities for recognising beautiful work from all over this continent, as close to perfection as possible. The show deliciously reeks of committed work ethic and will enable you to begin your year on the kind of adrenalin rush that comes of owning something you will love forever.

Exhibition: "Made by Hand in Black and White: An exhibition of Fine Craft" (Kim Sacks Gallery, Rosebank, 011 447 5804).
Artists: Over 40 ceramicists, embroiderers, photographers, wood carvers, fabric dyers, crocheters and makers of beautiful objects.
Until: January 22.

Robyn Sassen
011 886 0162
084 319 7844

Robyn Sassen started grown-up life as a printmaker, got seduced by the idea of making drawings on plywood, and then shifted paradigmatically from wood to words. She has degrees from Wits and Unisa and currently freelances as an arts journalist and academic. A perfectionist and one who enjoys a catholic taste in literature and music, Robyn has an insatiable passion for cryptic crossword puzzles, complicated knitting patterns, her Art Deco coffee table, with which she shares her flat in Johannesburg and an etching press in Grahamstown called 'Wilfred'.

She has been writing on the arts since the early 1990s, beginning with academic book reviews and diversifying into reviewing the performed and visual arts when she started freelancing for the SA Jewish Report at its inception in 1998. Today, Robyn works as the Arts Editor for the SA Jewish Report. She also writes for a range of electronic and print platforms, with an arts-specific focus, including Art South Africa. She was regional editor for Artthrob between 2002 and 2004 and maintained a monthly column on between 2001 and 2004. In 2005, Robyn was shortlisted for the Arts and Culture Trust Arts Journalist of the Year Award. She was a judge for the Naledi Theatre Awards between 2004 and 2007. Since 2006, Robyn has been contributing to Cue newspaper, the Grahamstown National Arts Festival daily publication. In 2008 she was invited to be a judge for the Gauteng MEC Awards for Dance and Choreography.

Robyn also freelances as an academic, specialising in teaching South African contemporary art history and theory at several South African universities. She continues to keep up with her interest in printmaking, and was one of the delegates at Impact V, an international biennial conference in printmaking, held in Tallinn, Estonia, in 2007, and will be a delegate at Impact VI, in Bristol, United Kingdom, in 2009.

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