Apartheid & Art
Aug 15, 2014
In many ways I am a terrible artist: generally speaking, I genuinely dislike art museums. The walls in which the art is contained feels like a formidable barrier from the public- the community to which it belongs. These walls are wrought with privilege. In my mind, art must be democratized, making it accessible to all. It should be pouring onto the streets, encircling all of us. Art should be shared, it should be all of ours, it cannot belong to the elite few who have the privilege to both own and dictate what “high art” is by labeling and defining it with a price tag.
As an artist I dream about movements, about sharing with others, of building community- and healing community with art. Art is meant to breathe, to live, to cry, to laugh, to love- and in that process, aid all of us in doing the same. Art is the universal language that unites us all.
Earlier this week I wrote about the emotions I was circling while visiting one of the wineries, La Mott, near Cape Town. The blog was centralized on race, institutionalized racism, and privilege. Today I write from the South African National Gallery in Cape Town while grappling with an incredibly poignant contemporary exhibition titled, “Brave New World”: 20 Years of Democracy, which focuses on apartheid.
Next to the exhibition is an introduction by the museum:
After enduring centuries of physical and mental subjugation South Africans claimed their hard-fought freedom on April 27th, 1994 with the first ever democratic election. This new found liberty prompted a concentrated effort to confront head-on the wrongs of the apartheid past. The mission was to forge a collective conviction that would seal in ink the sentiments of the majority of South African people and to be reflected in the new constitution:
“All South Africans are born free and equal in dignity and rights. No individual or group shall receive privileges or be subjected to discrimination, dominance or abuse on the grounds of race, color, language, gender or creed, political or opinion, birth or other status”
(Bill of Rights- Article 1, Draft Chapter 2 of the Constitution of South Africa, 1993).
The adoption of the Constitution in 1996 proposed a major political and social transformation of South African society, but as early as 1990 the South African National Gallery began the process of transformation by reviewing its acquisitions policy. The revisions gained major impetus with the release of Nelson Mandela. It paved the way for a proactive approach in enriching its Permanent Collection by including works by individuals and communities that were perviously marginalized.
“Brave New World”: 20 Years of Democracy, presents a selection of works from the Permanent Collection acquired between 1994 and 2014. Consisting of a broad range of artistic disciplines these works are placed in conversation with one another to offer multi-layered insights into South Africa’s past and present. They serve as an important gauge to assess whether we are upholding the principles of Democracy and the Constitution of this country.
As I stand, pace, and sit in front of the various pieces I find myself awestruck by the art, and the various artists’ ability to engage, teach and educate all who take the time to visit, observe and listen. The pieces may tell various renditions of the same stories, or perhaps we simply hear them with a different ear, but the important piece is in recognizing that they are speaking to us... they are finding articulation where words seem to fall short.
Three pieces spoke to me bombastically. In the first gallery space there is a mixed media piece by Dan Halter titled, “Don’t Know What to Believe Anymore”. In the piece Dan took a map of Zimbabwe and meticulously spliced and interwove a list of the names of the farms seized by the government. This is further interwoven with a shredded copy of George Orwell's Animal Farm. In the middle of the overlaid weaving, through various tones, spells out: no one is perfect. As you move closer to the piece you see that the artist has intentionally left certain text unwoven, drawing attention to the displaced words or phrases:
Starving to Death
All Animals Are Equal
Nothing to Eat
Without stepping within inches of the piece, one would miss the opportunity to see and hear the artists covert message- sent in a whisper. I strain my eyes to unveil further details, secrets and clues left by the artist. I overstepped the museum boundary line, and was softly asked by a staff member to step back. If only they knew... I was just trying to listen, listen with great seriousness to the piece, to the artist, to the history, to the pain. I will never be able to fully understand the history of the nation and its people, but I will always listen and will always actively invite the opportunity to learn, and stand in solidarity for the healing and advancement of humanity. After all, no one is perfect.
The second body of work that I found myself captivated by was a series of comic like drawings on ink and paper by Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) depicting the AIDS pandemic. Zapiro uses humor and wit to call into question the role that all stakeholders play in the pandemic. These simple drawings are direct, succinct, and powerful. There is no ambiguity in the artists pointing of fingers. What I find fascinating is that he points multiple fingers back at all of us while concurrently evoking deep rooted empathy.
Lastly, as I entered the back room of the exhibition I felt the air rush out of my lungs. There stood a fifteen plus foot statue by Mary Sibande titled “The Reign” made from a compilation of fiberglass, iron and fabric. The statue depicts a tremendously strong and virile horse rearing with a rider on back. The horse, bucking, is both strong and perturbed. The rider is made out of the same fiberglass and iron as the horse, also black in color. The woman has a stoic and almost sleep like expression on her face, her skin smooth and reflective.
Her right hand angles out, holding a vermillion blue reign that is bridled around the horses mouth. The blue reigns match the extensive and ornate colonial style dress the woman is wearing- ruffles and yards of fabric nearly reaching the floor. The juxtaposition of materials and the sheer size of the piece leaves viewers with a visceral response. I’ve sat in the side room with this piece for the past thirty minutes or so, and every viewer appears to linger the longest with her- waiting for her to tell her story. However, after some many minutes most turn and leave her, often with a quizzical expression on their face.
Why are her eyes closed? Why is she in a vermillion blue colonial dress? Why is her horse bucking? Why is the horse scared? How has she not fallen off? Will she fall off? I guess this lady, a true lady, will never tell her secret.
Will you tell yours?