In the same way that Joseph Conrad’s renowned 1902 novella “Heart of Darkness” starts on water, so does South African artist/designer Porky Hefer’s new solo show, “Heart of Lightness.” But whereas the book begins aboard a ship on the River Thames, Hefer’s own African narrative launches with a life-sized leather conch shell resting on a swatch of teal blue paint covering the floor of TriBeCa’s R & Company gallery.
After putting our ear to the end of the shell sculpture to test for the sound of the ocean, Hefer tells us about the exhibition name. “The problem with ‘Heart of Darkness’ is that it’s probably the only book that people have read about Africa. And they don’t leave it going, ‘Oh it was the baddie that was the heart of darkness, [they think] Africa is the heart of darkness—it’s a dangerous place, marauding, people killing.’ While really it was the white colonialists doing it. So I’m trying to tackle preconceptions and say, ‘Actually, if you meet an African, within five minutes you’re going to be laughing, pissing in your pants and probably having a beer.’ They’re not going to shrink your head and put you in a pot.”
In taking in the seven new works on display, one definitely senses the inviting atmosphere that is modern day Africa. Hefer has created a colorful backdrop for his mostly hanging sculptures (a nod to his background in graphic design), and as you move from the Nguni cowhide-wrapped shell at the gallery door through to the massive peanut-shaped seating sculpture in the back, you experience Africa through Hefer’s eyes both in the concept and techniques used for each piece.
Take, for example, “Leopard’s Branch,” the wall-mounted woven sculpture near the entrance. Three pegs lead you up to the branch-shaped seat, where you can rest the way a leopard would but on a specially made padded saddle. “What’s happened with us, we’ve lost all of our predators from above,” says Hefer. “We don’t have leopards, we don’t have eagles, we don’t have snakes. We don’t walk outside and check if it’s fine out there anymore. So this is meant to go above the door, so when somebody comes in they don’t see you and they walk in thinking, ‘He’s not here’ and start looking around and you’re just sitting up there watching them.”
But like the other works in “Heart of Lightness,” the material construction of “Leopard’s Branch” is also significant. “There are all these brilliant saddle makers, because we all had horses, with nothing to make now. So I said, ‘Why can’t we make saddles for other things, like branches and cars and chairs.’ I’m trying to help keep these craftsmen moving with the times. I don’t like competing with them, I’d rather work with them.” Hefer feels that his continent’s collaborative spirit is distinct; in other areas of the world artists want to do everything themselves. He notes, this is the reason critics scoff at the multi-person production methods of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst. “Everyone’s stuck on their own mission. Africa’s still got people that want to work. We’ve got talent, we’ve got labor. I’d rather infiltrate their system and understand their skills and techniques so their whole family can go up,” he says.
While his sculptures decidedly portray an extraordinary cultural history, like the suspended chair shaped like a leaf mask worn by the Bwa people of Burkina Faso, they also show off Hefer’s own untethered imagination and ability to harness that into a rational discourse about human behavior. He’s not just breaking down preconceptions about Africa, but about the limitations we place upon ourselves.
“I like to push boundaries and question what we’re thinking about. Why do we do what we do? Why are all chairs on the ground? Why do we sit in it and face this way? It’s all so prescriptive, whereas I would like it to be a bit more up to you, whatever you want to do with it,” he says. “People go, ‘Well that’s not art!’ And I go, ‘Whoa, who said it was that?’ They’re just trying to find a categorization.”
“Heart of Lightness” is Hefer’s second solo show, and is equally defiant but less anthropomorphic than his first—Monstera Deliciosa, Volume I—which exhibited in 2015 at Cape Town’s wonderful Southern Guild (the gallery who represents Hefer internationally). Visitors to R & Company will undoubtedly find themselves immersed in Africa, and will leave the gallery with both a greater appreciation of it and of Hefer for his ability to so beautifully manifest its history. As he tells us, “I don’t really work from the head, I work from the heart.”
The show is up now and runs through 23 February 2017 at R & Company in New York.
Images courtesy of Joe Kramm for R & Company