Kay Hassan uses his work to explore the charged quotidian aspects of black life in South Africa. Miners, clubgoers, workers, and market women populate his photographs, installations, and paper-based works. His art is marked by an exuberant energy and high color, haunted by images of dislocation and dispossession. But there is hope and perseverance, too. This potent mix of themes and methods is inspired by Hassan’s childhood in the townships of Alexandra and Soweto. As a child, he witnessed the seemingly constant flight of black South Africans as apartheid policies forcibly took their land.
In early installations such as Flight 1 (1995), Hassan creates an environment evocative of forced migrations, with bundles of wrapped clothes, dangling cooking pots, and bicycles loaded down with water jugs and sleeping mats. This installation also includes what the artist calls a “construction”—a mural-size work made from ripped-up billboard posters—depicting towns-people on the run. He was inspired to adopt this collage technique of deconstructing and reconstructing ever-ubiquitous consumer advertisements when he lived in Paris and watched people tear posters off subway walls as souvenirs. He is interested in the wonder that viewers of his work feel once they realize they are not looking at a painting, but at a work made entirely of discarded paper. Their sense of surprise can pull them deeper into the work and into the worlds Hassan creates there.
Urban Cocktail (1997), from the Walker Art Center’s collection, portrays the animated patrons of a township shebeen, an unlicensed gathering spot for music, dancing, socializing, and drinking bootleg beer. Hassan’s mother ran such an establishment, so he is familiar with its community role: “It’s very educational, the shebeen. It’s eye-opening in that you listen to all kinds of conversations going on there—political conversations, day-to-day incidents, what’s happening in town, problems with the white man. You even found stolen goods in the shebeens.”1 The dynamic scene in Urban Cocktail, which is almost 8-by-33 feet wide, moves from tan and bright ochre to dense browns and blacks, perhaps suggesting a shift from interior to exterior or day to night. As in other Hassan works, many of the figures wear highly patterned garments—with bits of text and logos reminding us of their source material—reminiscent of traditional African fabrics. The subjects’ fractured and jutting faces are intriguingly masklike, recalling the confluence of Cubist faceting and African art forms. Yet even such a specific scene still reads clearly across geographic and demographic lines. Hassan links our humanity to theirs, their joys and tribulations to ours. Common ground. Common cause. Common being.
“Kay Hassan Interviewed by Susan Robeson,” in Richard Flood, ed., no place (like home), exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1997), 58. ↩