Nicola Kritzinger

Art Historian

What you need in the afterlife: Steven Cohen’s ‘put your heart under your feet… and walk!’ at Stevenson

Original article published on


Steven Cohen put your heart under your feet … and walk!, 2013-17. Ballet pointe shoe, found object (cuckoo clock)

‘Can I ask you a favour?’ Steven Cohen asks, as we sit on the floor amongst almost a hundred pointe ballet shoes. ‘Can you put lots of you into what you write? Because there’s hardly any of me left.’ I was concerned about writing on Cohen because I felt like everything I could possibly think to ask him had already been asked by someone else, and, like, in a way, it must be exhausting for him. He follows it up with, ‘I don’t have the answers that they want. What does it mean to you?’ I tell Cohen that I actually want to hear more about the human element behind the production, how he feels now, and how he felt while making the work, and he responds by enthusiastically whispering, ‘Fuck yeah! Don’t leave it to me to undo [my art].’

‘Put your heart under your feet… and walk!’ at Stevenson Joburg is in many ways what one has come to expect from his work. Beautiful, intense, shocking, sad: it made me feel an incredible range of emotions. The thing that struck me most deeply was the confrontation of loss and grief, of a love that exists somewhere without a place or space left to send it.The first exhibition space is filled with innumerable pink pointe ballet shoes. In context of his loss of his life-long love Elu, a ballet dancer, it’s hard not to feel heartbroken at the sight, yet simultaneously the shoes evoke a sense of joy and play. There is something about shoes – the way they tend to immediately represent the wearer, life and presence. And absence. A profound absence. ‘It’s weird,’ Cohen says, ‘to see my whole life splayed out on the floor.’

The shoes are all augmented with other objects, with dead old ladies’ flea market kitsch that Cohen has accumulated over his life. There is a sense of treacly nostalgia in the objects, but the combination with the shoes, and the sheer volume of the sculptures suggests a performative element. I imagine Cohen sitting in his apartment in Lille, France (the ‘Boksburg of France’ according to Cohen) screwing and gluing all the objects onto Elu’s shoes. One can almost feel the labour behind the making. Cohen’s shoe obsession is pertinent – in all of his performance works he wears vertiginous heels that inhibit his movement and clearly cause an immense amount of discomfort. The already devastatingly uncomfortable ballet pointes here are rendered unwearable by the amendments to their form. Ballet pointe shoes exist in a dichotomy between the grace and beauty of a performance – the precision and lightness – and the pain, the blood, the suffering that comes with practice in tortuous shoes in order to achieve the verisimilitude on stage.

The pair that strike me are Elu’s dirty practice pointes with little music boxes glued to them. There is something deeply haunting about the combination, a snippet of memory attached to the short ghostly tune played on one of these tiny hand-cranked boxes. Cohen’s work can feel like voyeurism. ‘The shoes are resonant with what you don’t see in the performance,’ Cohen says. ‘And there is actually a difference between shoes like rehearsal shoes and performance shoes. Performance shoes you wear for 15 minutes, rehearsal shoes you wear for hundreds of hours. The difference is immense for me. And I’m more interested in a saturated, dirty shoe like Elu’s with the music boxes. They are completely cooked because he never had money and he used them for like five years.’

The shoes remind me of funerary votives. I’ve studied Chinese burial objects from the Han dynasty for years, so it’s in my frame of reference, but each little personalized shoe looks like something that Elu might need in the afterlife, or that Cohen wishes for him to take along. There is a sense of time and labour in these sculptures that feels like a ritual task of exorcising memories and grief.

Steven Cohen put your heart under your feet … and walk!, 2013-17. Ballet pointe shoe, found object (family photographs)

Thematically the attachments on the shoes vary from religious memorabilia, ceramic ashtrays, weird creepy AWB crap, tree roots, animal bones, chandelier crystals, lace, beads, and a mummified cat. The quotidian, the profound and the absurd, all together, reading like a memoir.

The shoes are placed on very low plinths that barely separate them from the floor. It makes them feel more personal, instead of physically elevated into art objects by tall plinths alone. They transgress the space between the art and the human. Like shoes scattered on the floor of an untidy bedroom, they make the space and the shoes themselves feel lived in and loved. A simultaneous mourning and celebration, the shoes sit with me still.There are also videos of a performance piece in an abattoir.

Cohen said to me that he wanted to do a performance where he was died on because essentially, he’s been working through the fact that Elu ‘died on him.’ Quite literally and figuratively. Cohen stated that Elu hemorrhaged all his blood into the bathtub, and the abattoir work was about going into that.‘I don’t feel like I have the same body at all, since Elu died, and I thought it was because we shared a body and he took it. That’s why the work has to be real, visceral… tactile. I have to be in the blood, it couldn’t be all visual and aesthetic and associative. I even got it in my mouth by mistake, and I would never do that [on purpose], but I was glad [in a way] because I really know what it feels like to be died on.’

Steven Cohen put your heart under your feet … and walk! (Blood) 2017. Two-channel digital video, sound

I tell Cohen that it was very difficult to sit through his abattoir work. He interrupts me with a heartfelt apology, one that clearly comes from a space where he understands not only how difficult it is to watch it, but how difficult it was for him to experience it. The closeness and human engagement, the contrast between the workers and Cohen is what I can’t get out of my mind – Cohen sees the animals, but the workers don’t: they just see Cohen, they are seemingly completely desensitized to the horror of the abattoir.

