Friday, July 20, 2012

The Silent War

An exhibition called Not my War, curated by David Brits, is currently showing at the Michaelis Gallery.     Last year I wrote quite an extensive feature on the topic. It was prompted by the emerging canon of literature connected to the war and the artworks and visual records that were being exhibited. It felt as if this period of our history was finally coming into view, but as I quickly discovered the information was limited, distorted and mythologised via what Liebenberg termed "war porn." The compulsion to suppress this history persists. 

It is likely that 1978 and 1979 were the worst years of Christo Doherty's life. After he left school they were the years he was immured to the SA Defence Force (SADF). He admits he wasn't a reluctant conscript; like most boys who had grown up playing with toy guns, he had fantasised about combat.
He was also too young to have formed any political stance. Not that that would have mattered: the army was full of principled young men who closed their eyes, kept their heads down and prayed for time to pass. Army life was unpleasant and dehumanising but for those like Doherty who went to the Angolan border to fight an apparent communist threat in opposition to the apartheid state, white society - or so the government then sold it - proved a deeply scarring experience. Little is known of the atrocities that occurred on the border but there is a tacit recognition that those who fought that silent war were never the same again.

Unspeakable sights from those skirmishes linger somewhere in Doherty's memory but he evades articulating or recounting them. Before he has even settled in the chair facing me he is quick to alert me that he "does not want to be foregrounding my personal experience" in the war. His reluctance is no surprise. His exhibition Bos, Afrikaans for "bush", also suggesting bossies (madness) - features a collection of glossy photographs of stylised representations of images reconstructed with miniatures. 
They offer depersonalised narratives that do not speak directly about Doherty's experiences. They are simply reenactments of photographs. Belying the facade of child's play, some of the scenarios are gruesome. In one image, Mass Grave 1, two soldiers offload bodies into a deep pit full of naked cadavers. The image evokes memories from his time on the border, he says but he doesn't elaborate. He appears ill at ease. It's as if something is crawling under his skin. He keeps adjusting his woollen hat and stirring his cappuccino.

I try to take him back to 1978, a year Doherty would later realise was a turning point in the war.
"The South Africans nearly lost. It was the beginning of cross-border onslaughts. When you are in it, no one explains to you what is going on. It is only in retrospect that you get to piece it all together."
In the name of national security, a blanket of silence surrounded SADF activities on the Angolan border. Conscripts had to sign documents guaranteeing their silence. Journalists and photographers saw what the SADF wanted them to see during press junkets where they were taken to unknown locations and treated to military parades.
"They all have this in common. They were like other South Africans, they did not know anything. It was something that happened "up North", he says, reverting to a collective pronoun. It is a way of creating distance between himself and the border war but is also  evidence of Doherty's academic research - he is writing a doctoral thesis on the topic. I suspect it is not just an intellectual exercise for the fifty-something artist and academic. Though he claims his exhibition wasn't designed to bring about catharsis, his focus on border literature and memoirs suggests he is still reconciling with the past. Despite this he remains tightlipped about his experiences. He admits he had a traumatic time - "I think everyone who experiences combat finds it traumatic unless they are absolute psychopaths" - but will not divulge details. 
This silence pervades his art too and while it seemed as if the stylised vocabulary he employed thwarts viewers' understanding of that period and creates distance  from the violent atrocities they document, it seemed possible that this glossy packaging was also for Doherty's benefit. He had reconstructed his own history in such a way that not only created distance from his trauma but made it easier for him to grasp. The miniatures allow viewers to slowly consume or study the horror rather than viewing it in a flash - "I wanted to present scenes that were childish, inappropriate and compelling," he says.
Though he had claimed that as a student of JM Coetzee at UCT in the early Eighties he had learned "never to spell things out", that it made for more interesting art, perhaps he had grown into the habit of suppressing the war memories. He had taught himself to be silent because there was no alternative.
When he left the army he "didn't want to talk about it - I wanted to put it behind me and move on with my life. I blocked it out. It didn't bear thinking about".
"You wanted to move on." 

Even if Doherty had chosen to share his experiences, he doubts he would have been believed.
Many white South Africans didn't want to know the truth, proposes Gary Baines, co-editor of Beyond the Border War: New perspectives on Southern Africa's late-Cold War conflicts and associate professor of history at Rhodes University.
"Acquaintances, family members and those people they came into contact with also felt that this was something that should not be broached around the supper table.
"When these issues were broached in response to questions like: 'What did you do in the war and what was the border like?' and people started to open up, then a lot of their listeners didn't want to know too much. There is a sense that the white public was complicit in this silence."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Beyond the Past: National Arts Festival

