Guy Tillim’s solo show, Libreville, on at Stevenson, is his first in Johannesburg in over a decade. Looking at the images that make up this body of work, there is an uncomfortable tension between the foreign and the familiar; the African and the South African.
The first image seen upon entering the gallery depicts a long line of Grecian statues leading up to a stately mansion on the top of a hill. One’s mind immediately jumps to the mansion on 1st Street in Hyde Park, with its 100-odd bizarre statues lining the parameter wall. The other images each conjure a similar feeling of déjà vu. Several of these invoke the Durban beachfront, with wind-frayed palm trees standing like flagpoles by the sea. Another image is a panoramic shot of a busy intersection, with people and traffic bustling together, and shacks built between tropical vegetation right up to the edge of the road. Again, a very familiar picture.
People are incidental in these meditations on urban space. They occupy the images as bystanders, not subjects. The city landscapes are tough, where life doesn’t appear to be very welcome.
The interplay between familiar/foreign is ironically undermined by the title of the show, Libreville, which imposes a precise location. The artist’s statement describes the show as a consideration on “the construct of our perception of space in a city landscape, situated amidst the realities of an African capital”. This notion of an ‘African capital’ becomes the unstated subject of the exhibition, which Tillim’s images reveal to be more universal than we might feel comfortable to acknowledge.