Monday, July 12, 2010

The 'Grey Areas' debate 14 years later

No essays were feverishly penned. No impassioned articles or e-mails were quickly dispatched. There were no public declarations of outrage. Nor did groups of art students flock to view the “offending” artworks. It seemed in the days that followed the opening of the In Context exhibition at the Arts on Main complex last month that the display of Candice Breitz’s Ghost series (1994-1996) had gone without much notice.

Had the 14 years that had passed dulled the works’ hard transgressive edges? Certainly it seemed as if the white figures that dominate in this series of artworks had truly become spectral characters, withholding the secrets from South Africa’s vexed past. More than a decade ago the Ghost series and Breitz’s Rainbow series were anything but unobtrusive; not only were they at the centre of an explosive polemic that rocked the citadels of art academia, but when the debate moved into the public domain, it posed the most fundamental questions that plagued post-apartheid identity: could white people identify with black people and did anyone have the right to represent another?

Answers to these questions weren’t easy to identify, causing the debate to rage for years, finally culminating in the publication of Grey Areas, a collection of essays. Does the fact that the Ghost series has not caused any waves a second time indicate that the discourse has become irrelevant? Breitz, who has since been settled in Germany for some time, was keen to find out.
“I have no idea what to expect. I was curious as to what it would be like to insert these works into this context at this moment in time. The recent fiasco at Constitution Hill (with Lulu Xingwana) made me wonder whether this particular dialogue remains relevant. For as long as the history of apartheid and questions of race continue to play a central role in our understanding of who we are, such conversations need to continue,” observes the artist.
So while the dust may have settled on the “Grey Areas” debate, Breitz obviously remains haunted by it. Certainly all spheres of cultural production in South Africa were implicated and affected by the debate; issues of representation are as pertinent to literature as they are to journalism.

Ironically, few involved in the debate had actually seen Breitz’s Ghost series – it was exhibited at the Chicago Project Room in 1998 but has never been shown on South African soil until now. As with her Rainbow series, the Ghost series was created by manipulating existing imagery. Breitz took ethnographic postcards of black women in traditional garb, of the kind one would find in a tourist shop, and with the use of Tipp-Ex she transformed the women’s bodies, turning the black women “white” – hence the ghost alluded to in the title of the series, which also referred to women’s lack of status.
“I wasn’t saying anything that hadn’t already been said at that moment in time. African women have largely been represented in the public sphere through their absence. “What those works did was to very simply make the absence visible and to project the presence of the represented women as an absence. These kinds of images of black women (that I presented) are ultimately less about the women portrayed than they are about the white photographers who sell the imagery to white tourists with their particular ideas about Africa.”