This January, Goodman Gallery presents Promise Land, the first solo show by acclaimed artist/sculptor Stuart Bird. In a series of meticulously and often obsessively hand-crafted sculptures and installations, Bird explores the position of the artist and the individual in contemporary South Africa.
South Africa is the land of promise of the title – a country full of exciting dynamism, but, conversely a potentially dangerous and fraught land. The title also alludes to the promised land of Canaan in the Hebrew bible – a mythical place of abundance that was never quite realized. Over the Rainbow, a glittering arch constructed out of broken shards of mirror, is both a welcome and a warning – a reminder that the place to which it grants access remains a fantasy that can be visited but never inhabited. And in Change, a floor sculpture spelling out the word ‘struggle’ in hand-carved African mahogany, coins are imbedded in the wood like bullet-holes; a violent symbol of an economic struggle barely begun.
Promise Land is also about a personal struggle – a process of working through and coming to terms with the country’s legacy of conflict and violence, an inheritance that we have no choice but to live with. Chip Off the old Block is a noose carved out of Imbuia and suspended from the ceiling, a pile of chips underneath as a memory or reminder of the original raw material. It is an equivocal symbol, simultaneously pointing to the systemic violence of a public execution and the quiet despair of suicide; and in Blood Knot Bird invokes the metaphor of a climbing knot to consider the forces that bind South Africans historically whilst causing tension in the present.
The presence of the artist is central to the exhibition: the careful, painstaking carving of each letter and shape from a block of raw wood, and the slow and repetitive sanding and polishing of each layer and surface can be read as a kind of ritual, or perhaps an atonement – a process of coming to terms with the status quo, combining with a central desire to create a coherent object of beauty.
Stuart Bird was born in Benoni, Johannesburg, 1977, grew up in Durban, and currently lives and works in Cape Town. He received his MFA from the University of Cape Town in 2008. Prior to studying he apprenticed as a church interior restorer in the UK, and he has been involved in various community-based initiatives. Bird has exhibited locally and internationally on various group shows and art fairs. He is represented by Goodman Gallery.