Levitating canvases – layered with brush strokes. Interwoven narratives and dust-laden histories. Display cases bursting with aged newspaper clippings – offer captured moments of an otherwise forgotten history. Ancient objects adjacent contemporary works, working a magic between them. An enthralling juncture of myth and mystery.
Spellbinders: Myths, Mysteries and Hidden Treasures opened on Sunday to the public at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Curated by Tara Weber and Philippa van Straaten, this exhibition unearths secrets and truths with a wicked sense of humour. One of the very effective qualities of their curatorial strategy is the full integration of both historic and contemporarywork from the vast breadth of the collection. This in turn creates at rich and dynamic exhibition.
On entering the museum, several works are suspended, displaying paintings in which both sides of the canvas have been painted on. This form of display allows the viewer to access a traditionally unseen treasure. A Picasso is mounted on one of the walls – it was a highly controversial acquisition in 1974. Beside it is a framed drawing of the piece made by two young boys, Ross and Robert, entitled My Child Could Do That! – as an attempt to replicate the Picasso. A display case filled with archival clippings hosts newspaper titles like, Piccasso upsets Nats, and Picasso clown leaves viewers agog. This tongue-in-cheek approach also highlights the importance of generating context through the archive.
This level of self-reflexivity and criticality is also applied to the founders of the gallery, Lord and Lady Phillips. Two iconic portraits of them stand proud at one of the entrances to the Phillips Gallery. A fairly traditional oil painting of Lady Phillips by Antonio Mancini (1909) is countered by the contemporary work of Johannes Pokela (2015). In Pokela’s imagining of the patroness, she appears in a state of semi-disheveled undress – lounging on a chaise with one hand holding a feather fan and the other placed delicately on an ‘African’ sculpture. This satirical image alludes to the agenda and motivation behind the Phillips’ interest in art as a means to achieve cultural prowess and ‘educate’ the colonial population. In the corner of the panting is a portrait of her husband – the same one displayed in the gallery beside her. Tara Weber believes that these complex histories ought to be discussed openly rather than brushed under the carpet for convenience.
Moments of the exhibition also dissect intersecting mythologies. An early 19th century woodcut print of the goddess Benten by Kiyosanto is placed adjacent to Janiet’s Venus and Tracy Rose’s Venus Baartman (from the series Ciao Bella). This triangulation of images across time, medium and culture show an intersection of feminine ideals and the power if the goddess architype. “Through these artworks and objects, the similarities shared across all cultures of the world reveal themselves to us, along with their fascinating histories. Often theses hidden stories tell us not only more about objects, but also more about us as human beings.”
Spellbinders also features 18th century fans, ceramics and an elephant skull – as well as the likes of Gerard Sekoto, Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and a plethora of other artists. This layered and nuanced approach to curating highlights the importance and power of display to shape the imagination.
“Myth is neither a lie nor a confession: it is an inflection.” – Roland Barthes