Cohen hardly had to do anything to elicit the disgust that I felt watching the slaughter of these cows. But somehow, watching him writhe in the blood beneath a dying heifer was more than I could handle. We are so desensitized by violence and gore we’re exposed to through media but the scale and the stark reality of this scene was harrowing.

Cohen is concerned with exploitation and erasure – he is as concerned about the people working in the abattoir as he is with the animals that are being slaughtered. He speaks about his privilege of going home and washing, going home to a hotel space. Cohen is worried about exploiting the people in his situations and videos. He speaks about vigilance, and that he has grown to care deeply about ethics. He says that everyone wanted to know where he filmed it. About this he said, ‘I think that when people can’t deal with the issues they go to the technical aspects, because it takes out the risk of exposing ourselves. We are so loathe to expose ourselves. Me too!’The video has an aesthetic quality that, if you get past the content, is incredibly beautiful. Cohen spoke about the beauty of the fat, the whiteness, and the beauty of the redness of the blood, its viscosity and the ‘pornography of it.

This work is human, and gentle and that there is so much more than the shock or disgust that most people will feel and which is often played up by the media. The reaction to Cohen’s work is often extreme and it can be violent. After images of Cohen out of costume were published in French newspapers recently, he was physically assaulted. It makes me feel like we have to be more careful about how we receive and perceive things. Often people are too interested in the spectacle of Cohen, and they end up not engaging with the artwork.


Steven Cohen put your heart under your feet … and walk! (that time in Poland), 2013-17. Ballet pointe shoe, found object (hoofs)

Cohen ends off by saying that ‘Being looked at is fucking hard. It’s really unnerving, so I hate that, that’s why I always try not have pictures of me out of character.’ Using your body as your work really exposes you. People cannot tell the difference between the character and the human behind it, they cannot separate the fact from the fiction. He says about his art, ‘I challenge them, me, the system, the constructs, everything. If a work doesn’t scare me I don’t do it. So if I’m a bit more brave, it’s like, don’t use that against me.’

This exhibition is a homage to bravery. There is an immense courage in using your body and your personal things to create art about loss. It is brave, when you are grieving to just get up every day and carry on with the hope that someday it will hurt a little bit less. One day you won’t feel like a husk, like an empty shoe that will never be worn again. And one day your grief will just sit present within you, instead of consuming you.


Joburg Art Fair talks and discussions



Joburg Art Fair Talks 2017

Left to right: Penny Siopis, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, Sue Williamson and Zoe Whitely

The highlights talks were a true contribution to the discourse around African art, and the thinking around art fairs, although they could have arranged more of these talks, considering the interesting line up at the fair this year. There were a some disappointing issues around organization and attendance.

Robin Rhode started the first session in conversation with Roselee Goldberg (founder and director of Performa). To hear Robin Rhode speak about his artistic practice felt like an immense privilege. Black South African artists are not heard often enough. Most often, art viewers only see the final realization of a work of art, and they do not necessarily gain access and insight to the process, or to the inner workings of an artist’s mind and practice. This is a great loss for the ability to fully appreciate the work produced.

Image from Robin Rhode performace at JAF 2017

Rhode spoke passionately, humorously and eloquently about his art practice and conceptual frameworks. He was speaking to an audience already familiar with his work yet still managed to captivate and enthrall with his dense engagement.

His most recent body of work has been the process of a number of years working on the same wall in the West Rand in Johannesburg. Here he expanded his practice to creating far larger works that reach outside of his usual physical constraints related to chalk or charcoal manipulated by his own hand. He constructed what he calls ‘a small army’ of vulnerable youths from the area that help him make these works, with ‘Lieutenants’ and ‘Corporals’ for whom he acts as the ‘General’. Due to the violence in the area, and the way his ‘army’ was being affected, he has had to draw the project to an end. This has initiated the inception of Rhode’s NGO that will help young, disadvantaged and vulnerable South Africans to enrich their lives and uplift themselves through art-making. Rhode stated that he thinks it’s ‘miraculous’ that there are so many artists in South Africa, in spite of the immense setbacks, they achieve so much. Rhode ended his talk with a call to major international institutions to stop lumping African artists together in group shows and to offer them solos. He considers the inclusion of African artists in the ‘blue-chip’ part of the market the next step in acknowledging African art and its value. Rhode uses words like ‘army’, ‘war’, ‘fighting’, ‘struggle’, ‘conflict’ and ‘violence’ in talking about the state of things in South Africa, which resonated deeply with the audience. Rhode ended his talk by saying that this is a battle, and that he wants to fight in the frontline.

The second speaker, Benjamin Genocchio, presented a very interesting and informal talk, which was short, but full of incredible insights and ideas for the future of art fairs and cultural institutions. It was unfortunate that this talk was not well attended as it offered so much.

He has clearly thought very deeply about the nature of art fairs and what they have to offer the various publics that are engaged in attending these spaces. He spoke about the Armory Fair in New York and the experiences he has had in developing that fair over the years, and the opportunities they have focused on giving African art galleries and artists in the space every year.

Genocchio made some very important points. He states that all artists and curators should pitch ideas to the organizers of fairs because they are usually looking for new talent, and have the money to sponsor the ‘art events’ realized by young curators. He also made the point that one usually has to convince only one or two people for the idea to come into fruition.

