If one were to pinpoint the defining qualities of artist Dan Halter’s practice, it would surely be the fusion of language and materiality. Zimbabwean-born Halter is particularly adept at distilling complex sociopolitical ideas through local proverbs and region-specific crafting processes, synthesizing these into unique and compelling artworks. His practice comments on the plight of migrants, national identity, economic stability, and the lingering whiplash of historical oppression.
WORDS: TIM GARETH LEIBBRANDT
PHOTOGRAPHY: OLIVER KRUGER
For much of his professional career, Halter’s signature material has been cheap Chinese-made plastic-weave bags. “I became aware of these bags around 2007/2008, when xenophobic tensions in South Africa were mounting against Zimbabwean and other African immigrants,” he relates. “The bag seemed like an obvious metaphor for the situation and the fact that they were woven fitted in nicely with my art practice.”
What became key for Halter was that while these bags could be found all over the world, they were almost always disparagingly named after the immigrant demographics in any given region. Examples include: ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags in Nigeria, ‘Türken-Koffer’ or ‘Polen-Tasche’ in Germany, ‘Chinatown Tote’ in the US, ‘Guyanese Samsonite’ in the Caribbean, ‘Bangladeshi Bag’ in the UK, and ‘Zimbabwe Bag’ in South Africa.
Using the bags to represent individual pixels, Halter famously recreated the design of the Space Invaders from the iconic Taito arcade game in locations such as taxi ranks, creating a darkly satirical commentary on the hostile and derogatory attitudes directed at these migrant groups.
Initially using brand new bags, Dan Halter began swapping these for used ones with migrant traders in markets such as Greenmarket Square in Cape Town, and Marabastad near Pretoria. These worn-out bags come with their own unique, charged histories and, in Halter’s words, “carry the record of travel in their grimy patina.” It is these bags that are at front and center of the artist’s latest exhibition ‘Cross the River in a Crowd’ at WHATIFTHEWORLD in Cape Town; most notably anthropomorphized as a desperate figure attempting to drag itself to safety in the striking KuzvuvaDumbu(meaning to drag one’s stomach).
The gallery’s darkened first room is metaphorically transformed into the Limpopo River in a keenly crafted immersive sculptural installation entitled Mai Mabag. The viewer is pulled into accompanying a maternal figure, carved from Black Serpentine stone, as she attempts to navigate these hostile, crocodile-infested waters, infant child and bagged worldly possessions in tow.
Taking inspiration from a Madagascan proverb – “Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you” – the installation thematically deals with collective cohesion as the only way to overcome injustice and hardship. It is intended to express solidarity with the continuing struggle to survive in post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. “The current Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa is actually known as the Crocodile,” Halter explains, “his brutal guerrilla unit in the 1960s was known as the Crocodiles, and his political followers are called the Lacostes (after the clothing company).”
Another work in the exhibition, The Oppressor as a Child, Heroin as a Flower plays into the language of West and Central African colon statues. Taking inspiration from a graffiti text piece by LA street artist SEK – “as if the oppressor was never a child, as if heroin was never a flower” – the work comically depicts Cecil John Rhodes in his more innocuous days as a uniform-clad schoolboy. Sporting a decidedly mopey demeanor (the “Donald Trump pout” as Halter refers to it) young Cecil skulks in front of Footsack Empire, a Union Jack helmed from the plastic weave bags. ‘Ceciltjie’ awkwardly hides a pre-opiate poppy behind his back as if to conceal it and profess innocence, hinting at the later adult for whom British Imperialism would be the drug of choice. In Dan Halter’s work, careful attention is always paid to the materiality and the quality of craftsmanship. Together with his studio assistant Bienco Ikete, the pair have perfected a method for hand-weaving incredibly complex paper artworks. Reaching up to 3 meters in length, they have successfully woven complete texts such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and the full South African and Zimbabwean constitutions, in addition to oversized bank notes and large-scale maps.
For an exhibition entitled ‘Please Call Me’ in 2018, Halter collaborated with Zimbabwean beading artist Kuda Kuimba to produce a series of beaded recreations of old-school Nokia cellphone screens. Referencing Nkosana Makate’s (the inventor of the Please Call Me text message) ongoing legal battle with Vodacom for appropriate financial compensation for his idea, the series is a succinct, humorous, and frequently poignant glimpse into the peculiar ways in which cellphone technology has shaped life in Southern Africa.
Halter’s penchant for wry intertextuality is epitomized by his 2015 work V for Vendetta. Here, the Guy Fawkes-inspired mask from Alan Moore’s iconic graphic novel is reimagined as five archetypal African masks from different regions of the continent. These include one in the style of a Malawi ebony mask, a beaded Cameroonian mask, a Benin bronze, an Ndebele mask, and a mask from the Ivory Coast. In one fell swoop, the work simultaneously speaks to decolonial liberation movements and the commodification and mass-production of both African masks and the V for Vendetta mask itself (appropriated by pseudo-anarchist movements such as Anonymous).
For this writer at least, the outstanding Exchange from his debut solo exhibition at the João Ferreira Gallery in 2006 will probably always be Halter’s most endearing piece. The interactive installation took the form of a pool table with only the black and white balls, and then a scattered cluster of 10 000 Zimbabwean 20c coins, which at the time had an approximate monetary value of R2. The kicker was that each of these coins had the same weight and dimensions as a R2 coin, and would work in South African pool table coin slots. A standout piece of contemporary conceptualism, Exchange was an exceptionally smart fusion of themes and execution. It’s probably safe now to confess to having pinched a few of the coins at the time as souvenirs. Sorry, Dan.