Opinionista Rebecca Hodes 30 March 2017

Crimes of conscience in South African art

While Zwelethu Mthethwa’s crime spotlights the horrors of violence and obliteration, the work of another artist – Mikhael Subotzky – reveals a willingness to confront the delusions of history through his work. These contrasting cases reveal the power of art – and of artists – to silence or to testify; to stake claims of absence and innocence, or to bear witness to new notions of collusion in the South African present.

In March 2017, Zwelethu Mthethwa, one of South Africa’s most renowned artists, was found guilty of murdering Nokuphila Kumalo, ending a years’ long controversy over Mthethwa’s guilt, and over whether the artist, sentence pending, should enjoy the privileges of public exhibition. This controversy reached a fever pitch in late 2016 when the South African National Gallery, in collaboration with the New Church Museum, included a work by Mthethwa in an exhibition called Our Lady, about the portrayal of women in South African art.

Iziko was caught in the crossfire between a group of visionaries committed to confronting and rectifying the injustices of the past  and the private museum that had proposed the exhibition. In objection to its display alongside a man on trial for murder, artists demanded that their work be withdrawn from the exhibition, and activists from the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) supported their demands.

In response to mounting public anger, and a well-supported petition signed by doyens of the art sector, Iziko agreed. Snubbed and petulant – or rightfully outraged by the National Gallery’s capitulation (depending on your perspective) – the New Church Museum removed all of its works from the exhibition, including Mthethwa’s. A dangerous precedent was asserted: that artists and private collectors could permit, or prohibit, the exhibition of their work by a public institution. The Our Lady exhibition remained open, amid a rising clamour of allegations, and a gaping sense of rage.

The story has so much in it, about struggles over representation and their intertwining with social justice. But there are two crucial points which have been largely glossed over in discussions of the Our Lady debacle. The first is of the state’s egregious under-funding of the arts. The result is that public art institutions, including the National Gallery, operate on skeletal budgets, within punishing deadlines. Both of these work against the cautious management of partnerships. That Iziko continues to produce its volume and quality of work is testament to the sheer talent, passion and fortitude of its workers. Ironically, their successes divert attention from the state’s negligence.

The second point is more troublesome, in part because it raises questions about new orthodoxies of power and representation, which defy easy resolution. These are the matters at the pulsating heart of our most fraught and vituperative public debates. They may be phrased as a series of questions: Who has the power, or the right, to capture and relate the experience of others? What roles do markers of identity play in determining this authority: including race, gender, generation and sexuality? And when each of these becomes an increment for what is permissible, who will be left to speak for whom, within the smallest shards of experience and insight? Should conviction by public opinion precede and qualify the formal meting out of justice? And why should this apply to  some – Mthethwa – and not to others (Oscar Pistorius, Jacob Zuma). While Mthethwa stood accused of murdering Kumalo, in November 2016 when the exhibition opened he had not yet been convicted.

There is a fundamental similarity between Mthethwa’s power as a witness in both the Our Lady exhibition and in his criminal conviction, although in the first his testimony was provided, while in the second it was withheld. Contrary to public understanding, Our Lady was not only an exhibition about the portrayal of women in art, but also about the aesthetics of patriarchy – of how women are truncated and typified. In this forensics of the male gaze, I would argue, Mthethwa was a sound inclusion.

But perhaps this inversion of Mthethwa’s prowess was premature, pre-empting, as it did, his criminal conviction. Until very recently, Mthethwa’s work stood for taste, discernment and acclaim, and it was this that jarred, shockingly, with a vision for women’s empowerment by artists and activists.

Many questions ensue. What will now happen to Mthethwa’s work, which features among the collections of many prestigious institutions? Will it be consigned to the catacombs of art repositories, removed from the walls of private homes? Will it come to stand in for the decline and fall of particular claims to authority and prestige in South Africa? And who else, eventually, will join this pantheon?

