Nolan Oswald Dennis

Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Two years ago, in an interview with the webzine 10and5.com, Nolan Oswald Dennis spoke of his youthful aspiration to be a writer, ‘in the graffiti sense as well as the literary sense’. Dennis – a trained architect who was born in the Zambian capital of Lusaka to a family of South African political exiles – has found a productive middle ground in his ambitiously scaled wall drawings, an iterative version of which forms the key backdrop to his probing, grey-scaled debut solo exhibition, ‘Furthermore’, with Goodman Gallery.

Dennis has been producing his ephemeral wall drawings for a while now. In 2013, he created a 300,000-word installation that examined five centuries of South African land and conflict for the multi-media exhibition ‘Land’. His wall drawing took four days to complete, in a corridor of Cape Town’s retired City Hall, and included a verbatim rendering of the Natives Land Act of 1913. ‘The static record is by definition insufficient,’ he said at the time of his interest in reanimating archival texts as quoted fragments.

nolan_oswald_dennis_furthermore_2016_four_re-worked_ceremonial_flags_lightbox_plywood_fluorescent_lighting_and_utility_blanket_80_x_400_x_80_cm._all_images_courtesy_the_artist_and_goodman_gallery_cape_town

Nolan Oswald Dennis, Furthermore, 2016, four re-worked ceremonial flags, lightbox, plywood, fluorescent lighting and utility blanket, 80 x 400 x 80 cm. All images courtesy: the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town

Nolan Oswald Dennis, Furthermore, 2016, four re-worked ceremonial flags, lightbox, plywood, fluorescent lighting and utility blanket, 80 x 400 x 80 cm. All images courtesy: the artist and Goodman Gallery, Cape Town

That same year, he illustrated the Johannesburg avant-garde musical outfit The Brother Moves On’s debut album A New Myth (2013) with an Afrofuturistic-like cartoon of an astral shaman. This tension between the sinew of figuration and abstractedness of words and symbols recurs in his solo exhibition, which includes various ink drawings, a video describing the protocols surrounding the national flag and an internally lit rectangular sculptural form covered in a grey blanket and named after irresolvable contradiction, Aporia II (2016).

Given the preponderance of abstracted landscapes in his ink and collage drawings, it is helpful to know that the form of his 2013 wall drawing resembled a linear topography. Last year, as part of his participation in ‘Young, Gifted and Black’, a group exhibition curated by artist Hank Willis Thomas, also at the Goodman Gallery, Dennis created another cartographical word-scape. The horizontally drifting black and gold sentences in this work mused on free jazz, masks and black magic, while also dissecting colonial contact and the fraud of racial reconciliation.

3.jpg

Nolan Oswald Dennis, ‘Furthermore’, 2016, exhibition view at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town

Nolan Oswald Dennis, ‘Furthermore’, 2016, exhibition view at Goodman Gallery, Cape Town

Produced in a purposefully limited colour tone, Dennis’s wall drawings offer more than just cant political sloganeering by an analytical young artist who has allied himself to the student civil disobedience gripping South Africa. His ephemeral wall drawings have functioned as a kind of personal tutorial. Digging around the muck of the past, drawing equally and impressionistically from sullied official sources and formerly banned documents, Dennis has been attempting, as he put it in 2014, ‘to escape the limitations of my ongoing miseducation’. 

Anyone who attended Okwui Enwezor’s ‘All the World’s Futures’ at last year’s Venice Biennale will be familiar with the pitfalls and pleasures of the exhibition as history lesson. Although less fluent in his chosen medium, Dennis’s new and untitled wall drawing bears out the possibilities of what Glenn Ligon described as the ‘tension between the meaning of the words and the form of the paintings’. Spanning two lengths of wall in his solo exhibition, Dennis’s drawing is sparser than previous ones. Composed of verbal fragments, sundered texts and maps, free-floating constructivist lines that recall El Lissitzky and seven obelisks that reiterate the physical forms of his wooden sculptures, the work eschews the landscape idea for something else: a speculative scenography of the past. 

nolan_oswald_dennis_left_to_right_class_suicide_nothing_means_nothing_radical_empathy_all_2016_ink_on_paper_29_x_21_cm_each

