Archive: Issue No. 74, October 2003

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Thembinkosi Goniwe

Thembinkosi Goniwe's billboard from 'Returning the Gaze

Marilyn Martin

Marilyn Martin in her office at the South African National Gallery


In black and white
by Kim Gurney

Issues of race took centre stage during September's Michaelis lunchtime lecture series, sounding a vigorous challenge to the South African art establishment to reform while triggering debate about its need to do so.

Artist and theorist Thembinkosi Goniwe fired the first round. Accusing post-apartheid South Africa of having a colonial hangover, Goniwe said racial prejudice was perpetuated by theoretical frames of reference repeatedly used in art discourse. In particular, he said binary terms of discussion obscured complexities and he argued instead for an investigation of the grey areas in between.

Goniwe questioned whether black and white could co-exist in a post-colonial context without subjugation or domination when the system was designed to further white interests. His answer: "We need to rupture white privilege and open up a two-way dialogue. We must all speak to and against each other."

Goniwe underscored his criticism with reference to recent art exhibitions. Citing a show of beadwork from the Eastern Cape, he criticized the South African National Gallery (SANG) in Cape Town for omitting the names of the individual artists. He directly challenged Marilyn Martin with thereby erasing the artists' identities and eroticising them as "other".

Goniwe also took issue with the same artists being identified with the "Ndebele" tag because such ethnic labeling was patronizing and was only applied to black artists. He said: "It is a racist attitude. Whites are not designated by any interpolation� The bead exhibition also reinforced gender stereotypes by casting only women as producers of the craft."

Goniwe extended his criticism to the common 'art versus craft' debate with reference to the forthcoming Co-existence exhibition at the SANG. He said many white artists used craft in their work yet none were defined with the craft tag. Tagging was only given to black subjects who were located in "the primitive zone of contemplation". White artists meanwhile exploited 'native' culture through African motifs in their work without identifying with it.

In question time, Martin said leaving out the artists' names was an oversight. But she said the programme had been summarized into one paragraph for the purposes of the catalogue. She added that the exhibition was done in consultation with the royal household of Ndebele as a celebration of their art. In response to criticism about Co-existence, Martin said: "As one of the curators, I can say the aim was not to entrench binaries but to mediate them� I'm very pleased the exhibition is already stimulating debate because that is the intention. Once it is up, a forum can be created for discussion."

Goniwe's argument - a familiar cry for him - was bravely delivered to a predominantly white audience that in its own way ironically reinforced his point. If there is an inherent weakness, Goniwe does frame his criticism in the very racial binaries he finds so abhorrent. He is caught within a paradox: by naming the problem of naming, he must also name.

However, Goniwe does recognize this and his ultimate goal is a divestment of such framing devices. It is also arguable that binaries are necessary to create polarities of tension between which new meaning can be negotiated.

The tagging of black artists coincidentally formed a focal point of the following lunchtime lecture, which featured a video called The Luggage is Still Labeled. Produced by Vuyile Voyiya and Julie McGee, the film explored some issues related to being a practising black artist in South Africa today. It comprised clips of interviews with a number of artists and critics.

The film showed how the very term 'black artist' was problematic. In critic Lloyd Pollack's words, it denotes "a special category, a curiosity, and in the South African mind, a step down from being a white artist".

Several artists complained about such labeling with Moshekwa Langa providing some light relief. He said it was burdensome being tagged 'black' because of the expectations attached. Langa added: "Most people are looking for hackneyed forms of blackness so when they don't get it, it's a problem� I explore things I'm uncomfortable with and if that is not being black, I suppose I am not black!"

Besides labeling, the film addressed related issues including style, education and institutions - the SANG again taking some flak. Among other things, it was faulted for representing middle-class values and not reflecting the entire course of South African art. Martin defended the institution in question time and took exception to some omissions she thought weakened the film's impact.

The film certainly stirred up heated debate, which mostly highlighted an apparent misunderstanding of its objectives. The film's aim, according to the producers, was to open up debate about issues and not to present a conclusion or solution. In that objective it was clearly successful: the audience at this screening were turfed out to continue discussions elsewhere.

Date: 17 September, at 1.15pm


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