The Obsolete Body
In line with the theme of the Fragmented Figure Conference the paper asks three questions:
I am going to approach these questions through the work of selected artists. Naturally, given my provenance, these will pre-eminently be South African artists, but I do need to cast around for a certain benchmark. After all, South Africa has several identities: a developing country; a former colony; a place on the margin; ‘flavour-of-the-month’ ; an African country/a country in Africa – as such, it is not much different from other English-speaking enclaves – say Nigeria, or Kenya. The point is that normative issues are impossible outside of a globalized context.
For the philosopher and theatre manager Bojana Kunst1 the last century was marked by a disintegration of bodily structure. Artists outdid each other in remaking their own bodies, as did Orlan, or, in the case of the Chapman brothers, remaking other people’s bodies, justifying this intervention with statements such as,
In conversation with Robert Rosenblum they said they were ‘obsessed with the failed attempt at producing objects with a vertiginous obscenity’.2
As well as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Australian artists Julie Rrap and Patricia Piccinni also remake the human form in mutant or idealized manner. This excoriating process is not interesting in itself, but is mentioned here to highlight Kunst’s notion that in contemporary art the human body has become the obsolete body. In her words, ‘The body is becoming obsolete, a thing denoted as incompetent, dysfunctional, unreliable, inefficient, a loser compelled to eventually surrender the battle with machinery.’ 3 In its fragmented state, Kunst argues,
Orlan’s ongoing ‘self-portrait’ is not concerned with halting or negating the ageing process (like most other instances of plastic surgery); in wanting to remake herself with the forehead of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the lips of Boucher’s beauty from the painting Europa, and the goddess’s chin from Botticelli’s Birth of Venus she critiques the notion of art’s masterpieces using her own face as her canvas.
So after that less than brief introduction and ‘scene setting’, let me return to my first question: what happens to notions of the body when the human subject is confronted by trauma occasioned by violence and enduring abnormality?
Jill Bennett of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, as a writer and curator, has worked with issues of loss and trauma and the way in which these are communicable across regional, cultural, and transnational divides. Quoting the anthropologist Veena Das, Bennett wants to ‘Re-enter this scene of devastation to ask how one should inhabit such a world that has been made strange through the desolating experience of violence and loss.’ 5
Bennett notes that this ‘scene of devastation’
Bennett argues that Das
With that disclaimer in mind then, I take up a discussion of the work of Helen Sebidi. In a public seminar7 Helen Mmakgabo Mmapula Sebidi made a connection between her names (which recall her ancestors) and the meaning8 of her paintings. In particular, she commented on the special place that ‘Helen’, as a name that whites could relate to and understand, has in the anthropology of signs, which make sense of the South African experience. We are familiar with the elements of partition which kept a nation apart from one another – separate park benches, separate entrances to certain shops, and so on – but we are not always mindful of the extent to which this process succeeded in building mental boundaries.
Allen Feldman, who has produced an ethnographic study of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, sees this ‘naming’ as part of the process of ‘telling’. For him, ‘telling’ practices are the ‘oldest organizer of the politically visible and politically unseen’.9 Of course he was writing about Northern Ireland, but the effects of enforced separation in the two countries are similar.
As a woman between two cultures, Sebidi’s English and Tswana names are politically covalent. She can use one or the other to be ‘seen’ in different circumstances. She relates this special somatic state of belonging and not belonging to a process she calls ‘fetching Europe’. The deeper levels of this idiom are revealed by attention to her remarks regarding her painting entitled Mangwano Ottshara Thipa Kabhaleng (‘the mother holds the sharper side of the knife’ ) (fig. 1). Sebidi says ‘in tradition, when we say the mother holds the knife on the sharper side it means, where it is harder, where it is burning – that is where the mother goes, not the father’. 10
The central episode of the work dramatizes the building of the nation: it shows a pale, spirit-like woman pulling on a loose-linked chain behind which an ox wagon can be seen. The artist explains that the
The man, ‘friend of animals’, is clearly visible leading a sheep by the nose. Without bitterness, Sebidi says that men are only interested in animals, that is, in amassing wealth, and that women have had to carry the burdens of life single-handedly.
