An exhibition of works by two female artists, Dorothy Kay (1886 – 1964) and Mary Sibande (1982 -), is currently being held in Strauss & Co’s dedicated gallery at its Houghton offices in Johannesburg (11 July – 12 August 2022). Hoping to inspire a visit, DIANE DE BEER shares her delight:
Cookie, Annie Mavata by Dorothy Kay. I’m a Lady by Mary Sibande.
Alerted to an exhibition of works by Dorothy Kay and Mary Sibande, I just knew that I would lose my heart.
I have been aware of Kay, but was more familiar with the work of Sibande, whose exhibitions I always try to attend.
Curated by Strauss & Co art specialists Arisha Maharaj and Wilhelm van Rensburg, this latest exhibition is a renewal of their commitment to education, with a curated exhibition juxtaposing the work of two historically important South African artists, Dorothy Kay and Mary Sibande. Titled Dream Invisible Connections, it is a rare opportunity to view a large range of works by both these extraordinary artists with many of the works on loan from private and institutional collections.
And when you walk into the exhibition space at the Strauss headquarters in Houghton, it is immediately clear that pairing these two is a stroke of brilliance.
If, like me, you didn’t know or might have forgotten, Dream Invisible Connections is the fourth in a series of legacy exhibitions, pairing prominent South African artists.
And, as the two curators reminded us during the walkabout (there’s another on July 27 at 10am), it was introduced in 2019 with a presentation of works by Louis Maqhubela and Douglas Portway, and further explored linkages and commonalities between Maggie Laubser and Gladys Mgudlandlu (2020), and Robert Hodgins and George Pemba (2021). Having seen this one and none of the others, I have made myself a promise not to miss any of the future pairings. It’s just a hugely engaging and educational endeavour.
“The possibly unexpected pairing of Dorothy Kay with Mary Sibande fulfils the mandate of the exhibition series by providing new frameworks for the appreciation and interpretation of important South African artists,” explains head curator Wilhelm van Rensburg. “The exhibition proposes new ways of interpreting Sibande’s various depictions of her iconic domestic worker alter ego, Sophie, and, in the case of Kay, of delineating connections between her virtuoso realist painting.”
Even if the artists are described as vastly dissimilar, as an entrance point, Kay’s well-known realist portrait, Cookie, Annie Mavata (1956, based on a photo taken by Kay in 1948) offers immediate connections with Sibande’s equally famous domestic worker alter egos, many depicted in blue uniforms while Kay’s Cookie also depicts the artist’s Xhosa cook in the familiar blue uniform.
Van Rensburg notes that even if produced in a loaded historical context, the grandeur of Kay’s painting shares obvious affinities with the splendour of Sophie.
None of us can forget the series of Sophie billboards in Johannesburg’s inner city which certainly led to the greater visibility and wider prominence of Sibande. I can remember coming off the Nelson Mandela bridge on my way home from the Market Theatre – and every time those majestic Sibande images would make me smile. It was such a glorious way to honour your family’s women by telling their stories in such striking fashion. The message was loud and powerful without any compromises – and remains so.
As can be seen in this exhibition, she works across diverse media, notably textile, sculpture and photography. The exhibition features a number of photographic prints, as well as a magnificent series of new figurative bronzes on loan from SMAC Art Gallery. They are simply exquisite and beautifully contrast with Sibande’s larger works which can easily fill a room.
Clockwise: Dorothy Kay: Forms in Rain; Deck Chairs in the Wind; and 1910 – 1960.
Here though you can move up close and personal, experience the delicacy of her work and also her colours that change as you move around the sculptures as they catch the light differently. If ever I have wanted something … but the pleasure is really in the viewing.
And the experience of Sibande’s work which is constantly evolving as she explores identity in a world that’s constantly changing.
Mary Sibande: I have not, I have. Dorothy Kay: Three generations – after Sargent.
It’s as if in these smaller sculptures she has captured the different elements of what a woman could be, or simply that there’s no door closed if you wish to walk through it.
From a completely different time and world yet with many similarities in what they wish to express and explore, Kay is represented by what is described as “a number of historically important oils. They include The Elvery Family: A Memory (1938), which montages recollections of Kay’s siblings and parents, on loan from Iziko South African National Gallery, and Commerce (1943), a multi-part harbour scene, formerly installed in in the Agents’ Room of the South African Reserve Bank in Port Elizabeth and now in the collection of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Art Museum.
And what stood out for me are her family paintings. The links and historical references were marvellously explained on the walkabout but also captured in the masterful catalogue, which is something to treasure. That and the quirky nature of her portraiture.
Both Maharaj and Van Rensburg are fascinating about different aspects of the exhibition and if you can make the walkabout, do yourself a favour. But they have also included all the information in their catalogue featuring an essay by both curators and contextual texts related to key works in the exhibition.
It is worth taking the time to dive deeply into this one. The rewards are huge as you discover much more about these two remarkable artists and their work. And then have the chance to experience their work.