The site of the exhibition of Don’t Panic (at the Centre for Historical Reenactments), curated by Gaby Ngcobo is a elegant example of the fluidity between thinking of universalism, (the experience of climate change) and particularities and identities of the African vantage point, as well as the viewpoints of a variety of generations of artists. Ngcobo gives us an arena to view these varying images and points of view and we are left to our own minds to make sense of it. This is how art creates a space that is flexible, in which intellectuals and mainstream viewers can debate the efficacy of visual and audio strategies. There are some artists that create direct human and formal responses to the idea of nature, such as the sun, of Sean Slemons drawings on the wall and floor demarking the pathway of the sun as it moves in reaction to the human made architecture of the building and window. Slemons reminds us that we can create gestures in concert with our world without interrupting its processes. The pathway is made as a large drawing that increases its density as the day moves on. The piece is formally elegant in its transition from the wall to the floor. Donna KuKama is presenting a video with a extremely disruptive sound element, as we stands her hair is waving in the wind against the background of a rock formation. The geologic site reminds us of the ancient period of time, her dress is contemporary, and her hair waves over her face, which brings to mind her identity as well as loss of identity. Her waving hair signifies that she is a black woman, yet we do not know her as a person. So she is presenting herself as a metaphor and an icon in the natural environment. She looks cold, as the wind blows, and is steadfast in her standing position. She confronts the viewers and we are to begin to understand what she is trying to communicate to us mutely. KuKama is also performing live for us today at the Center for Historical Reenactments. She is performing as a bank teller selling certificates on gold paper, and asking for financial exchange for something that would suggest a purchase on the future. The question is also what are we purchasing? The vegetables are placed on the desk and arranged in piles suggesting piles of money or currency. The idea of food as luxury, or food as commodity is brought forward.
They suggest that currency can be as simple as food, but also that food is so urgent for human beings. Donna’s voice can only be heard by the person in line whose turn it is to engage her. Therefore the audience is peaked by its interaction with her. Her manner is calm and serious as she assumes this character with authenticity. Viewers are deprived of hearing their exchange, and therefore are required to line up themselves in order to truly know what the bank is all about. KuKama is also right on time as she uses the platform of the bank in a moment when we all are wondering particularly about the role of banks their abuses. Viewers take this skeptical energy to donna as they react in parting with their currency.
The range of works in this exhibition is wide. They deal with both the content of the issue of climate change, but they locate in an African dialogue. Some of them have humor, and all have certain formal qualities, and some react to the locale of a particular African experience. The challenge of facing the end of a world as we knew it is so absurd that we as viewers immediately look for the corners where we are familiar, or the intimate places where we can find our purpose.
The title of Don’t Panic is taken from Ruth Sacks, video. Sacks skywrote these words using an airplane into the sky. She chose the day of human rights in South Africa to write these words. She asks viewers to look up, and not panic about the ecological disaster, not panic about the lack of human rights perhaps. In this she draws a line between the conditions of human beings and the condition of the larger natural world. Sacks today serves us a lunch, which is conceived of as a repaying her climate debt of using an airplane and its fuel in the atmosphere. The lunch is lovingly prepared by a cooking artisan, who thinks of food as her work, using local cheeses, and meats, and African grilling traditions. The meal was like no other I have had in Africa, it was fresh, delicious, authentic, abundant for us viewers and eaters. The international area of food+art is current and thoughtfully conceived. We are in fellowship together as participants, and the generosity of spirit of this work is potently felt.
Gabi Ngcobo is purposefully providing a constellation of works that articulate nodes of how to think about climate as global disaster. The works confront what still exists at a time of disaster, these may or may not be examples of natural beauty, these may or may not be hints of disaster. The nodes do not illustrate the scope of the problem. The art asks questions of viewers who must then question their own vantage points and assumptions. Human beings wrestling with the indifference of nature have to have thoughts and draw intellectual and emotional conclusions. Human beings can then remind us of the biologic and geographic locations, as well as economic and racial disparities, social dilemmas, and political problems etc. The function of art is to stir this pot with potent thoughts and arguments, and spur the viewers to connect dots and create projects of remedy. One critical question perhaps is the one that asks in the saving of nature what hierarchies are being created and by whom?
Art can perhaps suggest, yet not exactly supply the action steps, but rather foment these to become urgent.
The identity or question of audience then comes forward. Who is the audience for these works? In our hearts artists hope that the scope is wide, often the audience is more rarified. Thus, the forms of our work also migrates across spaces such as both white cubes, black cubes, or mainstream locations like public works, and particularly on line locations such as social networks, and digital video networks such as You Tube etc. The life of a written publication is also key to the works living beyond their physical confines, like the Don’t Panic catalogue for example. This circles back to the Center For Historical Reenactments and its commitment to providing a space to work on projects in the context of post Apartheid society. This flexibility of this model addresses post trauma in a sanctioned space. The existence of the first exhibition in the public gallery of Durban is another foray in engaging the fallible government entities as well. Don’t Panic succeeds in both subject, and context, for art and the conversation it inspires.