Her term ‘fetching Europe’ is thus a meditation on the postcolonial condition. It points to a paradoxical relationship between Europe as the ‘naming agent’ 12 and Africa as the named. Sebidi says the ‘European has this way of developing things, they say this is Xhosa, Ndebele, Tswana and others. So far as we are concerned, if you speak Tswana, you’re still African.’ 13
For Sebidi, the personal is the political and her work weaves familiar domestic concerns into the corpus of admissible subject matter – lobolo (bride price), the marriage ring, children, and everywhere, as she says, ‘life cut in pieces’. Saying also that money is useless, Sebidi says that in her culture ‘we have to have something like land’. Woven into all her meditations on gender and racial issues is the central theme of the rootlessness occasioned by landlessness. Alongside her recovery of domestic myths Sebidi is pleading for a redistribution of the land.
Her painting MookaMedi wa juanong (‘modern president’) takes up the issue of African tribal authority and points to the unresolved issues of the traditional, signified by the cow-hide shield, and the foreign. This last attribute is signalled by mere ‘book learning’ and, to a certain degree, by the material used in the message – that is, acrylic paint. But for Sebidi the meshing of cultures always entails a loss. As she says, ‘you have to drop yourself, drop your African way of living’.
The pattern of ethnicity and ascribed power, so important to an understanding of the violence in South Africa, promotes a reading of terror and incomprehension in the torn halves of Sebidi’s portraits (fig. 2). Surely, they seem to ask, class antagonisms would have directed greater fury at the ‘oppressor’ than fellow petitioners for relief?
Leroy Vail notes that ethnicity has not developed uniformly among southern African peoples, despite the fact that all have been subject to the same oppression and administration. Consequently he debunks the idea that colonial ‘divide and rule’ tactics are solely to blame. However important they were in giving the ‘tribe a real, but specious identity’,14 they do not explain how, in the rest of Africa, tribalism has increased its stranglehold decades after the departure of the colonial administrators.
Even the ‘primordialist’ interpretation of ethnicity, which stresses the psychological benefits of ‘belonging’, is, in Vail’s opinion, insufficient to explain the pervasive ascendancy of the ethnic message. For Vail the answer lies in attention to the basic question of land. This approach gives an account of the ‘ethnic’ divisions among the whites of South Africa where Afrikaans speakers are referred to as the ‘white tribe’. This epithet is a reflection of the fact that Afrikaner nationalism rose out of the ‘poor white’ problem in the 1930s and 1940s.
For blacks, and for some whites, as control over the land slipped from their grasp so too did control over their lives decline. As pressing as the perceived need for land was, or is, it is black families who have suffered the most. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as landless Afrikaans families trekked to the margins of towns and cities, efficient recruitment agencies bussed in thousands of black men to live in single-sex hostels and compounds. Without male migrant labour the mines and South Africa’s industrialization would not have been accomplished.
It is the sons and daughters of these workers who feel the loss of the land most acutely. Helen Mmakgabo Mmapula Sebidi was dispossessed on two accounts – once by her father’s incorporation into a poorly paid, revolving serfdom, and again by the former South African government’s relocation policies, which forced more people onto the same portion of land. As she says ‘in our culture we have to have something like land’.
Until very recently South African art was, in the main, an art scripted by the state. It was full of scopic regimes of influx control, ‘pass books’, ‘administration boards’, mielie boards, meat boards, and, of course, segregated education and performing arts councils, not to mention notions of ‘black art’. Although the policies of the former government were designed to benefit whites, the ignominy of that system benefited no one. The system was truly dysfunctional and impoverished all within its reach, white and black alike. As we look at the inner city of Johannesburg, as Stephen Hobbs and others have done, or the outer city shack lands of all South African cities, as Zwelethu Mthethwa has done, we know that, at some stage, we will be looking at some final retribution. From this perspective we realize that each specific area of individual focus is also a site for renegotiation.
Zwelethu Mthethwa is also known for his evocative pastel paintings, but it is his photography I wish to focus upon. His dignifying colour photographs interrogate notions of the body, identity, and what Octavio Zaya calls, in respect of his recent work, signs of ‘wealth, beauty and elegance’.15 These images have less a ‘taken’ quality (in the sense that the photographer ‘takes’ an image away from the subject), than a quality of having been given. Mthethwa’s sitters are not reluctant, nor are they accomplices. They reveal almost all of what is there to be seen in their bedrooms, and appear to participate in the making of the photograph (fig. 3).
