Thursday, September 1, 2011

'Identity' reflected in South African art

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This essay is published in the exhibition catalogue
WHO AM I.....ngingubani?
accompanying the exhibition with the same title, held at the Durban Art Gallery
from the 11.9. to the 16.10. 2011 

‘Identity’ reflected in South African art

By Nirmi Ziegler

As a theme in art ‘identity’ is a vital concern in a postmodern society such as ours. The interplay between the individual and society has become increasingly complex, leaving room for new theories, research and speculation about the future of humankind. Who am I? Who are we? Art, as a seismograph of change, can both reflect and be a harbinger of transformation in our personal and communal lives. The artist, as a third presence, mediates between society and the individual through the art that he/she creates. How can we understand these three elements and the dynamic of their interplay?
The best way to do this is to consider the global and local context, to look at the work and words of a few selected artists who illustrate this interplay, and to refer to the critics who comment on their work.
This essay argues that South African art holds a unique position when addressing ‘identity’, as a result of its racially divided past. Referring to relevant theoretical discourse I will trace back international developments and reflect on the way in which they affect our local situation.

Art is a mirror and at times forecaster. I will explore what it tells us about our progress in terms of the South African ‘identity’, and where it could lead to.

I write from a position within, trying to clarify what is different about South African art. Diverse societies are a global phenomenon, and so is the unrest that comes with them. Such societies have pockets of ethnic groups that resist integration and pockets within the original population who oppose the inclusion of strangers.
South Africa is different, because the separation was dictated and is deeply ingrained in the unconscious. It is a fragmented society where integration feels ‘unnatural’ and the option to leave the familiar social context is rather new and takes place predominantly in the city. However, instead of positively experimenting with a new South African identity, the city environment has unfortunately also become the main playground of crime, which enhances our fear of ‘the other’,[1] and shoves us back into the safe and familiar.
This dynamic is reproduced in much of South African art and is reflected in exhibitions such as this, where the majority of the art can still be divided along apartheid lines, almost as if looking at cultural diversity through a magnifying glass.   
Artists who are exposed to and familiar with a more global context seem to have overcome these restrictions and can deal with these issues in a less literal and more playful manner.

I refer to specific works in the exhibition to illustrate my argument.

Society and the individual – the shift away from the centre

What lies at the heart of the emerging conversation between society and its relationship to the individual? I believe it concerns the shift from the centre to the periphery. This shift takes place within the global arena, local society, as well as the individual. We have moved from a Euro-centric view, to a de-centralized or global one, which encompasses all cultures.
Before the 20th century, the world revolved around several centres which hardly touched each other, in space or time. They were physically and chronologically distant. With the expansion of Europe through geographical exploration the centre of European societies did not shift, it merely annexed ‘the others’, shaping a wider circle. Voices, mainly from Europe and the USA, but also from within colonised societies, first questioned and then attacked this hegemony. As the poet Yeats reminds us, “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” (1992)

Chinua Achebe, the African writer, used this quotation as an apt title for his novel, about the impact of colonial domination on village life. Significantly the novel was published in 1958, only two years before the then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan made his prophetic speech to the South African parliament, stating that “The wind of change is blowing through this continent”. In the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s many former colonies became independent, and the process culminated with South Africa becoming a democracy in 1994. During these five decades, groups from ‘the margin’ (be it due to gender, ethnicity, or any other reason) led us into, what we call a postmodern society: a de-centralized, fragmented, multi-cultural landscape of diverse people, the society we live in today; a society that attends exhibitions in art galleries such as this one, located in the Durban Art Gallery in South Africa.

Identity – an interplay

In sociological research, identity is often defined by and imposed from the outside world, showing a significant difference between homogenous cultures that retain their centre of safety and comfort and diverse cultures, which many of us experience as challenging. South Africa is a nation with many diverse cultures, which explains our struggle to find common ground. Zygmunt Bauman’s[2] definition of identity emphasises the function of ‘culture’ as a control system that creates order and uniformity, based on a shared cultural code. For him to break the code is to break the rule (1990). We need a ‘shared code’ to replace the lost centre. In South Africa our constitution represents such a code. Is it possible that our art could create a shared code as well?

Artwork of Sue Williamson: Truth Game Series - "Nkosinathi Biko - False Medical Certificate - Dr.Benjamin Tucker" 1998

When we look at Williamson's artwork on display, we realise that aesthetics are not of much help in understanding it. The clues are there, but we can only fully appreciate the art if we we know the (hi)story behind it.

Sue Williamson Truth Game Series - "Nkosinathi Biko - False Medical Certificate -
Dr.Benjamin Tucker" 1998

Sue Williamson’s ‘Truth Game Series’ connects us with the work of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission)and their attempt to bring healing to events of the Apartheid era. This piece addresses the death of Steve Biko in 1977 as a result of torture during police detention. Experimenting with interactive art, Williamson created sliding slats, which
encourage us to slide them and in this way engage with our own story concerning this past. The background shows three images. On the left is Steve Biko’s son, Nkosinathi Biko, on the right Dr. Benjamin Tucker, one of the medical doctors involved, and in the centre is Steve Biko’s grave. In this piece, both Nkosinathi Biko and Dr. Benjamin Tucker are listening to the proceedings of the TRC. Even though the doctors were not officially accused, this work questions their role, which is to maintain ethical standards and to protect human rights (panel no.4: false medical certificate). The semi-transparent slats obscure the view of the three background images, indicating how difficult it is to find ‘the truth’.
Steve Biko’s son, Nkosinathi, does not believe he will ever know what went on in Room 619, the room in which the infamous interrogation took place. Williamson addresses this by using the slats as objects that obscure and reveal ‘the truth’ at the same time. She commented on the process of the TRC as “inevitably flawed, but of crucial importance” (2000). 

