South African artists review apartheid legacy
By Joel Tannenbaum
Special to The Advertiser
By Joel Tannenbaum
Literally half a world away from Honolulu, South Africa is entering its second post-apartheid decade. Prosperous by African standards but racked by unemployment, violence and high rates of HIV infection, South Africa is home to powerful, diverse communities of visual and conceptual artists, mobilized in an earlier period by their opposition to the previous regime, and subsequently by the challenges of rebuilding civil society amidst the uncertainty of the post-apartheid era.
Commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of democratic governance in South Africa, the 17-artist "Personal Affects: Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art" first appeared in New York City as a joint exhibition between the Museum for African Art and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Now the show has traveled 5,000 miles to The Contemporary Museum in Makiki Heights.
There is a noticeable disconnect in the show. On one hand are the curators' "year zero" promises ("Since the advent of democracy, artists have been liberated from the need to use art as a weapon of the struggle against apartheid," reads explanatory text on a gallery wall"). These suggest that having contributed their fair share to the struggle, South African artists are now free to turn inward, constructing or deconstructing issues of personal identity, just like their contemporaries in Europe and North America.
On the other hand, the show's truly outstanding works seem to suggest that while legal apartheid as a system is gone, its legacies are at the core of South Africa's most pressing social problems.
Witness Steven Cohen's looped video of his 2002 appearance in Newtown, a Johannesburg squatter's settlement. Covered in white body paint, wearing a codpiece, a chandelier, nine-inch pumps and little else, the openly gay performance artist drifts, hovers and interacts with the makeshift town's black residents as government contractors (known as "red ants") demolish their homes. Some of them ignore him, some taunt him and others embrace him.
The piece's risky, confrontational nature makes it interesting, but what makes it fascinating is its global implications — shantytowns like this exist on the periphery of literally every major city in the southern hemisphere, are experiencing steady population growth, and are treated with similar disregard by governments.
The sociologist Mike Davis has argued that by 2035, most of the world's poor will live in such environs. By inserting himself in the Newtown encampment so incongruously, Cohen forces shantytown life, the front line of global poverty in the 21st century, into view. For emphasis, Cohen has set the installation in a "boudoir," full of his stuff: Johannesburg newspaper headlines ("Man Caught Cooking Human Flesh," "58 Child Rapes a Day"), Jewish ceremonial items, an alarm clock bearing the likeness of Adolf Hitler. But an itemized list cannot do justice to the intricate, highly personal sense of beauty that pervades Cohen's work.
More subtle but imbued with a similar urban urgency is Berni Searle's video installation "Vapour," and accompanying photographs. Drawing upon the Eid festivities held by the sizeable Muslim population in Cape Town, Searle's home city, the subject of "Vapour" is an empty field of industrial-sized iron cooking pots, illuminated by the fires blazing beneath them. A faceless figure paces between the long rows of steaming pots. While it is difficult to derive anything other than atmosphere directly from the piece, it is passing reference to an often overlooked community in South Africa.
Despite dropping the p-word (postmodern) multiple times, the setting of Jay Pather's video installation "Hotel" is quintessentially modern. A white man and black woman in a grim hotel room on a rainy day cycle through a series of emotional extremes, laughing, crying and generally acting out. At times it feels like a Fassbinder film, but the view from the window grounds "Hotel" in its setting in Durban on South Africa's Indian Ocean coast.
The wizened, bearded subjects of "Seen it All" and "Soul on Ice" (presumably a reference to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver), by painter Mustafa Maluka, emanating from South Africa's street-art scene, combine reverence for the figures they portray with explosive background visual elements.
The show's funniest moment comes from Johannes Phokela, whose work criticizes traditionalism and professionalism in painting not in the usual way — by ignoring it — but by elevating it to the point of absurdity. "Apotheosis" looks like a basilica painting: big, peopled with angels, executed in swirling Delft blues and whites. But follow the image from bottom to top and one finds the painting culminates in an image of David Blaine, the magician suspended in a Plexiglas cage, arms outstretched, Christ-like. The joke, harmless but pointed, is on you.
The "simulated found objects" of sculptor Wom Botha, the oddly quiet plaster sculpture and color-pencil drawings of Claudette Schreuders, and Jane Alexander's smartly creepy video installation, all speak to South Africa's colonial past in creative ways. Doreen Southwood's "Ribbon Pillars" poses a clever design problem — baby-blue ribbons hung from the ceiling in the shape of Doric columns.
There is plenty more, but perhaps the last word should go to the show's oldest artist, Samson Mudzunga. The 68-year-old native of Limpopo crafts ornate ceremonial drums, which he then climbs into and emerges from; the themes of rebirth and transformation are powerful ones. "We are still not free," he said after his performance in the museum's garden on Feb. 25, "we still have far to go."
Shows like "Personal Affects" are a compelling, important part of that journey, undertaken by artists who have not simply ditched political activism, post-1994, but rather developed new, fascinating strategies to critique and combat inequality of all kinds.
"Personal Affects" doesn't represent artists getting "beyond" apartheid any more than Maya Angelou reading at the White House represents black Americans getting "beyond" Jim Crow. Rather, the best work in "Personal Affects" is a diversification of tactics; new, more complicated critiques, for new, more complicated times. It is indisputably beautiful and relevant.
If you see one exhibition in Honolulu this year, make the trek up Tantalus to see this one, because South Africa's trials and tribulations also are the world's, in intensified form.
Joel Tannenbaum is a freelance writer who covers art and literature.