'Women: Photography and New Media: Imaging the Self and Body through Portraiture' at the JAG
by Michael Smith
That photography and new media forms are now a pivotal part of the practice of a large number of South African women artists needs little argument. The explosion of technology and access to it seemed to productively coincide with a spirit of experimentation in a post-1994 cultural climate, yielding a veritable army of women packing an arsenal of cameras, handicams and editing suites. In direct contrast to the previously dominant discourse of documentary photography established by the venerated Drum photographers and the 'Bang Bang Club', post-1994 photography, the sort shown in galleries at least, seems to have little of that gung-ho cowboy mentality.
This is due in no small part to the fact that women began interrogating the role of the photographer from the inside out. Terry Kurgan's oft-cited images of her children (and those taken of her by her children) from 1997's 'Purity and Danger' show (curated by Penny Siopis), seemed to be possibly the most visible works to set the tone for more speculative modes of photographic image-making. They deftly subverted the notions of distance and objectivity that had plagued South African photographic practice for some time.
Jo Ractliffe's oeuvre from a similar period also reveals a strategy of actively resisting received notions of how the photographer should function. This idea was explored in greater depth by Alex Dodd in a recent (2006) article for Contempo magazine: '(I)n the 90's, when the Bang Bang Club Afrapix crew of predominantly male news photographers held sway, Ractliffe stuck to her guns despite the fact that "back then, if you weren't documentary, you weren't a photographer"'. Admittedly Jane Alexander's earlier photomontages are often forgotten in this context: arguably masculine in their aesthetic (heavily influenced by John Heartfield's counter-totalitarian agit-prop strategy), they possibly functioned as a bridge between the two modes of production, a sort of imaginative reportage.
After 1994, the use of lens-based media in modes other than the overtly evidentiary capacity foregrounded by documentary quickly became de rigeur for young artists, particularly female artists. Kathryn Smith, Minnette Vári, Candice Breitz and Tracey Rose joined more established women artists like Penny Siopis and Sue Williamson in their predilection for lens-generated images. In fact, the groundswell continues, to the point where issues of identity and gender have attained something of their own orthodoxy within the glut of new media that increasingly forms the backbone of South African contemporary art exhibitions.
Against this backdrop, it is possibly most productive to view 'Women: Photography and New Media-Imaging the Self through Portraiture' at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, as a survey show, a synopsis of what has been produced in this area over the last 12 years, rather than any cutting edge or canon-shattering statement on the issue of women artists using new media. The curatorial brief of the show's title somehow feels too loose to allow for any great revelations, and its conceptual likeness to a number of similar shows invites comparison that highlights what the show lacks.
In fairness, this must be understood in context of severely limited and limiting resources. The curators, Jeanine Howse and Amy Watson, speak of having had literally 'no budget' for the mounting of the show. Works were loaned by artists themselves, commercial galleries or other institutions, or borrowed from the JAG's permanent collection . In one incident, an artist keen to participate even printed up a set of images at her own expense specifically for the show. Inclusions or perceived exclusions have to be viewed against the minefield of contingencies and compromises inherent in operating under such conditions. Nonetheless, the sense remains that the space and the available works could have been used more effectively.
A well-curated show functions much like a good artwork: it accepts from the outset that it is a construction, and attempts to function within the bounds of its own artifice to elucidate something true, or at least something worthwhile. The ultimate test of any individual work or show must be that it remains focused, and does not lapse too far into ambiguity or any number of conceptual nebulae that present themselves. Therein lay my chief concern with 'Women: Photography and New Media': the areas of discourse ambitiously opened up by the show's own title and curatorial brief (the position of women artists in present day South Africa, feminism vs. 'feminisms', the obvious preference among women artists for new media in a post-liberation SA) were inadequately unpacked. Rather, an overviewist philosophy dominated: at stages it felt as if curating had given way to ticking subgenre and/or identity boxes.
As one moved around the space there was a sense that one was moving from one identity ghetto to another, and that these in turn were not critically engaged by the curators. In other areas, potentially contentious areas of investigation, e.g Kurgan's arguably exploitative images of pre-teens, or whether Nontsikelelo Veleko's fashion-inspired images actually say anything valuable about the connection between clothing and identity, seemed glossed over in favour of a sort of pluralist ethnography of social subgroups.
Where the show did succeed was in exploring the implications of new media for expressing the fraught nature of gender politics in SA. The much-touted capacity of the Cindy Sherman-inspired work of Bridget Baker and Tracey Rose to destabilize both subject- and viewer position speaks eloquently of the reality of a country that has little in the way of secured rights and social positions to offer the vast majority of its female citizenry. This issue was patently important to the curators, evident both through discussions with them and through the show. It is something of a happy accident, too, that this concept was bolstered by the mid-career Berni Searle retrospective taking place elsewhere in the JAG's complex of exhibition spaces.
