'Male Order' and Brett Murray's 'White Like Me' at the DAG
by Virginia Mackenny
Two shows that made a synchronistic appearance at the Grahamstown Festival have done the same double turn in Durban. Brett Murray's 'White Like Me' and 'Male Order', a show on masculinity curated by Carol Brown from the DAG's permanent collection, seem to have struck up a travelling symbiotic relationship. Mutually revealing they engage terrain that, in a postcolonial feminist era, is not particularly popular representing, as it does, the historical hegemonies of whiteness and masculinity.
In 'White Like Me' Brett Murray wades in to the tricky swamp of racial identity with little reverence. It is precisely this that makes the show. Instead of skirting the issues Murray engages them with characteristic wit and humour - calling a spade a bloody shovel and treating us all as equal aliens.
'Whiteness', like heterosexual masculinity, in American and European academic discourse is deemed an invisible category due to its hegemonic status as the norm. 'Blackness', like femaleness or homosexuality amongst other things, is identifiable as different from this norm and therefore is easily remarked upon as 'other'. Ivor Powell, however, pertinently points out in his catalogue essay that whiteness in South Africa is not an invisible category - highlighted by the shame of apartheid whiteness that is marked by guilt, anxiety, fear and its own consciousness of a minority position.
Since the shift in power heralded by the 1994 elections, whiteness has, in this country, become a beleaguered condition - one often afraid to speak up for itself for fear of being called racist. It is here where Murray steps in. On one of his white mutant comic 'heads', complete with 'ears' and a hole where the forehead might be, set between two other identical ones, and labelled Mbeki, Mugabe and Me, he prints a question in red text. "If I can't throw stones at bad government because I am white� what can I say?"
Referencing old 1950 New Yorker, Punch and, the arch-conservative, Spectator cartoons Murray employs the language of nostalgia in large, softly polished Perspex pieces to evoke a world previously comfortable in its position of authority. Murray re-presents this same world with an ironic revisioning that engages with the shifts in power that have taken place since then.
Fanon's controversial answer to the question 'what does a black man want?' was 'to be a white man'. Fanon noted that the better the black person speaks 'white' the better s/he will be judged (by whites), but this in turn alienates them from their own culture while not securing them a place in white culture. The tables have turned, but the results are still the same when whites attempt to shed their own cultural heritage in preference for something with greater street credibility. Adopting black mannerisms and style the dislocations of culture apparent amongst whites with dreads and white rappers is taken to extremes by Murray when a bosomy fifty-something pearl-necklaced white madam from the cocktail circuit says to her formally attired companions: "Yo�white muthafuckers�I am gonna chill wit' my black bruthas and my black sistas in the muthafuckin' ghettos!"
In another work a businessman, reflecting on the diversity of possibilities available to him, now that his hegemony is assailed, enquires of his companion: "Are we the other or the other-other or just another other?".
Highlighting xenophobia and other absurdities Murray utilises a 'mutant head' form as the leitmotif of the show. Its bubblegum colour is clearly not white, despite it carrying the exhibition's title. One work, entitled Pale Mutants, is a series of similarly rounded cut-out forms with holes puncturing their surfaces. Evoking both cartoon faces and curiously comic penile forms, Murray plays the theme of difference and sameness throughout the exhibition hammering home the message when puts two identical stereotypical, 1950s style aliens together - one labelled Us and the other Them.
Next door 'Male Order' displays a remarkable diversity of masculinities given that the entire exhibition is drawn from a single source - the DAG's permanent collection. Carol Brown highlights five areas of concern under the broad headings of 'Power', 'Land', 'Body', 'Identity' and 'Trophies'. By often interlinking and overlapping these categories, she allows for an interrogation of both hegemonic and subordinated masculinities in the South African context. The exhibition layout also encourages such readings highly effectively.
Historically, the exhibition starts with Pierneef's Golden Gate, a good example of Pierneef's propagation of images of an uninhabited South African landscape ripe for colonisation by Afrikaner nationalism. This image is juxtaposed with Clive van den Berg's damaged phallic landscape form that rears up from the sea, with an image of Durban's bluff in the background. The conjunction immediately alerts the viewer to hegemonies and differences within the apparently united front of white South African masculinity, especially given van den Berg's subsequent work with gay identity.
Other alternative masculinities in a South African context are engaged with in Zwelethu Mthethwa's Men and Masculinity Series V. Depicting the interior of a hair salon, with Revlon beauty products for the fashion conscious black male, it sharply contrasts with Santu Mofokeng's photographs of the dispossessed rural poor. David Koloane's painting Workers, with its graffiti damaged surface, is tellingly placed next to Paul Stopforth's 1981 Elegy, a mixed media drawing of a slightly bloated body laid out on the slab, its every contour lovingly traced by the graphite strokes evoking its form. The perpetrators of such crimes of apartheid are close by in Wilma Cruise's version of the Bully Boys. The Three Shades are lumbering, shackled, blunt creatures that in their turn are set up in the vicinity of other reminders of masculine authority. Hentjie van der Merwe's ghostly evocation of British military power, and Robert Hodgins Love of Four Generals remind the viewer that institutions of repression often define masculinity.
In Grahamstown the show was supplemented by Peet Pienaar and Greig Coetzee's performances, on the opening night. Coetzee repeated his Avocado, a 20 minute one-man show, for the Durban leg of the exhibition. At Red Eye a video of the performances was shown and, while a video can never adequately replace a live performance, it is a pity that this has not been included as it added a slightly edgy element to the exhibition.
Both shows set up a mutually supportive dialogue and are well worth the visit.
Durban Art Gallery, 2nd floor, City Hall, Smith Street
Tel: 031 311 2262
Fax: 031 311 2273
Hours: Mon - Sat 8.30am - 4pm, Sun 11am - 4pm