Genocchio believes that art fairs should buy back exhibition space at the fairs and use that space to create something akin to a “town square” where there is communal art space for ‘art events’ like performances or installations, and where people can gather to remove themselves from the commercial spaces. He says it’s important to reject the grid-like floorplan of the average fair, and create a more engaging way of encountering the art spaces.

He also stated that he is particularly interested in the way that South African cultural institutions currently operate, and he thinks that reimagining the way in which suffering institutions operate, that they should let go of their structural deficits and move their collections into public spaces where they are not bound by their crumbling buildings which eat into their meagre government funding. He mentioned WAM in particular as a unique model for a museum, which is both a collecting institution, and one that rotates its exhibitions. He states that it is highly unusual for a collecting institution not to have a permanent display and praised it for its unique solutions to its spatial restrictions.

Genocchio’s talk was full of ideas of how to empower young art professionals, artists and the spaces that exhibit artwork.

In lieu of the disorganization and the lack of structure at the talks, they ran obscenely late. The third talk run by Zoe Whitely with heavyweight panelists Sue Williamson, Penny Siopis and Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, discussing ‘Past, present, future,’ started thirty minutes late and ran for thirty minutes longer than it was supposed to. Described on the programme as a ‘lively’ panel discussion, it was neither ‘lively,’ nor a discussion. An audience familiar with the work of all three renowned artists present may have expected something more than a mere overview of their most famous works.

Work by Peju Alatise – FNB Artist of the Year 2017

It was interesting to hear the artists speak about their work, but it would have been more interesting to hear about the way they may have discussed ‘Past, Present, and Future’ between them. One of the most interesting moments of this panel was when Thembinkosi Goniwe, in the audience, stated that he finds it problematic that white South African artists discuss their conceptual frameworks in relation to their art, whereas all too often, black South African artists are expected to discuss their personal narratives instead. Mmakgabo Sebidi herself remarked after the talk, in conversation with me, that the need to constantly address the past, in order to qualify the present, is frustrating. She stated that it’s so much more complex than that. In principle, it’s a magical thing to bring these three minds onto stage together, but it was disappointing not to hear them speak to one another on the topic at hand.

The large panel discussion ‘I’m not who you think I’m not #2 – What to do with anxiety?’ got a very mixed response, but generally there was a lot of talking without much really being said. It is always interesting to hear about the exploratory process curators undertake in the lead-up to a biennale, but the topic, once again, seemed like it would yield far more depth of engagement than it did. The panel didn’t offer enough explanation of what they are doing with the opportunity, and they found it difficult to contextualize this process with the previous Berlin Biennale.

The final panel on ‘The Significance of Power and Womanhood’ moderated by Pulane Kingston was a valuable addition to the contemporary portraiture discourse, with some very accomplished panelists, including the 2017 FNB Art Prize winner Peju Alatise, Lady Skollie, Zohra Opoku and Sethembile Msezane. Unfortunately, due to it running so late, the panel lost Lady Skollie early on, as she was scheduled for a performance at the fair, but the remaining panelists had an engaging discussion about the power of absence.

In all, the talks were a space for growth, discussion and conceptual wrangling, but also betrayed disorganization and lack of planning. The quality of panelists was generally high, but there needs to be more engagement involved with the deliverables and expectations of discussions to mediate the time constraints.


Joburg Art Fair talks and discussions – Download PDF

The Relevance of Warhol: ‘Warhol Unscreened’ at WAM

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Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe (Marilyn), 1967. From Portfolio of ten screenprints on paper, 3:250. Bank of America Merrill Lynch Collection. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Ar

Exhibition on 27.07–8.10.2017    

It’s hard to write about Andy Warhol, a man who was a legend and a myth even when he was alive, who held up a mirror to our lives by presenting the banal as art. His art is simultaneously silly and incredibly serious. Perhaps this ambiguity in his work is why so many people love it.

Warhol’s work remains relevant. It was reflection of a cultural phenomenon at the time, but the art may have fanned the flames for the contemporary obsession with celebrity culture, wealth and stuff.

Andy Warhol changed the way we looked at the world around us. Before his seminal exhibition in the 1960s with the Brillo Boxes, products were merely products. He blurred the lines between high art and the banal, elevating design to art, and challenging the world’s aesthetic philosophies.


Muhammad Ali (1978)

Aside from influencing our ways of seeing, Warhol was an important voice of dissent in a world dominated by heterosexual precepts and overt stereotypical masculinity. He questioned the roles of the most powerful people and encouraged them to extend kindnesses that would boost the morale of the disenfranchised. Andy Warhol noticed things that everyone else took for granted, and he questioned everything, prompting many to do the same. Warhol introduced a criticality that had disappeared from the art world at the end of the Abstract Expressionist era.

A curious philosopher of sorts, Warhol embodied the idea of the American Dream but also subverted it, claiming that anyone can access it even if they live on the fringes of the norm. Paralleled with political and philosophical changes happening in and around human rights, equality and tolerance in New York at the time, he emerged as a leading protagonist for living one’s life the way one wanted. His art is the access point for his ideas, but it is also a symptom of a greater shift in modes of thinking.

campbells soup

Campbell’s Soup II series (1969)

An exhibition like the one at WAM doesn’t by any means represent the diversity of the Warhol canon, but it provides an entry point, and access to his ideas and aesthetic philosophy. The opening of the exhibition attracted more people, and a greater diversity of people, than I have ever experienced at an exhibition in Johannesburg. From the moment the doors opened, Warhol had already brought together humans that would for no other reason ever find themselves in the same space. This in itself is a testament to his fame and influence.

