Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Politics of the Penis

Thabiso Pule and Hector Thami Manekehla perform Penis Politics

WE can't look directly at them, but we can't look away either. Thabiso Pule and Hector Thami Manekehla are metres away from the front row and are swinging their naked penises from side to side. It's the only part of their bodies on display; they're kitted out in black suits and are wearing black balaclavas, which add a threatening edge. They're like this male menace confronting, inflicting and boasting about their core masculinity, waving it in our faces, though through their exaggerated swagger of the male gait, they are similarly parodying the way men embody power.

They move sharp and tightly like action heroes, forcing their waving penises to slap across their thighs. We giggle nervously and shuffle along the floor of the small room in the Cape Town City Hall that has temporarily been taken over by the Live Art Festival.

Someone dubbed Pule and Manekehla's production Penis Politics, as a masculine rendition of the Vagina Monologues, though predictably in male fashion it doesn't include talking and sharing. This is a non-verbal performance and up for scrutiny are limp genitals. So, it isn't about celebrating masculine prowess but questioning its shaky foundations and the penis itself as the defining characteristic of male identity - or black male identity.

This isn't our first glimpse of male nudity at the Live Art Festival; a few nights earlier, we entered a makeshift theatre to find Tebogo Munyai balanced on his head wearing little other than a lit candle in his rear. It's an unforgettable scene and the liberal artsy crowd who fill the room are almost stunned into silence: his body is magnificent, ideal. We're also unaccustomed to seeing the male body on display, it appearing as a vessel. The piece is called Qina ke Qawe, and the only part of his body that is beyond our prying gaze is his penis, wrapped in white bandages. It's as if it has been injured. The effort to conceal it only serves to emphasise its presence and the politics attached to that.

Themba Mbuli's Dark Cell is a dance work revisiting the indignities the black male body was subjected to during the apartheid era; he dances in front of Ernest Cole's seminal photograph, Mine Recruitment, which shows a row of naked men lining up to be inspected. His performance ends with him in the buff. It appears as if he is trying to reclaim the naked black body from the past.

Male nudity and displays of the penis aren't confined to this event. The limp penises belonging to Ed Young's hyperreal self-portrait My Gallerist made me do it and the middle-aged white men posing in Pieter Hugo's series of unforgiving portraits for the Pirelli Special Project, were talking points at last year's Joburg Art Fair. Male nudity carries weight; it is a taboo across cultures. This is perhaps why performance artists like Steven Cohen have made their naked bodies part of their performative language - it pushes buttons.

The tone of Pule and Manekehla's piece is also confrontational and transgressive. In the wake of the Brett Murray/The Spear debacle, their work and gestures could superficially be read as a response to the president's vehement rejection of a stylised self-portrait in which his member was unveiled. The official line the government took at the time implied this action was disrespectful and (ironically) an affront to his masculine pride and dignity.

Mbuli's piece to some degree affirms the historical context that might inform this view. Yet the recent spate of performances and artworks featuring or unveiling the penis don't seem to be in response to Murray's work or the national debate that followed, but are part of a wider movement to unseat and reassess the once seemingly monolithic or immovable notions surrounding the male identity.

When I meet Pule and Manekehla in a rehearsal studio in Meadowlands, Joburg, they are unlike the bold masked characters from Penis Politics. They're not bursting with male bravado. They're two quiet, intelligent men interested in the general state of masculinity, which Manekehla describes as a "crisis".
"This work came from being a man in this city at this age, at this time."
He attributes the crisis of his gender to two conditions that seem in contradiction: limiting ideas about masculinity and its instability in the face of competing notions of what it should be. In other words, that the masculine identity is too narrowly defined but also lacks any solid criteria. Traditional notions about male identity persist - "There is a Sotho saying that a man is a sheep that doesn't cry. Men still hurt, but they have to keep it inside, they cannot communicate it" - yet Manekehla also suggests that "there are so many labels attached to men? We need to change perceptions".
These conflicting conditions have created great uncertainty and confusion. Men are making up traditions as they go along, says Manekehla.
"Tradition once had its fundamentals, but many of those have been contested and traditions are being fabricated; people are adapting and creating their own ideas of what those traditions once were."
"If you don't know where you are coming from then how can you know where you are going?" asks Pule.
Kopano Ratele is cautious about terming the perceived erosion of traditions delineating masculinity as a "crisis".
"It is true the current state of modernity created instability, but masculinity has always been an unstable project, we have just become more self-conscious about the making of men and women," proposes Ratele. He is a professor at the University of SA and co-director of the Medical Research Council, where he has been conducting pioneering research into masculinity. One of his recent projects explored and demonstrated that young black men are in fact interested in love and not just sex, as per stereotypical notions regarding this sector of our society, prompting fears that it is in "crisis".

With such a multitude of competing masculine identities present in the media and popular culture, it is hard for young men to settle on a single one, he suggests.
"It's confusing and hard to process when you see that a man is a man if he is working hard in one setting, and then you see an image of a man playing golf that suggests that being a man is about being able to pursue leisure activities. Then there is a man who is made a man because he is a family man and then there is the Rambo model. The only place that some young men can find a stable model, such as in the Western Cape, is through joining a gang where there are specific rules that you follow. Outside of that there is uncertainty."

