When parallel worlds meet

City Press,
22 September 2012
When parallel worlds meet
Two creative luminaries on parallel life paths found their work speaking in a singular voice at Circa on Jellicoe last week.
The spectacular bad boy of South African art, painter Wayne Barker; and the sagacious jazz pianist, Abdullah Ibrahim, became the subject of a unique artistic conversation as their work serendipitously found a simultaneous audience at the Joburg gallery.

The conversation involved Barker’s current exhibition of paintings and glass-bead panels titled Love Land and the music of the elder jazzman.

Ibrahim gave a rare series of solo piano recitals at the venue. He followed these up with another series at the Everard Read Gallery in Cape Town. Under the sedate aura of Circa’s honey-coloured lights, the pianist soared into sonic vistas as the painter’s work attempted a visual equivalent.

The fine artworks displayed in the main gallery hall also include a few works from the Legends series. Some of these formed part of Barker’s mid-career retrospective show, titled Super Boring, but were never shown. They are oil-on-canvas paintings dedicated to giants like Hugh Masekela, Nelson Mandela and, of course, Ibrahim himself. The painting (pictured bottom right) created in ode of the pianist is titled VICTORY. Its motif comprises a portrait of Ibrahim with his eyes closed and hands clasped, as if in prayer. The sage’s likeness is painted as an imposition on a Pierneef painting of an early urbanscape of the Cape of Good Hope. It is in line with Barker’s long-standing project of revisiting Pierneef’s landscapes.

So Ibrahim’s meditative face is deployed to disrupt or intervene in Pierneef and his Afrikaner-nationalist unpeopled vision of South Africa.

By insisting on Ibrahim’s inclusion in an Afrikaner nationalist’s representation of the Cape, Barker seeks to remind his forebear that the land and its people are one and that’s a beautiful thing. The rebelling younger painter then paints an olive branch along with the words “victory” and “play”. It’s another serendipitous gem in this interdisciplinary jam session, almost as if the painter knew that the victorious completion of the work will come when Ibrahim plays in the work’s presence.

Circa’s cavernous structure, with more than 200 art lovers congregated around the jazzman, acquired a ceremonial solemnity. This even as the pianist’s exacting appeal to decorum apparently contrasted the painterly recalcitrance of parts of Barker’s project. However, the works seemed to have found each other in the quintessential spirit of jazz.

The marked ebb and flow of improvisation and premeditation seemed to be a unifying factor: like an inter-textual dialogue with every gracious melodic phrase on the piano finding a fitting answer in each whimsical brush stroke on Barker’s canvases. Barker relies on the whole history and tradition of painting along with the problematic legacy of dodgy creatives like Pierneef to ballast his blast of beauty.

Ibrahim, too, ascended the plinth to sit at the baby grand piano with charts of composed music. So, as he issued immaculate clusters of improvised colours, there was an established sureness of hit songs like Ishmael, Blues For A Hip King and Tintinyana to provide a steady foundation.

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