"A drop dead gorgeous sexy lesbian" is how one commentator described Jean Brundrit. Sexiness and spunk aside, Jean Brundrit has consistently made her mark as a brave, uncompromising artist whose work gives new impetus to the old feminist dictum "the personal is political." By means of marking an 'unfashionable' photographic technique as her own, she has made a distinct and unique space for herself in the sometimes complex and confused space of South African art photography.
Jean Brundrit's artistic production is concerned with identity, sexual orientation, gender, and in her most recent work, violence. It is also about questioning stereotypes, but she says it all comes back to identity in the end. Brundrit positions herself as an artist in a broader sense, as well as - specifically - a lesbian artist. She chooses the appellation lesbian, rather than feminist or woman artist.
Being an 'out' lesbian artist is important to Brundrit. It is a political position. Making a stand is essential to Brundrit and she traces her interest in social politics to the conscientising effect of being a student in South Africa in the 1980s. By taking on lesbian and feminist concerns, and highlighting these areas of discrimination, she questions prejudice in more general terms.
She says that although South Africa has a liberal constitution, which recognises equal rights regardless of gender and sexual orientation, the reality is that we still live in an intolerant and homophobic society. Through making works that foreground lesbian issues she is not trying to be didactic or to convert anybody but rather wants to make people think about the invisibility of lesbians in our society.
Her work Portrait of a Lesbian Couple in South Africa (1995) shows a suburban setting with the lesbian couple erased and a white space outlined where their identity should have been revealed. Jane Taylor, writing in the Mail and Guardian (1995) asserts that "Brundrit is telling us that the subject of the portrait, the lesbian couple, is excluded from the language of visual images because the 'couple' as we know how to see it, is generally a heterosexual one."
In addition to dealing with the invisibility of lesbians, Brundrit's work also celebrates gay alliances. Brundrit's Valued Families (1995) is a black and white photographic print with the subject of two naked women's torsos (cropped at the head and legs). Superimposed on top of the soft focus tonal pinhole photograph is a family tree-like grid of interconnecting names.
The title, Valued Families is a subversion of the politically conservative ideology of 'family values'. Here, one is aware of an alternative family tree or family history being represented, which explains the interconnectedness of the group and the individuals within it. This 'family tree' is superimposed on the body and the body is viewed through the grid of a collective history and "a network of love and support" (Shaun de Waal, Mail & Guardian, 1996).
Although Brundrit works primarily with the medium of photography, she has also created video and site-specific installation pieces. During the course of her artistic career she has done extensive exploration of pinhole photography. "I'm seduced by the medium," she says. Pinhole photography involves photographing without the mediation of a lens and the resultant images are blurred and often contain movement. The medium is appropriate for Brundrit's subjects.
"Identity is often about reflection," says the artist. Identity cannot be fixed. Like memory it is blurred. Pinhole photography's glowing quality, necessarily long exposures and concomitant movement lend themselves to this fluid conception of identity and memory.
Brundrit's pinhole photographs have a visually seductive appeal which is often appropriate to the sensual subjects she explores. Rich deep black and grey tones dominate her compositions. These formal qualities, however, are occasionally deliberately subverted when the subjects form a contrast to the sensuality of the medium.
Jean Brundrit is exhibiting at the Bell-Roberts Gallery, in Cape Town from March 10 to April 3, 2004. This solo show, entitled, Spaces in-Between forms something of a departure for Brundrit as it moves away from direct investigations of lesbian sexuality towards an exploration of violence and the violation of boundaries. The artist, however, admits that the sexuality does creep in.
"It's difficult to keep sex in the closet!" she says. The show interrogates aspects of violence on both physical and psychological levels, in South Africa today. From a personal point of view this show also deals with the artists experience of a middle class existence in South Africa and coming to terms with her own fears. She refers to the images as "processed violence, not reportage." The photographs create a mediated view of violence rather than an attempt to image violence directly. They thus question the tradition of photographic document as objective evidence.
Several of the works deal with limits and borders, including a large pinhole photograph of the outlines of two women set against a backdrop of a tourist view of Table Mountain and Cape Town, called Boundaries (2004). Brundrit began this work, and started examining boundaries at the exhibition 'Homeport', in 2000. 'Homeport' led her to consider her life "as a middle class 'whitey' and to think about where I was in the process." This existence is commented on in a series of photographs called A Walk Around the Block With Goliath (2004), which shows a large dog straining at the leash as he is walked past the high fences on a typical road in the suburbs.
Also on display are a series of colour pinhole photographs, called Roadside Attraction (2004), which document the result of another type of violence. This series deals with the recent South African culture of commemorating sites of roadside deaths with markers. The artist does not want them to be read as a road safety campaign. Rather, these small precious and consciously sentimental photographs evoke connotations of loss and longing.
"Getting over post MA blues! And finding new directions," says the artist. In 2001 Brundrit was involved in 'Homeport', a site-specific exhibition curated by Public Eye, which was held in the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. Her work was an installation of a large camera obscura in a shipping container; this started Brundrit experimenting with large pinhole photographs. The results of this process were also displayed on the Cape Town Month of Photography exhibition Photo/Art.
Brundrit was the invited artist at the Aubenades Festival in France, where she displayed a number of other pinhole photographs. This led to an invitation, the following year, from 'The Waiting Room', the Contemporary Photography Society, in Riems, where she exhibited 'Ten Years of Pinhole Photography'.
In 2003 Brundrit participated on a collaborative work with Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, for the one-night only show 'YDEsire'. The work, titled I Like the Way You Polish My 9mm, was a video installation that comprised two projections. In this humorous piece, two Karaoke singers, one in a South African police woman's uniform and one in an South African army uniform sing a cheesy love song to each other against the fake backdrop of a tropical palm fringed sunset. This light-hearted approach, which one often notices in Brundrit's artistic production, does not detract from the more serious issues implicit in her work. Many visitors felt this to be one of the strongest works on display.