Warhol is present in so much of popular culture, art production and philosophy today. Warhol still makes headlines (The Rolling Stone), and is unchallenged as America’s most famous artist in history. Many attribute his popularity, relevance and fame to the sheer range of work he created, an artist that experimented with a broader range of media than any before him, he laid the groundwork for career heterogeneity.

Andy Warhol | Endangered Species Portfolio | 1983

Endangered Species Portfolio (1983)

At the time, Warhol presented a stark contrast to the Pollock Myth, an idea of artistic masculinity based on the reclusive, mystical and volatile Jackson Pollock. An article on Artsy highlights Warhol’s biographers Victor Bockris and Wayne Koestenbaum, who wrote that ‘Andy was interested in denigrating the concept of heterosexual coupling as the be-all and end-all of sex and present homosexuality as a normal practice.’ And in the words of Koestenbaum: ‘Warhol’s decision to become a painter in the first place was an attempt to queer the Pollock myth—to prove that art stardom was a swish affair.’ This was, and remains incredibly relevant in a world of uncertain rights and visibility for the LGBT community.

There are many new layers of meaning to be found in his work, including his close study of the quotidian, and of the objects we consume and discard without second thought. By actually looking at objects, and actually seeing them, we might become more conscious consumers. We may begin to understand our extended impact on the environment by reconsidering objects as other than merely their intended use, but understand them in subsequent lives. There is something deeply existential about the work of Warhol, and in some ways a prediction for the cult of celebrity, globalization and consumerism that would rise with access to the internet. Imagining Warhol working in a world where the internet and the ease of mass production exist is something that horrifies and delights simultaneously.


Flowers (1970)

Warhol’s work may seem whimsical, and playful, but there are many layers of meaning and impact in his work. Overall I think that it is important for private collections like this to travel, so that everyone has the opportunity to see the work up close, in real life. It is unfortunate that it isn’t possible for there to be a more representative, or comprehensive exhibition, with more work, and with a greater variety of media, but the exhibition as it is gives a small segment of insight into Warhol’s world.

Works on exhibition at the Wits Art Museum include the Campbell’s Soup II series (1969), a portrait of Marilyn Monroe in pink, the Endangered Species Portfolio (1983), Flowers (1970), Muhammad Ali (1978), the Andy Mouse works by Keith Haring, the Birmingham Race Riot (1964)and many more.

Interesting documentary video on youtube: Andy Warhol, the complete picture

Art/Architecture and Warhol: A short video on his influence by the School of Life

Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh:


Address: Wits Art Museum, University Corner, Corner Bertha and Jorissen Street, Braamfontein

Tel: 011 717 1365 | 011 717 1358
Facebook: Wits Art Museum
Twitter: @WitsArtMuseum


The Songs We are Taught to Sing: Kemang Wa Lehulere’s ‘Bird Song’

The Songs We are Taught to Sing- Kemang Wa Lehulere_s ‘Bird Song_

Kemang Wa Lehulere, Every Song, 2017. Wall carving.

The Songs We are Taught to Sing – Kemang Wa Lehulere’s ‘Bird Song’ – Click here to Download PDF for full article

Deutsche Bank KunstHalle


Wandering along the Unter den Linden the day I arrived in Berlin, I happened upon a Kemang Wa Lehulere’s  Artist of the Year exhibition at the Studio of Deutsche Bank KunstHalle. The Deutsche Bank Artist of the Year is an international award that has had acclaimed artists sharing the accolade, including Wangechi Mutu and Imran Qureshi.

Kemang Wa Lehulere The Bird Lady in Nine Layers of Time, 2015. Documentation (restoration of the mural at Gladys Mgudlandlu_s former home in Gugulethu).

Kemang Wa Lehulere The Bird Lady in Nine Layers of Time, 2015. Documentation (restoration of the mural at Gladys Mgudlandlu’s former home in Gugulethu).

Wa Lehulere has had a strong sense of direction in his works since art school. With ways of perceiving and multiple interpretations of histories and memory present in his work from the start, he has been consistently concerned with the events of the past and the ways they intersect with the present. His deeply layered works are explorations of current situations by looking through the artefacts of the past.

This exhibition, titled ‘Bird Song,’ is underscored by his exploration of works by South African artist Gladys Mgudlandlu (1917–79) placed on the walls alongside Wa Lehulere’s. There are great articles written, discussing her life, work and history alongside Kemang Wa Lehulere’s parallels, artworks, responses and perceptions such as the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (available at Stevenson or Clarke’s Books), a piece by Sean O’Toole in Deutsche Bank’s ArtMag and Elza Miles’ account of Mgudlandlu.

There are two consecutive videos that play in the first room of the exhibition, Homeless Song 5, 2017 and The Bird Lady in Nine Layers of Time, 2015.

The first, Homeless Song 5, deals with the land expropriation and forced resettlement of Luyolo Village near Simon’s Town. In the video, collaborator Ilze Wolff is filmed walking through the skeletal structures of what were once residential spaces. Here black residents were violently forced to move to Gugulethu. Wa Lehulere is also filmed, with American sign language projected onto his bare back in sequence, saying, “I have a song, I want you to know.” It is an experience watching the journey of Wolff through this charged space, a hike through fields and crumbling structures. The visuals switch into negative, and then again to positive, visually stimulating an eerie feeling, and an unsettling aesthetic. The title is ambiguous, with many possible interpretations relating to relocation, homelessness, ideas around what constitutes ‘home’ and belonging. There are many allusions to music and song throughout the exhibition, combined here with sign language it hints of deafness and accessibility, in the literal and metaphorical sense.

