Minnette Vári’s new body of multimedia work, on show at Goodman Gallery Cape in an exhibition titled Revenant, is built around the concept of the uncanny return – of repressed sexualities, identities, returns to earth from beyond it, and returns from beyond death itself, in a new cycle of work that features vibrant departures into relatively unfamiliar media for the artist.
Building on a recent showing of drawings that explored ancient depictions of pre-pagan female deities around the world, Vári depicts the goddess ‘Baubo’ as a narrative presence pulling the strands of the show together, weaving weirdly in and out of various landscapes, situations, objects and interactions. Dating from at least the 5th Century BC. Baubo became one of the first “sacred fools” and her image of a jesting, sexually liberated, wise woman has informed the identities and practices of many subsequent cults of worship. Baubo has been celebrated as a positive force of female sexuality and the healing power of laughter, which is why the series of drawings featuring the figure is named ‘apotrope’: a ritual or object to ward off bad luck. One origin story of the Baubo has it exposing its genitals to provoke the laughter of the inappropriate response, as she causes the goddess Demeter to stop mourning her daughter Persephone and to laugh instead. The unbidden nakedness that attracts immediately the unavoidable gaze is, in short, an uncanny response.
The Baubo figures certainly immediately strike one as absurd, the absurdity of a violated body. Their legs lead one’s gaze upwards, to the decorous suggestion of a vulva, indistinguishable from a slight cleft in – a chin? And then up to a face. Much larger than the legs it sits atop, the face is variously screaming, laughing, in repose… but where is the middle? A closer look changes the feeling of absurdity to one of unease at this absent middle. Physically impossible, it demands an explanation, a palliative analysis.
What schema of interpretation, then, can we map onto these uncanny figures? While there are legs akimbo and the available, public pudenda of the id-fuelled sexualised jester here, yet these genitals are demure, melding into the superego of the emotive face, the rational and feeling mind which laughs, shouts or rests in repose. The absent middle here, then, could be that of the ego, the slave to three masters. It is the ego’s function to introduce time to experience, to instil the presence of a narrative, of social organisation. In these figures narrative is delicately but unyieldingly subverted, in the profound way that art can make possible. Here, the unconscious agencies have taken over the asylum in the form of mysterious and uncanny bodies par excellence. It is not precisely what Deleuze and Guattari had in mind, but these bodies-without-organs tell us about the irruption of that freedom of existence that lies within us all, and which we sometimes call the unconscious. Vári’s masterstroke is to make this goddess/jester the viewer’s tour guide through this irruption of the uncanny return, and our guide through the exhibition.
The show comprises a variety of work, most connected to or featuring the Baubo. ‘The Life of Baubo (Apotrope series)’ introduces the figure to the audience, and is extended in a series of storyboard drawings placing the goddess in different and strange environments and landscapes. There are thematically important large studies of the Baubo playing in front of a Victorian mirror, a period motif that will itself re-emerge in the work. Here the goddess acts out a mysterious and almost childlike othering, a staging of Lacan’s famous ‘mirror phase’; as if recognising herself as a creature with her own identity for the first time.
The show also features a series of seven jewel-like three-dimensional objects, the ‘Charm Series’, another reference to the Baubo’s reputed apotropaic magic; ‘that which turns away harm’. Each is based on a piece of space debris (parts of satellites, rocket booster gear etc.). The reference to the number seven is to seven days of the week, where each day corresponds to a heavenly body and its related metal, gods & goddesses; eg. Wednesday = Mercury (Mercredi) = Wodin/Mercurius/Hermes. This collaboration with designer goldsmith Cronjé Grobbelaar also evokes alchemical principles of change, transformation and return.
The last two sets of works are in a more familiar medium for the artist – video. The first is a video work in 7 channels, featuring an extended panorama within which the Baubo acts out a ‘creation myth’ of sorts. This time the goddess interacts with characters and objects in an ever-evolving landscape, including well-known megalithic and other South African landmarks, and actual items of ‘space junk’ that have fallen back to earth. Lastly, the show features a video projection based on Victorian/Edwardian memorial photography. In this narrative, figures wake from their deathly slumber (or take turns to be the ‘dead one’). They are ‘revenants’, returning from the dead. While referencing how technology would be applied in the search of the paranormal, and the world of spiritualism in the late 19th Century in its visual lexicon of double exposures, images of ectoplasm etc., it is also set against the backdrop of the Johannesburg of the Randlords era. In making this work, Vári was hosted by the landmark mansion of Northwards, a Herbert Baker home built in 1904. The historical frame gestures to going into the belly of the earth, like Persephone whose mother Demeter was cheered up by Baubo, and returning with precious goods – referencing both mining and the creative process. A series of photographs will accompany this video work.
Minnette Vári’s (b.1968 in Pretoria, South Africa) body of work conflates history with the self, examining how identity arises out of a traumatic past. As Kendell Geers observes in a catalogue essay published in 2004 by Kunstmuseum Lucerne, ‘Minnette Vári has in her lifetime witnessed the fall of apartheid and all its structures, followed by the new democracy.’ In response to this history, Vári has written a history of herself in relation to this trajectory, one that attempts to recover what is lost, to give shape and voice to forgotten or erased memories. In her videos and drawings, Vári frequently depicts her own body enduring a disfiguring metamorphosis – she merges with and emerges from nature as well as from the concrete architecture of modern cities. The female ‘protagonist’ of her video works is sometimes archetypal and sometimes spectral, a persona who ingests and is ingested by time.
Vári has exhibited her work since the early nineties, participating in such group exhibitions as the Johannesburg Biennale, Memoris, Intimas, Marcas at MUHKA in Belgium, the Venice Biennale, the Seoul International Media Art Biennale, and the Havana Biennale. Her solo exhibitions include Aurora Australis at the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, Chimera at Art Unlimited, Basel, Vigil at Serge Ziegler Galerie, New York, and shows in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013 at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg.
In early 2016, The Standard Bank Gallery hosted a major retrospective exhibition on Vári, entitled Of Darkness and of Light.
Vári currently lives and works in Johannesburg.