Some formal and conceptual connections were evident between Searle's works and those of Anthea Moys and Reshma Chhiba. In particular, Moys' work was compelling; initially, it appears to be a video but is in fact a slow accretion of still digital images. The effect is dreamy, open-ended and quite beautiful, as if a Getty Images style of picture-making had been appropriated for critical purposes. Furthermore, a valuable dialogue was established between this work and Penny Siopis' Per Kind Permission: Fieldwork (1994), which was positioned nearby. The two works function like bookends for the show's theme of new media: Siopis' earlier work, with its rudimentary technology and sense of operating somewhere between being a document of performance and a work in its own right, finds its counterpoint in Moys' superslick presentation and otherworldly aesthetic.
While there are standout works on show, and the exhibition as a whole forces some important issues onto the agenda, one issue inadvertently raised needs attention in a future show: does women's shift into a position of agency in the lens-based image-making process necessarily mean that the medium's propensity for essentializing is avoided? Many images on this show, and in fact much of the curatorial approach, suggest that this is unfortunately not the case.
'Women: Photography and New Media: Imaging the Self and Body through Portraiture' at the JAG
by Brenden Gray
'The future of gender as a category of analysis will continue to be bound up with the politics surrounding its use and analytical efficacy.'
Drucilla Cornell, 2004
Exhibitions that deal with identity often speak directly or indirectly of the 'constructedness' of identity. The argument goes: if identity is constructed, if it is a thing that can be made, unmade and remade then it has the potential to be fluid, mutable and unfixed. An individual with agency can consciously and creatively design an identity. Identity can be also be an emergent property of complex social interaction. In both senses it is constructed.
Too many so-called 'identity-based' shows lay claim to this postmodern definition of identity but in reality often do the opposite by fixing artistic identities within the straightjacket of essentialisms. This is done, in my mind, when curators only show work of one narrowly defined group of artists, in the case of this exhibition - women artists. Enter the 'identity-based' South African contemporary art exhibition-explorations of the black body featuring emerging black male artists; self; body and portraiture by women artists curated by women; gay sexuality by gay artists, and Jewish diaspora art by Jewish artists.
If identity is constructed then it is surely possible to imagine more challenging exhibitions where male Jewish artists deal with the black female body, Afrikaans men explore motherhood or heterosexual women artists can look at Xhosa male initiation rituals. A radical postmodernism can imagine this. The question is: how many of our local artists can imagine this? How can curators who accept the construction of identity as a given, assume that just because an artist is a woman she will take on a woman's perspective in her practice and production? Or, that embedded in any kind of work produced by women artists, there exists some kind of essential womanist quality or feminist position? To what extent does this exhibition foreground the potential for artists to actively, explicitly and self-reflexively assume a gender-based or feminist position in their work? The exhibition makes this potential position-taking/making seem incidental by not including men artists. I find this fixity extremely problematic - elitist, sexist and conservative.
What is a 'white artist' anyway? Or a 'black artist'? Or a 'woman artist'? I believe that many of the most interesting artists, working in a post-apartheid, post-liberation context, choose and construct subject positions in their practices, reflecting constantly on their moving and makeshift subjectivities. Subjectivity can be practiced through art-making rather than prior to it. Curators, whose work it is to categorise, canonise and classify, can manufacture discourses that seriously constrain the freedom of artists to imagine their own and other's identities as emergent and reflexively designed constructs.
It is interesting how this word 'imaging' has become so prevalent in art writing. It assumes that a fixed spectator (the artist) surveys a fixed and stable subjectivity (their identity), prior to the act of making, and reproduces or reflects it in production, putting it on show for consumption. Isn't it more liberating to ask artists to 'imagine', rather than 'image'? It allows scope for a new vision of social relations in South Africa - one where producers are not ghettoized into reporting on and reproducing their identities, as Michael Smith suggested in a conversation about this exhibition. Do we visit exhibitions to see artists 'imaging' their own limited subjectivities or 'imagining' potential intersubjectivities? Shows like 'Women: Photography and New Media Imaging the Self and Body Through Portraiture' fall right into the trap of essentialising feminism by only including women artists in the selection. In this way the show reproduces a conservative feminist canon, and regrettably reduces the complexity of many of the works on show.
Essentialism confuses and conflates cultural and social categories with biological innateness. Essentialism is at the heart of modernity and canonicity. Purity of category (whether it be painting, maleness, Africanness etc.) emphasizes being over becoming. At the panel discussion for the show, Penny Siopis, spoke of Spivak's 'strategic essentialism' as a powerful political tool or form of feminist solidarity in the face of oppression. Perhaps in a radical feminist context such essentialisms were a necessary political tool to debunk patriarchy (as black consciousness was necessary to resist apartheid), but in a local art scene where women and men appear to participate dynamically in the field of cultural production, essentialism is an unnecessary and dangerous curatorial practice.