Nolan Oswald Dennis, left to right: Class Suicide, Nothing Means Nothing, Radical Empathy, all 2016, ink on paper, 29 x 21 cm each

Nolan Oswald Dennis, left to right: Class Suicide, Nothing Means NothingRadical Empathy, all 2016, ink on paper, 29 x 21 cm each

The atomized phrases in silver ink are derived from various sources. ‘A paper is a weapon,’ is a quote from the headline of a July 1971 issue of the outlawed South African Communist Party’s news bulletin, Inkululeko-Freedom. Another quote reflects the artist’s gallows humour: ‘You sold us a dream. We are here for our refund.’ The anger undergirding this show is palpable. 

But Dennis is not simply deconstructing the past in this timely, temperature-gauging show. ‘Furthermore’ includes a suite of three ink drawings – Class Suicide, Nothing Means Nothing and Radical Empathy (all 2016) – recycling the shamanic figure from his The Brother Moves On collaboration. Radical Empathy sits in the middle of the grouped display. Its title suggests, at least to me, the foundations of this uncompromisingly urgent, if at times oblique, investigation of a querulous present.

Sean O’Toole is a regular frieze columnist and co-editor of CityScapes, a critical journal for urban enquiry. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

Issue 181

First published in Issue 181

September 2016

Most Read

The extraordinary life of the late, great, gallerist and collector Alexander Iolas
Various venues, New York, USA
At a time of instantaneous information and fetishized immersivity, artists are evoking scent as an alchemical, bodily...
With her current show at Gasworks, London, the Kuwaiti artist shares some influential images
20 years after Hong Kong’s handover to China, a new generation of artists dive into the city-state’s unknown futures...
‘Klassensprachen’ engaged artists, writers and publishers in soul-searching around the interlinking of class, language...
In lieu of institutional support, artists are working together to achieve a remarkable self-sufficiency
From being citizens to lovers, the most important things in life can’t be professionalized. Is it time for some...
From an inflatable anti-capitalist dragon to the shattered shadow of Robert Burns: highlights from this year’s...
Former South Korean officials sentenced for ‘artist blacklist’ involvement; Australia’s Archibald Prize attracts...
 A visit to Belgrade for the first exhibition produced as part of Balkan Projects
The city’s Academy of the Arts of the World embraces 'pluriversality' as a counter to an increasingly toxic discourse...
The Mosaic Rooms, London, UK
From usual haunts to exhibitions off the beaten path, the best current shows around town
The City of London’s annual sculpture park reveals the complex interplay between global corporations, urban space and ‘...
Taro Okamoto, Sun God, installed in Osaka
A recent show traces the creative legacies of an artist and an architect who helped shape Japan’s futurist aspirations
Friends and mentors of the artist Khadija Saye pay tribute to an extraordinary talent
Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy
The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art inaugurates its biennial artists’ award with a show marked by the idea of...
More vandalism at Skulptur Projekte Münster; Centre Pompidou to open a satellite space in Shanghai; Off Vendome and...
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA
Romare Bearden, Pittsburgh Memory, 1964, mixed media collage and graphite on board, 22 x 30 cm. Courtesy: © Romare Bearden Foundation / DACS, London / VAGA, New York 2017
Successfully layering a broader socio-historical narrative onto a period of radical non-conformity, this is an...
Trump’s trashing of the Paris Climate Accord makes it clear: we can't be satisfied with art about the political, art...
Q: What do you like the look of? A: Someone who knows who they are
With a strong surrealist strain, and including a welcome number of female artists, highlights from the 48th edition of...
A guide to the best of the summer shows
Agnes Gund awards USD$500,000 to New York’s Parrish Art Museum; Istanbul’s Rampa gallery closes; Gwangju Biennale...
With our increasingly porous objects, ubiquitous networks and ambivalent organisms, why artists are drawing inspiration...
From contemporary ink to counter-cultural histories, what to see across the Taiwanese capital
Nicholas Serota calls for freedom of movement to be protected after Brexit; Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi resigns from DiEM25;...
Who is Françoise Nyssen?
Protests against housing inequality, tourism and a colonialist past have been roiling across the Catalan capital

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2017

frieze magazine

May 2017

frieze magazine

June – August 2017