Zuma is an obvious inclusion, with his fulsome rhetorical record of misogyny and homophobia. But histories of gender politics, and in particular their cross-referencing with private actions, seldom leave their subjects untarnished. A list of current liberation icons whose treatment of women cuts across their emancipatory agendas includes Patrice Lumumba, Franz Fanon and Mahatma Ghandi. If the emphasis is on art, countless other calculi of prejudice may apply. If the spectrum is broadened to include anti-Semitism, but the focus is on English literature, the canon proceeds: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, T. S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde. If the form of prejudice is slave-ownership, yet its interlocutors are statesmen who battled against slavery, we have Thomas Jefferson and Toussaint L’Ouverture. 

Whether they wade in gladly, or are dragged in and swept away, South Africa artists are swayed by these tides. As new work by many South African artists shows, remarkable things may come from this immersion. Mikhael Subotzky’s WYE, at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg from March 2-April 2, 2017, is one example.

Subotzky is no stranger to controversies about cultural appropriation and privileged positionality. Known for his technical mastery, and among the most highly acclaimed of South Africa’s contemporary artists, Subotzky has come under critique for his selection of subjects, and for the power differentials inherent in the production of, and profit from, art. In one work, for instance, Subotzky recorded a man masturbating on a street corner. While the act took place in public, the man did not explicitly know that he was being filmed. Neither, it turns out, did Subotzky, who had left the camera unattended while this footage was recorded. But the circumstances of its capture are perhaps less consequential than Subotzky’s decision to include this footage in an artwork. 

Subotzky’s focus on social pathologies – the treatment of prisoners, the sexualisation of children – has also exposed him to critiques focused on his status or privilege. Working both within the cosy fold of artistic acclaim, and backed towards the precipice of identitarian permissioning, Subotzky creates from both the centre and the margins. In his latest work, he has turned simultaneously inwards, to the meanings of “whiteness” in South Africa, and outwards, to its intertwining with wider histories of migration, science, occupation, exile – the morality, and delusions – of settlement and displacement.

WYE is a triptych of film screens, each running a different narrative. Its scale is epic, its technique exquisite. Its name refers to the old English phonetics of the letter ‘Y’, a reference to the three cartographic prongs of the piece: Britain, South Africa and Australia. The three screens portray the narratives of three interconnected characters: Lethbridge, a colonialist-explorer in the 1820s; Hare, a light-house keeper in the post-apartheid present, and Feio, a robot-analyst from an indeterminate future, struggling to comprehend the vagaries of human perception in an age of total data.

Here we have the fatuities of knowledge-bound missions over time. Lethbridge is a man of science tasked with documenting his experiences on the shores of the colony, but for whom a divining rod is as important an instrument of technology as the telescope he trains on the dunes and horizon. Then there is Hare, searching for scrap with a metal-detector and set of earphones, girded against the elements by a puffy silver jacket meant to shore up his bodily protection, but which only undergirds his foreignness and fragility. And Feio, with the powers to pause, rewind and replay, but not to comprehend. In her Siri-like voice and bungled pronunciation, we encounter her incomprehension.

The work offers moments of searing synchronicity. Breathless people engaged in similar activities in different eras suggest the inexorability of time. But while the piece borrows and invokes – from Jane Campion’s beachscapes, Hito Steyerl’s technologised dystopias, the wry delusions of Ivan Vladislavic’s protagonist in The Restless Supermarket – it stands alone, as novel as it is ambitious. In an era of rushed reductionism, of images as marketing device, this is complexity writ large, profuse and sensate. And while there is bleakness here, there is also light.

The cases of Mthethwa and Subotzky are, of course, vastly different. Both raise the risks of conflating artists’ characters with the meanings of what they make, threatening to pin their production to a single component of identity (for instance, race or sex). But art, because it affronts, provokes and inspires, may also propel issues onto the public agendas, whether solicited or not. Recent occurrences, including the debate over the public exhibition of Mthethwa’s work, and the emergence of powerful new artworks that reflect their makers’ sense of inculpation, are reminders of this. They foreground the potential of South African artists to erase or to bear witness; to past crimes, present delusions, and their rippled portents for the future. DM

Rebecca Hodes is a medical historian based at the University of Cape Town.

Photo: A view of Mikhael Subotzky’s WYE, at the Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg. Photo: R. Hodes, March 2017

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