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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Emma Taggart: Detached: Colour in Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta’s Paintings

Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta, 20turn, 2009, acrylic on board, 90 x 90cm
Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta’s subject matter comes from his immediate environment, the city of Port Elizabeth, in particular his home, the township of New Brighton. Sapeta captures in his work the alienation and confusion often symptomatic of city life. In particular, he is interested in the power relations that exist in the city environs between people that appear to have everything and people that exist on the fringes of society. His work was selected for discussion because of the manner in which he uses colour to represent this dichotomy: the powerful and corrupt are marked by bright primary colours that burst with violent energy while the destitute shrink into muted backgrounds of faded green and purple.

This use of colour to describe these two extremes is most clearly seen in two corresponding series, Window-dress puppet masters (2005) and The Bombarded (2007). Both series had their origins in Sapeta’s exhibition Window-dress puppet master vs. Institution chicken boy (2005) exhibited in Port Elizabeth. The “puppet masters” represent Sapeta’s perceived oppressors. These characters, drawn predominantly from apartheid history, were, as art journalist Jeanne Wright describes, “captains of white society and commerce who under apartheid circumscribed, controlled and dominated the working lives” of black South Africans. Sapeta describes his “chicken boys” as people who are so disempowered that they will accept any abuse, do what they are told and never complain. These characters became Sapeta’s “bombarded”.

Sapeta was born in 1967 and has worked most of his life in Port Elizabeth. His first formal tuition happened in Saturday classes run by George Pemba during the mid-1970s. His work first got broader recognition through the assistance of Cathy Binnell who opened a gallery in 1991 for black township artists to exhibit work. Through this exposure, Sapeta was introduced to Cleone Cull from the Port Elizabeth Technikon Art School who later arranged for him to enrol in 1995. In 1997 Sapeta contracted TB and had to leave the art school. He attributes his experience of being confined, sick, to a single room in the student residence for his current work. Sapeta drew his fragile wasting body in the long narrow mirror provided for him in the university residential room. Using his then failing body as a reference, Sapeta started thinking critically about power relations in the city.

In the Window-dress puppet masters series the “puppet master” characters are positioned at the bottom left hand corner of the painting, uncomfortably off-centre and looking upward, subservient to the colour field around them. In some cases the characters show signs of distress, like the Windowdress puppet master 3 (2005) who is depicted bleeding from his nose. Wright describes Sapeta’s colours as “bilious yellow” and “heated scarlet”. Her choice of adjectives perfectly describes the sinister quality of Sapeta’s colours. They are too bright, like florescent lights in a hospital corridor, sterile and oppressive in their intense luminosity. The tension in these works is intensified by the visual competition between the foreground and the background. In Window-dress puppet master 3 this is emphasised by the use of the complimentary colours: red and green. Colour pulls apart rather than unifies the different elements in the painting.

The Bombarded series is distinct from the Windowdress puppet masters series, not only in colour but also in form. In the former, depth is created using the elements of the city’s architecture, which recede towards a vanishing point. The depth however offers no protection for Sapeta’s destitute figures and rather emphasises the “bombarded” figure’s alienation in their environment. In these paintings buildings, telephone poles and electrical lines loom over Sapeta’s destitute figures.

Billboards are used by Sapeta to represent how the city as an economic hub turns people into consumers and in the process, consume those living within its boundaries. Sapeta takes a particular stance in this work against consumerism. Many of the figures in The Bombarded are the antithesis of modern consumer image. Sapeta has painted his bombarded figures as brown ghosts on dirty purple background; they queue beneath a billboard that promises but does not deliver a better life. The city has not fulfilled the bombarded’s dreams; rather they stand defeated, destitute and lost in their environment; consumed and spat out.

In both series Sapeta uses large non-natural flat colour backgrounds. Asked why, Sapeta started by describing his living conditions: the distance between the back of his studio and the boundary wall of his property is about four metres. He related the colour canvas to a need for space. His canvases emphasise the very lack of space that Sapeta, in a recent interview, describes as “the way that the township is designed”. In Window-dress puppet masters the colour expels the figure out of the canvas, where in The Bombarded the figures shrink in relation to the large colour fields. The large dull colour fields emphasise the lack of hope, substance or will of the figures in this foreground.

Sapeta emphasises the importance that aesthetics plays throughout the process of painting. He attributes his sense of colour and aesthetics to his formal training. Sapeta is very aware when he paints of the effects different colours have on the viewer. He is therefore very particular about selecting the correct colour for an image and he may change the colour many times on one painting before he is happy. Sapeta has previously described his work as “post-pop surrealism”, admittedly under duress to a reporter in 2009. The “label”, as he called it at the time, does offer an intriguing avenue along which to continue discussing Sapeta’s use of colour in relation to his subject matter.

What distinguishes Sapeta’s work from Pop Art is that no delight exists in Sapeta’s work for consumerism. The bright lights of pop reflecting the rise of consumerism culture in Britain and the US become in Sapeta’s work glaring, unbearable and faded. In an article on Andy Warhol’s work, Donald Kuspit, comments on the relationship between death and the city, linking this to Warhol’s obsession with printing scenes of death. He describes the city as loving death; he gives the “fast pace and inhuman scale” as examples of the city’s rejection of human life. In The Bombarded Sapeta also compares the inhuman scale of city architecture with figures in his paintings.

Ashraf Jamal, in an article on Conrad Botes, reiterates the sense of death within some Pop Art, arguing that it is not about new optimism, but rather “a trope for a deadly cultural economy”. Jamal further describes Pop Art as a “phenomenon that renounces the human” and marks the shift towards the virtual world of modern consumerism. Similar sentiments are apparent in Sapeta’s work. Some of the works in the Window-dress puppet masters are edged with a black border reminiscent of looking at an image on an old TV screen. The luminosity of the bright colours and the lack of space in the paintings can be interpreted as in-human and virtual in nature. The puppet masters are present on the TV screen as the bombarded fade into the background as shadows.

In a virtual world of brazen colours, Sapeta’s downcast are alienated, small and detached. While involving himself with the task of painting power relations in the city, Sapeta had revealed through the use of colour and structure of his canvases how the city, the backdrop of consumer society, has alienated, detached and thrown out the human, turning the human into shadow while creating caricatures or puppets out of those who are empty enough to be televised. Sapeta’s work in these two series speaks not to power relations between people but to power relations between the city and people. His work reveals the detached human in a posthuman environment.

Emma Taggart is a curator at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum, Port Elizabeth 

Penny Haw, Painting the world outside his front door, Business Day Art, June 5, 2009, p.12. 
Ashraf Jamal, The Rat in Art: Conrad Botes, Pop, and the Posthuman (Cape Town: Erdmann Contemporary, 2004). 
Donald Kuspit, ‘Warhol’s Catholic Dance with Death’, in Redeeming Art: Critical Reveries (New York: Allworth Press, 2000). 
Mxolisi Dolla Sapeta, interview with artist, February 12, 2010. Jean Wright, ‘Mxolisi Sapeta’, Art South Africa, Vol. 3(2), p.74.

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