I proposed to curators Amy Watson and Jeannine Howse at the exhibition's panel discussion that a show looking at white maleness would be an interesting essentialist alternative to the kinds of exhibitions that take fixed identities as their starting point. I asked why it is only the white male that escapes shows themed around identity. We have had shows that look at South Asian diaspora, the black body, Africa, and women, but never do we see the 'white man' in an exhibition title or subtitle. So-called 'marginal identities' are always made explicit in the curatorial framing of identity-based exhibitions.
In contrast, in the case of texts that claim to be canonical, dominant and privileged identities are concealed and naturalised. Think of art publications with neutral titles such as International Art that feature predominantly white male American and European artists. When it comes to producing publications that predominantly feature African artists we have not International Art but Contemporary African painting. I asked Watson and Howse why there has been such a vacuum in shows that deal explicitly with white male subjectivity. JAG director Clive Kellner intervened to answer my question, explaining how the gallery, given its history, decided to 'give space' to a show dealing with women's issues. His response prevented the curators from responding to my question, which made me think that Kellner's intervention was somewhat paternalistic.
Some of the artists who spoke at the panel discussion (Jo Ractliffe, Terry Kurgan, Siopis) insinuated that they were not happy for their work to be labeled as 'feminist' or defined by women's issues. Why are women artists resistant to being absorbed into such fixed identity categories? Perhaps it is because they subscribe to what Siopis termed a 'gender democracy', where cultural producers have agency in choosing the gender positions from which they work. In this way, I imagine Linda Nochlin's 'global feminisms' to include men practitioners. The panel discussion document made some essentialist insinuations about women artists that assert by implication that men artists do not possess certain unique womanly dispositions in their image-making practices: 'a sense of the transient self in constant flux', 'vulnerability', 'unfixed nature of the sel multiple selves', 'turning the lens inward'. Somehow the show implies that women artists have domain over the post-modern multiple and constructed self.
For me, the territorialisation of identity so prevalent in South African art discourse needs to be understood in avant-gardist terms. The local art scene remains tied up in a commercially competitive and historically brutalised cultural discourse. South African artists continue to distinguish their individual practice by tying it to essentialist definitions of cultural identity, by laying claim to a unique and closed frame of reference, hoping that by doing so they may displace other artistic practices in order to receive more market exposure. The radicalism of an identity position lies, for me, in its potential to accommodate difference. Even some of the most radical subjectivities proclaimed and adopted by artists are closed, fast becoming a form of corrosive individualism that is driven by an impulse for their own work to be consumed by a privileged market hungry for the new, the fashionable, the spectacular and the exotic.
The result of personal territorialisation of identity is the kind of pluralist curatorial practice exemplified by this exhibition. Its departure point, Linda Nochlin's, 'Global feminisms' feels like a variation of 90's multiculturalism, one Homi K. Bhabha suggests is a practice that poses as egalitarianism but which in fact is a form of segregationalist essentialism. Very rarely do such pluralist exhibitions take on the selected artists in a critical way. The subjectivities of artists are not problematised or interrogated through the curatorial process, but taken as givens to be arranged into neatly bordered identity units leaving essentialised artistic positions uninterrogated, and unfairly reducing open and unstable artistic positions.
The inclusion of Siopis' latest work Will (2006), by default, challenges the shallow essentialist premise behind this exhibition. So much of Siopis' work is characterised conceptually by a playful and challenging irony that constantly undoes stable identity positions. In Will, it seems, the artist has imagined herself as oscillating between conceptual binaries, playing gender stereotypes off against each other. She constructs an ethnography of self by documenting photographically the objects she has been collecting obsessively over the span of her artistic career. She becomes 'other' to herself in the moment of making in the shadow of mortality. The self-portrait becomes uncanny in its objectification.
Multiple selves converse across gender binaries - the male ethnographer converses with the female collector, the photographed found object acting as totem between two gendered selves. This is implied by the ironic title 'Will'- which plays on 'willy' (phallus), self/body portraiture (woman), the superman's 'will'-to-power (man) versus the object without will - the unconscious, the thrown away object (female). The very idea of a will throws up gender - as in a gift to the bereft (woman), posterity and sowing of seed (man), legality and the law (man) arbitrating over existential oblivion (woman). Siopis' piece suggests that art is a dance or a game, a space of play where self and identity are provisional.