The artwork reminds us of our flawed history and our attempt to mend open wounds. It points towards our democratic constitution, which can prevent such atrocities and should provide further healing. It is our constitution that provides a ‘shared code’ for our society and our involvement with the artwork functions as a metaphor. Being an involved citizen is crucial, as it ensures that our constitution, which we could consider a work of art in itself, becomes not just a dead piece of paper but protects us from such misdeeds.
Postcolonial theory argues that the historical superiority of Europe and its attitude towards inferior cultures has prevented the emancipation of postcolonial nations.  The revaluation and emancipation of those oppressed cultures is a necessary process, as Sue Williamson illustrates. However it introduces ambiguity, paradox and irony for it clashes with a new wave of ‘western culture’, now propagated through ‘globalization’. The problem with words like ‘western’, ‘modern’ or ‘developed’ is that while still embracing the hegemony of the past, they also characterise globalization, the concept that dominates the world and, seemingly, the future. 

There is a dilemma in post-colonial countries such as ours: we all experience an identity crisis, for nobody can claim an untroubled self. Those who are indigenous are often burdened with the inferiority complex of hundreds of years of subjugation, while those who came as colonialists often feel their guilt as former perpetrators or descendants of that ‘elite’. Colonisers share their feeling of displacement with those who came from different shores as slaves or bound labourers.

I am one of those who came from Europe in 1997 and immigrated after meeting my husband, John Roome, in Durban. He is an artist and art lecturer and was the South African project manager of the German art project that brought me here. At that time my focus was on curating, having studied art history and comparative literature. I have since shifted to being an artist who focuses on the technique of papermaking (which I learned from John Roome), the protection of our environment and the impact of meditation as a changing factor for our self-destructiveness.

Introducing the author of this essay:
Nirmi Ziegler ‘Global’ 2010 ; handmade
paper, leaves, recycled plastic bag
threat Ø 297 mm
To give you an idea of what my concerns, passion and bias in my own art is about, I would like to introduce one of my own artworks.  In the work ‘Global’ I let the plant leaves speak for ‘themselves’ by using them directly. Their decay refers to the ‘momento mori’ genre in art, which functions as a reminder of one’s mortality. The use of the threats from an orange bag shifts the meaning towards the environmental destruction we inflict. And through the pleasing aesthetics which references the beauty of our planet, I indicate the possibility of changing our self-destructive course.  

Joseph Campbell, mythologist, reminds us that often people within a society live out myths unconsciously. It takes an outsider to identify what beliefs drive a society.  As an artist, given this background and these origins, I also struggle with identity, yet I am able to offer a perspective from the ‘outside,’ as it were, and raise different questions in relation to the South African context. How do we heal such scarred identities? Even after the Apartheid era ended, the invisible boundaries between cultural groups stayed intact or even strengthened. [3]

And what of the urban – rural divide? In South Africa the urban context offers diversity.  Many novels and paintings refer to this drift to the city and its subsequent impact on rural life. (Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country is an example of this. It was published in 1948, the year the National Party came to power.)  People from rural backgrounds often still experience urban challenges and difficulties.
Yet it is the metropolis as a matrix for the postmodern society that experiments with the feeling of a diverse society. It is the city that leads the way forward into a new, shared identity. We no longer need to shy away from ‘the others’ as a threat, but can embrace ‘them’ as an experience of enrichment. The exhibitions housed in the Durban Art Gallery are testimony to this, as is Langa Magwa’s work.

Artwork of Langa Magwa: “New Identity” (Barcode) 1999

The artwork of Langa Magwa is both a good example of our postcolonial reality and a criticism of our consumer society. He combines the traditional value and meaning of the goat hide in his Zulu culture with his western influenced approach to art. By removing the hair of the hide, he converted it into a crude parchment. The two painted portraits show him and a youngster, the latter’s eyes obstructed by a barcode, simulating the black bar over ‘not to be identified’ individuals. 
Langa Magwa:  “New Identity”
(Barcode) 1999
Magwa is conscious of keeping his Zulu roots, which allow him to explore a postmodern society which he simultaneously criticizes.  I could interpret the self portrait of the artist as ‘looking back and being aware of the past’ whereas the youngster is only looking towards the future, totally blinded and lost in capitalist society.
I will discuss the ‘blinding’ effect of materialism and its addictive pull towards being an uncritical consumer further under the heading “Cultural industry”, a phenomenon that jeopardizes the important role of art. Magwa’s message is true for all of us. As Roger Lucy, one of our treasured musicians sings: “But you won’t know where you’re going to, if you don’t know where you been.”

