Nelly Guambe – Layers upon Layers of Faces
Standing in close proximity to the walls of the gallery, one is filled with a sense of engulfing disorientation at the layers upon layers of faces before you— persistent in their melancholy and towering in their multiplicity. The eye struggles to settle on a specific point and rather hovers about the surface of the oceans of people. Marks on paper draw out constellations of ordered and disordered faces tessellated upon each other to create a disconnected gathering. The accumulation of these faces encapsulates motion, crisis, tragedy, ruination and potential flight.
Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg is currently presenting a solo exhibition by Mozambican artist Nelly Guambe. The exhibition (closing 24 January 2020) brings together a series of drawings and installation under the title; Caras (Faces in Portuguese). The configuration of faces on paper present tightly and neatly packed marks next to and on top of each other and the resulting whole is a chaotic dispersion of people across space.
The image of the ocean, its fullness and force, is evident and can be felt in these works— they are highly dense and potent. On one level, they allude to images seen in the aftermath of the catastrophic Cyclone Idai which occurred earlier this year, leaving Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi devastated. They also represent many different faces forming part of a crowd —a continuous over-pouring of faces that seem to float in space, uprooted, fragile and yet remaining resilient—each with their own agency. Caras does not tell us what to do with these images and our impulse for heroism is left unsatisfied. We cannot merely look at the exhibition and feel a sense of resolution and closure toward (and about) the cyclone disaster but rather we are left with space to simply feel. We see the faces, we see the sadness and all we can do is feel deeply.
Gestures of irregular and non-hierarchical repetition simultaneously obscure and intensify. They obscure to the extent that we cannot know who the faces belong to exactly and they intensify because of the persistence of idiosyncratic emotion that weirdly dismantles the separation between us and them. There is a sense of depth and thoughtfulness.
The strength of the show lies in how Guambe engages the notion of the multiple; many faces crowd the paper plane and many pieces of paper crowd the wall. This “crowding” is sharpened by the scrupulous rigour of the mark. We are submerged in the multitude, not comparable but not dissimilar to the disorientation experienced during an environmental catastrophe—waves moving through crowds and crowds moving through waves. If Caras moves us toward the contemplation of environmental disasters, one would hope that it also moves us toward the contemplation of ourselves in relation to environmental disasters and in relation to the choices we make and their impact on the environment.