Roles of the road: George Pemba’s On the Move was created in the early 1990s when the artist was in his 80s, and captures social conditions that could be from the 1960s. Picture: SUPPLIED
Roles of the road: George Pemba’s On the Move was created in the early 1990s when the artist was in his 80s, and captures social conditions that could be from the 1960s. Picture: SUPPLIED

The title of Wim Botha’s extraordinary sculpture Fuse (2011) leads viewers towards its darker meaning. As does the fact that the wooden busts of the two lovers united in a kiss are charred black, almost burnt beyond recognition.

This sculpture, a highlight of the Strauss & Co March 5 auction in Cape Town, presents a number of interesting statements about romantic unions.

For starters, the "fire" that ignites a passion can easily destroy the duo if it burns too brightly or gets out of control. Or perhaps Botha’s striking bust, which presents a macabre twist on a tradition in sculpture, points to the death of people’s "romance" with traditional representations of love.

Presented through an outdated art mode — no one makes busts anymore — the fleeting moment of the kiss, associated with the conclusion of a Hollywood romcom, appears to be a remnant from a bygone era.

This romantic artifact has been torched. By whom? Rebels, disbelievers, a new society in the making? Botha is right; the mythology surrounding heterosexual relationships is imploding via dating apps, with emoji kisses replacing real ones in virtual encounters, and same-sex and polyamorous relationships are shifting what society held up as an ideal.

Art of the heart: In Edoardo Villa’s The Family he plots an interdependent relationship. Picture: SUPPLIED
Art of the heart: In Edoardo Villa’s The Family he plots an interdependent relationship. Picture: SUPPLIED

Botha might not have had this on his mind when he created the more than 2m-high sculpture with a black plinth for a group exhibition centred on love at the Stevenson gallery in 2012. But he typically works with classical symbols from western tradition, often presenting them as ero-ded, worn or deconstructed.

His art has come to evoke the steady collapse of societal, moral, art historical or power structures. He is less interested in the phoenix that might rise from the detritus of western ideology than he is in charting its demise. Fuse will certainly provoke conversations.

Botha’s art has become a staple at auctions and is a leader in this category. All three of his works that went under the hammer at Strauss & Co’s recent inaugural contemporary auction fetched healthy prices. His success is probably tied to the way in which his vocabulary is sufficiently rooted in tradition to be familiar, yet undone to appear relevant.

Fuse is set to fetch as much as R700,000. It also sparks a narrative with other works on this auction that similarly deal with heterosexual unions.

George Pemba’s On the Move presents a family standing in a dusty road in a rural setting. The woman is clearly more bound to tradition as she wears ethnic dress, carries wood and a pot on her head and two children hang off her.

She is burdened with domestic duties while her husband, in western dress and pipe in hand, appears less encumbered by them. He looks like he is on his way to a city as a migrant worker during apartheid. Romantic love was thwar-ted by apartheid, structured to keep black families apart.

Wim Botha’s Fuse examines a more cynical notion of romantic love. Picture: SUPPLIED
Wim Botha’s Fuse examines a more cynical notion of romantic love. Picture: SUPPLIED

It is hard to believe the painting was executed by Pemba in 1993 – the social conditions it describes could date back to the 1960s and the mode evokes another era in painting.

However, he would have been in his early 80s when he completed it and was probably recalling the past.

Pemba might not have been aware of the gendered reading his painting might take; he remained faithful to depicting the struggle of black people.

Botha’s treatment of the female part of his fused busts could also be seen to reflect gender inequality. The features of the male half are more solidly carved out and he appears to subsume the female, almost completely swallowing her up. If individuality is lost in the process of their union, the female identity is eroded first.

Despite the reduced geometric shapes, the female part of Edoardo Villa’s steel relief work titled The Family can immediately be identified. It is harder to justify this; a shape alluding to long hair (or is it a big sleeve of a dress?), a half-circle denoting a pelvis hints at a feminine self.

Like the Botha bust, the female and male parts of the "family" unit are fused. In this relief work mounted on a wooden base, they are sort of interwoven, threaded through each other via these various parts, almost like a car engine or other machine. They can’t operate without each other; the pair is interdependent.

Yet Villa sees the two halves as opposites; where one has eyes the other has none. The female part has a neck denoted by a rectangle strip of steel that is absent on the other half.

As a result this dated piece implies that a union works best when one half of the machine compensates for the other. Two halves create a balance, rather than subsume each other in some terrible destructive fire, as in Botha’s work.

However, like Pemba, Villa’s concept of a union between a man and a woman is one foun-ded on difference; biological differences determine social ones.

Feminists now embrace their corporeal differences, but not in relation to men.

They appear to be on a journey to discover the implicit strength those might offer and perhaps how contemporary art can reflect them.

Botha, Pemba and Villa’s works, along with 600 lots, will be on exhibit at the Vineyard Hotel in Newlands, Cape Town, from March 2 until the Strauss & Co auction on March 5.

* This article was paid for by Strauss & Co