In the next film, we see the inside of a home, with someone peeling away layers of paint and plaster in a rectangular shape, gradually exposing a piece of a hidden mural, buried by new inhabitants over time, all but removed from physical space and memory. Eventually, a bird with a red beak and a yellow wing on what seems to be a blue skyscape is revealed. Symbolically freed, this bird is the centre of gravity in this exhibition, appearing again printed on the wall near the entrance of the Kunsthalle. The mural is in the former home of Mgudlandlu in Gugulethu, where she painted birds and landscapes on her walls. Remembered from her childhood, Wa Lehulere’s aunt told him of these hidden treasures on the walls of the home, and he went to excavate them, like archaeological artefacts.

Kemang Wa Lehulere My Apologies to Time, 2017.

Kemang Wa Lehulere My Apologies to Time, 2017.

Wa Lehulere asked his aunt to draw what she remembered of the mural on chalkboard with chalk, a reconstruction of that which was mostly forgotten and only present in the vague memory of a childhood experience. In Does This Mirror have a Memory, 2015, the artist reworked these chalkboard sketches, making marks and erasing areas, dealing with the fallible and transient nature of memory, and the inevitably subjective recounting of histories. These chalkboards and other drawings are curated in dialogue with the expressionist works of Gladys Mgudlandlu in the Birds of a Feather, 2017 series. This mixing of artists and times creates a conversation between the past and the present, and between the objective historical, the tangible artefact, and the action of memory —intangible and vague— like recounting a dream.

Song and music is a constant theme throughout the exhibition, present in the titles and in some of the works. It’s interesting, the combination between music, the heard, and sign language, the communication for those who do not hear. The underlying thematic is that of struggle, resistance, a fight for freedom and equality, of black identity and the oppressive spaces of forced suppression of identity. Music and hair are key to forming and asserting identities during these struggles for black communities globally. In his work Lefu La Ntate, 2017, music notes incompletely constructed by gluing hair clippings onto paper pays homage to these symbols of overcoming and fighting mechanisms of suppression and collective conditioning. These themes relate to his sculptural installations too: birdhouses and crutches formed from old school desks, a space where much of this ideological conditioning for control happens.

Kemang Wa Lehulere Broken Wing, 2016.

Kemang Wa Lehulere Broken Wing (detail), 2016.

The birdhouses in My Apologies to Time, 2017, are a case in point. Such spaces created for birds to live, not cages, yet restrictive, domesticated, and controlled. Birds represent many things symbolically, but their freedom of movement is key in this exhibition. A taxidermied parrot —a wild bird that when caged mimics human language and behaviour, and becomes utterly domesticated and dependant on its human. Robbed of its freedom, it is still a bird, but it sings a song it is taught to sing, and its freedom is diminished, even though it is not in a cage; even though it still has wings, they are clipped by its context. This stationary, taxidermied animal, sitting on a tree stump, on an old school desk among the birdhouses, is a representative for the brain-washing and ideological strictures imposed en masse.

The work Broken Wing, 2016, follows a similar theoretical trajectory. Hanging from the ceiling are crutches made from broken down school desks, with Xhosa bibles clamped between moulds of Wa Lehulere’s (perfectly lovely) teeth. This is in reference to the oppression of people through the mechanism of enforcing religious institutions on previously secular peoples, just one way in which the Xhosa people of South Africa were oppressed and controlled by colonial and Apartheid governments. The crutches and prostheses in his work suggest the loss of things, injury and suppression of injury, attempts to avoid acknowledging loss or damage. The avoidance of reparation and admitting fault is implicit in this work. Constructed in such a way that it looks like a skeleton wing from an old aeroplane, but mimicking the structure of a feather, or a bird’s wing, it continues the flight narrative, alluding to loss of mobility and freedom.

Kemang Wa Lehulere, Every Song (detail), 2017. Wall carving.

Kemang Wa Lehulere, Every Song (detail), 2017. Wall carving.

The end of this room is a large wall painted black, Every Song, 2017, where Wa Lehulere has drawn images of hands creating words in British sign language, and then chiselled into the wall to mimic the method of exposure used to discover the mural by Mgudlandlu. Here the removal of layers is not emphasised but the act of mark making, and creating something that will be covered and forgotten is enacted. A work that refers to future loss of memory, the shavings from the wall are left to lie underneath the work, emphasizing the ephemeral nature of this work, about to be swept away and discarded.

This exhibition felt in some ways like a retrospective of Wa Lehulere, even though he is young and in the early part of his career, you gather the great sense of accomplishment and his depth of knowledge. There is an overwhelming sense of work that has happened here, both in the artist’s exploration of his personal history, and memory, but that of the community in which he grew up, and the marks that have been made on the collective memory of this space. Kemang Wa Lehulere tackles these themes, a deep concern for many people, with elegance and eloquence in his execution. It is little wonder he has been this year’s recipient for such a prestigious award.


