Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Us" at JAG

Ever keen to probe the unseen forces that shape our collective consciousness, artists are continuing to explore the factors that led to the xenophobic attacks that took place around the country last year. This exhibition owes its genesis to the attacks but is largely an effort towards unpacking the dynamics that bind communities, that give them a sense of togetherness. It is these properties that in turn become agents of exclusion.
During the attacks on foreigners the mass media focused their attention on the victims; this exhibition redirects the spotlight on the social forces that feed political and social dominance. As the title suggests, the focus is on the “us”, a dominant social entity, rather than the “them”, which is typically the marginalised and unwanted ”other”.
It’s a nice reversal but one that obviously has resonance for Africans, who have habitually found themselves marginalised to the fringes of a Western-dominated world. The title also recalls an abbreviation of United States, a powerful cultural and economic authority that has in its foreign and domestic policies displayed a degree of paranoia and rejection of the unfamiliar or strangeness of others.
But of course, the attacks on foreigners in South Africa proved that these power dynamics play out at micro levels too. All these factors contribute towards making the exhibition highly relevant but this aspect similarly renders it a little expected.
Some of the artworks on the exhibition are predictable too: such as Dan Halter’s Space Invader (2009), which was an obvious choice with its depictions of those large plastic carrier bags that migrants use to transport their worldly goods. In one image Halter configures them to resemble the characteristic icon from the Space Invaders video game. These same bags are pictured outside a barbed wire fence in a photograph by Mikhael Subotzky. Such obvious references to the ways in which migrant communities have been excluded in South Africa are few; mostly, the artworks delve into the phenomenon in more abstract ways.
An interesting dialogue is elicited through the works of Subotzky, Tracey Derrick and Laurence Bonvin, who all in various ways display how communities are defined and define themselves via geographic, environmental and architectural states.