In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Detached: The use of colour in Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta’s paintings by Emma Taggart

This paper will look at the use of colour by Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta in work he completed for the solo exhibitions “Window-dress puppet master vs Institution chicken boy” (2005) and “Detached” (2007).

In these exhibitions Sapeta acts like a dowsing stick zoning in on dark emotions found in the underbelly of the city environment. He captures in his work the alienation and confusion often symptomatic of city life. Along with his lonely figures he also paints the corrupted, power hungry and destitute.

Sapeta’s uses solid colours as a backdrop to create the sense of alienation in his work. The background colours range from acid yellow to green grey and murky blue. They offer no protection to the figures in the foreground, emphasizing rather than diminishing the figure’s alienation in their environment. The flat colour backgrounds expose the foreground figures, pushing them forward and leaving them vulnerable with no illusion of depth to retreat into.

The colours also dominate the canvas. Sapeta often paints his figures off to one side, creating the sense that the background colour has pushed the foreground figures into the corners of the work further alienating them from the painting.

If there is any depth in Sapeta’s work, it is created by elements of the city’s architecture which looms large over the figures. Tall buildings or telephone wires (a common feature in Sapeta’s work) create some depth by receding towards a vanishing point, but they too hang in an empty no man’s land of colour.

Sapeta’s use of non-natural colour and flat backgrounds is reminiscent of the move towards Abstraction in the western tradition of painting, and no doubt Sapeta has been influenced by these artworks. However, unlike the utopian ideals underlining much Abstract art, Sapeta’a work is about dystopia. The metaphysical, emotional or spiritual depth explored in Abstract art is subverted in Sapeta’s work by the disjuncture between his destitute figures and the colour behind them. The strong colour of the background alienates the foreground figures; they are out of sync with the background and feel superimposed. The background colour offers no insight into the emotions of the individual but rather clouds interpretation. It is the contrast between the strong unified colour in the background and the small alienated figures in the foreground that emphasises the lack (of substance, willpower, character etc) of the foreground figures. The solid colour is what makes them appear so desperate in their environment.

This paper will explore the relationship between colour and alienation in Sapeta’s work further making reference to use of colour in Abstract painting, and relating Sapeta’s work to other contemporary artists who use abstract colour in a way that is a subversion rather than imitation of Abstract painting from the Modern tradition of painting.

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