For more information and images:

Kemang Wa Lehulere

Wangechi Mutu

Imran Qureshi

Shadows on the Moon: Mounir Fatmi’s ‘Fragmented Memory’

Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg  25.05-01.07.2017


Mounir Fatmi Mother Language, 2017. Steel blade and cut outs 150 cm diameter

Upon entering the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, one is confronted with one of Fatmi’s recognizable steel blade works with calligraphic Arabic letters cut into it. Suspended from the ceiling, the cut-out letters lie jumbled on the floor directly below. The work casts a noticeable shadow, an abstracted ghost of the images portrayed. The calligraphic work, titled Mother Language (2017), is a visual link to his previous body of work, a continuity in his thinking and execution, evolving his visual language. The title of the work is pertinent, especially juxtaposed with the other sculpture at the entrance, Monument to our Fathers (2017), a tall totem composed of brooms, shoes, white material and industrial black packing belts. His play on words alludes to not only every human’s search for their sense of belonging, but also his own personal heritage and history.

Installation View

There is a video work, Across the Moon (2017) in the same room. It is a screen with an image of a revolving surface of the moon in the centre, round, framed by its borders. Layered transparently on this surface are film images from the French occupation of Morocco, leading up to the exile of King Mohammed V in the 50s. There are also two print works in this series, both titled The Visible Side of the King (2017). This work recounts the revolt against the French regime in Morocco during which photos of the exiled sultan were handed to the people who were told to look first at the image, and then at the moon, creating the optical illusion that his face was on the moon. This work is about collective memory and its power – Fatmi states that ‘the Moroccan people were under the influence of a collective hallucination.’ As a result, there were demonstrations in his support in 1955, just before his return to Morocco where he became known as the ‘moon king.’

Fatmi states that he remembers only three cultural objects from his childhood home: a copy of the Koran, a photograph of the Moroccan King and a calligraphic painting. He draws his themes and aesthetics from these objects continually in his practice. This collection of work exhibits an exploration that is consistent in his work of his cultural history, and critical analysis of it. It crosses over several thematic axes, but most prominently he deals with themes of identity, memory, history and belonging.

Mounir Fatmi Across the Moon, 2017.
HD film

Who does history belong to? Who repeats it or writes, and rewrites it? Who determines how we perceive and understand the world around us? Implicit in his work is the exploration of personal memory, and explicit, an exploration of collective memory and how these impact on individual identity constructs: psychological formation and ideas of belongingness. An African artist in the diaspora is constantly in a struggle between their roots, and their presence in the ‘West.’ This tension of defining oneself, and allusions to grappling with perceptions and clichés related to ‘where one comes from’ when it is so much more than a mere geographic location, is evident in Fatmi’s work.

Fatmi’s work Roots 01 – Triptych (2016) is a large wall relief made from coaxial antenna cable and its staples, manipulated into an image that resembles a constellation of roots. This work comments on the complexity of history and place, where roots are not a linear idea, and that it cannot be simplified.

His work has elements of object biography, an exploration of things taking into account multiple interactions with other things and people over its time, constantly gathering new layers of meaning, value, and history depending on when it is being looked at, and who is looking at it. His work is a visual depiction of the depth of meaning, of the convoluted histories and memories attached to any one object, or person. Humans often try to categorize, and simplify in order to understand, but in so doing they only diminish their potential for understanding.

Mounir Fatmi Roots 01 – Triptych, 2016.
Coaxial antenna cable and staples

In the work History is not mine (2013) Fatmi questions all of the above, and photographs blank sheets of paper, the back of a person, their hands, books, hammers and a typewriter in a series of 8 photographs. In these photographs the writer is composing a document by hitting the hammers on the keys of the typewriter. There is something random about the writing of histories, often written by those in power, the dominant and the privileged.

There is a political undertone that runs through all his works. Previous exhibitions have explicitly explored the relationship between religion and politics, these art pieces trace a similar vein of thought, alluding to the working classes and questioning existing power structures. Words used to describe his work, and in titles, like ‘manifesto’ or ‘workers’ are part of language we often associate with the radical left. Fatmi states that he is ‘a “migrant worker” as a result of his feeling that he is always making work from a foreign place,’ a statement that seems to refer not only to a physical place, but a metaphorical ‘place’ that he comes from, or travels to. These versions of history and versions are selves are not unlike the shadow ghosts on the walls and floors projected from the artist’s works.

by Nicola Kritzinger

Shadows on the Moon, Mounir Fatmi’s ‘Fragmented Memory’ PDF

Abstract for Forum East Asian Art History, Berlin 2017 – Collecting China in South African Museums: Object biographies of Han dynasty míngqì

Please download PDF from


An abstract for a paper presented at the Forum Ostasiatische Kunstgeschichte (Berlin, 16-17 June 2017) delineates my methodological approach aligned with an object biographies focus. I examine several objects from several institutions across South Africa, looking at museums through the constellation of objects, revealing an entwined narrative that tells a far greater story, and briefly explore how looking from a two thousand year old Chinese object in a South African museum can elucidate the changes that have occurred in museum policy over time.

Review of the Youxiantang Collection of Chinese Art in the Oriental Ceramic Society Newsletter


Chinese Six Dynasties Terracotta Qilin Fabulous Beast – Youxiantang Collection

Dominic Jellinek, formerly of Bluetts and author of Provenance: Collectors Dealers and Scholars of Chinese Ceramics in Britain and America wrote a review of the Youxiantang Collection of Chinese Art by Johann and Nicola Kritzinger in the May 2017 Oriental Ceramic Society Newsletter. Please use link below to download the PDF of the review.

