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‘It Gave Us Hope’: Kay Hassan on Jazz During Apartheid, and His New Show at Jack Shainman

Kay Hassan, Untitled, 2013, paper construction. COURTESY JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY

Kay Hassan, Untitled, 2013, paper construction.

COURTESY JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY

“It is like jazz, yes, how I make my art,” said Kay Hassan, whose exhibition “Everyday People” is currently showing at Jack Shainman Gallery’s West 20th Street location in New York. “I find that very liberating, to be open to possibilities. I rely on feelings, on my stomach, my back, if I can go to bed. If I feel it wrong, if I can’t sleep, there’s something wrong. It just comes like that, free flow. I sleep well now.”

Hassan is best known for large-scale paper constructions, which are included in the exhibition, informally hung by being stapled directly to the wall. He explained how he makes them: “In the township there are lots of billboards, for alcohol, beer, Pepsi Cola, a lot of that. What I do is I deconstruct and then construct my own forms. I just start building, ripping, and layering, until I come to a subject. It is a dry form of painting. I rely on the pixelation, colors, texture, tones, so no paint. I paint with paper.”

In addition to his free-wheeling artistic practice, Hassan brings real jazz, along with doo-wop, soul, and Motown R&B, to the gallery. Part of his installation piece, Passage of Time, includes an assemblage of vintage record players. In back of the formation is a wall of record albums from the 1950s and ’60s, whose classic songs play throughout the gallery, which he first heard growing up in South Africa at the time.

Kay Hassan, Passage of Time, 2014, vintage record and radio installation. COURTESY JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY

Kay Hassan, Passage of Time, 2014, vintage record and radio installation.

COURTESY JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY

“I remember flashes from my childhood. Seeing John Wayne at the movies, his face with all its cracks. The music was around me then as well,” Hassan said. “As a kid, people used to go to dance halls late at night, our parents would go and they’d let us tag along. They’re driving those big cars, Chevrolets, the ’56, the ’58, those flashy cars that consume all the petrol, and the tires, those great flashing whitewall tires. Something elegant, something crisp. And people wore these outfits, men dressed up in baggy pants, felt hats, white shirts, cufflinks. Women dressed to complement the men. Dust on the clothes. When I think about the music I think about all of that, the cars and the men and the women in them, going out to be with each other in the music.”

“It was connected to this strong influence the African-American society had for South African society,” he continued. “I remember reading and hearing stories about the political situation in America, the similarities to South Africa. It gave us hope as well. I would hear MLK and Malcolm X, I heard about Mississippi. And hearing the stories and going to the cinema with my family and listening to that American jazz, all of that is together for me. This is why jazz saved us.”

Kay Hassan, Untitled, 2013-14, paper construction. COURTESY JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY

Kay Hassan, Untitled, 2013-14, paper construction.

COURTESY JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY

Memories, Hassan’s as well as so many strangers’, hover about the show, and the touch of another generation’s hand remains on Hassan’s vintage record sheaths, a hand-me-down history exuded in the fraying Billie Holiday cover which has been hand-stitched to keep from falling apart, or the Count Basie cover that’s taped-over in one corner and signed by a previous owner.

“This exhibition, ‘Everyday People,’ it is about objects which we carry every day,” said Hassan. “Possessions we accumulate. Some of those objects that we accumulate are passed on from generation to generation. And as you go, some generations won’t relate to the materials of their forefathers. And what do we do when we can’t relate, we tend to throw them away. I’m interested in those things we discard so easily, why do we do it, what can those materials tell us. It’s a great responsibility to me. I am the keeper of those memories.”

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