Dan Halter’s works: images, maps and transactions
Francesco Tedeschi 2008
(translated from Italian)
The geographical and cultural location Dan Halter lives in is both peculiar and specific, with a direct influence on the spirit of his work. Even in a world where everything appears to be connected economically and culturally, no one can fully understand the art of Dan Halter (30 years old, born in Harare, Zimbabwe and working in Cape Town, South Africa for the last couple of years) without linking it to characteristics of the places in which he has lived. This can be seen in the works recently showcased at the Joao Ferreira Gallery in Cape Town – where he had his first solo exhibition in 2006 – now shown in part in Milan.
The profile of the artist becomes clear through works that display, as often today, a wide range of techniques, materials and themes. His work shows the ability to interpret some of the social and economic problems of his native country, without treating them too didactically.
It is the starting point of elaborations showing a symbolic and reflexive approach to the world we live in. It aims to activate the possible cathartic function of the art object, moving from the descriptive to the representative. Among the subjects of his work, particular attention is devoted to some aspects of a “local” reality, which properly reflect matters of a “global” nature. The reorder of the national organization through the measure and reinterpretation of land assignment, the surrender to an unbearable inflation, and the continuous presence of the HIV virus: problems that determine the lives of both individuals and the community of the country. This is combined with the aftermath of a difficult post-colonial period.
Such subjects would be enough to induce judgement on the degree of influence the “political” sphere may have on the works which, in this way, meet a sensibility typical of the most recent art¹. Considering Halter’s work as a product of today’s aesthetic models, and being able to foresee that it may soon draw interest on an international basis, one still needs to take account of its level of originality. Important in his corpus are maps of Zimbabwe that are made by weaving together shredded documents such as the country’s banknotes, telephone directories and books chosen for their content. The theme of geographical maps, among the most intriguing in the artist’s work are based on linguistic and rhetorical, as well as formal meanings of possible representations. This often blends with an implicitly critical judgement on the way the interpretation of the territory is linked to strategic and political agendas, in a set of rules that readily displays the effect of power.
As shown in the studies of a French geographer who devoted himself to studying the meaning of the demarcation of borders, Claude Raffestin, every form of border or territorial subdivision is more or less directly connected to a form of control or possession, and as the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar underlined in one of his works of 1989, which compared images to the life conditions of the inhabitants of a village in Nigeria with the world routes of oil, in an immediate comparison between “Us” and “Them”, speaking about geography is the same, in some sense, as speaking about war. (“Geography = War” was the title of that work, presented at the “Centre Pompidou” in Paris in the famous exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre”).
Even Dan Halter’s maps, with their textual indications, show forms of subordination to an order imposed from on high, but also suggest different possible meanings linked to the phrases embroidered on them, quotations from popular culture and local proverbs. The internal boundaries, marked by the colours of the different areas delineate different farming regions. Every form of description contains a comment or a judgement and there is no neutral denotation, particularly in geography. Whether or not he posed such questions based on theoretical reflections about the geographic discipline, Dan Halter still gives a version that joins the exterior and visible element with an internal discourse, explicitly given by the fragmentation and combination of lines and letters that form the fabric of the map. Observing them directly, in fact, these maps show a refined skill in the process of weaving, that combines linear, vertical, and horizontal arrangements, according to the virtual structuring that is superimposed on each geographical representation to determine a form of orientation, in a unique and fragile tapestry of magical consistency that is reminiscent of Alighiero Boetti’s maps. This technical aspect is differently and personally resolved by Halter.
Along with the maps, and confirming a passage through practices that in the artistic field recall conceptual typologies, we then have the print and video elaborations that show without comment the names of the farms that underwent government siezure, a sort of horizontal map, produced by the nominal information, that will become temporal sequence and writing seemingly with no target, monotonous and occlusive. This form of description is also part of a “geographical” attitude that moves towards a proposition, at the image level, of motifs that illustrate the characteristics of a place. Among these there is the use of currencies of a certain kind, and money which forms the fabric of some of his maps, and also provides the theme for further works by the artist, beginning with the two supermarket till receipts. These are from purchasing monochromatic objects, only black or white, interpreting the transaction in a symbolic way, that naturally brings us back to the problem of coexistence of populations with different skin colours, after centuries of colonialism in that part of the African Continent. Putting money at the centre of the aesthetic operation is, in a way, like a form of manifestation or confirmation of an relational aesthetic taken back to its most immediate level, as if through objects, things that are bought or sold, are traces of lost gestures, that are visually recorded, like mental images. One could confer to the artistic object a scope that goes beyond its immediate impact, to inscribe it in a metaphoric dimension, raised above the banality in which the use confines the object. The little stylized statue in fibreglass, that shows an embrace between a black maternal figure and a smaller white child, represents the union and coexistence of different ethnic roots, but its repetition raises it from a banal object of example or decoration to a different connotation, where it is considered as an instrument of communication, more for its function than its meaning.
At this level, the modus of interacting with things and images is based on the observation of the conditions of daily life perceived by the inhabitants of a region of the world that the artist interprets, joining the inevitable sense of empathy with what happens in other parts of the world, within a geography of communication efficiently represented by his plastic mesh bags, which are the object in which his writing through a process of sewing is not far from the one of another African artist, Ghada Amer. For the Egyptian artist the procedure of sewing and using it to produce messages regarding the feminine identity is an essential way of working. Halter uses this modus operandi in a way peculiar to some of his works, following a dual approach: technical in the manual aspect that distinguishes a part of his production, and conceptual, using it along with other ways of image communication. Words become images, for example, in a neon sign, like the word “pefection” instead of “perfection” is enscribed out of a cursive- type script in Black Light, or in the matches and matchboxes forming his original typeface “Font for a Revolution/Zimbabwe”. Often an African proverb is used as a sign of communication based on correspondence between images and words.
Halter uses different techniques and forms of elaboration, often poetic, that focus on certain themes derived from reality to convey a sense of precariousness and at the same time vitality in every image that becomes representative of a collective experience perceived and recorded through extremely personal eyes.
¹Dan Halter said in a statement that he is not interested in expressing a specific “moral judgment” in his work, even though he’s deeply interested in representing the conditions of life he observes around him. It’s obvious that a strictly “political” interpretation of his works would easily limit its comprehension to the most immediate denotative level, ignoring the all important formal and symbolic aspects.