25 April 2014

South Africa: 20 Years of Democracy Through the Lens of South African Art

interview

In reflecting on 20 years of South Africa's democracy, a group of artists in Johannesburg have tapped into the major themes in our ambient culture to emerge with a fascinating exhibition of artworks that distil some of the key issues dominating our national discourse at this important juncture in South African history.

SACSIS' Fazila Farouk caught up with curator of the exhibition Farieda Nazier at the Ithuba Art Gallery and discovered that violence, censorship, racism, patriarchy and politics are key themes that stood out for the artists.

The exhibition titled "Tension Torsion" was sponsored by the National Arts Council, Ithuba Art Gallery and University of Johannesburg's Centre for Education Rights and Transformation.

Transcript of Interview

FAZILA FAROUK: Welcome to the South African Civil Society Information Service, I'm Fazila Farouk in Johannesburg coming to you this morning from the Ithuba Art Gallery in downtown Johannesburg where we are to talk to the curator of a wonderful exhibition that's been put together to reflect on South Africa's 20 years of democracy.

We're here today to talk to Farieda Nazier, she's a lecturer at the University of Johannesburg and she's the curator of this exhibition and she's going to tell us first - Farieda - a little bit about herself and how it is that she got to put together this exhibition and what her vision was for this exhibition.

Welcome to SACSIS Farieda.

FARIEDA NAZIER: Thank you Fazila.

I as you've said I'm from the University of Johannesburg and I'm a lecturer there but I also, I'm a practicing artist. I'm originally from Cape Town, from the Cape Flats and I feel quite strongly about socio-political issues and psycho-social issues as they reflect a lot of my own experiences.

The exhibition is about 20 years of democracy, but it also goes beyond those 20 years. So into the deeper historical settings of South Africa, and ... .

So, the history of South Africa before democracy?

Yes.

I work a lot with the idea of consequence and trace and memory so historical trajectories and how that ... how those influence where we are now and how those influence our psyche and our physical space in South Africa and where we position ourselves now.

So the overall exhibition is to pull together reflective ideas and reflections of the last 20 years but also beyond, as I said. And it looks to both commemorate but also to critically reflect on specific issues that we're dealing with on a day to day basis.

Tell me who are the artists that you invited to participate. I know you're one of the artists that have put together an installation, but who else has been involved?

The artists would be Gordon Froud, a sculptor and installation artist and he's also from the University of Johannesburg. We've got Avitha Sooful who's from VUT and she's put together this specific installation that we've become part of.

And then we've got Oupa Mokwena and he's also an educator. So there's an interesting synergy in terms of where we all come from, our careers etc., and how we interface with artworks.

So here we are, Farieda, sitting in the middle of spent bullets. So it's a very interesting installation. Can you tell us a little bit about this one? And then lets talk about the other installations as well and the artists that have been ... the artists that have worked on those. What's this one about?

This one is by Avitha Sooful and it's called 'Bite the Bullet' and it's about violence in its broad sense. So I think what is quite interesting about the work is that on the opening night certain people walked in and they immediately associated it to the current trial, the very ... the one that is like big in the media with Oscar Pistorius and they asked me whether it was the crime scene from the Oscar Pistorius case.

Other associations would be Marikana. Those are quite obvious because they're very, very close to where we are now. They're very like close in our memories to what we're experiencing now in terms of news and media. But I think the artist intention is mainly to bring up this idea of violence and 20 years and beyond again.

So she does reference like violence that occurred prior to 1994 but also the perpetuation of that violence into the past 20 years. And then she goes further than that to say that there's five years beyond that or after that there's these unspent bullets.

And we're hopeful, we're very hopeful that they're not going to be spent, but there's this uncertainty as to where we are going as a nation.

So I think that is what she was trying to represent with these five unspent ones, (which) are positioned in a barrel. So there's a play with hope, uncertainty, where are we going, what is happening especially now with the elections, etc.

Its absolutely fascinating. Tell us a little bit about Oupa Mokwena's work.

His work is called 'Our Gnomes' and he plays around with the mythology of ... which according to him is a German or European, broadly European mythology of gnomes, garden gnomes and they're placed in the garden in order to like do the garden work at night.

And then he juxtaposes that with a tokoloshe, which is kind of malevolent and benevolent at the same time. So they're do-gooders, but they also have a very naughty streak to them. So the tokoloshe, for instance, is a little critter or a creature, who, if you leave your dishes at night, he's supposed to do the dishes at night.

