Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Nation State at the Goodman Gallery Joburg

This exhibition could have so easily been trite. We could have been treated to yet another politically-correct investigation into the constructions of Afrikaner nationalism and its long-standing repercussions or have been served up a litany of literal depictions of nation-building tactics in the New South Africa.
It is refreshing to view nationalism within a wider context, which artworks hailing from other parts of the world establish. Perhaps our navel-gazing period is drawing to a close?
Certainly viewing nationalism from a multitude of perspectives enhances our understanding of the ideologies that have shaped our national identity or desire to settle on an identity that encompasses our diverse society.
Unpacking the mechanics of nationalism was a popular theme on the art circuit in the
late 1980s and early 1990s in places like Britain, where marginalised communities fought their way into galleries and destabilised notions of Britishness. In this context all it took were photographs of black or Asian British citizens in traditional English settings or English garb to undermine the status quo.
Curators Liza Essers and Storm Janse van Rensburg have succeeded in creating a group show that does not challenge notions of nationalism in such obvious ways. Nevertheless it should be acknowledged that this theme does lend itself to an obtuse form of expression.
Because nationalism is built on shared experiences or worldviews, it draws upon overstated or generalised commonalities in its objective to unite diverse groups of people in order to achieve a common end. Easily recognised symbols are, therefore, readily, drawn upon to forge a sense of interconnectedness.
Doing it for Daddy (a Cape Town-based collective, which counts Bettina Malcomness, Renée Holleman and Linda Stupart as members) summon the rhetoric of nationalism in their work, Nation State (2009), an installation piece that sees rows of chairs situated in front of a screen on which the 2009 election slogans from political parties’ campaigns are displayed.
Elections are thought to be empowering for citizens, as it is during these occasions that they are permitted to actively engage in the political process but this artwork implies that the public are passive receivers. The installation conjures an educational setting in which ideas and opinions are instilled in vacant minds. In this context the people appear to have no power, they are receivers of empty rhetorical phrases such as “ready to deliver” and “together we can make a difference.” The latter statement has particular relevance to nationalism where it is commonly implied that transformation can only be enacted when one acquiesces to the collective will.
Slick phrases are the powerful triggers that activate such forms of acquiescence.
Drawing on a vocabulary particular to advertising Stuart Bird’s RSA (2009), a tube lighting sign that reads “For Sale” best articulates the persuasive tactics that nation building is reliant upon. Kadia Attia’s Oil and Sugar #2 (2007), a video work, reaches towards an abstract representation of the (forced) unification of two disparate and conflicting substances.
As one watches the sugar cubes and oil separate from each other the futility of establishing and trying to maintain a national identity comes sharply into focus.
The Austrian artist, Pieter Friedl, highlights the dangers of unquestioning collective thinking with Kill and Go. Friedl’s sign also draws from the advertising idiom but here the message references more devastating actions spurred by nationalistic pride: war.
A collection of collages by Sam Nhlengethwa document life under apartheid. Ranging from landmark events such as the Sharpeville massacre to more quiet moments of suffering such as Candlelit Studying (2003), Nhlengethwa literally pieces together the past with torn images retrieved from a multitude of sources. The result is an artificial form of documentation that while referencing a reality is fabricated by the artist. In so doing he is able to articulate the suffering of the individual without locating it
within the realm of an actual individual. It is this communal experience of suffering that acts as a binding agent for a new nation.
Taysir Batniji’s Mirador (2006), a triptych of grainy photographs of a guard’s tower from multiple viewpoints, conjures the artificial physical boundaries that divide states from each other. A role reversal is afoot here: the guards are being watched and studied. Such a close investigation infers a planned insurgency that will threaten the borders and the ideologies that keep them intact.
It is a collection of photographs by Mikhael Subotzky that deliver the most incisive view into the varied states of our nation.
Photographs of luggage outside a refugee camp and a street party in an affluent Johannesburg suburb, which shows a group of whites caught up in the frivolity while a black security guard sits alone in a chair slightly removed from the party, speaks of the kinds of inclusions and exclusions that are made based on ethnic and economic criteria. The photo highlights the deep divides that continue to keep South Africans adrift and yet despite this lack of homogeneity among South Africans outsiders –refugees – are rejected. – published in The Sunday Independent, June 14, 2009

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