The loss of the inner centre (the loss of roots)

Identity is always nourished from tow sides: the outside world and the inside experience of that world. Who we are is informed through our upbringing, shaped by our individuality and confirmed by our inherent uniqueness - the mystery embedded in our genetic code or beyond. How do we make the outside the inside and vice versa? The phrase, "As above, so below" attributed to the Hermes Trismegistus school of alchemy and magic represents an ideal that we have lost and are trying to regain. Humans have always been fascinated by their ability to reflect. We have used our cognition to find out who we are, where we are and why we are within this universe. When it comes to perceiving the world, there are as many paths as there are cultures, as Rumi, the 13th century Persian mystic writes: 
"Move within but don't move the way fear makes you move.
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty & frightened.
Don't open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground." (2011) 

Rumi speaks of the concern of losing the inner centre and the ways in which to connect to it through love and music. Artists have always been known for their ability to link the inner and the outer world.
Western culture[4] has followed the path of Greek philosophy, which was equally interested in investigating the inside and the outside world. The first of these philosopher giants, Socrates, was preoccupied with the question of inner growth. He pursued this through an inquisitive approach, the ‘Socratic dialogue’. He developed the art of asking questions. Another of these great philosophers, Aristotle, systematised logic as a deductive system based on evident axioms to pave the way for modern science and the challenging journey we are still travelling today.   
In the West, we have endorsed Aristotle rather than Socrates. The exploration of the outside world has made great progress and changed our lives profoundly through science and technology, yet the exploration of the inside world seems to have lost momentum. Despite this trend, the artist Dumile Feni focuses on being human in his work. 

Artwork of Dumile Feni “I’m not a Donkey”(before 1966)

“My subjects are Africans because they are my people but my message, the idea I am trying to put across, has nothing to do with racialism. I am not interested in politics. My situations are human ones, that is all.”  Dumile Feni (in Dube 2007)

Dumile Feni“I’m not a Donkey”(before 1966)
Referred to as the 'Goya of the Township'[5], Feni's art postions itself beyond Modernism into the realm of timeless masterpieces which talk to us beyond space and time. Despite its distinct South African context the image grabs us at the roots of our universal human condition. It gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own feelings. Through its history the image is linked to a distinct context within apartheid, but through its visual manifestation the message is timeless.
Desmond Tutu recently spoke about self-hate and how it damages the individual and society, manifesting itself as violence against oneself and others who represent the 'self' (2011). The anthropomorphic depiction of the artist with a donkey head and beastly hands tells us his story of how it must have felt to not be supported by the very nation you are part of. A vividly written biography by Bruce Smith gives witness to a life scarred by poverty, subjugation, and political harassment which forced Feni to leave South Africa in 1968. "The last twelve years of Feni's life, which he spent in America, principally in New York, were especially difficult" (Smith 2004). 
Albie Sachs[6] said about his personal friend Feni: "What was special about him was that, at a time when artists connected with the struggle, where [they were] painting bodies being carried away, and fists and spears, and denunciations of the cruelty of the regime, Dumile was concentrating on the dignity of the people, their tenderness, their humanity. And in a sense, he prefigured our whole constitutional order, what our Bill of Rights is about." (in Davie 2044)
The abandonment of the (human) centre for the periphery (outside world) is partially explained through the discourse of 'cultural industry'. Due to the capitalist emphasis on a materialistic worldview, the outside world has shifted towards a shallow, superficial and fast lifestyle. This has affected the postmodern individual, who has moved his/her focus towards the outside as well. 
But how could this happen? Why was the question ‘who am I?’ somehow replaced by ‘how much do I have’? Within western culture this is the story of how we lost the ‘grand narrative’ of metaphysics. The question of who we are in relation to a bigger picture outside ourselves was constantly questioned and finally dismissed as non-provable. 20th century Existentialism was crucial in this process, with Nietzsche finally declaring ‘God is dead’, and Sartre convincingly depicting the ‘human centre’ as a place of ‘nothingness’.  
This is the time when Structuralism became the new philosophy at the end of the 1960’s, the period of Feni’s “I am not a Donkey”, which was exactly the time when Sartre was at the height of his popularity. So was the Frankfurt School[7] with their looming prediction of a late-capitalist future with non-political people who are only interested in consuming and having 'nice things'.
Postmodernism did not build on Modernist philosophies, almost as if solving the problems was too big a task. I wonder if there will be a philosophy in the future which will draw on these loose ends. Postmodernism instead found a completely new approach with Levi Strauss[8].
Lévi Strauss focused on the common structure of all societies, replacing the empty space within us through a new centre: that of Structuralism. This new philosophy understood that such things which cannot be proven in the macro cosmos have to be dismissed as non-existent (metaphysics, God, etc.).  Instead, these new theorists discovered the micro cosmos of structure which are inherent in language, rituals and human activities.

This provided a whole new map and playground in analysing, theorizing and understanding human culture and identity. The success of Structuralism lies within the abandonment of the discrimination between ‘high’ and ‘low’, be it civilizations, languages or societies. Lévi Strauss’s ground breaking work is based on ‘the similar’ and argues that all humans share the same main rituals (birth, rite of passage, marriage, death) as well as all elementary human endeavours. In linguistics and literature Saussure, Jakobson and Barthes analysed languages and texts in the same way, examining the way these tools function in general and in universal terms.

