1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair | 2014
15.10.14 – 19.10.14
Commencing his career in the 1980s, Sandile Zulu came of age as an artist in Apartheid South Africa where inequality, exclusion and discrimination were institutionalized evils. Zulu is known for his controlled methodology of burning and scorching canvases, paper, newspaper, wood and other found materials such as board. These supports have in common the quality of being readily available, offering themselves to the artist or man on the street as surfaces of inscription, on the one hand, and a conceivable source of combustion (or shelter) on the other. Zulu’s choice of materials is one that cannot go unnoticed, as it is on these surfaces that we choose to record our passing, be it in the form of a picture, a telling mark on a tree, or the narratives, history and stories of those victorious and those vanquished, published in throwaway newspapers or tomes in series. We record statistics on paper, findings are published, and theories are often refuted in writing. Ultimately combustible, the knowledge, systems and subjects – both avowed or disavowed – that have and continue to be committed to writing are continually under threat or siege. The archive can easily be destroyed, or alternatively, replaced. The process always implies a loss, a forgetting, a victim in the singular, but more so in the plural, a specter, an ignis fatuus, all the more if the victim has been silenced or writ out from the annals of History.
Within the context of Southern Africa, Zulu’s oeuvre evokes the omnipresence of fire, our fascination with it, and reminds us of its social history. Fire is a fuel for families and industry. In its primordial application and signification, it is as a source of light, protection, warmth and healing, but it is also has a darker, potentially destructive character when unbridled. The fires of desperation, anger and fear are cruel and blind. One need only think of the silencing and punishing technique of necklacing, practiced by militias in townships, but also the poor man’s grenade, also known as the Molotov cocktail, employed during the height of the Apartheid years as an incendiary device against the regime. More recently, the element brings to mind the burning of libraries in protests against the non-delivery of services, but also the lost library of Timbuktu, where manuscripts were burnt at the hands of colonialists. Janus-like, fire reveals what we do not know or wish to acknowledge about ourselves.
Zulu’s work often transgresses medium distinctions. He transmutes a sheet of paper or a once-flat canvas into a three-dimensional, sculptural support, counterposing the hard geometrics of the surface he has chosen, which he often multiplies into different planes, fragmenting the gaze and the viewer’s perception, for instance in the work Spinal Diagnoses (2014) with the organic, soft cell-like structures of his themes. Populated by atomic, molecular and intestinal looking forms, which Zulu seems to blow onto his surface of choice, these life-giving or life-taking structures and systems, normally invisible to the naked eye, render his production replete with allusions to the bio-politic. One might argue their reference to the spread and handling of viruses such as AIDS and, when read in the present, Ebola, which threatens to rage through the continent like an apocalyptic wildfire. One might even posit that Zulu’s interest lies in the phoenix, in what will rise from the ashes, from certain destructive forces metaphorically embodied by fire and disease.