Archive: Issue No. 86, October 2004

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South African women stripped to the core: a visual and theoretical primer
by Robyn Sassen

Head of Department and Professor of Fine Arts at Rhodes University, Brenda Schmahmann is an academic to her fingertips. Her command of the language appropriate to the field, the conceptual inquiries into the material and the ability to navigate through it all with clarity, are tools of her trade. So too is her perfectionism. Her inimitable skill in bringing art history to critical life is not, however, typical of most academics, which is one of the drawcards of her latest publication Through the looking glass: Representations of self by South African women artists (2004).

Schmamann writes with a clarity and succinctness that makes feminist ideology palatable and meaningful for even the lay reader or junior student, while giving a thorough working-through of the discourse. At the same time, the work sidesteps the pejorative categorisations of 'feminist' and the substance of the material is not man-hating or bra-burning in thrust.

In writing with conviction and clarity about the discourses to which she subscribes in terms of gender balance and awareness, she presents a viable and powerful case for the feminist discourse, which does away with popular negativity and offers credibility in its stead.

Elegantly bound and beautifully put together with a diversity of images, Through the looking glass begs immediate comparison with other books written in this vein - such as Marion Arnold's Women and Art in South Africa (1996: David Philip and St. Martin's Press). But the text doesn't disappoint by trotting out the same perspectives as Arnold's.

Divided into four chapters, with an introduction and conclusion, this physically small book embraces big issues and big artists active at the moment in South Africa: women who are dealing unflinchingly and with integrity and bravery, with issues pertaining to their gender, their sexuality, their bodies and the patriarchy in which they exist.

Beginning with a sound critical analysis of Dorothy Kay's 1953 self-portrait Eye of the Beholder, Schmahmann's text offers four different perspectives into local women artists: 'Self as Artist', 'Self and Family' - 'Self and Locale', 'Self and Body' and 'Enactments'. The readability of the text is boosted by Schmahmann's ability to cut straight to the chase, to deal with pertinent issues specific to an artist and her work, and then to move on. The pace of the text is exciting and the works selected are potent examples of the issues at hand.

Schmahmann navigates self-consciously through the work of women artists all over South Africa, but beginning with the work of Kay and ending with that of Christine Dixie, she maintains her position in the Eastern Cape, to where she moved from Wits a couple of years ago. This is an interesting autobiographical slant, which provides the work with humanity and presence that a formal academic text would not normally.

But this apparently circular motion is about more: it echoes the role of the mirror, central to the title, but also central to a woman's constructedness in terms of western social expectations. It is so evocative a symbol, calling up Lewis Carroll's Alice, who stepped right through the looking glass into another world of possibility.

In writing and publishing this book now, Schmahmann has produced a valuable primer in the mechanics of contemporary women's art in South Africa, which will date, but which remains important as a document of discourse, theory and perspective. Publisher David Krut stands to develop a reputation for a type of more introspective, penetrative publication than the 'Taxi Series' for instance, which can avoid definition and coffee table/academic monograph categorisation.

Through the looking glass: Representations of self by South African women artists 2004. David Krut Publishing, Johannesburg.


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