When I studied literature, I found this turn of philosophy fascinating, as it talks to the postmodern concern to no longer think in hierarchies and not to discriminate against any expression. This is probably why Postmodernism is often referred to as ‘anything goes’. However it takes democracy to the next level, where all cultures, styles, arts and disciplines have the same rights and can therefore be used in parallel and mixed together. This works well in art (I am referring to the liberation in a global context), but do we make use of it in our everyday lives?
Ross Abbinnett[9](referring to David Harvey[10]) warns us that the restriction of Postmodernism as a mainly aesthetic movement, paves the way for uncritical citizens, who ignore the heavy heritage of capitalism:
“The ‘aesthetic turn’ of the postmodernists, in other words, remains an
adaptive strategy of capital: a cultural form whose transformations of the established structure of economic conformity and political obedience, are riven with acute economic and political contradictions.” (2003:10)

Despite our advanced democratic constitution, the danger lies in our diverse society. We stay separate in our cosy corners and communicate only with those who are familiar and shy away from ‘the other’, either through fear or ignorance (Rumi). The rapid development of technology replaces real relationships with those built on social networking. Another challenge lies in the common equation that leisure equals consumption while work equals hardship.  This thinking jeopardizes the important role of art as a way of communication and growth.  

The gallery visit when considered solely as part of ‘leisure’, can degenerate into shallow entertainment, fast and easy like the take-away around the corner. What it should deliver is a time of contemplation, intellectual and emotional engagement, meaningful thoughts, and regeneration, in other words, a visit to an art gallery should be an experience that can nourish, provoke and heal. Contemporary art demands engagement, knowledge, curiosity and interaction, as we have seen with Sue Williamson’s work. In return art has so much to give the viewer. 

What is art in the 21st century about?

At the end of the 20th century we left behind the ‘grand experiment’ of Modernism. It made way for its prefixed successor, Postmodernism, which has puzzled us for the last 50 years due to its apparently indefinable nature.

For me, the clearest distinction between the two epochs is the inclusion of ‘the other’ in Postmodernism. This is in sharp contrast to the hegemonic nature of Modernism, where it was not possible to equally accept different ideologies at the same time. Modernism never left its male chauvinistic Eurocentric high ground, even though it was experimenting with new concepts.

In Postmodernism the new kid on the block is ‘the other’, who comes in many shapes and sizes. The two main aspects relevant here being  1.) the inclusion of marginalized cultures and their art into a ‘western’ context, which now becomes a ‘global’ context, and 2.) a further opening towards (new) media and concepts in art, embracing any discipline, in particular those related to social and environmental topics.
Nkosinathi Khanyile
 “African Queen 1” 1998

Many of the exhibits fall into the first category, including Langa
Magwa’s work, which we have already discussed. Other examples would be Nkosinathi Khanyile’s “African Queen 1”, which combines the aesthetics of classical Greek sculpture with that of the ‘amasumpa’, the raised relief patterns used traditionally on Zulu pots and woodcarvings that carry social significance. 
Udhandan Govender
“Krishna & Flute”  1996
Or Udhandan (Ravi) Govender’s work “Krishna and Flute”, where the content is eastern, and the execution western.  It displays the traditional Hindu iconography of Lord Krishna (the full manifestation of Vishnu, the Supreme God) with his main attributes, the cow, his blue skin and him playing the flute. The Modernist influence prevails in the composition, brush strokes and style.

The paintings “Wedding Celebration”, 1994, by Nomandla Xakaza and “Umemulo”, 2002, by Irvin Nkwanyana, are interesting in relation to the research of Lévi Strauss. They introduce the audience to two rituals that all cultures share: the rite of passage (‘Umemulo’ signifies the birthday of a Zulu girl who celebrates her transition into womanhood), and a wedding scene within the Zulu culture. Both paintings display an autodidactic style. These artworks make wonderful devices for cross cultural discussions where we can share our knowledge and experiences about such events, which are based on the same occasions, but differ in their execution.
Irvin Nkwanyana
 “Umemulo” 2002 (left
Nomandla Xakaza “Wedding  
     Celebration” 1994 (right)

In this exhibition, new media examples (the second category) are scarce. I attribute this to the tight budget of museums, as Carol Brown, former art director, points out:  
“ I have recently been bemoaning the fact that the continent's best contemporary works have been leaving our shores, but the Joburg Art Fair proved that there is a great deal of interest and money to purchase, even if the beleaguered museums are not in the game anymore. It looks as though we are going back to the pre-museum days where corporate sponsors are the patrons of the arts. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing as it does give a certain freedom from 'official' art which can and has happened with museum collecting in all parts of the world through the last two centuries.” (2008)

It is worth mentioning that South Africa can draw on a strong league of new media artists, for example Dineo Bopape, Zen Marie, Berni Searle, Tracey Rose, Simon Gush, Mlu Zondi, Nathaniel Stern, William Kentridge,  Minnette Vári, or Hentie van der Merwe,  to mention only a few. However Franci Cronjé, artist and researcher, points out the reluctance to acquire new media art for public art collections. The reasons are the expensive equipment required, unfamiliarity with new media, and a continuing preference for more traditional media like painting and sculpture. There is also the inherent distrust of a new medium and uncertainty about its longevity (2004).

