Doreen Southwood's resin figure is part of the "Personal Affects" exhibition.
Exhibit captures South African individualism
What accounts for the arresting power of this artwork from contemporary South Africa? Even on the printed page, the images stop the eye with an eerie fascination. Even here, half a world away from the place we vaguely remember in connection with the horrors of apartheid, the themes arising in the exhibit "Personal Affects" resonate with a troubling universality. In person, their presence is undeniable.
Power and Poetics in Contemporary South African Art:
On view: Through May 7
Place: The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Drive
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $5; seniors and students $3; under 12 free
Call: 526-1322 or visit www.tcmhi.org
It's true that The Contemporary Museum wanted this exhibit, originally shown in New York in 2004, simply because the artwork was so powerful. But comparisons and contrasts with Hawaii quickly come to mind.
In the Pacific, we have a mix of cultures negotiating between ancient tradition and a dizzying modernity, just as South Africa has whites, blacks, Asians and South Asians with multigenerational, unequal claims to a contested piece of land.
The major difference, of course, is apartheid. Brutal enforcement of racial segregation by a tiny group of white settlers against a poor and restive black majority and not-quite-white immigrants reached such an alarming state of violence after World War II that South Africa came under international condemnation. By the 1980s, the nation had become a global whipping boy, forced into a political crisis that led to democratic elections in 1994.
This exhibit, brought to Manhattan at both the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and the Museum for African Art, marked a decade after apartheid -- a kind of national artistic debut that was, as curator Sophie Perryer put it, "South Africa presenting itself to the world as beginning to be what it wanted to become."
The New York art world was strongly impressed. The New York Times called it "the strongest group show of new art" in the city that year; Art in America magazine made it the cover story. And audiences in Honolulu will see that what is so striking about this sample of "outstanding" South African artists -- established and emerging, black and white -- is what they are not.
The work is not angry and political. It is not about oppression and liberation, the two great themes of the apartheid era, described by Punahou School instructor and South African Yunus Peer as "the suffering of the people, or the joy of the people to take that suffering away."
"It is the first time that people are looking at South African artists as artists," said Peer, who gave an introductory talk last month as a lead-in to the exhibition. Most of the artists represented here grew up in the 1970s, shaped more by issues arising after apartheid. Yet their work inevitably reflects the nation's recent trauma and the difficulties of emerging from it.
"That is the celebratory aspect of this exhibition," said Perryer, one of five curators of the show. "There is no longer the imperative to make art that is political, but there is the freedom to address issues of identity."
"African Adventure" is an installation by Jane Alexander.
With issues of identity, perhaps, Americans are on familiar ground. But not really. Take Claudette Schreuders, whose large African fetish figures also belong to the European tradition of carved Catholic saints. Her "Free Girl" holds the characteristic, inward-turning gaze of Schreuders' modern-day colonials, neither wholly European nor African. The snake she steps on suggests both the African water deity Mamy Wata, a popular all-purpose god introduced from Europe in the colonial era, and the Virgin Mary triumphing over evil.
But this saint is also vulnerable and confused. Like Schreuders, a young white woman raised in Africa, she seems to reflect on the ambiguities of belonging to two cultures -- a "belonging" fraught with hints of sacrifice and sin that arrive only at an unsettling dislocation.
Another young Afrikaner, Wim Botha, shows an imposing installation consisting of a large wooden table suspended from the ceiling on which two hyenas made from planks of wood viciously dismember their prey and each other. Around this table hang framed prints, stained-glass panels and a self-portrait bust made of maize meal and resin -- heraldic symbols of seized power, all suspended in a state of disbelief.
"Mnemonic Reconstruction" by Wim Botha is a mixed media sculptural installation.
The reading here, as with Schreuders, is not simple or definitive. Exactly where does Botha locate his identity as a white man in South Africa, who grew up enjoying all the privilege of his heritage, erected on the blood and labor of others, in this harsh landscape so foreign to his ancestors?