Kritzinger – Youxiantang Book Review Dominic Jellinek – Oriental Ceramics Society OCS Newsletter Number 25 May 2017




Journey of the Man with a Fish in OCS Newsletter May 2017


(SACHM2943) Iziko Museums of South Africa, Judge R.P.B. Davis Collection, Chinese iridescent green glazed red earthenware Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) figure of a male cook with a fish, 23 (h) x 12 (w) cm.

I’m thrilled that an edited version of the paper I presented at the Berlin conference Working on Things in 2016 has been published in the May 2017 Oriental Ceramic Society Newsletter.

Please click here for a download of the PDF from the Newsletter.

You can also watch a video of my presentation here.


South African News – Oriental Ceramics Society Newsletter, May 2017

PDF of OCS Newsletter – Nicola Kritzinger – News South Africa – Oriental Ceramic Society Newsletter Number 25 May 2017.

University of Pretoria

The University of Pretoria Old Arts building museum space, that houses the van Tilburg bequest of Chinese ceramics, reopened in 2016. The collection includes hundreds of Chinese ceramics and spans from the Neolithic to the 20th century. New display cases have been built and there are information display systems. The project engages museum studies, visual arts and ancient cultural history students in the creating of curatorial display, information display and care of the collection as part of their curriculum. The ceremony for the reopening of the museum will be held in October 2017. This museum collection includes the famous gold rhinoceros found at Mapungubwe, most recently on display at the British Museum South Africa the art of a nation exhibition.

OCS members Dries and Diana Blitz, Lina and Johann Kritzinger, and I visited this collection in early 2016. All parties were pleasantly surprised by some of the interesting objects on display. We were fortunate enough to get a tour from curator Gerard de Kamper of further objects that were in storage. Gerard de Kamper is also currently reading his master’s thesis Taking Stock; Collecting Collections at the University of Pretoria.

University of Pretoria Museum Display.jpg

New display cases for Van Tilburg collection of Chinese ceramics at the University of Pretoria.

Contact Gerard de Kamper:

Johannesburg Art Gallery

The Johannesburg Art Gallery collection has over 120 Oriental ceramics and many Ukiyo-e prints in its collection, the latter for which there was a major exhibition some years ago. The Chinese ceramics have been in storage for some years. As collecting and display policies have changed over the last fifty years to focus on African and specifically South African objects and art, this collection has been sitting quietly in the basement awaiting engagement.

The gallery curator Musha Neluheni, who is also a curator of the South African stand at the Venice Biennale in 2017, has taken an active interest in these objects. She is reading her master’s in History of Art at the University of the Witwatersrand, which will include a section on the Ming dynasty roof tiles in the collection, purchased from Mrs Furstenberg-Cassirer in 1953. Neluheni displayed the Han dynasty farmyard from the collection in 2014 alongside other works of art from the collection.

Johannesburg Art Gallery Hill Jar

Contact Musha Neluheni:

The Iziko Social History collections

There are thousands of Oriental ceramic objects in the Iziko Social History Collections. The best known of these collections are the William Fehr, Alfred de Pass and Judge Davis collections. The collections consist mostly of Chinese export ware, but there are some early Chinese ceramics present in the collections too.

The Iziko Social History collections curator Esther Esmyol has recently finished unpacking the Judge R.P.B. Davis collection from long term crate storage, and moved the objects into more accessible museum storage. There are many Song dynasty objects in this collection. Esmyol has recently (2014) held an exhibition of ceramics from the collection at The Castle.

OCS members Peter and Mary White recently visited Cape Town and saw some of the Iziko collections, accompanied by Liz Knight, Esther Esmyol and I.

Iziko Cape Town exhibition display 2014:5

Chinese ceramics on display at The Castle in Cape town on an exhibition of ceramics from the Iziko Social History Collections.

Contact Esther Esmyol:

Strauss & Co. Auctioneers

Olivia Barrell has recently joined Strauss & Co’s decorative arts department in Cape Town after completing her master’s degree in Paris on ivory scholar’s objects as a consultant on Chinese objects.


The AFRICA/CHINA symposium convened in collaboration with SAVAH (South African Visual Arts Historians, VIAD (Visual Identities in Art and Design, University of Johannesburg), Leipzig University, the Goethe Institut, and the Confucius Institute at the Durban University of Technology. The forum takes place at the Goethe Institut in Johannesburg at the end of April 2017. There is to be a peer reviewed publication available by the end of 2017.

Participants were invited to initiate research into the presence and development of former and current cross-cultural expressions that reflect extant or emerging interaction between Southern Africa and East Asia, China in particular, as reflected in the visual culture of the recipient nation.

chinafrika poster II

Contact Nicola Kritzinger:

The Youxiantang Collection of Chinese Art

A book launch for Johann and Nicola Kritzinger’s book on the Youxiantang Collection of Chinese Art was held at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg on 3rd December 2016. Dries Blitz was kind enough to speak at the well attended launch.

There will be another launch in Cape Town in 2017. Johann Kritzinger also gave a well attended lecture related to his collection of early Chinese objects in Cape Town in 2016 for the friends of the Iziko Museums.


Chinese Six Dynasties Terracotta Qilin Fabulous Beast – Youxiantang Collection


Chinese Zhou Dynasty Bronze You Vessel – Youxiantang Collection


Limited edition, hardcover print available for order from

Book sample available for download at

Collecting China in South African museums: Object biographies of Han dynasty míngqì

I am currently reading my PhD in History of Art at the University of the Witwatersrand on Han dynasty Chinese ceramics in South African museums. Related to this thesis I presented a paper about a Han dynasty cook with a fish at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and at the Working on Things conference in Berlin, in November 2016. Both events were well attended, and well received. In 2017 I will present further papers at the CHINAFRICA forum, and present a paper at the Forum for East Asian Art History at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Berlin, in June 2017.