This is not surprising, as Mthethwa confirms that he lets his sitter arrange him- or herself. This has led a number of commentators (Octavio Zaya, Michael Godby, Thomas Mulcaire) to draw comparisons with the Malian photographer, Seydou Keita, who lets his clients choose props and different poses. A difference is that Mthethwa is not a commercial photographer – he does not have clients. Importantly, like Keita, he is also not driven by a documentary impulse. Michael Godby has commented that Mthethwa’s choice of colour photography over the assumed ‘factual objectivity’ of black and white photography ensures ‘individual human values’. 16
Allen Feldman has written ‘Social space and somatic spaces are both terrains of disorder, and desired objects of visual control requiring vectoring and boundaries – the rationality of societal margins.’ 17 Mthethwa is uniquely placed to penetrate both these spatial states, not only because of his rhizomatic affinity with his Nguni-speaking subjects, but also because of the constructed nature of his project.
Mthethwa is motivated by a desire to restore dignity to people who, because of their often jobless status, are treated as victims, or ciphers in a poverty-datum survey.18 But Mthethwa takes time to work with his subjects, often returning time and time again to photograph the same socio-personal environment. The informal settlements are in many senses sealed spatial entities. Access roads and physical layout all reinforce this sense of separation from formality. Mthethwa’s photographs rupture this border, bringing a dislocating, hybrid chic to a wider audience.
The scrap packaging with which residents plaster the inside wall of their two-room shacks, is one aspect of this confrontation (fig. 4). The self-confidence of his sitters is a more important element in the drama that his photographs collectively animate. His realism is not passive or calculated as a style. There is no satire or reflective mimesis in the tradition of, say, Honoré Daumier. Instead, Mthethwa’s works match the perception of what should be seen, because that is what he knows. This is the basis of what Godby has called the ‘transcendent and irresistible energy’ 19 of his portrait photographs.
So, and in respect of my second question, what are the prospects for normalization, in personal/individual terms, as well as more generally?
I have tried to show through the ‘torn halves’ of Sebidi’s work and the constructed nature of Mthethwa’s photographs a genuine attempt to ‘stage a reencounter with otherness’. This is Bennett’s test for regeneration and a ‘re-making’ of a world that has been made strange by war, violence, and social trauma.
Pain, suffering, or personal loss pose huge problems for representation. Jill Bennett suggests that for the period that this pain is endured, ‘the traumatic event is beyond comprehension’, that it is ‘inimical to description within normal language’.20
The author Jorge Semprun is reported to have thought about his two years spent in the Buchenwald concentration camp for more than fifty years before writing about his experiences there. No doubt others have remained silent. There have been traumatic events closer to home so cataclysmic in their effects that they are only now receiving attention. For instance, the assassination of the Durban academic Richard Turner in the late 1970s; his daughter Jan has spent her life coming to terms with her loss, and recently she has completed a documentary film on the event.
More recently, in 1990, a bomb hidden in a computer annihilated Wilma Cruise’s nephew, Nicholas. As she will be speaking at this conference there is no need for me to recount how the making of the Three Shades helped her negotiate her loss.
The Legacy Project is an extensive web-based archive featuring the work of several hundred artists organized under three main ‘virtual exhibitions’. The project was started by Clifford Chanin, whose interest was aroused because during his tenure at the Rockefeller Foundation he encountered numerous artworks that addressed what he calls ‘the absence and losses experienced by societies as a result of past tragedies, including war, genocide, ethnic conflict, and population displacement’.21
Chanin aimed to ‘create a global dialogue based on the common language of society’s shared inheritance of loss, or “legacy of absence”’. The Legacy Project calls on activists, scholars, educators, students, and art audiences to help shape global values of exchange and mutual recognition of twentieth-century traumas, and human rights.
Apart from a visual archive of the work of some five hundred and seventy-nine artists (of which currently only five are South African – chosen by Salah Hassan of Cornell University) the site provides a scholarly, literary, and creative archive.
Let us take this work by Berni Searle from her Colour Me series that is profiled on the Legacy Project. What are the ongoing consequences for people ‘coloured’ by apartheid? Chanin believes that ‘forgetting the past, risks repeating it, silence is therefore impossible’.
