The artist poses for a photograph in front of one of his works. Picture: SUPPLIED
The artist poses for a photograph in front of one of his works. Picture: SUPPLIED

The recent opening of visual artist Thina Dube’s new solo exhibition Yesterday-Today-and-Tomorrow at the Guns and Rain Gallery in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, caused quite a stir.

His works on the walls of the beautiful and intimate gallery, which opened its doors in 2018, were an eye-opener for many. Dube has a rare ability to portray and interrogate complex contemporary issues afflicting SA in a manner that is unusually easy on the eye and the mind.

After a close look at the works, the first instinct is to be lulled into comfort — they seem innocent and beautiful enough to add glamour to any home. But then the apparent innocence slowly disappears and Dube’s yearning to clinically dissect SA’s complex and sometimes contested legacies of colonialism and apartheid emerges.

Like many young artists, Dube is bold and vocal in his pursuit of art that deals with identity issues. But unlike Ayanda Mabulu there is no confrontational, in-your-face rage. He is quite civil about the different responses among people to the current effects of SA’s difficult past.

Dube’s visual language is remarkably polite, making engagement with his subject matter an intellectually tasteful experience. Red stickers denoted a purchase quickly adorned walls next to some of his works after he took visitors on a guide of his exhibition.

“When I make art, I want it to grow on its own and speak for itself, including the materials I use. The art work must engage in a meaningful manner with a viewer,” Dube explains. “In a way, I was not surprised with the positive response I got from the audience. It simply means that the works, though dealing with a traumatic past, provide a meaningful engagement with the audience.”

The curator of the show, anthropologist turned art dealer Dr Julie Taylor, the founder of Guns and Rain Gallery, agrees that he hits the right tone. “When I started working with Thina in 2015, I quickly picked it up that he is easy to work with as he conceptualises and expresses himself in a subtle and sophisticated way, making people think. He has a particular way of using his visual language,” Taylor says.

Dube’s work has long explored identity politics in SA: he frequently references identity’s many layers — both visible and hidden — and its fluid qualities as it constantly changes and responds to social environments.

Visitors to the Guns and Rain Gallery in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, look at Thina Dube's painting The Self. Picture: SUPPLIED
Visitors to the Guns and Rain Gallery in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, look at Thina Dube's painting The Self. Picture: SUPPLIED

Borrowing his title from the sweet-smelling yet toxic plant nicknamed yesterday-today-and-tomorrow, Dube’s newest body of work reflects how history is injected into contemporary identity politics to create a particular sense of unbroken temporality.

“He highlights the sense of societal posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD] in postapartheid SA, especially in relation to education, corruption and land distribution,” says Taylor. “Dube’s imagery and mark-making references certain PTSD symptoms, both behavioural and psychological, ranging from agitation and hyperventilationigilance to anxiety and mistrust. And this is done in the monochromatic ‘signature style’ for which he is known.”

The exhibition includes new paintings which emerged during his recent residency in Zimbabwe, and outstanding among them is Catching Up with the Past — it portrays a human figure behind a fence watched by a vulture waiting patiently.

“This work was created while I was in residency in Harare this year at the First Floor Gallery. That residency and my first trip to Zimbabwe was an eye opener in many ways,” Dube says. “For example, the media has always painted a picture of pain and poverty afflicting people with no money. But while there for three weeks, I found out that life is normal there.

“The fence here is an interrogation of the idea that when people erect fences around them, is it to protect themselves and their possessions from bad people, or  to simply keep others out?”

Another outstanding painting in this exhibition is titled The Night the Dube Spoke, an image of a human figure wearing a beret. “The beret has changed its symbolism several times over the years. At one stage it was a symbol of a revolutionary spirit. It then became a fashion statement and is back to representing revolution again,” Dube says.

Born in 1993, Dube is a graduate of the University of Johannesburg, has a postgraduate diploma in education and has taught at the National School of the Arts. He is also an art therapist who works with children with special needs at Casa do Sol in Linden.

He has exhibited in group shows at the Turbine Art Fair, Constitution Hill, Sguzu Press Soweto, and AVA, among others. In 2018, he exhibited at the Stellenbosch Museum, ABSA, Eclectica and InToto. His work will be presented by Guns & Rain at Also Known as Afrika in Paris in November. The exhibition focuses on contemporary African art.

Yesterday-Today-and-Tomorrow is at Guns and Rain Gallery in Parkhurst until mid-October. Make an appointment to view it by e-mailing julie@gunsandrain.com.

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