Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South at Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation

In recent years, institutions in South Africa have been plagued by mega-exhibitions that showcase everything from everywhere all at once—sprawling retrospectives and bloated group shows with more than a hundred works on display. By contrast, “Kahlo, Sher-Gil, Stern: Modernist Identities in the Global South” presents only three paintings: Frida Kahlo’s Self Portrait with Hummingbird and Thorn Necklace, 1940; Amrita Sher-Gil’s Three Girls, 1935; and Irma Stern’s Watussi Woman in Red, 1946. The remaining space constitutes a research installation that situates the works through archival videos, reproductions, photographs from childhood, and personal objects.

This model poses a challenge, as it has the effect of flattening the understanding of an artist’s practice. Kahlo, Sher-Gil, and Stern had versatile practices, engaging an array of styles and inquiries and embodying different personalities at different times. Such a specific presentation fails to highlight the artists’ virtuosity and is simply incapable of addressing the complexities of identity outlined in the curatorial thematic.

Despite its ambitious title and a framework that positions the project as a kind of cultural archaeology, the exhibition is fraught with omissions: among them, questions of class disparities, the female gaze, a more nuanced explication of traditional forms versus modernist artistic modalities, and readings of gender against sexuality. For instance, Sher-Gil’s queer sensibility and interest in female sexuality—as seen in works depicting her rumored lovers (Hungarian Gypsy Girl, 1932) and nude studies (Sleeping Woman, 1933)—seemed to have been completely ignored.

While reading these artists’ work together is an interesting exercise, the exhibition left me wondering whether a critical dialogue among the three practices is really possible, apart from an acknowledgement of their singular achievements and contributions to the canon.

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