'Chafe' - Mark Wilby at the South African Museum
by Paul Edmunds
The observer affects the observed. This rings true across all disciplines, from science to sociology. When embarking upon his "artistic engagement", Mark Wilby was forced to confront this fact. 'Chafe', as he has called this project, engages with the predicaments of museum presentation in the controversial Khoisan Room at the South African Museum. Wilby's work is to be found in the room that was formerly home to the controversial San diorama, which was closed earlier this year due to criticism levelled at the idealised, ahistorical and dehumanising nature of the exhibit. Despite this, from the time of its establishment in the 1960s, this diorama has been by far the museum's most popular attraction.
Wilby chose to focus on the "karretjie people" or "travelaars" of the Karoo. "Rootless, placeless, property-less, the so-called 'karretjie people' are the nomads or the gypsies of the Karoo," he writes. These itinerant people, distant relatives of the San, are typically seen atop a makeshift cart with car tyres, pulled by weary donkeys and laden with the family's possessions, including a knock-down shelter of wood and corrugated iron. Wilby notes how they, like European gypsies, are viewed with a mixture of romantic curiosity and suspicion. Increasingly, under pressure from encroaching urbanisation and modern material culture, these people are settling down, mostly on the fringes of small Karoo towns.
Aside from a video which was not operational at the time of my visit and several wall-mounted photographs, 'Chafe' takes place in already existing museum display cases. The first intervention is lengthily entitled Anthropologists Use Artefacts to Define the Cultural Patterns that Characterise Society. A series of black and white photographs are displayed amid a collection of cheap plastic toys, a worn donkey bridle and several lifecasts of hands, presumably those of karretjie people. These are queasily life-like and obviously fake at the same time. They repeat gestures first seen in the accompanying photographs. A pair of hands holds the donkey bridle in a pose taken from an adjacent photo which shows an old man holding the bridle up, his stationary donkey-cart behind him. In another, a child holds tokens collected from chip packets, and his gestures is repeated by casts. Wilby realises that he can never be an objective observer; both he and the subject project a fiction of their choosing. By allowing the subjects to pose so obviously, and presenting the work in so self-conscious a fashion, Wilby acknowledges this position. The title of the work draws attention to this fact: that there is no way to view this objectively, that even so innocent an item as a mute artefact can be use to construct any desired fiction.
He scrutinises this further in The Museum Diorama Attempts Objectivity. A large display case is filled by what at first seems like an enormous abstract sculpture. One's eyes, frantically searching for clues, soon put together this construction of struts, surfaces, materials and detritus. Complete with heavy handrail and steps leading down, it depicts a section of a large pedestrian bridge seen from above. Against one side (or the bottom in this case), a large sheet of weathered plastic forms a mound, perhaps a temporary shelter. Broken bottles, discarded shoes and cigarette butts litter the form in a typical scene of urban decay. When you eventually piece things together, it is extremely convincing and not a very attractive place. Disquietingly, though, the tufftread floor of the bridge shines with glitter, calling attention to its artifice. It was only on my second look at the piece that I realised the weathered galvanised iron handrail is really cleverly painted masonite, and the heavy bolts you can see are no more than light wooden constructions. In all of its apparent veracity, this is no more than a clever, and painstaking, illusion, an element in the diorama's fiction. "Objectivity" is just around the corner from "objectification".
In another museum case Wilby has installed a work entitled Aspiration and Inspiration as Agents of Alteration. Here he addresses the pressures and friction which result where divergent cultural traditions meet. Three colour photographs show three people, presumably travelaars who have settled in urban areas, posing as figures from popular culture. A woman sitting on a platform sings an Yvonne Chaka Chaka song, a man plays air guitar à la Steve Hofmeyr, and a woman poses Jacki Chan-style on railway lines at dusk. Below is a photograph of the Karoo landscape, presumably around Leeu-Gamka where Wilby focused his project. The bottom of the display case is home to dirt, broken glass, discarded shoes, bedsprings and other jetsam which speaks of urban poverty and hints at the struggle to come to grips with an unfamiliar lifestyle. The romantic aspirations of the protagonists are pitted against the grime and decay of urbanisation. This area of friction is where the project gets its name, hinting at the irritation and harsh juxtapositions that occur where these disparate cultures encounter one another.
In the 'Leeu-Gamka Series' montages contrast images of roads, intersections and travelaars with paper dolls, illustrations from children's books and plastic toys. The romance of the open road and travel is as tenuously related to harsh reality as are the idealised, impossible worlds evoked by unnaturally perfect illustrations. Another series of photographs depicts what appears to be a rundown, weather-beaten miniature diorama of South African urban life.
Wilby poses an interesting question. By acknowledging the tools and devices of his documentation, does he provide a more accurate picture of his subject? In doing this does he avoid "objectification" and approach "objectivity" when depicting this culture in transition? Important for the success of his project is the fact that he acknowledges the ambiguity of the situation, the mixture of romance and suspicion, pathos and progress. The detritus he has collected alludes to myriad issues around urbanisation and settlement. Recurrent motifs such as shoes, mattress springs, toys and broken glass all reveal the tension between tradition and modernity, settlement and nomadism. Both, it appears, promise reward, but this comes at a cost.
Until January 21 2002
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