STEVENSON is pleased to present a solo exhibition by Steven Cohen - his second at the gallery following the mini-survey Life Is Shot, Art Is Long in 2010. The exhibition focuses on works made by the artist with Nomsa Dhlamini, the domestic worker who helped raise him and, now in her early 90s, continues to play a pivotal role in his life and work.
The intimate relationship between Cohen and Dhlamini is foregrounded in The Cradle of Humankind, the performance piece that showed at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, in July this year - the first time Cohen has appeared at the festival (since selling silkscreened prints and t-shirts there in the late 1980s). Including video shot at the Sterkfontein and Swartkrans caves, where many of the world's oldest hominid fossils have been found, alongside evidence of man's first controlled use of fire, Cradle 'was supposed to be about evolution', Cohen has said, but 'turned out to be a work about love'. In their various encounters, Cohen and Dhlamini appear as first humans, direct descendants of the apes; as people of contrasting skin colours, subject to anthropological classification; as luminous beings clad in brilliant costumes of fiber-optic light. The exhibition features new works relating to the Cradle performance and conceived for the gallery, including a video of Cohen and Dhlamini's interventions in the caves, and studio photographs.
Dhlamini's image first appeared in Cohen's work in silkscreen prints made in the early 1990s, and she performed on stage for the first time in Pieces of You, presented at the Dance Umbrella in 1998, and the basis of the work which won Cohen the FNB Vita Art Prize that year. In 2005 she took the central role in the video Maid in South Africa, in which she sheds traditional clothing and performs the role of a domestic, cleaning and cooking while dressed in provocatively sexy attire. Of this challenging work, Cohen wrote at the time of its making:
I am interested in the politics of nudity, not in sex as commerce. This work is more about the slave trade than the flesh trade. This is a personal film and a portrait of apartheid, a naive striptease and a personal confession. ... For 58 years, Nomsa Dhlamini maintained the houses of white people, cleaned their homes, fed their families and looked after their dogs. I was brought up by Nomsa, because my mother was an alcoholic for several years. Maid in South Africa is not titillation but the simple truth ... We are unable to enjoy the luxury of not looking. We look. We see Nomsa's life, without glamour, spending her time cleaning the uncleanable, and her dignity in the face of exploitation.
The connected roles of Dhlamini and Cohen's mother are dramatised in the 1998 photograph titled (in Yiddish) As die Muter Shreit Oifen Kind 'Mamzer', Meg Men Ir Gloiben (When a Mother Shouts at Her Child 'Bastard', You Can Believe Her), in which Cohen, in leopard-print stockings and heels, is flanked by these two muses, who respectively apply make-up to his chest and light a firecracker inserted in his arse.
Cohen's mother passed away days before his 50th birthday in August this year, and her irrevocable absence is commemorated in new work made with 'blood that has known loss', drawn from the artist's body after her death. Photographer John Hodgkiss, who passed away in May this year, is also remembered here: a close friend, Hodgkiss collaborated with Cohen throughout his career, shooting many of the photographs on this exhibition as well as the video Maid in South Africa.
Born in 1962 in Johannesburg, Cohen currently lives in Lille. He has been based primarily in France since 2003, when he took up a residency with the Ballet Atlantique/Régine Chopinot in La Rochelle; he was an associated artist with the company until 2008. In the past decade he has performed extensively on the festival circuit, primarily in Europe, at such prestigious venues and events as the Centre Pompidou as part of the Festival d'Automne in Paris, the Festival d'Avignon, the Munich Opera Festival at the Bavarian State Opera, and many others. He has participated in the first Aichi Triennale in Japan (2010) and the 11th Havana Biennale (2012), among other exhibitions, and has taken up residencies at the Baryshnikov Arts Center and the Center for Performance Research in New York (2009).
The exhibition opens on Thursday 18 October 2012, 6-8pm.
The gallery is open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, and Saturday 10am to 1pm.