This past Saturday and Sunday, I visited the Biennale exhibitions at the sprawling Giardini and Arsenale venues in Venice. I saw many beautiful, disturbing and shocking works of art and some wondrous, confusing and sometimes politically provocative art installations (including Isaac Julien’s continuous reading of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital in the Arena at the Giardini). But one work stopped me in my tracks: Willem Boshoff’s much talked about Racist in South Africa, at the South African Pavilion, which forms part of a group show entitled What Remains is Tomorrow.
I am neither an art critic nor an expert on contemporary art. I do regularly attend exhibitions and, in my own way, try and make sense of the things I see. I try to listen to what a particular artwork wants to tell me and I try to get to that point beyond words where an interesting or provocative work of art stirs up a complex set of feelings and continues to haunt me for days afterwards.
I don’t believe that art needs to be safe or “beautiful” – whatever that may mean. Some of my most cherished interactions with art have shocked, troubled or unnerved me.
I am relatively familiar with Boshoff’s body of work: the intricate play with words in Garden of Words, the names of plants filed away in wooden cabinets or displayed under huge glass panels; the eight marble slabs in the inner courtyard of the Constitutional Court, entitled Prison Hacks, symbolising the time spent in prison by various political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela (9,377 days), Ahmed Kathrada (9,269 days), Raymond Mhlaba (9,269 days) and Govan Mbeki (8,548 days); and Long Shadows, on the grounds of the old awaiting-trial block at the entrance to the Constitutional Court which portrays – again in black marble – the shadows of four hopeful prisoners.
It is for this reason that Boshoff’s work was what I was most looking forward to seeing as I took the escalator up to the South African Pavilion at the Arsenale.
As you enter the exhibition, you are met with the deafening sound emanating from two video screens, a white man on one screen and a black man on another screen delivering the same obnoxious nationalistic political speech in tandem. The point of Brett Murray’s work, I suppose, that there is no difference between the deathly rhetoric of Apartheid-era National Party politicians and African National Congress politicians in democratic South Africa.
It is a facile and insipid work that disregards the fact that – despite what some lazy and privileged white South Africans may think – there is a world of difference between Apartheid South Africa and the democratic dispensation. In the former, nationalistic rhetoric was deployed to justify white minority rule and the political oppression and economic exploitation of the majority of citizens.
Whatever you may think of the (often deathly boring) nationalistic rhetoric of some current day politicians, they operate in a democratic system in which every adult has the right to vote, in which the rights of every citizen is constitutionally protected and those (like Murray) with access to resources can approach the courts to have their rights enforced.
It is within this context that the visitor to the South African Pavilion encounters the work by Boshoff. The work is not visually interesting – a 120cm x 120cm piece of text engraved into aluminium. The text seems to rant in despair about the state of the nation. The work begins with the line “I am proud to be labelled racist in South Africa if it means that…” and contains many statements that are either factually untrue or embody reactionary, right wing political sentiments. Sentiments, it must be said, that are widely shared by many white South Africans.
“I can’t stand that more and more tourists are avoiding us like the plague.”
“I could scream in frustration when jobs are given to unqualified people.”
“I weep when villains’ rights are protected more than their victims.”
Of course, more and more tourists are not avoiding South Africa “like the plague”. The number of visitors to South Africa has increased consistently since the advent of democracy. Most tourists did, of course, avoid South Africa “like the plague” before 1994 because it was a pariah state, wracked with fear and violence, a state in which those who opposed the government were detained and held without trial, tortured and murdered.
It is true that sometimes jobs are given to unqualified people in South Africa. This happens also to be the case in most other countries in the world. George W Bush was given a place to study at Yale University because of affirmative action and later became the (disastrously bad) President of the United States, partly because of his family connections and his privilege as a white, heterosexual man.
But in the context of the often hateful and irrational response of (some) white South Africans to the constitutionally mandated implementation of affirmative action measures, the sentence plays on the deeply embedded racist assumption that black people are unqualified and undeserving of being employed.
It is also factually untrue that the rights of villains are protected more than the rights of their victims. In South Africa rights apply equally to everyone. In any case, the assumption that it is somehow morally reprehensible to protect the rights of accused persons who had not yet been convicted of any crime, is a deeply reactionary one, not to be squared with the idea that every individual possesses an inherent human dignity that must be respected and protected.
Being familiar with some of Boshoff’s other work, I wondered whether he was not trying to satirise the racism and prejudice of the average person who comments on the News24 website. Maybe he was deliberately playing the buffoon, performing a virulent form of white, male privilege in order to critique it?
I guess that is how white privilege works – you can almost always count on being given the benefit of the doubt – unlike the supposedly “unqualified” persons mentioned in the work, who will often not be afforded the same privilege.
But there was nothing in the work to hint at such a reading – only the ugly, condescending words on the wall, unflatteringly juxtaposed with the lazy populism of Brett Murray in the next room.
Because the work was produced by a white, heterosexual, Afrikaans man at this juncture in post-Apartheid South Africa, because of the overwhelming presence of these authorial identities in that room, and because of the close connotation in present day South Africa between these identities and the inability to listen to and hear when black people speak, the work was doomed to fail – even if its creator’s intentions had been different.
For me the work failed as art not only because it reflects an attitude of entitlement and an isolated, arrogant inability to grapple with the experiences and feelings of black South Africans. It also fails because, ultimately, it is not interesting, provocative or challenging in any way discernable to this viewer. It does not invite you to see the world afresh, to question deeply embedded beliefs or assumptions, to be shocked by a destabilising attack on the status quo.
Instead it just hangs there: impotent, angry, oblivious to the power and privilege of its creator. DM
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Pierre De Vos teaches Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, where he serves as deputy dean and as the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance. He writes a regular blog, entitled 'Constitutionally Speaking', in which he attempts to mix one part righteous anger, one part cold legal reasoning and one part irreverence to help keep South Africans informed about Constitutional and other legal developments related to the democracy.
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