Jean Brundrit studied her MFA at the University of Stellenbosch from 1997 to 2000. She produced a body of work titled Lavender Menace, which she exhibited at Cape Town's Association of Visual Arts and Johannesburg's Market Theatre Gallery, in 1999. The exhibition consisted two groups of photographs: A Dyke Career Calendar (1999) and Does Your Lifestyle Depress Your Mother? (1999).
Brundrit describes the calendar as a "functional public artwork to increase the visibility of dykes in South Africa". The calendar shows portraits of 'lesbians with attitude' (the artists interpretation of the term 'dyke'). This is with a view to eroding stereotypes and showing the working lives lesbians. The cover of Brundrit's Dyke Career Calendar interrogates gender identity as a fixed construct. Here, the artist appears twice, in a suit with a bowtie, and in a dress holding a handbag. The same person appearing twice in different gendered positions points to a fluidity of sexual identity.
The 'ordinariness' of lesbian lives is the theme of Does Your Lifestyle Depress Your Mother? While researching her MFA, Brundrit discovered that the only images of lesbians commonly found in the South African media were porn images designed for titillating a heterosexual male audience. "I wanted to show 'real' lesbians," explains Brundrit. "By not showing anything hardcore, I've taken away the voyeuristic angle that might have otherwise been there for the viewer."
This series of small black and white photographs shows lesbians in domestic environments. They are shown laughing, talking, eating, washing the dishes, taking the dog for a walk and generally behaving like anyone else, which is precisely the point.
Brundrit was an invited artist at the Recontres de la Photographie Africaine, Bamako, Mali in 1996. Here she exhibited works about discrimination in general. She could not work specifically in the area of lesbian sensuality because of the constraints of exhibiting in an Islamic country, so she made a series of works that dealt with censorship instead.
Plans are being made for further experimentation with large format pinholes for a project in collaboration with a colleague. The project is titled Living in a Camera. The artist has also begun a new series of large pinholes in domestic spaces, Homesick and example of this recent output. Brundrit is also involved in a further collaborative work with Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, for a special issue of the publication I-jusi, titled Bitter I-jusi.
Jean Brundrit was born in Cape Town in 1966. She completed a BA in Fine Arts at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1989, and an Advanced Diploma in 1992 at the same institution. Later, in 2000, Brundrit was awarded her Masters of Art in Fine Art at the University of Stellenbosch. Brundrit started teaching in 1989 at UCT and subsequently at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS), in Johannesburg, where she was appointed as a Senior Technician in Printmaking. She has been teaching at the Fine Art Department of the University of Stellenbosch since 1996, where she is currently a Senior Lecturer.
1993 - 'The Cape Town Triennial', South African National Gallery, Cape Town.
1994 - 'Displacements: South African Work on Paper 1984-1994', USA.
1995 - 'Taking Liberties: The Body Politic', Gertrude Posel Gallery, WITS, Johannesburg Biennale; 'Gay Rights Rewrites, Martin Melkhuis, Cape Town, Oliewenhuis, Bloemfontein, Johannesburg.
1996 - Recontres de la Photographie Africaine, Bamako, Mali (invited artist).
1997 - 'Photosynthesis' a South African National Gallery exhibition, Grahamstown, Johannesburg, Cape Town; 'Lifetimes: an Exhibition of Southern African Art' as part of the Out of Africa Cultural Festival organised by the Art Bureau Munich, Bottling Hall, Munich, Germany.
1998 - 'Democracy's Images' BildMuseet, Umea, Sweden.
1999 - 'Lines of Sight' South African National Gallery, Cape Town; 'Lavender Menace, solo exhibition, Association of the Visual Arts, Cape Town, Market Theatre, Johannesburg.
2000 - 'African Photographers in Berlin', Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt, Berlin, Germany; Emotions and Relations, Sandton Civic Art Gallery, Johannesburg; 'South African Photographers - On the Edge', Phyllis Palmer Gallery, La Trobe University, Bendigo, Australia.
2001 - 'Apartheid and Today: Contemporary South African Art, Kennesaw State University, Georgia, USA; Aubenades de la Photographie, The Ch�teau, Aubenas, France (invited artist); 'Brainstorm', Artscape, Cape Town; ABSA Atelier, ABSA Gallery, Johannesburg; 'Lines of Sight' Recontres de la Photographie Africaine, Bamako, Mali; 'Regards', University of Angers, France; 'Homeport', Public Eye, Cape Town.
2002 - 'Ten Years of Pinhole Photography', La sale d' attente, Saint-Exupery Cultural Centre, Riems, France (solo exhibition); 'Photo/Art', Sasol Gallery, University of Stellenbosch Museums, Stellenbosch.
2003 - 'YDEsire' collaborative video installation with Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town; 'Remember Me: Private Lives / Public Record', Cinema Noveau, Cape Town; Printworks from the Fine Art Department, Church Gallery, University of Stellenbosch Museums, as part of 3rd Impact International Printmaking Conference; Brett Kebble Awards exhibition, Cape Town International Convention Centre, Cape Town; 'Sex and Kultuur Festival', Triangle Project Event, CAP, Cape Town; 'Satirical Works', Elsie Balt Art Gallery, Evita se Perron, Darling, South Africa; 'Literally and Figuratively: Text and Image in South African Art' Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town.
South African National Gallery; Durban Art Gallery; Johannesburg Art Gallery; Gertrude Posel Gallery, WITS; BHP Billiton Collection; La sale d' attente, Riems, France; Centre culturel Saint Exupery, Riems, France.
Volkskas Atelier Merit Award