THE SOUTH AFRICAN National Gallery has some interesting exhibitions now on display.
Woman’s Work blurs the boundary between art and craft, an argument that began decades ago at the gallery under Marilyn Martin, but given rejuvenated impetus in this creative showcase of traditional techniques such as knitting, crocheting, weaving and embroidery.
The Our Lady exhibition brings to the fore contentious issues, in particular the question of the moral platitude of art, highlighted and complicated by the theme of revisiting and questioning artistic representations of woman.
In brief, such representations perhaps denigrated woman as such images were steeped in mythology, objectification or puritanical conceptions, yet perhaps such visions are changing for the better.
Then there is Mohau Modisakeng’s photography, film, performance and installation work. As the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist's award last year, it is quite an impressive and thought-provoking show in itself.
The contested space of the Art of Disruptions highlights the politics of power mirrored in the politics of representation, that is, the precarious position of art, such that it is at once reflective of society and is also an individual expression with no Archimedean neutrality or moral high ground.
Rather than focus on the nuanced visual effects on all that is on offer and indeed there are numerous, from the warmth of the tapestries and carpets; the “womb experience” to the woven nylon ropes, beads and string of Igshan Adams, among others, I found the laminated four-page letter of the “our lady” exhibition perhaps the strongest work – if indeed it could be named as such.
Bridget Baker, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Khanyisile Mbongwa, Deborah Poynton, Tracey Rose and Penny Siopis addressing Rooksana Omar (chief executive of Iziko Museums), Ernestine White (acting director of Iziko South African National Gallery) and curators Kirsty Cockerill, Candice Allison and Andrea Lewis demanding that their work be withdrawn from the exhibition.
The reasons cited are the following: The stated aims of the exhibition, namely the empowering and celebration of female capacity and redressing “traditional moral attitudes and male-dominated stereotypes that surround the female form” do anything but.
The letter explains how the exhibition falls short. In brief, it does not reflect the demographics of the country, specifically the lack of black female artists, and in particular the inclusion of Zweletha Mthethwa who stands accused of murdering a particularly vulnerable woman – a sexworker. The case is still pending.
The writers argue that such an inclusion undermines the dignity of Nokaphila Kumalo, the victim of this violent attack, and implicates “the broader erasure of the voices of black woman from our national narratives”.
In solidarity with Sweat, the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force, the statement by Ishtar Lakhani that the “irony of promoting a work of a man accused of murdering a woman as part of an exhibition aimed at empowering woman, is not wasted on us” (The Citizen, November 28, 2016), which is certainly difficult to rebut and a
riposte to the gallery’s claim of fair representation.
So the works were removed, including Mthethwa’s, but also other artists for less obvious reasons (just for being male?).
One wonders if such a letter, now hanging on a wall, loses its “punch” as if it is almost a conceptual art piece, co-opted by the gallery itself. Could it be viewed aesthetically?
Moreover, one wonders if the attention on who makes an artwork, rather than what is made, has been carried to the extreme. Picasso was probably a misogynist, but does that discredit his art?
I think the issues raised by the letter (read: artwork) are, however, relevant and highlight the fact that art is first and foremost about issues related to life proper, rather than simply beautiful objects. As such, the artists who have penned the letter show a high degree of intellectual and ethical savvy, rather than simply buying into the hype of being part of an exhibition, and at the National Gallery to boot! In this respect, much humility is evident.
On the other hand, another artwork or object is created in the process, namely the letter, laminated and pasted on the gallery wall. Impervious to the “aesthetic gaze”, they refuse to be “our ladies”.
l Exhibition information: Iziko South African Museum, 25 Queen Victoria Street.