Symbols of war and oppression together with unsettling images of Victorian medical procedures are among the curious mixes that the young South African artist Peter Mammes has peppered his paintings and drawings in his first UK solo exhibition, Presumed Alive.
Typical is the top shot, Iconic Emblem for the Saints of Power from 2019 in which the central figure of the military general Lord Roberts, considered almost saint-like in his day, stands above a First World War cannon beside which an exhausted soldier is slumped. The officer is drawn to a much larger scale than the troops in keeping with their perceived status.
Behind Roberts we see two guillotines, a means of execution recurrent in many of Mammes’ works. He is flanked on either side by two oryxes, the kind of animal typically seen in government emblems. They partly obscure two coelacanths, so-called “living fossils”. These are fish-like creatures thought to have died out 400 million years ago, yet were discovered to be still alive and little changed. The exhibition’s title, Presumed Alive, is a play on this fact. Humanity’s obsession with war is prehistoric and little changed.
Mammes draws with a cartoon-like simplicity, his monochrome ink works resembling woodcut prints. Yet the issues he addresses are complex. He was born in 1986 in Krugersdorp, and grew up as part of an isolated, Afrikaans-speaking community in the period when the apartheid regime was starting to collapse leading to the transition to a fully-democratic multi-cultural government.
He knows only too well how history is, as the cliché goes, written by the victors. The version of history preached by the South African government during the apartheid years is radically different to the version given today. Similarly, Lord Roberts and Lord Kitchener were feted as heroes by the British for winning the second Boer War. Kitchener, of course, was the face for World War I recruitment. If you look at Lord Roberts’s Wikipedia entry, the honours that appear after his name take up half a line.
Yet, Lords Roberts and Kitchener, who feature in many of Mammes’ work, are reviled among white South Africans for their policy of burning farms and for establishing concentration camps in which a quarter of all inmates died, most of them children. Mammes’ great grandmother was one of those incarcerated.
So, Mammes’ works poses questions about how historical narratives are constructed and skewed. In Sycophants of Power, above, two high officials pin a medal on to a policeman’s chest while three soldiers lay dead beneath them. “At the end of the day we are all cannon fodder”, declares Peter Mammes as we tour the exhibition. “The bandaged hand you see (on the right) is both either trying to hide or to fix something.”
Mammes moved to London in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the ending of the First World War. A common feature of all of these drawings and paintings, many of the war scenes of which he has taken from research at London’s Army Museum, are the patterns that serve as their backdrops. Patterns are an obsession with the artist. “Thoughts occur as patterns; our lives are made up of events that occur as repetitions; history is repeated in patterned compositions,” he says in the show’s accompanying notes.
Many of the animals he uses for his emblems have been chosen for the patterns they exhibit such as the coat of the pangolin or the scales of fish. He has been influenced by the patterns, motifs and designs he’s seen on travels to Egypt, Russia and India.
While the monochrome pictures are drawn on drafting film, an artificial paper substitute commonly used for architectural drawings, his colour works are painted on traditional canvas. Typical is the picture above in which a mummified baboon and a portrait of a young Stalin, both in their way symbols of aggression, are placed beside an electric chair, the ultimate symbol of controlled execution.
Yet the different patterns that reflect diverse cultures have the disturbing effect of beautifying these symbols of ugliness. It’s like pain with a pretty face. He calls it pattern discord.
“That is life. We’re living amongst all of this. It’s an aspect of humanity. If it was the end of a war and aliens found just these artworks, they would be able to tell quite a bit about humanity.”
Presumed Alive is showing at Hoxton 253 art project space, 253 Hoxton Street, London N1 5LG until 15 September 2019
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery