Art South Africa - Review by Hazel Friedman for Winter 2006 issue

In his book on Namaqualand, photographer Freeman Patterson describes this contrasting landscape as a “garden of the gods”. It is not the softer side of the Northern Cape that provides the most vivid illustration of its otherworldly properties. It is the desolate, jagged lunar-like contours of the Richtersveldt.

This is Robert Slingsby’s spiritual and creative locus. Inspired by the San petroglyphs and the Nama community inhabiting this rocky hinterland, for over 30 years he has obsessively recorded its topographical markings, their interconnection with ancient societies and their role as a means of entering parallel universes. Access to these alternate realities is gained through rituals that allow us, if only briefly, to see beyond the limits of our own perceptions.

The most recent pit stop of Slingsby’s ongoing odyssey comprises two related bodies of work. The first was exhibited in the Bahamas and also at the Bell-Roberts. The second, which includes remnants of the first, was recently displayed at London’s Square One Gallery. In a sense the Bell-Roberts show represents a return from self- exile by a widely acclaimed artist whose work, in the last decade, has fall en out of kilter with more fashionable trends in contemporary art. While many of his post-94 peers have renegotiated the politics of representation through new forms of cultural currency, Slingsby has remained focused, intuitively, on the “shamanistic” aspects of art, a paradigm that might seem anachronistic – quixotic even – to a discourse focused predominantly on deconstructing issues of this world, particularly ethnicity, race and gender.

Yet he has quietly forged on and his work has been championed overseas, in terms of its ability to transcend the constraints of geography and history. Entitled Power House, his ‘return’ exhibition revolves around the inexorable changes occurring in a landscape seemingly frozen in the romantic, ethnocentric imagination. Slingsby’s iconography is the idiosyncratic dwellings inhabited by the Nama, which are now being replaced – courtesy of increasing urbanisation and political wrangling – by faceless cement houses.

Through bronze sculptures and monochromatic drawings h e attempts to evoke the residue of a mystically charged landscape in which the soon-to-b e demolished human structures feed off and encapsulate the potency of the environment. But while the sense of oneness is successfully evoked through the exquisitely executed bronzes, the monochromatic drawings resemble fortresses erected in a landscape bereft of people, blocking out, instead of embracing the ancient environment. Inadvertently they become a form of armoury for the artist himself.

But in his Square One body of works, Slingsby has returned to the exuberant colours anthropomorphic forms and multi-layered motifs of his earlier output. Consisting largely of mixed media panels, including corroded community artifacts and other fragile material traces, they suggest a process of incorporation and integration, rather than simply inscription.

These works evoke an empathy with place that transcends ethnicity and changing techno- economic contexts. As such, they constitute the marking and r e -making of individual and collective histories as part of a never- ending quest to locate the outer limits of experience, and to cross them.

Hazel Friedman

Art South Africa Winter 2006  

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UPDATED 2nd July 2016