But people are quite afraid of him also because he's believed to have a long phallus, which people often say is a tail. So what's interesting about the works just to get back to the overall idea of the works is that what came across throughout the body of work was the phallus... which obviously pertains to patriarchy and this wasn't a planned thing in the beginning.

I think it's just in our collective psyches that we deal with this patriarchal society on a day-to-day basis. So in each of the works somehow the phallus is represented.

Let's talk a little bit about Gordon Froud's work.

Gordon Froud's work is an untitled work and it's taking previously exhibited artworks from a range of artists in South Africa. So they're all South African works and he's commenting on the fact that we are a very censored nation. So the idea of democracy comes through in that work quite strongly.

This idea of freedom of speech that is supposedly practiced in South Africa, but he plays around with the fact that in actual fact there's this artistic landscape and artists in South Africa that have very little freedom of speech in terms of the works that he's drawn on for his major installation.

So, for instance, he's got 'The Spear' which he stretched with ... on a vinyl typed canvas so it shows the tension in the work and the tension that it's created and again that refers to the title of the exhibition, which is Tension Torsion.

And he's got the Madiba sculpture, which he stretched the arms of to like lengths that (are) not so proportionate to the actual sculpture and his got a couple of other works there that have been quite contentious in the past couple of years in that there's been attempts to censor these works. So he's dealing with the idea of censorship.

Censorship.

Yeah.

And let's talk about your work. You have what looks like whips standing up ... upright.

Yeah.

My work is titled 'Nag vannie lang latte', which is translated to night of the long switches and a switch is something that you beat someone with. So it plays around with this mythology of black on white genocide. And if you ... the first word that I can associate to it is fear.

Fear of black uprising against white, which is common in South Africa and it's an old mythology that is based on a prediction by - what is his name now? I've forgotten - Siener van Rensburg. He was an Afrikaans, what is it, soothsayer I suppose, and he predicted that three days after Madiba's death, there would be a huge uprising and whites would be murdered by blacks in South Africa.

And we're still wondering when that's going to happen because Madiba has passed. He obviously didn't mention that name. The prediction occurred 100 years ago almost.

So he spoke in general terms about a leader?

About a great leader who would pass and then three days, there'd be this genocide. So there was a lot of fear last year around Madiba's death that this would happen.

Besides that I prefer dealing with artworks that has got a direct kind of link to my own experiences, and I come from a coloured background. So what is filtered into coloured identity from Afrikaans identity is quite interesting because there was this fear amongst the coloured community in Cape Town that this would happen around 1994 and that whites and coloureds would be murdered by blacks.

So there's this strange hierarchy that is embedded in our kind of thinking and our ideology in South Africa that this hierarchy still exists and that there's fear between different races, different tribes, etc.

So, the exhibition in general seems to have dealt with a wide number of human rights issues. There's racism, there's violence, there's patriarchy.

These are very strong themes that are coming through. But I think tone of the most pressing issues in South Africa is inequality, 20 years after democracy, economic inequality, in particular.

And I have to say having looked at this exhibition and visited many others over the years, it's not something that I see our artists here in South Africa grappling with - this economic inequality. Can you comment on that?

I think that what is difficult with this specific theme is that there's a lot of criticism in the art world and it's called ... it's called poverty porn where people depict or they create or represent poverty in a specific way.

Where it's accessible to tourists, for instance, and that is consumed by tourists or by the rich. And it's seen as a very negative... it's seen as a very negative type of like ... or a very negative artistic field to deal with.

So it's a very sensitive issue within the art world, in my opinion, because often when you speak of things outside of yourself and you comment on things like that it becomes ... it's your interpretation of that and you become an outsider or an other in that artwork. That is just my opinion.

So I ... in terms of my own experiences with art practice, I therefore prefer to steer away from things outside of myself and look at my own history and my own experiences and depict things that are quite personal to me in order to steer away from that othering process.

And again it's about personal experiences, so artists often relate to their own experiences. So, if there's an experience of violence to some extent then that's what's going to come though their work. If there's an experience of fear, then that's in terms of what we've produced here.

So what this exhibition is looking at is like what is your first association, if you think about 20 years of democracy and how would you communicate that association to other people?

How would you explore that in a visual way? And what was interesting is that there's such a dominant theme of patriarchy and of human rights issues and specifically race and specifically censorship and quite strong political connotations.

Farieda, thank you very much for joining us at SACSIS. And thank you to our viewers and listeners for joining us at the South African Civil Society Information Service. And remember if you want more social justice news and analysis, you can get that at our website at sacsis.org.za.

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