Critics’ Picks

View of “Dada South: Experimentation, Radicalism, Resistance,” 2009.

View of “Dada South: Experimentation, Radicalism, Resistance,” 2009.

Cape Town

“Dada South: Experimentation, Radicalism, Resistance”

South African National Gallery
Government Avenue, Company's Garden
December 12, 2009–February 28, 2010

Dada has long exemplified the utopian transnationalism of the early avant-gardes. But such internationalism has rarely departed from Europe and the well-traveled trans-Atlantic route to the United States. This landmark exhibition relocates Dada south––way south––traveling past West Africa and down to the tip of the continent. From this unprecedented vantage, curators Roger van Wyk and Kathryn Smith uncover key points of contact between the European Dadaists and Africa, such as Sophie Taueber-Arp’s likely familiarity with Zulu beadwork and Richard Huelsenbeck’s book Afrika in Sicht (1928), for which John Heartfield created a photomontage of Table Mountain juxtaposed with a telescope. This last image, an iconic example of Africa seen through the narrow viewfinder of the European imagination, has finally cycled back south again, its meanings blasted open by its return to Cape Town.

The path through the exhibition itself rehearses a cyclical trajectory, walking the viewer back through time from contemporary South African Dada-inspired art to neo-Dada apartheid-era work. An impressive grouping of European Dada originals follows, culminating in “The Body of the Voice,” a hybrid gallery of text-based work and theatrical projects. The final room smartly underscores the parallels between the political repression of prewar Berlin and apartheid-era South Africa.

Even more remarkable than the light it sheds on historical Dada, the achievement of this exhibition is its profound rereading of apartheid-era South African art history. By highlighting the overlooked, neo-Dadaist strains of South African art––such as the fantastic Fook Island, an imaginary island that Walter Battiss created as a utopia of political liberation in 1972––“Dada South” illuminates the satiric bite and oppositional politics of such work. In so doing, it reframes resistance art not simply as a heavy-handed art of shaking fists but also as works of quiet absurdity and ludicrous whimsy that used the unbounded realm of fantasy to carve spaces of freedom in an era of censorship.