The black artists in the exhibit show an even greater willingness to poke through the fabric of their traditional identities. Video maker Churchill Madikida, in "Skeletons in My Closet," shows a pair of blood-red hands wringing each other in a digitally mirrored image that looks alternately like a red flower blooming and a gruesome piece of surgery. His work "questions the inability to question tradition," says Perryer, such as whether customs that have long sustained a culture are still necessary and useful.
The idea of "blood on the hands" refers equally to the author's ambivalence about using traditional cultural elements to make money, and losing one's life in obedience to custom, as some initiates do each year in the Xhosa rite of circumcision.
Samson Mudzunga's wood, enamel paint and animal hide work titled "Suka Afrika Fundudzi."
Even more of a tribal bad boy, by his own admission, is Samson Mudzunga, who gave a performance at the museum Feb. 25. A maker of ceremonial carved drums from Venda, Mudzunga puts his works to rather nontraditional uses, climbing into and out of them in costumed performances, and often transgressing tribal rules. He has mounted sacred dances before noninitiates, and enraged the local chief who controls sacred Lake Fundudzi by breaking a taboo and swimming across it before an invited audience.
Typical of the artists in the exhibition, Mudzunga offers no political, social or theoretical underpinning to his transgressions. "I didn't go to school for that," he says of his ideas. "It just come to me. Whenever I am sleeping, it just come to me, and I must do it."
It is good to question tradition, Mudzunga says with a knowing smile. It is necessary, even at the price of arousing community "jealousy." And in South Africa today, it is apparently possible psychologically -- because people already have seen the worst. Mudzunga himself re-enacts in one of his performances being shackled in leg irons in prison.
"We've been through a period that has forced people to be reflective about themselves," said Perryer, so South African artists might be freer to question identity than in other places and times.
We might try to imagine the effects of a similar creative freedom in Hawaii, where different races co-exist in harmony precisely because we do not acknowledge ambiguities in our constructed identities, whether based on the prevalence of aloha, oppression of the native Hawaiian, sacrifices of the 442nd Regiment or the peaceful jocularity of all things "local."
In stripping the protective costuming of political identity, many of the works here reveal the human body in all its vulnerability, evoking in viewers a sense of danger and risk. This accounts for the poignancy felt about many pieces, for it is in the body's vulnerability that we glimpse our common humanity.
A close-up of a panel from Dianne Victor's "Mater, Minder, Martyr."
Steven Cohen, a gay, white, Jewish South African, shows a video of a performance from 2002 in which he visited a squatter camp outside Johannesburg dressed as a human chandelier: Painted white, nearly naked except for a fragile, tinkling contraption sewn to a girdle, he teetered on hazardously tall heels through a homeless encampment on a day when, coincidentally, "red ants" from the government security force came to tear the shantytown down in a brutal echo of apartheid-era mass relocations.
"You are the light in dark times" -- or something like that -- says a now-homeless woman in the crowd of heckling onlookers.
Similarly fetching are the child-size half-animal creatures made by Jane Alexander, an established sculptor who arranges her plaster figures in photo montages and in the video here called "African Adventure." A black security guard patrols a former colonial edifice where the glass-eyed dolls, some naked or missing limbs, stand frozen in the central room like prisoners. He swings his baton menacingly as the camera veers from one angle to another. Alexander is referencing street children, Perryer said -- which hardly accounts for the menacing doom that makes the scene terribly compelling, hard to watch or not watch.
Overall, "Personal Affects" exercises a hypnotic power rare in contemporary art, reminiscent of the European Baroque. This is not an effect of the artists' skill or cleverness; form here so clearly serves content. Nor is it the many cultural and historical references that provide such rich source material, as in the contemporary art of Hawaii.
Rather, it is the artists' fearlessness about their own political positioning that frees them to point to the universals in culture -- the acts of violence that found the sacred and profane, and that persist in the collective subconscious.
Non-white South Africans mince no words in declaring apartheid far from finished. Opportunities are nowhere near equal; the crimes of the past have not been righted. What Perryer calls a "celebration" is more like a relieved unshackling of leg irons, the freedom to express the beautiful, horrifying, universal experience of being human through a particularly anguished historical context, recently remembered and thus intensely personal -- a metaphor for what art itself is, at its best.