Public Exhibitions in South Africa

A large public exhibition Terracotta Army and the First Emperor of China based on the Qin dynasty Terracotta Warriors has recently toured through several venues across South Africa. The display was full of life size reproductions and detailed historical information panels. The exhibition attracted over forty thousand visitors all over the country over several months.

Terracotta warriors exhibition

Display detail from Terracotta Warriors exhibition in South Africa.

Contact: Expo RSA:



The Cutting Room Floor: Rebecca Haysom’s The Tiger’s Bride


305_Untitled-3Rebecca Haysom Untitled (Steeple Leg), 2017. Collage on Paper

Rebecca Haysom perceives the world in complex, multifaceted and ever-shifting ways. The Tiger’s Bride, her first solo exhibition, is an intimate show of narrative collages revealing a depth of historical and literary knowledge, and a tendency to see a twisted humour in the human condition. The images are a kind of feminist visual rewriting of fairy tales, with pictures hacked out of magazines and books undergoing a violent process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

119_Untitled-1Rebecca Haysom The Tiger’s Bride, 2017. Collage on Paper

There’s hilarity in the work, but also a deep sense of unease and horror. In her collages she creates a mise en scène, a highly constructed performance where she sets the stage and directs the protagonists’ bodies into position. The images are sexualized and make use of obfuscation and double entendre. Yet, she inserts reality into her rewritten fairy tales, simultaneously critiquing ideas of romantic love in a work like Searching for Prince Charming or The Tiger’s Bride.

The violence is part of the oxymoronic tradition of subversion inherent in the medium. Collage as a medium drums up the absurdity and violence of Dada, Hannah Höch and Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. I am reminded of Richard Hamilton’s cultural critique collages, or the chaos of the punk movement’s aesthetic. She portrays the violence of externals acting upon the female body, considers misplaced ideas of romance and overtly sexualized content in the contemporary moment. Collage automatically, because of its historical place, assumes the realm of the critical and the exploratory, the questioning of the world and quotidian norms. It also enables absurdity and a reimagining of what manifests around us. Composed from available media, from magazines that sell particular types of women, ideals or sexual and romantic fantasies, Haysom’s collages engage with the way the female body and its cultural place is portrayed in society.

427_Untitled-2Rebecca Haysom Untitled (Blondie with Horses), 2017. Collage on Paper.

Thought processes, biases and prejudices start with spaces like children’s stories, they are recounted, absorbed and reinforced to engaged children and adults. Fairy tales have, in many ways, reflected certain modes of thought, reiterated them, and reinforced stereotypes. In a recent video, a mother and daughter systematically take apart a collection of children’s books, removing gender biased books, eventually leaving very little on the shelves. Haysom grew up exposed to many books and showed a very early interest in drawing. In an interview she discusses her complexities and experience. In a work like The Enchanted Skirt, she inserts women into the narrative as far more complex and sexual characters than historically present in literature. Her protagonists seem to have more agency than women in historical narratives.

This is a dominant theme throughout the exhibition, she engages deeply with the role of the women in literature and culture over time. Haysom explores cultural mythologies, including a nod to witchcraft and paganism, and their relation to the historical persecution and dismemberment of the female body. Works, like Untitled (Blondie with Horses), deal with the dismembered and reconstructed woman (with her pieces taken from similarly constructed images). Removing and isolating elements of prescriptive societal ideals, Haysom breaks down the image of the woman into parts, and brings to the fore a critical look at the way women are often valued for their parts, instead of their whole, problematic and violent in itself. In works like Totem Puss I and II, she displays the mangled hybrid body parts of cat, man, and woman. She creates hilarious, yet terrifying, chimeras on pedestals with stage lighting.

513_Untitled-5Rebecca Haysom Night Rider 2017. Collage on Paper.

The women in the collages are amorphous experiments, the malformed, the Frankenstein’s monster, nightmares and terrors. Her figures are often demonic. Haysom’s work invokes voodoo practices, and the horror of a body in parts, a disgust for attempts to control or own the body parts of others. It calls to mind the idea of the cyborg, a woman (re)constructed from pieces, the existential and philosophical grappling of ideas around the concept of the ghost in the shell.

Her reference to Don Quixote in Self Portrait with Don Quixote, where a woman rides side saddle holding a massive pair of scissors next to a portrait of a man on a horse, is a theme that applies throughout the exhibit. Haysom’s world is one where the hero is not desired, where agency and independence is valued over the presence of a false savior. Don Quixote lives in a world of outlandish fantasy and causes disproportionate suffering of others. She inverts this and challenges the ideas embodied in archaic gendered stereotypes: Fuck chivalry, it removes the agency of others.

335_Untitled-4Rebecca Haysom Searching for Prince Charming 2017. Collage on Paper.

In a way, her mission itself seems Quixotic, an unattainable goal attempted, with good intentions, by interfering with existing narratives. Collage is a great medium for this interference, presenting a distorted reality viewed through a blurry lens, or kaleidoscope that presents alternate possibilities, interventions on reality.


unnamedRebecca Haysom Self Portrait of the artist with Don Quixote 2017. Collage on Paper.



PDF: The Cutting Room Floor_ Rebecca Haysom_s ‘The Tiger_s Bride_