Yet there are examples of art in the exhibition, which relate to social and environmental topics. The artworks that caught my eye in this context are the two photographic works by Zwelethu Mthetwa of sugar cane cutters, and in contrast, Diamond Bozas’ romanticized landscape of cane fields, and Judy Jordan’s “Industrial Landscape”.

Artworks of Zwelethu Mthethwa “Sugar Cane Cutter Series “2003; Diamond Bonza’s “Cane cutting Eshowe” 1990’ and Judy Jordan’s “Industrial Landscape” 1991

Zwelethu Mthethwa
‘Sugar Cane cutter Series , untitled II’
2003; Photograph (colour lambda)
One of the most pressing problems is the destruction of our environment, especially as it is a topic that has been on the agenda for more than fifty years. Despite all warnings and against any logical rationale, we seem not to learn.
 Mthethwa’s images were taken on his brother’s farm in Umzinto, on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal. His intention, as far as I know, was not to address the environmental issue. It was rather to portray the poor and hard conditions these workers endure, and from an aesthetic  point of view, their layered clothes and skirts that reminded him of Samurai warriors, who fascinated him (Williamson 2009:292). The viewer, just like the artist, probably does not even recognize the environmental issue. This highlights the problem.
Zwelethu Mthethwa
‘Sugar Cane cutter Series, untitled I’
2003; Photograph (colour lambda)
For me, especially in connection with two other artworks on display, Diamond Bozas’ “Cane cutting Eshowe” 1990, and Judy Jordan’s “Industrial Landscape” 1991, the environmental issue is foregrounded. We feel so entitled to it, that we use nature according to our needs without considering the consequences not only for all our fellow species on this planet, but even for ourselves. 
With our never ending annexation of eco balanced land and its transmutation into monocultures, we ultimately destroy our own existence. A 2004 report by WWF, titled “Sugar and the Environment,” shows that sugar may be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop, due to its destruction of habitat to make way for plantations, its intensive use of water for irrigation, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals, and the polluted wastewater that is routinely discharged in the sugar production process. (Sugar Production Damages the Environment, 2011).
Diamond Bozas
“Cane cutting Eshowe” 1990;
Oil on Hardboard
Bozas’ romantic depiction of the sugar cane fields represents an idealistic pre-environmental state of mind, paralleled by its naive painting style (reminding me of “Le Douanier”, Henri Rousseau, the master of naïve art in Modernism).

Judy Jordan “Industrial Landscape”
1991; Oil on Hardboard
In stark contrast is Jordan’s expressionist and almost abstract rendition of a landscape, scarred and wounded by human intervention.What is art in the 21st century all about? Art has moved further and further away from its religious, representational and gratifying role for the audience and has become a science in itself. Highly conceptual, contemporary art demands critical engagement, curiosity, and knowledge of the art discourse in general and of the specific artwork’s context in particular. Exhibitions that fail to provide such additional information tend to frustrate the audience, as seen in the Kassel Documenta 2007[11].

Artists themselves bemoan the loss of accessibility and craftsmanship. The American artist Shea Hembrey is one such artist, who had the idea of inventing ‘Seek’, a new international ‘Biennale’ in order to counteract these shortcomings. He created 100 fictional artists, each with a fictional bio, and each with one artwork, as well as two virtual curators. Ironically he became famous as a ‘cutting edge’ artist, rather than being known for expressing his concerns about ‘cutting edge’ art.

It is not surprising that the general public gets annoyed with contemporary art, demanding easier accessibility, both in content and execution. But is the art at fault? Can we really blame the artist and his/her approach in posing uncomfortable questions, or focusing on painful issues and questionable taboos?

Cultural industry

I touched on the impact of the cultural industry earlier on. The triumph of technology is the triumph of the outside world, of materialism, capitalism and consumerism, including the exploitation of our environment. The declining interest in the inside world did not go unnoticed for Walter Benjamin[12], who argued that this development would have an immediate effect on our cultural output. The artwork has lost its ‘aura’ or originality through mass production and is now just another consumer item. Adorno, who was a close observer of Hollywood during the 1940’s anticipated the role of the mass media in destroying cognitive and critical qualities in the individual.

Audrey Frank “The Storyteller”
1958, Oil on Card.
Take a look at Audrey Frank’s “The Storyteller”, an easily accessible image:  all familiar, all known. How easy to miss the details, the idealistic idea (1958), that people would gather and listen to a story, forgetting about their cultural diversity, or that children are in fact ‘colour blind’, and are able to forget the world while listening to a story; how easy to overlook the careful composition of crouched figures, the animated body language, the facial expressions, contrasting with the geometrical background shapes of the village houses.