Searle believes that by colouring herself (her body) she can resist racial classification.
Her work points to art as a transaction. Chanin likens this process to the building of a ‘moral imagination’. However, no sooner have we taken the moral high ground and dismissed ‘what they did’ in the past and replaced it with ‘what we would have done’ than we are again confronted with human folly and weakness.
At a lecture presented on 2 October 2003 at the University of California in Los Angeles Karina Eileraas asked what it meant to think about lesbian participation in Aids activism in New York alongside the ‘bigger’ issues of slavery, the Holocaust, political violence in Chile, and 9/11. She answered by saying that personal or private feelings do matter in global contexts, and that they do so without ‘presuming to equate them[selves] with other instances of geopolitical trauma’.22 She argued that she had had to grapple with ‘the ways sexual trauma and queer trauma can be relegated to invisibility by distinctions between private and public trauma . . . and by structures of homophobia’. 23
In making Barend de Wet (fig. 5), a copy of a copy of a copy, I have tried to draw attention to the signifying elements of skin, skin colour, and its adjectival correlates – skin deep, thick skinned – in an obvious reference to the psychic legacy of apartheid. More importantly, however, I have attempted a meditation on masculinity and ways of rendering the male form unthreatening.
In Geoff Mead’s work on profeminist masculinity (he is a policeman by profession), he constructs what he calls an ‘auto-ethnography, “a messy text” of epiphanal moments’.24 These include times spent with other men in development workshops and other structured experiences, times which have led him to realize that men are emotionally crippled by ruling, stereotypical notions of masculinity. Consequently he advocates (with Norman Denzin) that forms of representation
Since there are supposed to be two sides to the ‘remaking men’ endeavour, the new-age-ethno poets on one hand versus anti-reductionist, anti-Jungians on the other, David Tacey asks:
In ‘remaking’ Barend de Wet, I approve of his rebirth as an innocent male adult.
So finally, in what ways does this ‘normalization’ or healing process manifest itself?
I have tried to draw parallels between the ‘obsolete body’, the broken landscape, and transformative strategies. South Africa is currently in the throes of a cleansing process, manifested as a renaming process. The power of enunciatory speech is well known. In the USA many public places, especially schools, were renamed after prominent African Americans.27 More recently, European Investment Fund chief Francis Carpenter wanted to rename Waterloo station because ‘the French may get offended by reminders of British victories such as the historic routing of Napoleon in 1815 at Waterloo’.28 He seriously believes that Lord Nelson’s victory over the French at Trafalgar in 1805 will subvert attempts to unite European youth.
Republican Senators made the CNN news by re-naming ‘French fries’ (the standard American term for chipped potatoes) freedom fries.
In South Africa airports suddenly lost their ‘names’. Gone were Jan Smuts and DF Malan International. The towns of Pietersburg, Louis Trichard, and Potgietersrust, which had been named after Afrikaner leaders, became Polokwane, Makhoda, and Mokopane.
Although there is some resistance to Pretoria being renamed Tshwane,29 residents of Verwoerdburg30 proactively changed the name of their all-white town to Centurion. Street names in Johannesburg’s Newtown cultural precinct were renamed in honour of black artists and performers. According to Monica Spiridon,
Following Spiridon, these place-name changes are either purely mental (a conceived space) or empirically definable (a perceived space). She notes Foucault’s idea of our ability to conceptualize ‘heterotopias’ which are
Those in power have the power to name and rename – what David Skilton of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, calls translatio imperii33 (fig 6). It is an upside down world, always being remade for new audiences and new technologies.
The domba ceremony is important to this paper because it has given rise to the production of sculpted objects (fig. 7). These ‘ritualized objects’ follow human (and animal) forms and over the last several decades have been avidly sought out by collectors as sculpture. I am not going to spend too much time on this social institution, but as I will be profiling the ceramic works of an artist who works in this genre, I need to set out some contextual information. Nettleton34 notes that these objects, usually clay figurines, have always been used in the vusha and domba initiation ceremonies. They are referred to as metano, or objects for showing during musevhetho. Musevhetho is one of the four stages of preparation for adult (married) life that all Vhavenda girls must undergo. This ritual involves girls of between seven and eleven years of age and is focused on the perceived social benefits of secrecy. These teachings are communicated through milayo, which may consist of songs, mimes, or actions. During domba the girls are ‘shown’ the metano figures. Great emphasis is placed on secrecy and no girl may tell anyone else about events at the ritual. A single cut with a razor blade on the thigh (scarification, or u tsika) indicates that an individual has passed through this process.
