Fred Of London, London
25 March - 30 April 2010
Review by Danielle de Kock, Artthrob
In his most recent exhibition at Fred gallery, London, Conrad Botes continues the trend of biting, religious satire evident in his previous solo exhibitions at Michael Stevenson; 'Cain and Abel' (2009) and 'Satan's Choir at the Gates of Heaven' (2007). In fact, for the virgin visitor to Fred, eventually finding the minimally signposted gallery on its narrow, cobbled and somewhat industrial East London street may seem like something of a celestial reward. One has not, however, journeyed to enter 'the gates of heaven'. This, as the title loosely painted on the wall at the entrance to the gallery reminds us, is the 'House of Judas'.
The first piece we are confronted with, Botes' sculpture Prophecy (which was included in the exhibition 'Self/Not Self' at Brodie/Stevenson in 2009), is certainly closer to a mythical conception of hell than heaven. The sculpture depicts a devilish character - complete with horns and a menacing black moustache - whose pink tongue hangs limply from his mouth to mimic the enamel-white penis hanging from his pants. Etched into the phallic devil's chest, seemingly by his own hand, is the image of a crucified pig flanked by the words 'lucky, lucky'. Is this the Judas of the title, ridden with guilt and serving as the scapegoat for the sins of the world?
The main room contains four large paintings on reverse glass and 35 small panels under the title Land of Judas (2010) which take the stylistic form of a comic sequence. These images draw on the same caustic wit and complex allusions to South Africa's sociopolitical landscape for which Botes has been known since co-founding 'Bitterkomix' in the early 1990s with Anton Kannemeyer. The 35 panels in Land of Judas tell an allegorical story of physical, sexual and racial violence that, along with the larger paintings, seems oddly prescient in light of the recent murder of the divisive founder of the AWB, Eugene Terre'Blanche. Politically biting, this exhibition echoes with such complex notions as scapegoat status, the guilt of betrayal, the religious resonance of sin and retribution, and the haunting nature of South Africa's violent and racially segregated past.
Botes is known for his subversive critique of the Christian Afrikaner Nationalist identity and the patriarchal forms of secular and religious authority that secured the apartheid government. Terre'Blanche can be seen as a physical symbol of such an identity and, in his death, perhaps even the embodiment of cycles of violence that are depicted within Botes' work. For these cycles affect both victim and aggressor, their respective roles not always so easily disentangled. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu was recently quoted as saying, although it is problematic to render apartheid the constant 'scapegoat' for contemporary experience, we seem to forget sometimes the extent of 'the damage that was caused. To all of us South Africans. The damage to people who implemented such an inhuman policy, as well as the damage done to the victims'.
The four larger works each make salient certain issues that are raised within the narrative of the smaller, sequential panels. This narrative begins with a group of khaki-clad white soldiers shooting rifles at a surrendering group of black men. Following a panel that shows the soldiers' celebration, we see a lone member of the white troop going for a walk in a forest where he falls asleep under a tree. He dreams of an angelic black woman in a dress and cloak who leads him up a ladder into the heavens where they become sexually intimate. We see the clothed man embrace the naked woman while a devil rips the woman's soul from her chest so that the man is left with her corpse in his arms. The woman appears to bleed away her 'colour' until her body is left a ghostly white while, in the reverse, the man's skin gains the grey-black colour of his tears as he cries next to her grave. The man is woken from his dream to find that his entire troop has been massacred. In his grief, our lonely soldier wanders across a desert and calls out for the sacred ladder in the clouds. He is, instead, given a different ladder against a tree: he uses it to hang himself.
The distinctly biblical overtones woven into this narrative seem to place the lonely soldier in the role of the disciple Judas, who betrayed Jesus for a few coins (and later, wracked with guilt, took his life); the black woman plays Jesus to this antihero's Judas. Their sexual intimacy is akin, perhaps, to 'the kiss of death' that Judas is said to have given Jesus in order to identify him to the religious authorities.
Botes' narrative also resonates with the biblical story of Jacob who dreams of a ladder into the heavens, presided over by angels. In his prophetic dream, God promises him and his descendents both his protection and the land that surrounds him. This notion of a divine right to land for a 'chosen people' is reminiscent of the fervent belief of apartheid's religious sanctioning by such figures as Terre'Blanche himself.
Yet Botes undermines a conclusive understanding of his images; the complex layers of symbolism are loaded with contradictions. This is not an easy depiction of sinners and saints. His symbols are literally layered over the outlines of the drawings in repeated colours and patterns, resulting in the production of his own visual alphabet. In the larger work, Origin (2010) for instance, a squatting devil excretes a sea of red outlines that form ghostly characters covering the floor to read like seeping blood. These characters find their echo on the skin of the hanging man depicted in Blood Money (2010) and in the air of the room in House of Judas (2010) where they appear to be demonic reminders of past transgressions polluting the memory of the Judas figure. The title of Black Dog (2010) alludes to the racial violence implicit in the narrative of Land of Judas (indeed in South African history) while its image of a man on all fours, seemingly waiting to be punished, presents us with both a victim and scapegoat/dog.
'House of Judas' presents another triumph for Botes, whose work manages to pierce the damaged skin of South African history and uncover its complex demons while at the same time spewing forth the possibility of catharsis through understanding. The exhibition was well curated and uncanny in its ability to foreshadow current political tensions.