A horizontal line drawn across Lindiwe Matshikiza’s naked back extends beyond her body on to a wall she is pressed up against. She won’t stand still, however, so the line doesn’t remain straight. Every time she shifts her shoulders, the line curls and jerks. She is denying the line’s horizontality; she is uncomfortable it ibeing written on her body, though this is what gives her leverage, allowing her to manipulate it. It’s the final scene in Ster City, a filmed insert announcing the end of this absurd drama, which has seen her and Nicholas Welch attempt to act out, describe, the history of SA in the space of an hour. This is the “line” that they have been charting; our history stretching back to the displacement of the Khoisan before the colonials arrived.
This impulse to (re)present SA history is a defining feature at this year’s National Arts Festival. Matshikiza and Welch attempt a linear retelling, but the tale seems jumbled. Mostly, this is because their dialogue moves between French, English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa and Tswana, sometimes coalescing, breaking down into an indecipherable syncretic language, a constantly shifting Fanagalo. At times Welch’s dialogue degenerates into an angry rap, his body jolts as he stutters and spits the words out.
Matshikiza and Welch, who play themselves, are also obviously products of the hybrid society they chart, but want to blur the lines between the separate strands of our past, which are so clearly delineated, ethnically and racially. In other words, they want to overturn the history they are burdened by. Through the fusion of diverse languages they can reknit it. Retelling offers this kind of flexibility, though there are limits, too, because you can’t change what has happened.
This over-layering of historical narratives, embracing the multitude of perspectives that impedes fashioning history into a single line underpins Mikhael Subotzky’s Moses and Griffiths, a filmic work, which showed in the Gallery in the Round. He makes this point by presenting four screens showing footage of interviews with two of Grahamstown’s custodians of history – tour guides. The sound bounces from one screen to another, making it impossible to follow each of the men’s stories of the town that are punctuated with personal anecdotes. It’s not that the truth is unstable: it just doesn’t belong to one voice.
Subotzky wasn’t the only artist interested in probing the psycho-geography of this Eastern Cape hamlet that plays host to this annual festival. Polis, an interdisciplinary series of presentations by Athina Vahla, Ford Evanson, Mark Wilby and Anton Kruger, also attempted to map this territory. Echoes of Grahamstown’s vexed colonial past framed the displays at the Provost, a historical building that once functioned as a jail, where part of Ruth Simbao’s Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa & China was on show.

But why talk about history at all? Why not chart an imagined future, or the present? In the case of Ster City, an experimental production originating from France – it is part of the travelling Carnets Sud/Nord festival – perhaps they felt obliged to explain who they are to that audience. But they don’t tell the ‘whole’ story: the apartheid era is conspicuous by its absence, though they draw attention to their omission. There is a sense that they cannot enter this territory. Is it too heavy, too overdone or too close?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Organised Chaos: Subotzky's Retinal Eye

There is such an overabundance of art forms and works at the National Arts Festival that the adjective “excess” comes to mind. It's a polyphonic explosion: multiple voices, images, gestures and dialogues seem to coalesce into a chaotic continuum as the days progress. This is what makes this annual arts explosion in Grahamstown such an invigorating and stimulating experience. However, for an arts critic/commentator tasked with making sense of the festival, it is tricky attempting to fashion a clean narrative. 

Mikhael Subotzky’s exhibition Retinal Shift, which showed at the Monument Gallery and Gallery in the Round, serves as a useful model to read the festival for it is, through this progressive show, that he meditates on excess, the excess that reality, the South African experience, presents. How, as a photographer, do you make decisions about what images to isolate from such an endless stream of experiences that all beg to be captured before they disappear with time? 

Historically, Subotzky has isolated and zoned in on particular subjects, the Ponte, the Pollsmoor prison population. In this exhibition, however, he embraces a self-reflexive stance, analysing, sorting through his archive (and others), which leads him to probe the mechanics of photography – or the process of documentation. This inward gaze is best expressed in Self Portrait; an image of the retina of his eyes taken by an optometrist. Winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award seems to have compelled this young artist to survey his photographic “eye”. I suppose the idea is that every photograph he takes ultimately reflects more closely on him than his subjects. With this in mind, he becomes undiscerning about what “class” of photography his images belong to. 

In I was Looking Back (2012), he presents photographs from his professional work and those charting his personal life: photographs of friends, himself. So it is that images from Pollsmoor Prison are juxtaposed with ordinary family photos, a girl leaning on a gate in a rural setting. This diverse collection covers a wall. It’s an excessive display, presenting a cacophony of imagery that appears chaotic, haphazard even, though there are discreet narratives that thread through, loosely uniting some photographs.A visual mirroring occurs between a picture of a man lying on a bed in a prison and a woman lying on her stomach getting a skin treatment. There are no captions, no contexts to these images; they are free-floating, allowing for multiple kinds of narratives to be assembled or disassembled. It’s up to you. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Why the National Arts Festival isn't about art

The National Arts Festival is one of the most significant events for arts critics and commenters because it offers us a condensed view of our cultural landscape. Well, aspects of it. Fact is no one comes to the festival to come to grips with contemporary art for the simple reason that there are only a few shows that map this territory.  This year Ruth Simbao’s gargantuan Making Way: Contemporary Art from South Africa and China has been a welcome addition, and hints at a brand of exhibition that should be commonplace at the festival, though the themes underpinning it are tired. The new Performance Art programme has seemingly also opened up opportunities for visual artists to enter the festival fray, though of course, it conforms to the privileging of live performance and has been created to accommodate works at the festival that straddle dance, theatre and performance art. Can, should, visual arts and performance art be separated out? That half of this year’s line-up is attached to Simbao’s exhibition suggests the separation can't be cleanly done. 

Usually, it is the exhibition produced by the recipient of the Standard Bank Young Artist award that must fly the flag for contemporary art. Fortunately, this year, Mikhael Subotzky has delivered with aplomb; Retinal Shift, is undoubtedly his strongest exhibition. It is not a rehash of work he has done before – often the case with this exhibition - though he does dip into his own archive. 

Because the Standard Bank Young Artist exhibition has become the touchstone for contemporary art at the festival it has become one of the most hotly debated awards. There are some in the art fraternity who believe it is easy to predict who will be the next recipient. If the award goes to an artist from the Goodman Gallery stable one year then it is likely that an artist from the Stevenson Gallery will be sure to garner it the following year. The Goodman and Stevenson galleries are the dominant players in the local art market, so it makes sense that artists bent on success in local and overseas spheres need to be signed up to one of them.  It is easy, therefore, when looking to identify a young artist on the up-and-up to select a winner aligned to one of them.