The initiation school is a general preparation for marriage, and girls receive instruction in the most intimate processes. Mavhavhe (or burning), for instance, is a complicated ritual enacted during domba and necessitates the climbing of a forked tree by each novice. The master of the domba places straw around the base of the tree (representing pubic hair) and sets fire to it. This, in Blacking’s words,
All manner of insects, animals, birds – even ritual thrashing with banana leaves – can be imbued with special significance and there is no doubt that initiation ceremonies act to bolster the position of traditional leaders in Vhavenda society. Not only have the ritual processes survived Christianizing processes, they have also survived modern cultural influences (TV, radio, organized sport, and religion). Although the power of traditional leaders (mahosi) has been on the decline since the military defeat of Mphephu at Dzata in the nineteenth century, 36 the Report of the Commission into Vahosi Affairs, 1991, showed that circumstances have prevented the devolution of kingly powers along ‘traditional’ lines. Consequently there has been a growing need to bolster kingly status. Let us look at two instances of artistic intervention.
In translation, Richard Mndanganeni Mangogoma’s sculpture Roneta Mahosi (fig. 8) means ‘we are tired chiefs’. The artist states that the piece refers to the famous incident in which a local chief (Mphaphuli) was accused of trying to regain his kingly power through ritual murder (some three hundred and twelve people were murdered in the decade up to 1995 in one area alone).37 The piece is carved from a solid block of tassel berry (antidesma venosum) and shows three heads. The large head portrays a senior male (beard). A smaller figure behind represents the past. Being a memory (‘function of the mind’ ), this figure is unavailable to the principal subject – as the artist said, ‘one can’t make use of thoughts’. The hand of this figure represents a disembodied head, and, by virtue of the representation of living skin and hair, ‘part of a living person’. This is a reference to the ‘day of the skull’ incident in 1990 when dissident Youth Congress members paraded around the streets of Thohoyandou with a skull on a stick.
Teacher by Noria Mabasa (fig. 9) attempts to unravel the levels of meaning surrounding HIV/Aids and the commonly held belief that sexual intercourse with a virgin can affect a cure. Chris McGreal believes this bizarre belief spread south from central Africa38 and the South African police have recorded ‘221 072 sexual offences in 1999 against persons aged under 17 years’. Bowley and Pitcher write that the
In this work, it is as if Mabasa – as a single parent, as a woman in a patriarchal society, as a member of the rural poor, and as an artist – has re-entered ‘this scene of devastation to ask how one should inhabit such a world that has been made strange through the desolating experience of violence and loss.’ 40
The ‘fragmented figures’ of Mabasa’s Untitled (2004) (fig. 10) could have their provenance in the domba ritual called gombalume which is said to symbolize sexual union. An initiate would hop up onto a drum, crouch and shuffle with her feet. According to Blacking,
Noria Mabasa’s vision is a comprehensive one (fig. 11). It takes in the gamut of being alive, being human, in overlapping worlds that are not simple. Her figures are simultaneously cute and lethal. Richly homoeothermic (warm blooded) they simultaneously indulge and deny their roots in history, in pain and economic necessity. This almost fetishistic disavowal42 helps them to maintain their composure in the face of the fragmentation of a modernizing world. She has, with Gleb Lebedev, reversed the Bakhtinian chronotope, and prioritized place over time and emphasized the memory and the spirit of place. 43 Her fragments mimic her world, which she makes whole by reference to tradition, knowing that assertions of tradition are also ‘always responses to the new’. 44 In quiet sympathy with the European notion of ‘less is more’ her recuperated figures counteract the current ‘obsolete body’ tendency, and assert the aristocracy of a poetic presence. As she says, ‘It is not my work; my dreams say, “You must do this.”’ 45
Gavin Younge is Professor in the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
|The Obsolete Body Issue 8|