Portrait and Place

Portrait and Place - Omenka Online

From 8 July to 12 August 2020, blank projects will present Portrait and Place, a group exhibition drawing together the practices of four emerging artists: Simnikiwe Buhlungu, Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo, Gregory Olympio and Natalie Paneng.

Seeking to highlight the early careers of these artists, the exhibition explores points of confluence between their practices by examining them through the lenses of portraiture and ‘placeness’.
Layering Hlatshwayo’s autobiographical images, Olympio’s invented characters, Paneng’s digital dreamworld and Buhlungu’s inquiry into knowledge production, the exhibition is a montage of various conceptual modes and disciplines.

Olympio’s six painted portraits are not based on real people but rather capture an attitude or a mood. The starting point is an observation of what is around him, whether on the screen through social media or on the streets. Led by intuition, he merges what he observes with his own imagination to create images that centre around formal concerns of colour and shape. Olympio states, “I am a viewer. I remain open to what is around me. Images on social media, the outfits of people in the street etc.  I try to capture an attitude, a detail, a combination of colours. These portraits are not really portraits but more like archetypes. I’m not making a judgment, [I’m] simply following what I see.”

For Hlatshwayo, the home place is precarious and filled with tension:
“Growing up in a home with a tavern, I have been confronted with realities that made me want to escape the space. A place of refuge or safe haven should have been my home, but it couldn’t be because it was the extension of the tavern. Maybe my mind – but it was too violated. It became a tricky escape”.

Hlatshwayo’s three black and white photographic images originate from a body of work titled Slaghuis. The Afrikaans word refers to a butchery or more literally; ‘a place of slaughter’, speaking to how violence can be innately constituted in a place. Through this series, Hlatshwayo captures self-portraits in the tavern’s surroundings and goes further by abstracting and hiding our view from him. By veiling the work with this layer of abstraction, Hlatshwayo actively creates a distance between himself and the violence that is around him.

Buhlungu’s practice explores both personal and historical narratives. Through the use of language, Buhlungu’s triptych —We’re Not Making This Up!, Making This Up! We’re Not and This We’re Not Making Up!—expands the notion of place beyond a physical reading to include positionality. A reordering of the phrase We’re Not Making This Up! ruptures convention and structure through breaking syntax. Placeness and position transpire through a (re)negotiation of the titles.

For Paneng, place exists in the digital realm and IRL. In both worlds, the setting is idyllic, fanciful and sometimes bizarre. In the video work Looking at myself, sincerely (2020) the portrait is that of the artist – multiple frames and facets of Paneng’s own image are spliced together and layered over one another in a short, infinitely looped video. An image of the artist seated in a formal pose is suggestive of traditional portrait painting, while the neon pink of her dress, together with the green-screen aesthetic of the footage, firmly locates the work in the contemporary. Through the use of a whip, the main figure shifts and repositions fragments of the artist’s likeness in what becomes an orchestrated illusion.

By moving between (and through) the four artistic positions, the exhibition seeks to reimagine how portraiture and place are constituted.
Read David Goldblatt: Johannesburg 1948 – 2018

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