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New Museum

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Haroon Gunn-Salie’s piece at the New Museum since seeing it at Monday’s preview. It’s part of the museum’s Triennial. Titled Songs for Sabotage, the group exhibition looks at how young artists around the world use their art respond to issues of social and political importance – how for them, art is not just something to be looked at, but something urging engagement of some kind. Haroon is from South Africa, and so naturally I was drawn most to his work. But I would’ve been anyway, I think, even if I wasn’t from the same country.
When you enter the 3rd floor of the New Museum, you are immediately met with 17 black figures on their haunches, headless. They are arranged in a kind of “V” formation and their shapes cast shadows on the ground. Overhead, sounds play on an audio track. If you listen carefully, you start to hear people talking, then mournful singing. Then bullets, then police sirens.
This audio track is taken from archival footage of the day 34 mineworkers were shot and killed by police in what has become known as the Marikana massacre. The strike that happened at the Lonmin mine is a mark on South Africa’s democracy that has yet to be wiped away. It happened in 2012 and yet its reverberations are still being felt, all this time later. For those of us watching from afar, it was something we couldn’t believe had happened, and it was even harder to try understand from outside the country. But, from what I had read and heard from journalist colleagues, it was still hard to understand even from inside the country. 
I’ve watched and reported on the Emmy-winning documentary, Miners Shot Down, which lays blame at those behind the scenes who fanned the strike and misunderstanding instead of communication and proper negotiation. But this art speaks to something else – it brought me to an almost unspeakable deep mourning for the lives lost. And the democracy lost. Speaking to Haroon afterwards about the piece, I felt the tears well up as I listened to him talk about his research, and how he based the piece on archival footage. It really is something to behold, and reflect upon. 
You can read my story for the Mail & Guardian here

When you move a lot, you tend to downsize a lot. For me, there was no bigger downsize than coming from South Africa to the US. Somehow, with the help of a very meticulous friend, I squashed 29 years of life life into one big suitcase, one carry-on, a laptop bag and a handbag. But I have 11 boxes in storage at my friend’s house in Joburg that I still haven’t sent for – of things I collected in my life – books, CDs, photos, journals. My stuff. I often wonder if I should just tell her to get rid of them completely. But I can’t bear to part with them forever. There’s something about my collections that is part of my identity and I feel like if I were to throw the boxes away, I’d be throwing parts of myself away.
It’s thoughts like these that made me particularly interested in the latest exhibition at the New Museum called The Keeper. It’s to date, the museum’s biggest – the centrepiece is an exhibition itself, with 3 000 family-album photos of people posing with teddy bears. I never knew the word teddy bear came from Theodore Roosevelt. It’s an incredible thing to look into this collection, as is with many of the other collections on display – whether it’s Roger Caillois’ assortment of rare stones (I don’t think I can look at stones in the same way again) or Vanda Vieira-Schmidt’s 500 000 drawings stacked up, overflowing, on a table and chair (which made me wonder what a collection of  drafts done on a laptop would look like in visual form).

There’s something reassuring about physical things and making sense out of the world through grouping them. So, even though I don’t have space in my cupboard of an apartment for those 11 boxes, they were how I made sense of my world, for a while at least. So they’re an extension of me. I don’t have shelves filled with books anymore. No CDs showing you my music taste (or lack thereof!) Those collection of “things” that would tell you a little bit about me – there’s no physical space for them in my world anymore, so I just don’t have them. I don’t collect anything anymore – other than hotel pens and matchboxes. I would like to, but physical space is a commodity in NYC, so most things exist online. Instead of buying a collectible Mondo poster, I’ll put a picture of it on Tumblr.
But it’s just not the same.
The other night I walked into a guy friend’s apartment. I have never felt particularly attracted to him but running my fingers along his shelf filled with all the classic books I love, like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, and seeing his Al Pacino and Scorsese collections, I started to feel a stirring inside. I felt like I saw more of him; who he was, beyond just what I’d gotten to know from running with him.
What are we without these collection of things? And what does it mean that they’ve become virtual now? Beyond just the spectacle of the sight of the actual collections within The Keeper – marvelling at the physical space they occupy – is the internal feelings they conjure. How they create testimony for some, such as in the case of Ydessa Hendeles’ The Teddy Bear Project, which preserves history that would have been erased, or create a sense of self for others, like Hilma af Klint’s suite of abstract paintings, which she kept hidden for decades after her death, her assertion that she once lived. What is the value in a collection? Or what value do we put into one?
The curator, Massimiliano Gioni says these kind of reflections and questions are part of the intention behind the exhibition. If you’re in New York, I urge you to take a walk around it, and contemplate your own collections, be they in boxes or not.
The Keeper is currently on at the New Museum.

One of the things I love the most about living in New York City is finding out about the history that lies within these streets, especially those pivotal cultural moments that took place before my time, so to speak.

One such occasion was an art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 that caused a riot of protest and then-mayor Rudi Giuliani to bring a court case against the museum and threaten it with eviction. All because of British artist Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary painting, which was part of a showcase of the Saatchi Collection. His piece, made of his trademark materials at the time – glitter, resin, map pins and elephant dung, plus an added extra of pictures of buttocks plastered in little places all over the canvass, drew incredible ire. Just about every possible protest group picketed outside the museum and there were threats that its city funding would be withdrawn. At the end of it all, the museum won the case but it remains one of the storied tales about New York’s art world.

This work, together with other pieces spanning two decades of Ofili’s work, make up the New Museum’s Night and Day exhibition, which begins this week. In it, you see the shifts in his work, from using the dung to going without it. His influences – from Scripture, to hip hop, to Blaxploitation movies and kitsch, all swirl in his palette. His African heritage led him to using dung, first from a trip to Zimbabwe, then from the London zoo, as one of his tools.

On the 2nd floor, you’ll see the famous Mary, but you’ll also see, placed next to it, another one of his works, that was shown next to Mary in the Brooklyn Museum 15 years ago (time, she flies!) To me, it’s an even more powerful image, titled No Woman No Cry, taken from the Bob Marley track. It’s from 1998, and was made in response to the racially-motivated killing of Stephen Lawrence in London, a case that dragged on until 2012. Race, police inefficiency, brutality – all of these are still so relevant today, unfortunately so, but the resonance of the piece is striking. The thing about seeing it in person though, is that you get to see up close, the pictures of Lawrence – within the tears of the woman – his mother. It’s deeply moving.

Another piece that stood out for me is the sculpture titled Annunciation, yet more twisting on perceptions of the Virgin Mary.  This time she’s intertwined with the angel Gabriel. I spent a very long time looking at it, with its mix of materials, feeling a weird sort of response that I’m still not quite sure how to articulate.

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And yet another great thing about living here is you don’t have to step inside an art museum to be moved. Walking out of the New Museum and down onto the streets of the Lower East Side, I was once again taken aback by a work from Chilean street artist Dasic Fernandez a few blocks away. Like with Ofili’s No Woman No Cry piece, it’s in the eyes.

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Night and Day is on until January 25th at the New Museum. Dasic Fernandez’ work can be spotted all over New York, but this piece is on Rivington and Clinton St on the LES.