The ‘art’ consumer wants to be served, entertained and pleasured. He/she does not want to think, analyse, reflect or reason. The sharp dichotomy of (little) leisure and (lots of) work in our late-capitalist system has pushed the arts into a consumer market to suit our need for fast, easily digestible entertainment. Horkheimer[13] and Adorno[14] elaborated on this phenomenon by showing how the motive of gain is directly transferred to the realm of art, instigating an immediate ‘utilization’ of art as another consumer item.
In the 1990’s in Stuttgart, Germany, as a student I took a night train to Hamburg, 700 km away, to see an exhibition for a seminar paper. While there, I noticed that people entered the exhibition (free of charge) and within no time had ‘seen’ the exhibition and departed. I spent the entire weekend there and still felt that I had not engaged with the art.  A ‘déjà vu’ moment occurs every time a Durban gallery exhibits ‘conceptual art’, which appears to be unpopular with the art audience, and as an art educator I witness the hard work it takes for young artists to explore the complex world of contemporary art.
Benjamin, Horkheimer and Adorno, who were all members of the ‘Frankfurt School’, reasoned that this reduction of the individual was a deliberate manipulation of society (not a conscious one by particular people, but nonetheless propelled by the agents of capitalism). The aim was to retain its members contented with trivia, superficial satisfaction of ‘nullities’, in other words: good consumers!
Herbert Marcuse[15] highlighted the reason why the individual buys into this concept. He classified commodities as extensions of people’s bodies, minds and souls (1964). Marshall McLuhan[16] also defined ‘medium’ as an ‘extension of ourselves’ (1964). And indeed, who wants to live today without a smart phone, car, refrigerator or electricity, which have become more than commodities?  But what about the commodities that really could be dispensed with, such as hours spent in front of mindless TV shows, computer games, movies and ‘soapies’?
This change of character towards a consumer oriented audience has since shaped the art market and the art production / selection process itself, drawing a sharp line between ‘consumer’ art and ‘cutting edge’ art. The former tries to ‘please’ and the latter to ‘provoke thought’. Not only the audience, but also the artists have been exposed to the hypnotic stultification of consumerism. 

The artist today has to ask herself, which audience she plans to target: the ‘consumer’ or the ‘cutting edge’ market? There are plenty of commercial galleries, which sell decorative art for homes, hotels and game reserves or to decorate corporate corridors.
Contemporary art museums or specialized art galleries exhibit ‘cutting edge’ art, which is critical, original, and thought provoking. Such pieces provide a deep insight into various possible acute questions of humanity at any given time. Maybe this is similar to a doctor taking the pulse of a patient and trying to diagnose the disease as well as (sometimes) prescribe a remedy.
These two categories of art have drifted further and further apart which has created tension and misunderstanding. In particular the perception of ‘cutting edge art’ as being ‘difficult’ or ‘not art’ has become common, as most people still consider art as one homogenous entity, and are more comfortable with the decorative and consumer friendly variety.   

Avant-garde and “l’art pour l’art”[17]

Is there any form of art that does not fall under the topic ‘identity ’? Is there actually art that does not deal with the human condition? Is it easier to identify artworks with obvious topics related to culture, religion, society, or politics? But would an abstract painting be out of place?
We see landscapes in this exhibition, and buildings, and objects, and yet, we make the connection to the people who use them. Each person is connected to an outside identity, which for some of us is very important, and for some of us is something to dismiss.
 L’art pour l’art and even avant-garde art has often been accused, especially in the South African context, of existing in an ‘ivory tower’, not ‘talking’ to the man in the street, and being oblivious to society and politics. In other words, the assumption is that artists who ignore the ‘outside world’ can only produce art that is without impact on this ‘outside world’. The ‘inside world’ is then considered to be either an ivory tower in which the artist resides, or an elitist art world, some sort of ‘club’ that does not interact with the rest of the world. Here is an example of an art critic accusing an artist well known for his resistance art:

“Simply, ‘Courage’ is the artist’s attempt to boldly move towards his inner self, to chart an inward journey to a place occupied by nature and metaphysical concerns. Abandoning his exploration of the urban landscape and the overt concern with socio-political issues, the artist proclaims the decade as officially dead.” (Ngcobo, 2004)
Did the critic expect the artist to continue with ‘resistance art’? Why was this ‘inward turning’ perceived as a betrayal of the South African ‘cause’?
With the advent of the new democracy, protest was seen as the only form of inducing change and the focus on an ‘inner transformation’ was viewed as a form of escape and cowardice, read as turning one’s back on South Africa’s problems.

This critic provides a clue to the politicizing of South African art. During apartheid the common aim of all (non-racist) artists was to demolish the fascist and racist regime that favoured the white population (which backfired with a vengeance, because they are still seen as perpetrators of apartheid). 
There is a common perception that a focus on the inner being is synonymous with indifference towards society and the world.   
The 21st century has abandoned one important illusion that has dominated the world since Aristotle: the illusion of the objective and subjective as separate entities (inside and outside). Kurt Gödel, Ludwig Boltzmann, and ultimately Albert Einstein were part of this process, which is slowly gaining momentum. I have witnessed this rather dramatic change in the humanities during the last ten years. The third person as the ‘objective’ researcher has cleared the way for the “I”, the subject. Practice led research, self-study, and practice-based research: they all replace the object with the subject.  Nobody is any longer ‘outside’, everybody is subjective and involved.
 Most of us would assume that participating in demonstrations and protests would be effective in trying to change the world. But an experiment in 1993 in Washington proved that the mass meditation of 4000 people during a period of two months reduced the crime rate by 15.6 % and could reach an effective 48% if continued over a period of five years.[18]
Shifting the focus back to art, we need to acknowledge a new approach to our definition of ‘identity’. We also have to ask ourselves: does art outside society exist at all?

