Hannelie Taute at João Ferreira
by Renée Holleman
On entering Hannelie Taute's first show at the João Ferreira, one would be forgiven for assuming the exhibition has evolved out of an intimate engagement with an infant, perhaps the artist's own, such is the obsessive quality of the multiple series of mixed media works on display.
Yet a closer examination, and quick read of the artist�s statement, reveals an obsessiveness derived from the revisiting of a site that corresponds to a blissfully idealised and unproblematic idea of self embodied by the toys, and in this case dolls that we are given to play with as children. Exploring nostalgia, perceptions of childhood and the construction of identity, Taute posits the question, �Would we be different if our toys were different?�
The show consists of five different sections of work; a collection of handmade dolls and hobby horses, followed by two series of mixed media works on paper, and a series of reworked Polaroid images, sewn and embroidered onto small pieces of fabric.
The largest of these, Madam Choose Your Personality comprises a series of 20 reconstructed dolls. These are patched and stuck together using elements of existent dolls, fluffy toys, plaster of Paris and various other media. Some of these are without features, others are missing limbs which are replaced by a pair of crab claws or merely, in some cases, drawn in. The result is an absurd collection of potentially wicked, comically disruptive, sweet and yet sinister little souls.
These self evidently embody the notion of a constructed identity, where the hand of the maker is not hidden behind the stereotypical veneer of completeness commonly associated with commercially manufactured, mass-produced toys, but reveal a careful attention to detail and individualisation of each piece.
Similarly constructed are the six maniacally grinning hobby horses of the Let�s Play Pretend series on the opposite wall of the gallery. Here Taute has furnished each toy with a set, or section of, false teeth. She confronts the viewer with objects that, despite their obvious toyness, reflect something uncannily human in their make up. A kind of self-reflexive awareness perhaps, of the manner in which we project our desires and fantasies onto them, and so construct their identities in as much as we do our own.
An astute viewer was overheard to comment that they thought that the hobby horses would have made an appropriate immunity challenge totem for the once popular Survivor TV series. I found myself wondering if this isn't exactly the kind of power that toys have the capacity to imbue us with � the power to remove us from the 'real world' into an imaginary realm that both protects and nourishes us, and enables us to reconfigure ourselves in the face of an ever-changing environment.
Accompanying these are two collections of works on paper: Hush A Bye Baby which features loose portraits of babies done in charcoal and coloured ink wash, and Siembamba, consisting of pastel and oil images of Kewpie�like doll figures with sections of text from children's exercise books pasted in. While both are technically hesitant, and somewhat incomplete, the latter is more fully realised. The exercise book text seems to reference the construction of formulaic identities and relationships in both its prescribed question-and-answer format and gender-specific content.
Miss.., the last body of work on show, although the first encountered on entering the exhibition space, comprises 10 Polaroid photographs of Barbie dolls and inflatable sex toys sewn onto pieces of cloth, with the title of each embroidered beneath it. The photographs have been manipulated so as to make the area around the figures transparent. This allows text and other imagery visible beneath to reference the title, such as in Miss Place where the Barbie figure floats over an indeterminate section of map. Both icons allude to stereotypical notions of femininity: Barbie the Ideal woman, juxtaposed with the inflatable Fallen woman, who is ready fulfill men's rampant desires at the thrust of a bicycle pump, and yet of as little substance as Barbie.
But as lightly and humorously as Taute has dealt with them, I feel that both tread dangerous ground, as the concerns and issues surrounding them have been explored so thoroughly, that their appearance as visual iconography tends to undermine and trivialise any genuine concerns that the artist is attempting to convey. They do however, serve to consolidate the underlying thematic content of the show, and locate the work within a feminist discourse.
So I'm left wondering, are we really better mothers for having played with dolls? Better drivers for having played with cars, better gangsters for having played with guns? Undoubtedly toys have an impact on our formative sensibilities, but I suspect not so much as to construct our identities as to hone our ability to imagine ourselves.
Renée Holleman is an artist and independent researcher based in Cape Town.
Closed: November 27, 2004
João Ferreira Gallery, 80 Hout Street, Cape Town
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