Saturday, October 29, 2005

Fire in Sandile Zulu's Art
By Molara Wood

“Working with fire - mistakes do happen,” South African artist Sandile Zulu admitted during ‘an afternoon of spontaneous combustion’ at London’s October Gallery. It was a seminar exploring the creative potential of fire as both a tool and a metaphor in art-making practice. Artists including El Anatsui, Raimi Gbadamosi and Emmanuel Jegede, were on a panel with Zulu, discussing pyrographic arts and ideas surrounding the contemporary use of fire in performance, conceptual and process-based art.

As Anatsui pointed out during the seminar, the use of fire in art is merely an extension of the primordial branding of wood. Sandile Zulu’s art is line with this idea, and echoes a long tradition of painters who have used fire as their erosive media. His “raw and exciting” work, with its unconventional use of the elements - was on display at the gallery; the artist’s first solo exhibition in the UK.

Zulu has participated in numerous group exhibitions, both in South Africa and abroad, and his work is represented in many private and public collections around the world. The October Gallery show coincided with the launch of a new monograph on the artist, by critic Colin Richards. The twelfth title in the TAXI Art series on contemporary South African artists initiated in 2000, the publication is the first book on the work of Sandile Zulu.

According to Richards, Zulu is a pyromancer, a collector of natural elements, and a scavenger after industrial debris. Born in 1960 in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa, the artist now lives in Johannesburg. Over the last decade or so, he has developed a working method that relies as much on repetition as it does on the unpredictability of the elements (the unpredictability asserting itself during a live demonstration of fire-drawing by Anatsui in the open air after the seminar, when suddenly, it began to rain).

Zulu’s work harnesses the natural effects of fire, and “alludes to life, to creation and destruction, to colonisation and decolonisation, to revolution and liberation, to purgation and cleansing, to purification and renewal.” When he first began working with fire back in 1990, the artist had seen the element’s action as an allegory for the violence all around him. With the Apartheid regime’s use of fire and firearms as tools of repression, Zulu saw his experimentation with the media as a form of resistance - his way of ‘fighting fire with fire.’

“When I first began using fire, it was very powerful for me,” he said, recalling his early experience with the element he describes as having “a long history.” With the black majority in South Africa still fighting for liberation, Zulu saw the potential for a “radical transformation” in his ‘playing with fire’, as well as many “parallels in terms of context, as an African.” According to the artist, his use of fire back then was “a revolutionary suggestion - I was also aware of the broad symbolism.”

Fire became the core of his art, but other elements - wind, air and water - were later introduced into Sandile Zulu’s processes, as a way of responding to what he called the “winds of change” sweeping through South Africa at the end of Apartheid. The symbolic associations, he explained, are multi-layered, ambivalent and ambiguous, affirming and negating each other. The art is a complex work of immense organic beauty, suggesting, amongst other things, healing and restoration.

More recently, the artist has been introducing elements of colour into his work by stitching onto canvas minute pieces of red fabric, heightening the decorative patterns and - according to the gallery - “leaving one wondering if the canvasses are bleeding.” The ‘bleeding’ quality is a feature of some of the monumental canvasses on show in the recent London exhibition.

Originally conceived as ‘Fire This Time’, the exhibition’s title was ‘Planetary Cycle’ and as the artist explained, the intention is to look into art as a scientific language. “I need to draw upon a scientific discourse,” he said. “To me, science is an all encompassing language; it has God within, ecology, physiology, medicine, astrology - then social and political sciences, there is no boundary.” Therefore, the new works are looking at what he called: “the endless transformations of the mind, the spirit and the emotion,” in an attempt to understand how humankind evolved over time. Zulu suggested that: “Art is also one of the languages that should be considered… as science; art need not be rarefied.”

“I see fire as a metaphor for how bridges are being burnt,” said someone in the seminar audience. African artists, he argued, “should not bring everything to the West.” For his own part, Zulu does not think that much has changed in the West’s ethnographic attitude to art from the African continent, observing that “you still have ’Africa Remix’ - it’s still the same narrative.” He believes that the same stereotypes are still being perpetuated, the same questions, the same paradox, to which an artist must adopt a standpoint. “My standpoint is that I want to work outside the mainstream rhetoric. If you adopt a principled standpoint, you have to tell them: ‘my work is important’,” said the artist. He conceded, however, that an African artist taking such a standpoint is left with little or no scope in which to perform, due to power relations that have been in place for a long time.

Ultimately, Sandile Zulu’s works in the exhibition are concerned with the cycle of life, looking at civilisation and radical transformation because, as the artist declared, “there is a need for revolution, even today.”

Fire This Time - Planetary Cycle by Sandile Zulu, was part of Africa 05.

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