Reframing the victim as the victor
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Conceptual artist Belinda Blignaut’s exhibition BLOWN– -- CINDERELLA IS PISSED: ART THAT REFRAMES THE VICTIM AS VICTOR is at Blank Projects, Woodstock until May 18. ANG LLOYD reviews.
THE victimisation of women has dominated news headlines for months, one of the most recent being the sexual harassment of women students at Wits University. Now, more than ever, South Africans are called to question our so-called “culture of violence”, and Cape Town conceptual artist, Belinda Blignaut, is doing just that.
Her latest exhibition is an investigation into social phenomena that affect many South Africans, especially women: violence, constraint, and façades. What’s most remarkable, however, is that Blignaut has used her art to transcend her own “victimhood” – of having a gun pointed at her – and, in so doing, she has reclaimed her sense of self, her strength. Which should inspire every South African, women in particular, to not only protest the violence, but to also transform it into personal power.
Her Blown showcase is a collection of work from the 1990s, in addition to more recent creations. This is only Blignaut’s second solo exhibition: her first was in 1993. Her 15-year disappearance from the art scene is attributed to her early success “terrifying” her. Her re-emergence is a result of being shot during a hijacking in Johannesburg.
It is this violent incident that pushed Blignaut back into creating, and for her, her art is “a way of processing and a way of protesting (violence)”. She adds that one of her earliest works, Body, Machine, Weapon was significant for her, as she now explores the same themes in Blown, particularly “the way we adapt; that constant restoration, loss and survival; the maps of violations, and the sustaining of life”.
One of her works, in particular, tackles Blignaut’s personal survival and adaptation. It’s essentially a bullet-riddled chunk of metal emblazoned with red paint that reads “Cinderella is Pissed”. A set of images on her website shows Blignaut, gun in hand, shooting sheets of metal from a distance.
When asked to describe the feeling of having a gun in hand versus having a gun pointed at her, she responds, “When I first showed gunshot works in the 1990s, friends did the shooting for me, under my instruction. After having taken a bullet many years later, I had a strong desire to remake the works doing the shooting myself. I was pissed off. It was about the act of claiming the emotional territory and subverting it”.
With violence, her work also communicates her body’s intensely visceral exploration of “thinking and processing life”. All of her works offer personal catharsis, with some being more difficult to make than others.
A series of work, titled Scarry Scarry Night, forced her to “push through to a place where discomfort or endurance almost becomes my medium”. In this series, she cuts herself, dripping globules of her blood on to paper, which then form phrases like, “It’s only skin. It’s almost too soon to talk about the latest piece in the series, but I want to try. It’s called Love’s Secret Domain, a full page of blood from my body on to paper. It’s a most intimate and heartfelt work.
The intention here is more protest for less violence, for more tolerance of the “other”, and difference. In my mind, it’s saying ‘look at all the violence… how the media is so full of it, that a simple drawing in my blood pressed on to paper straight from my body can’t be seen as a violent act, but more like a plea to stop and think about what we’re doing to each other, and the world’. In my mind, it’s not very different from poetry or a song”.
One of her favourite mediums to work with is nail polish, along with bubblegum. Her series, Paradisiac, has images of her with collapsed, sticky bubbles covering most of her face. As with her blood-based works, there is, what she terms, “abodyness”. Bubblegum has a “skin-like quality” and, when combined with her face, embodies a sense of transformation. It also has an erotic charge to it, as there’s a dirtiness and vulgarity to the pink, used bubbles. According to Blignaut, there’s a fair amount of fetishism in many of her pieces, which she says is “undoubtedly an investigation into sexuality, power and the complexity of our psychological make-up”.
Paradisiac also deals with constructs and façades, which many women can relate to: “We are so good at concealing the natural body in an attempt to be more perfect, that to be confronted with the sticky, messy, burst gum bubble is almost an act of defiance, while at the same time, a fragile layer of skin”.
At times, Blignaut’s work can seem a little obscure and cerebral, but her overall message emanates from a deeply personal, primal space. Her art is more than an aesthetic: it has a strong social message, which intends to cause discomfort, and ultimately discourse. As she puts it, “I want to invite the viewer to feel and think. It’s important to me that the works provide no one answer, but are rather left open to individual experience”.
Many South Africans experience violence – her work asks us to question it, and ultimately reframe the victim, as victor.
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