Art as ivory tower

Is it possible that the artist and the art exist without the third factor: society?  What is this ‘society’ and can we separate it from art? Can we accept that any art resides outside a given society? I argue that this is only possible, if such art is never shown in public.
The terms ‘public’ and ‘society’ overlap, are synonymous. No artist lives in a vacuum. His/her identity is shaped by society, and the art produced is intrinsically part of society, as it reflects the context in which it is produced.
The audience, however small, also emanates from society and as soon as an artwork is viewed even by one person, it is exposed to a dynamic that is no longer confined. The only definable factor of art is its presence in the public realm. If art is made, but not made public, it does not exist (for the art world). The same applies to the artist. If he/she does not make her/his art public, the artist does not exist for the art world. 

The role of the audience 

Art has to be seen, discussed and written about in order to live. The most famous artwork, the ‘Mona Lisa’, is at the same time the most discussed – a coincidence?!
The audience, which represents society, but consists of individuals, determines the purpose of art. The viewer in the interaction with the artwork gives it meaning, brings it to life, and adds hermeneutic value with each interpretation. Hans Robert Jauss’ ‘Rezeptionsästhetik’ (Reception theory), developed in the 1960’s and Wolfgang Iser’s ‘Die Appellstruktur der Texte’ (Indeterminacy and the Reader's Response in Prose Fiction) from 1970 changed the role of the artwork (text) profoundly by shifting the focus away from the artefact towards its reception. It is the interaction of the reader/audience with the artefact that constitutes meaning. Each encounter between a (visual) text and an individual constitutes a unique event, which, if communicated, constructs significance and value: the more interaction, the more famous the artwork.

This thinking leads us to the role of the critic, the curator, and the gallery: in other words, the art market, which constitutes probably the most important sector of the art world today. 
Art as an ‘elitist club’

The perception of art as a small pocket for an elitist circle within society probably originates with the Renaissance, and gains momentum with the secularisation of art, which gradually becomes a luxury item for the rich.[19] The art discourse operates increasingly within scientific parameters, placing the discussion within a scholarly, intellectual and again, elitist circle. The perception of art as avant-garde is well captured in Gertrude Stein’s observation:

“Those who are creating the modern composition authentically are naturally only of importance when they are dead because by that time the modern composition having become past is classified and the description of it is classical. That is the reason why the creator of the new composition in the-arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is hardly a moment in between and it is really too bad very much too bad naturally for the creator but also very much too bad for the enjoyer.... For a very long time everybody refuses and then almost without a pause almost everybody accepts. (1926)

What Stein is talking about is the process of absorbing a new concept/idea, which starts with peer evaluation by experts in the field, and if shared, picks up momentum until it is recognized within the wider context of society. One can compare this dynamic with that of a ‘critical mass’. Who has not seen the experiment with a room full of mouse traps, each one holding two ping-pong balls? One extra ball dropped onto one trap will send both of them flying, hitting two new balls, then four, then eight, sixteen…you get it?! The same chain reaction occurs in the art field, where an artwork/artist, once accepted by the experts, then accelerates this process of acceptance until potentially ‘the public’ acknowledges their status. Once established, such (visual) texts advance into the status of cultural heritage or even icons.
This process confers on the ‘specialists’ enormous power, as it is they who decide on success or failure. The phenomenon is well known and specifically criticised by artists (needless to say by those who do not reach ‘critical mass’), who often blame curators, art gallery owners / directors, art critics,and art publications of pushing certain artists to the top for monetary gain. This tendency does not seem to change:

“The division of labour between curators and artists, critics and gallery owners and the related economy, for example, is amazingly constant. And the proportions of women and non-European artists have likewise been stable for twenty years, even if women work increasingly as curators and critics and even if exhibitions on feminist and post-colonial themes have come to be considered essential for good form. As we, in 2005, are able to ascertain, the hegemonic decision-making authority, the entity which ultimately dictates the discourses, has remained to a large extent in the hands of the art centres of the West and their institutions.” (Von Osten, 2009:59)

Okwunodu Ogbechie proves that Africa is no exception when analysing the curatorial work of Okwui Enwezor, a fellow-countryman. His findings are that Enwezor has fallen into the same trap, using the same, already established exiled African artists, ignoring the young and upcoming talent present in Africa itself, seemingly favouring a particular art style which to Ogbechie is dominated by a Western formula (2010).
To break away and emancipate the arts from such patronization, Bert Brecht[20] sought direct communication with the ‘proletariat’, the people from grassroots level (working class) believing in an art form that can educate and enrich without providing a sophisticated background.   


Wounds are there, and wounds are healing. South African art can play a major role in this process and needs to be encouraged and supported. Exhibitions like this one offer an understanding of our unique society and can indicate a way forward. The art of the past is a rich source for future generations, to understand where we come from. But we must also move forward and embrace the idea of the new South Africa, which is no longer forced to confine itself to cultural boundaries. Art can suggest new ways of dealing with each other and with the new problems we face.

