Not My War
Group Exhibition at Michaelis GalleryBy Brent Meersman
29 June - 27 July. 1 Comment(s)
The first work one sees on entering ‘Not My War’, an exhibition of works reflecting on South Africa’s wars in Namibia and Angola, is Comrade Mother, a staged self-portrait of mother and child by Penny Siopis. In 1987 - the year of the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale, when the world looked very different, the war interminable, and there seemed no prospect of peace - Siopis was pregnant. They knew it was a boy. Someone remarked to her: ‘You’re producing cannon fodder’. Seven years later, South Africa was to hold its first democratic elections. It was around then that her son discovered his father’s army balsak stowed since the 1970s.
‘When he discovered the kit and hauled everything out it was a shock to me,’ Siopis told patrons at an exhibition walkabout; shocked for ‘these were the real objects that someone had worn in the war’... He hauled out these things and started dressing up, and he happened to choose the things that were adjusted, the T-shirt with cut off arms for the heat... He also found the war paint, camouflage, and put it on his face. The last time that tin had been opened was in Angola’.
Siopis continued: ‘It was play acting; it was fantasy; this was Christmas. [It] couldn’t have been a better discovery [for him]... I tried to use that moment of ambivalence; being happy that he could feel such liberation... but at the same time he was putting these clothes on without regard for what they meant... I decided to make a series of photographs of him interacting with the objects’.
In a sense, the exhibition itself is such a process. Its curator, David Brits, is the same age as Siopis’s son. Growing up, he rather liked the idea of being a soldier. At school he dressed up too, marching about in cadet uniform and kilt. But he began picking up snippets about the history of the war, and says he, ‘started to piece together this thing called the “border war”’. Brits has been exploring this material for a while. His father had been a conscript, and his final year exhibition at the Michaelis School of Fine Art was entitled ‘Vaderland’.
‘Not My War’ is a meditative experience. There are almost no overt depictions of the horror and violence of that war. The closest is Christo Doherty’s photograph of his constructed models with a corpse strapped to the mudguard of a Casspir. Rather, the violence is psychological, lurking beneath the surface, embedded in objects and suppressed memories. Almost every white male, half a million men, now between the ages of 38 and 67, went through the SADF. The exhibition focuses solely on the white
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South African experience, and the question it begs is articulated by artist Colin Richards, who is also on exhibit and happens to be the father of Siopis’s child: ‘I need to say this in a gentle way because it’s judgmental... I find it extraordinary that all these men went through this experience... I often now wonder where that conscience is... I listen when people speak, especially men, and try and pick up if there is any consciousness... and I try to understand racism, my own and other people’s. I try to listen to hear if those experiences have filtered through’.
Some white males resisted, such as Wayne Barker whose SADF Discharge Certificate from 1985 is on display - he feigned madness. But few escaped the webbing of conscription. Those who passed through the military machine still feel conflicted; they feel violated (as the title of the exhibition suggests) and yet they were complicit in ruthless destruction.
Violated in that they were press ganged into service; their very bodies the property of the state (for being sunburnt you could be charged with damaging state property). They were brutalized into white South African society’s ideology of manhood – explored in this show through video by Paul Emmanuel in 3SAI: Rite of Passage.
But they were also made accomplices in an illegal, brutal war for which there has still been no satisfactory accountability. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Cuito Cuanavale and petty, if not irrelevant debates still rage as to who ‘won’ that conflagration. Old ‘manne’ from the South African side are meeting up in nostalgic tours to Angola, sharing beer and bonding with male warriors from the other side.
Memoirs of bravado replete with Hollywood descriptions of characters are being published – what war photographer John Liebenberg (also on exhibit) referred to at a panel discussion on the war at this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival as ‘war porn’. These personal memoirs and journeys may be cathartic and therapeutic, but their failure to consider how they scarred the other side leaves them essentially deformed. Christopher Swift’s found objects, such as Decoy, the wing of a French mirage jet fighter courtesy of the SAAF Museum, come dangerously close to memorializing the war without context. These were machines of extreme violence and decimation, not retired objects to be mourned over.
Despite the flood of material in recent years, large pools of silence remain. The devastation and havoc the war meted out on civilian women and children is largely ignored. The consequences of South Africa’s actions taken in the war have not ended. And the complicity continues in silence and denial.There is not even an official admission for the massacre of 600 refugees by the SADF at Cassinga, which should have shaken South Africa’s conscience in the way the My Lai massacre in Vietnam eventually did the United States.
While the soldiers were sworn to secrecy at the time, the Nationalist government and its generals blatantly lied to the public. Some are still lying; the atrocities committed by Koevoet and their torture centres such as Onaimwandi remain buried. By focusing almost solely on the white conscript experience Brits could be accused of perpetuating this disowning of the conflict. It is perhaps a first step with limited resources, but a far more momentous exhibit awaits – one which will include Angolan and Namibian artists.
But the war did come home, not only permeating society through the trauma of veterans, but in more sinister ways. The army would go on ‘to police’ the townships of South Africa. Undoubtedly these men rationalised their presence as peacekeepers. Ex-servicemen frequently cite instances of necklacing to defend their presence on the ground. At least this exhibition does not try to justify the war in any way.
Journalist Jacques Pauw recounts in Into the Heart of Darkness how the apartheid death squads such as Vlakplaas and butchers like Eugene de Kok were essentially forged by the war. One of their number, Rich Verster, believes he became the murderer he is after he was ordered to walk through the smoldering ruins of Cassinga and execute in cold blood any of the surviving wounded women and children.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission only touched on the human rights abuses of South Africa’s military machine. ‘Not My War’ is a timely drawing together of material for further deliberation. Other artists participating include Jo Ractliffe, Chad Rossouw, and Gavin Younge. It is relative youngsters such as Brits, who are now asking, as Colin Richards and Penny Siopis’s asked: what did daddy do in the war?