The Great Mother inspires
Johans Borman’s exhibition provides us with fine examples of what inspires artists to take creativity to another level
WHEN the esteemed art historian Elza Miles officially opened Cape Town art dealer Johans Borman’s special 10th anniversary exhibition she drew an interesting line connecting the wide variety of paintings and art through what she metaphorically called the Great Mother.
She suggested that this mysterious and ethereal, but also very real hands-on-in-the-home force can be traced in many of the fine pieces of art on display in Borman’s wellknown, elegant Upper Buitengracht gallery.
The title he chose for the show, which opened last weekend, is Art that Inspires, meaning, one presumes, artworks that uplift and engage the viewer. Much of the present show does and city-dwellers will do themselves a favour by popping in.
Borman deals mostly in older artists’ work, though not exclusively so (there’s a fine Jacobus Klopper on show, for example) and has often punted the value of investing in good art. The latter often, of course, means artworks that don’t necessarily challenge viewers (or collectors), but feel comfortable enough hanging decently on the wall. The present show enforces the kind of gravitas. (If you like and want to look at a nice Pemba of Naudé, this is it.)
Miles’s eloquent speech for this exhibition, “honouring the talented women and men responsible for the works of art in our midst” – according to the gallery – somehow also turned the exhibition’s title around in a way. She indirectly nominated too the things and subject matter that inspire artists to paint the painting they do or sculpt the bronzes they produce. In his catalogue introduction, Borman sees this as a kind of “heroism” on the part of the artist.
For visitors to this nicely chosen, well-presented exhibition (a showcase of Borman’s skill and motives as a well-regarded art dealer, with many pieces marked with red dots, indicating that they had been sold), another interestingtheme to trace will be “people” – the individuals and characters behind and on the various canvases and representations.
The more you notice the people, whether portraits or just images of nameless persons doing ordinary things, the more you might see the “heroism” that the owner speaks about, in the works offered in front of you, as ironic: these “heroes” are often simply everyday players, you and me, getting on with life.
Certainly in the way that Miles suggested, the Great Mother guides the average household, leads the Washerwomen (in a splendid picture by Gerard Sekoto, for instance), directs The Family to set out (in Ephraim Ngatane’s colourful image) or, At the End of a Long Day (in Kenneth Baker’s tranquil, melancholic painting), the chaps gather for a drink and a song. Down the valley, a child-bearing Woman stamps Mealies (Maggie Laubser).
There are, in fact, many people on this show. And the allusion to our country’s diversity makes it denser. (A couple of landscapes, or quasi such – from some oldies, and younger painters – give the South Africans depicted here defining spaces, in a manner of speaking.)
There’s Gerard Bhengu’s Inyanga with Coat. As Miles said, this is a medicine man who turned his gaze away: “They seem to listen to inaudible calls. The latter lifts his hand, covers his mouth to obey silence in an attempt to catch every syllable of the message.” In Simon Lekgetho’s Divination Objects, we come face to face with their secret tools. As Africans we acknowledge their meaning, as well as the skills of the painter.
Rituals and ceremonies of human endeavour feature. Weddings being one (Ngatane and Van Essche). These are occasions that bring people together. The artist is inspired by the social significance and, in turn, enthuses us as viewers, by shifting the scene visually to a higher level.
In Marjorie Wallace’s depiction, a family group is a touching, ordinary gathering of Mother and Children. We seem to know them, share the gently forlorn life they face. Together with Walter Battiss, we celebrate People in the Sun. Which we are.
And, of course, we admire our artists. The fine self-portrait by George Pemba positions him as coyly inventive, introspectively edgy. Is he a hero, in Borman’s thinking?
The gallery owner says the concept of “heroism” came to him while researching the early Sekoto painting, Family with Candle (on show). Sekoto expert Barbara Lindop, he says, wrote how Sekoto successfully captured the heroism in ordinary human life in his early works. “It required a talented artist, an ‘art hero’ in his own right, to identify this and communicate it truthfully.”
It was this – an awareness of different aspects of courage displayed in artists’ lives and its presence in their work – that acted as inspiration for his anniversary show. “It made me receptive of the concept, and became the golden thread in this collection of work – produced from 1906 to 2009.”
Twenty years in the business (he started in Pretoria in 1989) and 10 years in the Cape, Johans Borman has a passion and Art that Inspires is clearly a personal homage as well.
“With this exhibition we celebrate the heroism of all artists. Those who have the courage and conviction to start with a blank canvas and bare their souls, sharing with the world that which they find compelled to communicate.”
Art that Inspires is on until September 12. Johans Borman Fine Art gallery, In-Fin-art building, Upper Buitengracht. 021 423 6075.
TRANQUIL: Kenneth Baker’s melancholic
MOTHER FIGURE: Maggie Laubser’s
COYLY INVENTIVE: George Pemba’s fine self-portrait.