South African Cultural Observatory

The other side of SA fashion

BY Dr Danny Shorkend 19.07.17

INTERROGATING the world of South African fashion, photographer Johnny Lai Sang has produced images of rare complexity. On the one hand, full of the glitter and glamour of this world and yet on the other hand, a murky, darker, shadow-side emerges. This is captured through an understanding of his craft where contrasts of colour, intensity of light, the ability to focus and yet not focus the lens and an eye for alternative perspectives and vantage points contribute to an interesting show, one well worth a visit.

Such works are enigmatic precisely because they are not simply about the allure of clothing, the polished image of figure and facial expression and the like, but appear to delve into a deeper psychological dimension. Beauty – yes, but mysterious, even potentially hiding a darker, unknown world. In these respects, such images such as “Just Hanging” and “Apparition” suggest a surreal reality, an unknown presence of great force or rather a force that unhinges what society deems beautiful, and instead asks the viewer to look behind these images or rather the ideological framework that determines a society’s view of what constitutes beauty, the ideal and perfection. This unveiling of such concepts, if you like, is backed up by astute visual and technical skill.

Lai Sang’s photographs capture a sense of foreboding as shadows lurk, as faces become mask-like, even dolls. He is able to do this as over the years he has managed to get back-stage access to such events. The glitz and glamour become abstract dots of sorts, and he often uses stark black backgrounds from which figures emerge. One is reminded of a Kirchner painting wherein the artist questions the values of that society and its decadence. This he achieves with figures “strutting” at contorted angles; with the seeming insanity of odd head gear and the dotted markers of light that distort and fragment. This is further highlighted by his one image of a strange procession of models (what does that mean?) that seem to be going no-where, a kind of militaristic uniformity - and yet banal.

Of course, such a reading is but one side of the coin. One may also argue that the artist is merely strengthening society’s norms and its categories, in this case “the fashion world”. But fashion is a very loose term. Could ideas be said to be a certain fashion? In which case, just as garments come and go (and how peculiar and interesting are the arbitrary configurations of clothing in any given society and the change over time), so ideas do. Or perhaps more curiously, how are such ideas and ideals or better, the process of socialisation, determined and created through the fashion that is consumed and followed (just like a model-doll).

Flesh appears unreal. Clothes ahead of its time. That which is behind or within concealed in the glamour of the pageant, the circus, the so-called cat-walk. This assessment may appear critical of mass culture, but since one can use the word fashion loosely as hitherto argued, such a description could equally apply to sacrosanct world-views and the like. Having said that, there is also a highly creative and off-beat aspect to the fashion world, both art-like and beautiful (a highly maligned word in the first place). One can at least say that new fashions can be game-changes and in fact themselves create and institute new ideas within a given society. Is a society of jeans “Western” and does that reflect freedom or merely an ideological framework, a merely apparent openness that fails to recognise other points of view? Perhaps it is only mere cloth.

Lai Sang’s work, therefore is in my estimation more than just about the spectacle and atmosphere of the fashion world, specifically in a South African context. The clothing thread, so to speak, leads to philosophical speculation. Nevertheless, there is an aesthetic appeal that is charming and frightful at the same time. A play of surfaces, a presence that refuses and refutes speculation. It’s a pantomime, a dynamic shifting party that happens within specified time-frames. And then the game is over. It’s all much ado about nothing. Or is it?  

Three Solo shows: Turiya Magadlela, Bronwyn Katz and Herman Mbamba At Blank Projects Three Solo shows: Turiya Magadlela, Bronwyn Katz and Herman Mbamba At Blank Projects

RELOCATED to larger premises in Woodstock, Blank Projects is a wonderful space for art. In this premier show, three artists present distinct methods and processes that may be understood in various ways. Magadlela’s “Wabana lapho isifebe, wangena kuso” employs pantyhose on canvas to great effect; Katz uses bed wiring and Mbamba uses acrylics within the context of torn pages from Norwegian fashion magazines.

Dream Rift At Eclectica Design & Art Dream Rift At Eclectica Design & Art

PERCEPTION is often no more than a construction, be it natural/genetic or social/environmental. The value of art lies in its reminding us that perception can be reconstructed, revised and perhaps understood or simply appreciated as esoteric. One way in which such an evaluation can take place is by highlighting the permeable boundary between dreams and what is referred to as reality. Could it be that reality is a mass delusion? Such speculations arrive at satisfactory visual analogues in the form of the artworks on show, each artist developing his/her own language in what can be conceived as an interrogation of the liminal space between the real and the imagined and ultimately between life and death.


CROSS POLLINATION - A Solo Show by Lars Fischerdick at Eclectica Contemporary CROSS POLLINATION - A Solo Show by Lars Fischerdick at Eclectica Contemporary

INNOVATIVE methods, strong intellectual content and guttural undercurrents, these works by Lars Fischerdick are likely to ignite conversation around such a unique aesthetic. Having turned to art full-time rather late, his architectural background has certainly come in handy. It allows for an understanding of materials and for powerful craftsmanship. Yet, rather than be dictated by utilitarian and functional interests as is unavoidable in the applied arts such as architecture, here there are excursions and flights of the imagination that touch on metaphysics, mathematics, physics and even history and politics. In conversation with the artist, such dimensions become apparent.


SITUATED in the beautiful Franschoek, I was happy to see the work of Kali van der Merwe. Powerful and profound, her work stirs one’s senses and reason in terms of philosophical speculation on the question concerning the relationship between life and death. Based on relics and bodies that she encounters on her farm residence, she has created images of uncanny scientific, taxidermical and magical qualities. There is a sense of structure and order, yet one “imposed” beyond the assumed categories of the sciences. Her path therefore is embraces both a desire to know nature and one that is in awe of – and complicit with – the unfolding of the natural and cosmological realms.


More News
BASA introduces its Scale-Up programme  BASA introduces its Scale-Up programme

Artists across South Africa show a deep sense of willingness to partner with businesses, but sometimes require guidance on exactly how to go about doing this. Through the programme, they will engage with shared value, research and building relationships that are sustainable to shift common thinking within the arts sector, and to expand their knowledge and skills within business exchange relations.

SA roadies conference coming up in May SA roadies conference coming up in May

THE South African Roadies Association (SARA) will be hosting Africa’s fourth Live Event Technical & Production Conference (LETPC 2018) from the 17 to 19 May 2018, at the Sunnyside Park Hotel in Parktown, Johannesburg, the current home of the LETPC.

New knowledge is power - A final word New knowledge is power - A final word

LOUIS L'Amour said, 'There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning.' In many respects, this is the end of something and the birth of something new. Nelson Mandela University - and its partners, the Universities of Rhodes and Fort Hare - are concluding the three-year South African Cultural Observatory contract with the Department of Arts & Culture.

Saftas12: Winners take Golden Horn Saftas12: Winners take Golden Horn

THE 12th Annual South African Film and Television Awards took place on Saturday, 24 March 2018 at the Sun City Superbowl and was hosted by Thando Thabethe and Phat Joe.

Winners of the 53rd Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards Winners of the 53rd Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards

IT'S WORLD Theatre Day today, 27 March 2018, and this month the best in the business were recognised at the 53rd annual Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards.

Connect with us