“Of course, it’s fucking problematic!” Linda Stupart exclaims. Two nights earlier, standing in a packed Albert Hall awaiting Xander Ferreira’s performance, I am also a little sceptical. Decked out in animal print and escorted by gun-toting soldiers, Ferreira appears onstage as his alter ego, Gazelle, a sort of Afro-chic dictator/pop star.
“Of course, it’s fucking problematic!” Linda Stupart exclaims. Two nights earlier, standing in a packed Albert Hall awaiting Xander Ferreira’s performance, I am also a little sceptical. Decked out in animal print and escorted by gun-toting soldiers, Ferreira appears onstage as his alter ego, Gazelle, a sort of Afro-chic dictator/pop star. He makes a dictator-style speech and begins to play some music with his band, the performance marking the launch of The Status of Greatness, Ferreira’s debut solo exhibition at Whatiftheworld Gallery. My companions are also riled; as a white artist, Ferreira’s comments on the visual strategies of black African dictators could be interpreted as racist.I find evidence to suggest otherwise. His exhibition, which consists of two photographic series, one painting and a mixed media installation, is introduced by a somewhat repetitive series of washed-out photographic prints, all dated 2008. Ferreira is shown clad in white suit and animal print holding various weapons at significant South African locations, including the Sand River Convention Memorial ( Convention of the Gazelle) and a fortress once occupied by Boer leader Hendrik Potgieter, in Limpopo Province ( Ride of the Gazelle). While photographs such as Spring Palace of the Gazelle, taken in front of Graaff-Reinet’s city hall, and House of the Gazelle, photographed in a boma in the Kruger National Park, take easy swipes at the lifestyles of black postcolonial African elites, they also acknowledge the guilt of a white colonial government. His prints’ faded treatment seems to refer to a colonial – rather than postcolonial – era and Ferreira’s obvious whiteness to colonial abuses of power. Further, the sites in which his photographs were shot point to a white history of violent domination and corrupt rule.My concern, then, is not so much with Ferreira’s politics, but with The Status of Greatness’s lack of depth. The show can be encapsulated in a one-liner: it offers a critique of the visual strategies of dictatorship. Works like The Arms Deal (2009), a large installation of munitions cases packed with mannequin arms, reiterate this insight. Ditto Ferreira’s gilt-framed Official Portrait of the Gazelle, an undated oil painted by a Chinese portraiture service. This superficiality is compounded by lengthy catalogue texts, written by Michael MacGarry and Ferreira, which are at pains to explain the work, puncturing any surviving irony and imagined depth.A few weeks after Ferreira’s opening, Fahamu Pecou’s Coming from Where I’m From opened at Bell-Roberts. Sporting an outlandish off-centre Mohawk, decked out in designer Hip Hop couture, and surrounded by models and paparazzi photographers, Pecou, a painter who lives and works in Atlanta, Georgia, performed an intervention at Protea Hotel’s Fire and Ice bar, appeared at a VANSA 20:20 session, and signed books at the Design Indaba conference. Unfortunately, the turnout for all of these was poor; and without an audience, Pecou’s appearances, which rather like Ferreira’s, use fame and notoriety as a relational model to critique visual culture, fell a little flat.The physical component of the show opened without any of Pecou’s signature paintings, the work held up by Customs – another tragedy for an artist whose work hinges on first impressions. Like Ferreira’s photographs, Pecou’s paintings are also somewhat obvious. I kno whatchoo like (2008), a blandly executed self-portrait, pictures the artist in shades, smoking a cigar, the word “ICON” overlaid in gold leaf. Monkey Bizness: The Kingest Con (2008) meanwhile pictures a paintbrush-clutching Pecou posing with a model on the cover of Vogue magazine. In a playful painterly moment, the paintbrushes have been left unpainted, and paint-splatters have been painted onto Pecou’s cargo pants. Unfortunately, however, Pecou’s brushwork is never particularly stretched. Olympic Torches: the roof is on fiyah (2008) pictures two Pecou’s facing one another on the cover of esse magazine, like boxers, painterly drips trailing off their Nike shoes. Handwritten text scrawled over the top makes useful reference to Jean-Michel Basquiat, but the painting’s loose naturalism fails to add anything much to the subject matter.References to Hip Hop, boxing and Basquiat do begin to problematise notions of fame and the black male body, but ultimately Coming from Where I’m From doesn’t have anything much new to add to an already-seasoned debate. As in Ferreira’s case then, Pecou’s work suffers from crippling obviousness, coupled with the need to explain itself, which leaves little or no work for the viewer to do. Worst of all, then, is that Pecou has been unable to resist explaining it all in a slick and lengthy catalogue entitled Fahamenon (2008). Fittingly, it includes essays by eight contributors.Katharine Jacobs is the Cape Editor of artthrob.co.za