BRICS Capitals: Titus Matiyane’s panoramas
FADA (Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture), University of Johannesburg
7 October - 11 November 2015
On this exhibition, Pretoria based Titus Matiyane presents panoramas of capital cities of the BRICS countries, including the works Panorama of Moscow (2015), Panorama of New Delhi (2015), Panorama of Shanghai (2013), Panorama of Rio de Janeiro (2013), Panorama of Gauteng (2014) and Panorama of Africa: Cape to Cairo (2015). ‘BRICS’ is an acronym for a fraternity of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Before South Africa was included in 2010, the group was known as the ‘BRIC’ countries. The BRICS countries are so-called developing or newly industrialised countries, characterised by large, fast-growing economies with noteworthy impact on regional and global affairs. All five of the BRICS countries are G-20 members. Since 2010 there have been regular BRICS summits, the most recent in July 2015, and Russia currently holds the chair of the group. The importance of the BRICS countries resides in the fact that they form a power platform by being partners and allies, and by representing 42% of the world population – thus potentially having much power in influencing the world’s state of affairs. Bilateral relations among BRICS nations have mainly been conducted on the basis of non-interference, equivalence and mutual benefit, and it is estimated that the combined GDP (PPP) of BRICS would reach the US$50 trillion mark by 2020.
Matiyane has always been interested in nationhood and the power relations embedded in governments and partnerships and as artist he aligns himself with such networks. He is fascinated by the political muscle and the commercial and cultural machinery at work in large cities, shrouded by their outward façades and surface maps. Although the artist generally presents wide panoramas of cities, thus ‘walking’ multi-viewpoint compositions, often he creates panopticon-like designs in which he functions as a kind of ‘watchman’ surveying the city from a single point of observation – his own. In the late eighteenth century, the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham coined the idea of the panopticon as a particular type of institutional building design that could allow surveillance by a single watchman in such a way that the entire institution could be surveyed from a single angle. The term ‘panopticon’ has been derived from Panoptes in Greek mythology that was a giant with a hundred eyes and known as a very efficient watchman. Bentham's architectural designs were very much aimed at the design of institutions such as prisons, for instance, or corporate environments, where inmates or workers could be surveyed without them realising it. Bentham’s ideas acted as precursor to twentieth-century technology such as closed-circuit television (CCTV).
As the artist ‘controlling’ the view of the city, Matiyane subjectively re-designs and re-presents it according to his own interpretation and impression gleaned from the limited information about the city at his disposal. The artist ‘travels’ the world as a kind of global flâneur through gazing at the imagery of cities and city maps obtained from the Internet, stationary shops and travel programmes on television. Conceptually he claims familiarity with and ownership of these spaces, although his source material is seldom derived from photographs of actual visits to the various locations. As such, he sets up a kind of psychogeographical relationship with the cities of the world, a correlation that mostly presents space, place and locality inaccurately and dependent on own interpretation.
As a BRICS country, South Africa is viewed as a developing country in the face of adverse conditions such as poverty, high crime and political redress. Having been territorialised under the apartheid regime of segregation and living in Attridgeville a township outside Pretoria, the country’s administrative capital, Matiyane embarks on a kind of symbolic remapping of these histories. Operating without sufficient transport and with minimal equipment and art materials places limitations on his mobility and professional practice; within the context of the strenuous context of his daily battles, the spectacularity of powerful world cities and their apparent glitz and glamour to him seem like places of pleasure and the world like a global utopia where poverty and agony can be forgotten.
Matiyane depicts cities of the world in the form of large mixed-media panoramas, utilising a naïve style of schematic outlining and an almost unsophisticated usage of coloured pencils and crayons, not unlike the early travelogues of the Renaissance and colonial explorers. In his panoramas, the landscape is flattened out into a subjective urban picturesque adorned with the city’s commercially most well-known markers functioning as a concise overview of or introduction to its most important historical events and its icons. Through the act of being empowered to depict any place in the world, the artist constructs his identity in the domain of the global self that utopianistically interacts with perceived spectacular environments. By mostly depicting cities that he has never been to, Matiyane expresses a desire and a longing for the exotic Other, yet his relationship to place is transmutative in essence. He imagines places where the home of the place–identity involves a process in which the self and local become metamorphosed into the global world. The artist becomes a ‘nomad’, displaced and diasporic in his pursuit of fame, wealth and global stardom through the fusion with ‘famous’ and ‘successful’ cities in his depictions. Matiyane includes a panorama of Shanghai to represent China as a BRICS country in this exhibition; in ‘Mediating place-identity: Notes on Mathias Woo’s A Very Good City’ (2008), Alice Ming Wai Jim (2008:264) states the following about Hong Kong, aptly describing a human condition related to Matiyane’s notion of place:
Over the last decade, contemporary art in Hong Kong, informed by travel(ing) theory, the special administrative region’s ambiguous (post) colonial-national-global connections and its inimitable set of historical and cultural situations, has been preoccupied with the themes of mobility, transition, and location in its representations of the city. This fixation, or, rather, the urgency of its mediation in not only artistic but also cultural, economic, and political arenas is inextricably linked to an ongoing elaboration of a Hong Kong identity. But assertions of “who we are” are often intimately related to suppositions of “where we are,” and ideas captured in the environmental psychological concept of place-identity.
Matiyane’s sense of identity and notion of ‘who he is’ is similarly tied to ‘where he is’, but virtually he can be anywhere. In every panorama, the artist traces the contemporary city’s ontology of mobility and transitivity in images of technology, airplanes, trains and boats. To him these images represent power, positive energy and dynamism, being tropes of transition and movement towards improvement, development and transformation. His utopian imagery can be interpreted as being populated by a multitude of heterotopic elements, such as powerful personae and images of transitivity represented by trains and boats that function autonomously but concurrently in close relation to their socio-cultural and geopolitical contexts; as liminal instruments connecting space and place; and as vigorous agents of change. In a work such as Panorama of Gauteng (2014), for instance, the artist included images as well as the life history of Nelson Mandela, interpreted as the as an iconic symbol of transformation and change, and in his recent Panorama of Africa: Cape to Cairo (2015), once again presents Mandela as the most powerful legacy in Africa. It becomes a stratagem of power mediation to point out the country’s instruments of advantage within the global sphere of competition. His vision radiates optimism and hope and deconstructs the notion of the processes of historisation as categorically fixed, predetermined and non-negotiable.
In Matiyane’s work, global psychogeography is created in which cultural disparities are flattened in renderings of cities and their surrounding landscapes, each endowed with air and ground transport, patterns of housing, own histories, a national flag and a city centre. Becoming ‘playful masquerading’, the artist’s presentation of panoramic landscapes imbued by factual information makes the real, perceived and imaginary differences between cities, cultures and worlds fall away. Surveyed through the panopticon framework of his panoramas, there are superficially neither perceivable binaries of have and have-not, poverty and wealth; nor anxieties, losses or racial discrimination. East meets West meets Africa in a global blueprint of urban patterning. By crossing the borders of the self and the local in his depiction of cities, Matiyane becomes a virtual flâneur of the cities of the world and a cartographer of imagined spaces.
Ming Wai Jim, A. Mediating place-identity: Notes on Mathias Woo’s A very good city, in Asselin, O, Lamoureux, J, Ross, C (eds). 2008. Precarious visualities: New perspectives on identification in contemporary art and visual culture. Montreal & Kingston/London/Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Read my article on Titus Matiyane