Sunday, August 30, 2009

Women themed exhibitions: Aaargh!

Women-themed cultural products seem to dominate the cultural scene in August, to tie in with a public holiday created in their honour.
It can be daunting for a member of the fairer sex to be inundated with representations of the self, but above and beyond that most of these products and shows tend to be highly contrived. Too often cultural products with an intended social objective feel overly simplistic and didactic. In the context of art exhibitions centred on gendered tropes, the ideological dimensions implicit in some of the artworks that transcend the gender slant also become muted.

Excessive attention is drawn to the artist's gender, creating the impression that their oeuvre or aesthetic is shaped by their identity. That may represent the approach of some, but it is not the case for all female artists.

A surplus of women-themed exhibitions - in Joburg there are at least three - also contribute to the idea that such a thing as "women's art" exists. This is a precarious notion, one that ghettoises women's expression, relegating them again to the periphery. The post-modern age may well have "refined our awareness of difference," as French philosopher and literary theorist Jean-Francois Lyotard has observed, but surely such blatant and mostly obtuse exercises in asserting difference surely risk undermining the great strides that women have made in freeing themselves from the shackles of their gender?

It's a conundrum that African artists and curators who label their products African have also had to negotiate on international plaftorms. Nonetheless, there are ways and means of constructing gendered exhibitions in such a way as to avoid stumbling into the pitfalls that recovering one's place at the centre seems to entail.

Jeanine Howse and Amy Watson staged an excellent show at the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2006 titled Women: photography and new media, in which they located the female identity outside of the physical self and, in so doing, allowed women to transcend the entity that has held them prisoner since time immemorial.

Three gendered exhibitions under way in Joburg are: Innovative Women: Ten Contemporary Black Women Artists, curated by Bongi Bengu, Face Her, curated by Ingrid Masondo and Rita Potenza, and Domestic, curated by Melissa Mboweni and Jackie McInnes. Each has a different angle on the theme. In Innovative Women, the emphasis, as the title suggests, is on black women who are perceived to be creating "innovative" and "contemporary" work. The fact that innovation is no longer the objective of so-called contemporary artists is perhaps a negligible detail. Of course, such a title neatly pigeonholes all the artists as black female artists and their art as a product of that identity, which does limits one's reading of their work.

Take Nadipha Mntambo's The Rape of Europa (2009), a highly stylised image which sees the artist posing as the defenceless and nubile Europa and her rapist Zeus (disguised as a bull). This work articulates themes and ideas that extend beyond her identity as a black female. In assuming the roles of both Europa and the bull, Mntambo subverts what could have been a dialogue between the self and the other into a discourse with the self and divergent aspects of the self. In this way, Mntambo is both aggressor and victim, male and female, coloniser and colonised. Given that she tries to shirk fixed notions of identity through this work, it seems ironic that it would find its way to an exhibition that pigeonholes her as a black woman. Mntambo also engages and challenges Western myths and how its pervasive influence shapes one's concept of self.