Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa brings together twenty-five artists and collectives who disrupt expected images of a country known largely through its apartheid history. These artists’ works go beyond topics of nationhood and the possibilities of a new non-racial democracy. Instead, the exhibition presents a critical arc that existed but was mostly overlooked during apartheid, and which has emerged in recent years as a dominant approach—the expression of the poetics and politics of the “ordinary act.” Mainly featuring works produced over the last decade, the exhibition focuses on artists who opt for close views, small actions, or gestures that occur in public. This contemporary tendency is prefigured in the work of photographers who emerged during apartheid, including Ian Berry, Ernest Cole, David Goldblatt, Billy Monk and Santu Mofokeng, all of whom have approached politics through interpersonal and social exchanges.

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Place also gives context to the complexity of social relations and the ways people are willing to risk crossing visible and invisible lines. From Cole’s apartheid-era images of an interracial couple dancing at a Pretoria shebeen to Mikhael Subotzky and Patrick Waterhouse’s case study of Johannesburg’s iconic fifty-four-story Ponte City building, photographers have observed in unique locations the presence of intimate moments happening all around. Performances point out the vulnerability of life in the city while employing artistic practice as a space for pleasurable experimentation. In Sello Pesa and Vaughn Sadie’s street performance, the location references a condition or incident relating to personal safety and gentrification. In contrast, Athi-Patra Ruga takes an idealized place as his starting point, and his fantastical characters transform as they move through rural and urban landscapes. The inclusion of publications, prints, and graphic design helps frame intimacy in relation to the circulation of images and text. Through appropriation and adaption of vernacular forms such as Anton Kannemeyer’s comics, Cameron Platter’s handmade signage and personal ads, and ijusi’s representation of South Africa’s particular graphic design aesthetic, artists are connecting their practices to a wider visual culture.

Betti-Sue Hertz, Director of Visual Arts, YBCA

Frank Smigiel, Associate Curator of Public Programs, SFMOMA

Dominic Willsdon, Leanne and George Roberts Curator of Education and Public Programs, SFMOMA

Public Intimacy: Art And Other Ordinary Acts is jointly organized by Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.