REVEAL: Collage and Assemblage Art
Khehla Chepape Makgato speaks to Benon Lutaaya about his latest exhibition ‘REVEAL’ and delves into the history of collage and assemblage art.
REVEAL is the latest solo art exhibition by Ugandan born artist, Benon Lutaaya, in which three large collage pieces are being showcased at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).
The works presented are both ‘finished works’ alongside ‘works in progress’ which seek to provide a broader insight into Lutaaya’s art practice. This body of work is significant both to the artist and hosts. In the last four years of his professional career his work has seen growth both technically and conceptually, in addition to the records it has broken at art fundraising charity auctions.
Christopher Thurman, Professor of Literature at Wits University and arts critic for Business Day, has described his work as “images that are still somewhere between abstraction and realism – the pictures of the faces, like the actual subjects, seem to be in the process of defining themselves”.
His work is like a dream. Lutaaya’s use of collage, tinted with touches of acrylic paint, along with the dullness of torn-up allows one to gaze at an assortment of feelings and reactions. Silent messages and noisy stories are portrayed in his recycling adventure called art. One cannot simply get away with understating his work at first glance; the viewer has to move away from the collages in order to make sense of the canvasses, in order to REVEAL the artwork. However to understand Lutaaya’s work fully, it is necessary to delve into this history of collage as an art form.
The medium of collage or montage refers to attaching or superimposing materials onto a surface and these two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Collage medium or technique was discovered for the first during the times of paper invention in China, around 200 BC. However the use of this art medium wasn’t used by many people until the 10th century in Japan, when famed Chinese calligraphers such as Wang Xizhi began to apply glued paper, using texts on surfaces, when writing their poems. The collage technique appeared in feudal Europe during the 13th century.
The historical avant-garde revealed the power of the mass media’s cut-and-paste techniques through a radical, collage critique of the ideology disseminated by that media. It seems that contemporary collage artists are now seeing what we have lost as we moved into computer-generated media and much of their work reflects a longing for the lost colours and textures, fonts, forms, and aesthetics of the ancient’s printed world.
The collage medium became more practical in the late 18th century and the prominent artist who pioneered the medium was called Mary Delany, a Coulston born female artist. Besides being good at needlework, painting, drawing and cutting paper, Delany was also best known for her collage work using ‘mosaics’ – referred to as the art of putting together or assembling of small pieces of paper, tiles, marble, stones and such works are often found in cathedrals, churches, temples as a spiritual significance of interior design. The fine art of collage was later conglomerated with artists such as Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in the beginning of the 20th century when collage became a distinctive part of modern art.
Artists in every medium, argues Professor David Banash of English at Western Illinois University, “turn to collage to respond to the possibilities and limits of an inescapable consumer culture. ”Professor Banash was discussing the paradoxes of the practice in an interview he had with Rick Poynor titled Collage Culture: Nostalgia and Critique.
The art of assemblage has played a large role, not only Lutaaya’s work, but also his journey as an artist. Arriving in South Africa as an artist with little in his pockets, Lutaaya readily rummaged through paper bins to creatively convert discarded materials into collage masterpieces.
The large collage pieces are like a journey untraveled, a book unopened, a map unread. Apart from his view of the collage as secondary to the act of painting itself, this energy is not absent to the viewer.
Deposits of the action such as intense engagement with the work remain. There is an access point of the represented portraits to the audience, although the interpretation by the audience may not be intentioned by the artist when creating the work, he nonetheless offers a ticket to participate in the beauty of portraiture as a backdrop of all human experiences, hardships and hope.
This particular exhibition distinguishes itself from his previous shows in that the dregs of the artworks – are monumental in scale, standing higher than the average man and wider than the same man with arms outstretched. From a distance, the viewer is struck by the collage as spectre – a larger-than-life rendition of someone that is almost familiar. Intrigued by this image, the viewer is drawn forward, closer to the collage itself, in order to examine finely the rough details of the memorable face. It is from this point that the ‘abstract transcendence’ of his work develops. Detached from the pieces it becomes clear that adequate detail, in the sense of faithful realism, is Lutaaya’s attentiveness to portraying the story from his point of view. The picture plane begins to disintegrate. The face is interrupted by bands of solid colour and gestural swathes of paint. The eye is drawn to random paper strips produced by the enterprise of working on such a large scale. Flakes of light and shadow reveal segments of the canvas almost untouched, other areas are overworked in layers that create striking contrasts on the facial expression or gesture.
Each of Lutaaya’s pieces is a complex collage of assembled elements. The difference between each individual collage piece needs to be understood in relation to the overall subject matter and the organising formal logic of each collage painting. The accumulation of various collages he created fashions a type of visual rhythm. The rhythm is similar to the editing of a movie, invented through matching and mismatching elements of colour, especially monochromes, shape and side. His incomplete and yet suggestive portraits can exist as frames in a motion picture. The construction of each piece is reminiscent of the brush strokes. His aesthetic touch in collage helps structure the use of visual language. Repetitions and variations help unify his work formally without demanding a singular meaning or theme attached to any one instance of repetition or variation. These repetitions and variations create a tone or mood for his specific pieces.
Art being an expression of a man’s need for a harmonious and complete life, Lutaaya takes pride in what Leon Trostsky observed many years ago that 1 “a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative work.’
The contemporary artists like Lutaaya are becoming more and more vocal and forceful in preaching the artistic gospel of children’s rights in their work. This further boasts the function of art being intolerable when it speaks truth to power or crime against humanity where many states do little if anything at all to curtail children’s abuse, child labour, children trafficking and others ills facing children.
Lutaaya’s work doesn’t only make you appreciate the authenticity of craft but further disturbs the comfortability imbued by reality of what is happening around us – this reality is hard to ignore or inflexible to escape from. He talks here of the children who are perpetually molested, abused, trafficked and destitute. He allows his work station or studio to be the messiest space that will breathe new life from the trashes.
The hosts of the exhibition, Carolynne Waterhouse and Dana MacFarlane visited his studio, and this is what Waterhouse had to say about their experiences at Lutaaya’s studio: “While standing in Benon Lutaaya’s modest studio with Dana a few weeks back, Benon was quick to point out, with smiling eyes, that we were standing on his art material, which is impossible not to do given the size of the studio and the collection of painted and torn newspaper, randomly piled like autumn leaves in the fall. At a stage of our chat the concept of “Luck” was raised, at which provocative cue Lutaaya shared his philosophy that “Luck is when an opportunity meets a prepared mind.”
His story contradicts the images of well-off children produced by those magazines, so there is a hugely critical dimension to his work, but because the source materials so powerfully evoke that now lost world, the whole thing is pervaded by a profound nostalgia, a desire to hold on to something, to experience that world, and Lutaaya sustains that, keeping us in it piece after piece. In Lutaaya’s and many other contemporary collage artists, it is almost as if the critique becomes just a vehicle or an explanation for the reminiscence.
Benon Lutaaya currently lives and works in Johannesburg.