Brenden Gray is a Johannesburg-based artist, independent writer and lecturer at the Design Centre in Greenside
'Women: Photography and New Media: Imaging the Self and Body through Portraiture' at the JAG
by Landi Raubenheimer
At the panel session on 'Women: Photography and New Media-Imaging the Self and Body through Portraiture' at JAG, along with discussion on feminism, 'global feminisms' and 'women's issues', what emerged very clearly is that most of the participating artists, including Jo Ractliffe and Terry Kurgan, don't regard themselves as feminist. In fact, it seemed that the exhibition itself is a bit uncertain of its standing in terms of this movement. What is this show about? Nobody seemed to know for sure. The curators admit to addressing both feminist and womanist discourse in the show. This is not the focus of the exhibition, however. The main thread follows discourse around women's bodies and notions of the self. What emerges is the question of why new media and photography are foregrounded in the title of the show? One also wonders about self-reflexivity.
Some artists, such as Kurgan and Penny Siopis, image the female body in their work. Others engage with different subjects such as the male body, the absence of any body and an array of things related to gender issues. In terms of the exhibition's title one expects clear direction or a guiding principle to emerge out of curatorial decisions. This seems lacking. If this is a landmark show lending a voice to women artists in South Africa, then it lacks the power or impact needed to establish or represent such a demographic.
Much of the work on the show strikes one as derivative. One wonders whether this is echoed in the exhibition's very existence. By admission it follows the lead of others like it, such as 'Global Feminisms' opening at the Brooklyn Museum's Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art in March 2007. JAG seems to be attempting to join the developments around the discourses surrounding women's art on an international level. The problem arises in the interpretation of such movements. Should we attempt to follow these developments in the South African context, and how does one avoid replicating what is happening elsewhere?
This would be remedied if 'Women: Photography and New Media' had a point to make or even brought a clear contribution to the global discourse. The work seems to be selected on bases other than conceptual integrity to the exhibition. The correct percentages of the correct social demographics are represented in not only in the choice of artists but also in the exhibition itself. This results in many seminal artists not being represented, and detracts from the impact of the show as a whole. One wonders about Minette Vári, Jane Alexander, Kathryn Smith and even emerging artists such as Rat Western and Michelle Williams, all of whom operate within new media. Placing the work in the context of global feminisms is misleading but also makes the exhibition as a whole seem insipid. The context of the exhibition seems neither here nor there.
It also appears that the issues of photography, new media and portraiture have been rather clumsily thrown into one basket. Few of the works engage with new media discourse, and I found this sorely lacking especially in terms of Donna Haraway's feminist cyborg theory. What is the significance of new media in this exhibition? Is it implied that women artists are simply more inclined to work in these media? Even the curators seem uncertain. This issue remains relatively unexplored and could potentially have enlivened the tentative and politically correct nature of the show. As far as photography and portraiture go, neither of these practices is directly addressed either, and broadly stating that the male gaze is disrupted in photography by women is not particularly enlightening or groundbreaking. Frances Goodman's You I is one of the few portraits which probe interesting issues around the lens, the photographer and the subject, as these categories are blurred. Bringing sound into the installation extends it into the realm of the immersive and screen-based media, and in this aspect the work engages with the interactions between the lens, screen and gender.
Works such as Vatiswa Ruselo's photographs of elderly boxers raise interesting questions around masculinity and stereotyping of black males. Bridget Baker and Tracey Rose adopt a Cindy Shermanesque manner of self-portraiture, also exploring female and racial stereotyping and roles. Kurgan explores the demeanour of pre-pubescent girls attending a school disco. Lolo Veleko's work captures street fashion as worn by black males. One struggles to see a clear premise arising from the exhibition of these disparate works. Issues are raised but not addressed, and due to the unspecific nature of the show's direction, one feels that much of the impact is taken away from individual artworks. From a show that marks itself as a 'women's' show one expects clear and vital issues to emerge. One also asks for new or at least contentious issues.
This show cannot probe how the conception of portraiture has changed as claimed at the panel discussion. It also does not probe how feminism has changed in South Africa. There is too little rapport between the works for any probing to happen. Rather, the show displays an array of issues and fleeting moments in feminist discourse, photography and new media, and notions of self and Other. In doing so the show strikes one as emulating a movement of women's art that is taking place elsewhere in the world. I could not ignore the similarities between Kurgan's portraits of pre-pubescent girls and Rineke Dijkstra's photographs of teenagers by the sea-side in the Beaches (1992-96) series.
The artists who were reluctant to participate in a women's show should be commended for conceding however, and the curators rightfully realised that South African feminist discourse is often neglected. Feminist and women's art is difficult to represent at best, since the categorisation seems to defeat the purpose of the movements. In this respect the show is worth attending, as it acknowledges problematic discourse in South Africa. It raises no new issues however, and will neither shock nor enlighten viewers who hope for a contentious show, or feminists who are of a more activist inclination. New media discourse is also sadly left by the wayside.
Landi Raubenheimer is a Johannesburg-based artist, independent writer and lecturer at the Design Centre in Greenside
Opened: November 9
Closes: February 28
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