Kay Hassan, who is known for his large-scale immersive paper constructions, has been exhibiting his work in South Africa and internationally since 1980. His work reflects an economy of presence and takes into account social experiences of the everyday. These concepts are communicated through his media of choice, shredded advertisement posters, scavenged from around the city and repurposed into highly effective collages. The collages take the form of portraits of ordinary people whom Hassan encounters in Johannesburg or during his many international travels. In the portraits, he monumentalizes them without masking their commonness. Hassan’s most recent series of paper constructions, Everyday People, reveals portraits with a palpable presence. These untrammeled portraits, presented without the encumbrance of formal frames, soar to meet the viewer from the gallery walls to which they are attached. Their rough, uneven edges reveal Hassan’s creative process, which involves melding shreds of paper to achieve some kind of three-dimensionality on a flat surface. Because of their layered nature, these portraits demonstrate Hassan’s aesthetic of accumulation, in which he breathes a second life into urban detritus and repurposed materials.
Hassan’s appropriative aesthetic is equally present in his work in other formats and media, including installation, video, and photography. He conceives of accumulation as a sort of metaphor for indelible social memories that are embodied in material possessions handed down from one generation to another, or inscribed in patterns of mass consumption, such as in Passage of Time (2014). In this installation, he uses old stereos, boom boxes, and vintage album covers of black music in the United States from the late 1950s and ’60s. The music and album sleeves act as vectors of memory and recall the historic African-American Civil Rights Movement (1954–1968), one that inspired hope in the sociopolitical imagination of black citizens living under apartheid in South Africa.
In Empire Medley, Hassan’s new work presented at the Biennale di Venezia, he establishes a dialogue between his paper constructions and a piano jazz composition played at short regular intervals on an old white upright programmed piano juxtaposed with a black piano, one that is silent. Hassan thus compresses time and space by looking at the ways in which the past still implicates the present.