WORDS Cheri Morris IMAGES via whatiftheworld.com
Ben Orkin’s Extra Safe is a ceramic love affair – sometimes cryptic and sometimes obvious – between recessions and protrusions; a thoughtful narrative of sexual intimacies between men that both highlights stigma and quashes it.
Currently on show at WHATIFTHEWORLD in Cape Town, Extra Safe is the enigmatic expression of Ben’s nearly three-year journey of personal and professional discovery. A journey that began at 18 when he came out as gay to his parents, both of whom accepted him unconditionally while also instilling in him their fears and anxieties surrounding the risks of sexual intimacy. These fears and anxieties, he says, briefly became his own – until he explored his family’s unfamiliar history of HIV/AIDS.
Composed of 50 works, some stand-alone and others interconnected, the exhibition features two parts. Extra Safe begins in the main gallery, with a collection of ceramic sculptures produced in 2021. The second room hosts Ben’s 2020 graduation works; he completed his Bachelor in Fine Art at the Michaelis School of Art and his mentor was the critically-acclaimed sculptor Jane Alexander.
His 2020 show is personal and speaks of being faced with an unknown fear and having it become reality; about negotiating a ‘middle-group’ mentality, while also navigating love, care, protection and harm. It’s an interrogation of where ‘harm’ truly lies in the age of advanced drugs for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDs. It asks questions such as: Can social exclusion, reactive stigmas and ostracisation cause more harm than the virus itself? Does “protecting oneself” further an individualist, rather than a communal empathetic approach?
Each of Ben’s vessels is patiently fabricated from rolled coils of wet clay that are stacked upon one another, over and over, and then smoothened together. “I intentionally seal most vessels with a coat of glaze as a layer of protection,” writes Ben. “The seal becomes the barrier between what each vessel holds inside and what happens outside them.”
A key work, the installation How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach (2021) – a borrowed title from the controversial gay sex pamphlet published in New York in 1983 – features more than two-dozen interlocking ceramic pieces. The reaching outgrowths and receiving depths speak to Ben’s exploration of the various binaries surrounding love and fear, protection and hurt.
The exhibition runs until 27 November. For more information, visit whatiftheworld.com.