Sometimes it seems as if the evil snake of apartheid has shed its old skin to come back in new disguises like Xenophobia, correctional rape or intimate femicide. We need artists who can communicate from the inside in a universal manner (Dumile Feni). This will ensure that the art is accessible outside our confined context.   

The gnostic Gospel of Thomas, unearthed in Egypt in 1945, perhaps points the way:  "When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below… then you will enter the kingdom” (1990).

Our Constitution offers us the chance to pull ourselves out of a past that still haunts us. It is important to acknowledge the past, but it is time to look at the path in front of us and to create the South African ‘rainbow nation’ through art. Artists possess the great gifts of imagination, playfulness and wonder, gifts that can release the magic of real Ubuntu.

With thanks to Dr. Dorian Haarhoff and John Roome

[1] ‘the other’ is a term derived from ‘cultural discourse’ and refers to our experience of sensations in the outside world we consider ‘different’ or not familiar.
[2] Zygmunt Bauman is one of Europe’s foremost sociologists, Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds and the author of “Liquid Modernity” 2000. Cambridge: Polity.
[3] In Europe this dynamic is reciprocal, as the continuous increase of ‘the other’ (foreigners) change these societies from previously ‘homogenous’ to ‘diverse’, slowly leading to an similar experience as in post-colonial countries.
[4]  Global art originates mainly from Modernism, and postmodern discourse applies theories that draw mainly on Western philosophy.     
[5] After Francisco Goya (1746 – 1828) who was a Spanish artist, satirist and social commentator.
[6] Albie Sachs retired in 2009 after being a judge on the Constitutional Court of South Africa since 1994. He also plays an active role in the art world as critic, curator and collector. He played a critical role in both the architecture and art collection for the new Constitutional court building in Johannesburg, which opened in 2004.
[7] The Frankfurt School is a term that arose informally referring to the work of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, founded in 1923 as part of the Frankfurt University. Based on the concept of late-capitalism and its persistence (despite the prediction that it would vanish) in relation to the classical theory of Marx, this group of theorists developed “cultural theory” as a discourse, analysing mass media, technology and consumerism in relation to ‘culture’. During Nazi Germany (1933-45) the institute moved to the USA, but came back to Frankfurt in 1953. Some of the theorists connected to the movement are Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas.
[8] Claude Lévi Strauss (1908 – 2009) was a French anthropologist and with the founding of “Structural Anthropology” one of the central figures of Structuralism.

[9] Ross Abbinnett is a Senior Lecturer in social and Cultural theory, School of cultural Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University.
[10] David Harvey is a distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York with ‘Social Theory’ being one of his research fields.
[11] The ‘Documenta’ was first held in 1955 in Kassel, Germany, where it still takes place every five years. It is considered to be one of the most important art events for contemporary art world wide.  
[12] Walter Benjamin (1982 – 1940) is most known in the art field for his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936).  

[13] Max Horkheimer (1895 – 1973) became famous for his work in critical theory as a member of the Frankfurt School
[14] Theodor W. Adorno (1903 – 1969) was a member of theFrankfurt School of social theory along with Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, and Jürgen Habermas.
[15] Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979) is associated with the Frankfurt School. With his book ‘The One-Dimensional Man’ he became a cult figure in the 1960’s new left-wing and radical political movements in the USA (Angela Davis) and the student uprisings in Germany, which finally cost him his job as a university professor in California in 1965.
[16] Marshall McLuhan (1911 - 1980) was one of the first theorists to seriously contextualize new media as a ground-breaking tool changing our lives. He predicted the internet almost 30 years prior to its invention.
[17] Both terms originate from 19th century France, the art centre of a Eurocentric world at the time. Avant-garde (advance guard) derives from war fare and describes the position most daring and courageous, the place right in the front line. In 1825 Rodrigues used the term to refer to art that aimed to change society politically, socially and economically. Only much later, towards the end of the 19th century, did the term shift towards an aesthetic interpretation, bringing it closer to the term ‘art for art’s sake’. 
[18] According to Hagelin et al (1998) a group of 4000 meditators using TM technique were assembled in Washington D. C. for a mass meditation. It was hypothesized that violent crime would fall substantially as a result of the mediation sessions conducted over a two month period in the District of Columbia. The overall results showed a 15.6% decrease (P <.0008) in crime over the previous five years while taking into account the impact of hot weather conditions and additional police staffing. The maximum decrease of crime of 23.3% (P < .0000000009) occurred during the time of greatest attendance at the meditation sessions in the final weeks. The authors used Box-Jenkins methods to estimate the outside effects on the amount of violent crime. A surprising implication is that a permanent group of steady meditators could have a long-term impact of reducing crime by 48% (in Dewar, 2005).
[19] Religious art as being sublime and elevated goes right back to the beginnings of art.
[20] Berthold Brecht (1898 – 1956) German pioneer for experimental theatre influenced by Marxist theory.


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1 comment:

John-Roome-Visual-Artist said...

Hi Nirmi,
Congratulations. This is an excellent piece of writing. Informative and thought provoking.
Worth all the effort you put into it!