Phetshane challenges views of life as just a game of numbers
Tito Mboweni is back in government, and the markets like it. The rand gained 30c against the dollar, but I doubt Mboweni would want a change in the exchange rate engraved on his tombstone.
Neither punters nor economists seem to think much of his advocacy for a state bank and a sovereign wealth fund. Under his watch the rand will no doubt fluctuate as it has done before. Will he be expected to shoulder the blame?
The easiest indicators of a cabinet minister’s performance are quantitative; the statistics of lives saved or improved, jobs created and money sensibly spent can be used as either an indictment or a vindication.
But how do you weigh up Nhlanhla Nene’s admission of Gupta transgressions against the trillions of rand he protected from nuclear dealers? There are times, it seems, when we think “being in the right” can be understood as good deeds — or good results — outweighing bad. And there are times when we make judgments about public figures without using these mathematical moral scales.
During the worst of the Jacob Zuma years, Thabo Mbeki nostalgia resulted in some selective forgetting. This was inevitable. It was not possible to balance, say, GDP growth under Trevor Manuel as finance minister with the number of Aids-related deaths under Manto Tshabalala-Msimang as health minister.
If one cannot describe politicians’ failures and successes purely in numerical terms, the same is true of private citizens. Each of us, we like to think, is more than a sum of parts; we cannot be explained by equations and formulae. Yet “numbers provide a narrative of who we are; our age, the amount of money we have or the siblings in our family ... numbers become a reflection of one’s identity and place in society”.
These are the words used to introduce Zolile Phetshane’s Simplified Complexity at Lizamore & Associates in Parkwood. The title of the exhibition is ambiguous. Are we to understand it as ironic, a recognition that the complexity of being human is irreducible and can’t be “simplified” through numerical analysis? Or is it affirming that, indeed, life just makes more sense if we put it all in numbers?
In Phetshane’s paintings, the numbers sprinkled across the canvas can jar with the rest of the image or they can seem to emerge naturally from it. Numbers, you might say, promise but fail to make adequate sense in or of the impressionistic and fluid landscapes, subjects and settings he conveys.
Mathematics is implicit to visual art on a two-dimensional surface. Da Vinci, Botticelli and Michelangelo masterpieces demonstrate the famous “golden ratio”, and traditional approaches to composition emphasise proportion and calculation. Abstract modernist and postmodernist works depend on the geometries of shape and pattern.
Phetshane’s numbers are both more explicit and less easily explained. He shifts from abstraction to something closer to realism in his depiction of familiar objects: a colander, an awkwardly hung birdcage, a spoked wheel, a plugpoint, a table. The application of postage stamps and small photographs adds a multimedia intrusion of the concrete world.
The connection of the numbers to these varying modes of representation is unclear at times, but perhaps this is viewing the paintings too literally. Instead, there are other ways of identifying mathematical markers.
In the Life Cycle diptych dozens of butterflies dot the picture as if indicating coordinates plotted along invisible axes. In the Rondebult series, parallel tree trunks match the stripes of a barcode: a recurring motif in his work, and a symbol of data encapsulating meaning — or of commodification. Instead of reducing complexity, these quietly challenging paintings express complex perceptions of a world that cannot be fully understood through numbers.
Gripes over stripes: Barcodes are a recurring motif in Zolile Phetshane's work, signifying a painting as a commodity.