So, ultimately, some men crave the limited strictures of traditions or societal codes in order to orientate and secure their male identity, implies Ratele. Impoverished men in particular are more dependent on this as they are unable to acquire the material and physical markers of male success, such as a home, a car or a flashy suit. Men in this position tend to fall back on the penis, corporeal power, to bolster their macho identities, says Ratele.
"Men are easily seduced by this discourse, which is so strongly linked to black male bodies and this view of men as being more sexual than women."
Quite obviously it is this view of masculinity that privileges the penis as the symbol of power. Hence heightened interest in its dimensions; girth and length. The proliferation of "penis enlargement" advertisements that colonise Joburg's city streets is testament to this fixation. This is what makes the penis such an attractive symbol for artists to challenge the strictures, or slipping strictures that define the masculine identity.

This male body part might attract attention, but unveiling it, particularly in its limp form, immediately disrupts the mythology attached to it. The cult of the body beautiful may be shifting attitudes towards the male body, but historically it has not been the object of societies gaze.
"Is it fair for men to look at women's bodies on the beach or elsewhere, but not at men's?" asks Manekehla, implying that reassessing the representation of the penis immediately directs attention to norms around the female body. This may be why women have shown an interest in Penis Politics, and why some men have confronted the duo after performances telling them they are "sell-outs".

Athi-Patra Ruga's Deadboys Auto Exotica
Depictions of naked men tend to ruffle feathers. When Athi-Patra Ruga posted an image from his Deadboyz Auto Exotica series on Facebook to promote the work being shown on an exhibition titled The Beautyful Ones, someone reported him to Facebook authorities. The subject of Ruga's image is a naked man wearing a paper mask of Elvis Presley's face. It is part of a series of posed photographs with anonymous subjects - Sea Point hustlers - he made in 2008 and 2009.

As the culturally loaded masks imply, Ruga isn't simply interested in a display of male nudity or "unveiling" the penis, but how race and masculinity is negotiated, perpetuated in popular culture, and the role of the (African) mask in art history.
"It speaks of an erasure maybe of the African inserting themselves in the global art landscape," he says, implying that the subject/artist is like a hustler who 'sells' his African body while parading as a universal symbol.
His masks depict iconic male role models; Presley and James Dean. The one of Michael Jackson evokes a more complex matrix of themes; given his reputation as a child molester and the manner in which he feminised himself as he gradually altered his face to appear like a white person.

Ruga wanted to transform or "subjugate" the straight male body, which he achieves with the masks of Liz Taylor and Jackson. However, it is the mask in juxtaposition to the penis that secures this cheeky subversion.
"I think the penis tests polite society. The penis is a highly political part of the male body. It is usually veiled somehow for the benefit of the audience and not used as part of expression within the black community."
There are some interesting commonalities between Ruga's work and Pule and Manekehla's Penis Politics; aside from the naked penis, the subjects are masked - Pule and Manekehla behind black balaclavas. In Ruga's Deadboyz series "the nudity highlights the mask," observes Ruga, engendering the notion that while the body might be real, the identities projected on to it are artificial, though, paradoxically, this imposed identity transforms how the body is encoded.

The duo behind Penis Politics use the mask to demonstrate how men hide their true nature behind the veil, or indexes of masculinity - hence their costumes are suits.
"You can't see the facial expressions (of our characters) because they don't show their feelings - they are all hidden beneath the camouflage. You can't see what is inside them," says Manekehla.
"It's a wonderful trope," notes Ratele, "it expresses the way in which men are interchangeable and invisible, how they allow themselves to just be penises and how they hide themselves from others. They camouflage themselves. I think it takes such a lot of introspection for men to even come to terms with themselves because they live a great part of their lives in the dark."

Manekehla and Pule don't expect their provocative piece will transform society, but their aim is to elicit a discussion; to open up a space for a dialogue, so that men no longer have to be "the sheep that hide everything inside? there is a saying too that the sheep is 'dying inside'", observes Manekehla.
The duo say Penis Politics has been the most challenging work they have made.
"We are still trying to understand what it is we are doing. We hope the audience will find the answers."
Using nudity, or unveiling the penis to challenge attitudes, is a bit of a "hard sell", suggests Ratele, but he disagrees that deploying such a stereotypical symbol of masculinity to overturn it, is self-defeating.
The more frequently the penis is represented, particularly a limp one, the more chance there is in denying its legacy as sign of virility and hyper-sexuality, and the sooner it is likely "to become banal" he says, and lose its link to a narrow view of masculine power. - published in The Sunday Independent, June 9, 2013.

Pule and Manekehla performed Penis Politics at the Rencontres Chorégraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis, as part of the second leg of SA France Season that plays out in France. Ruga's Deadboyz Auto Exotica series is showing at Beauytiful Ones, curated by Storm Janse van Vuuren, at Nolan Judin Gallery in Berlin until July 6. Ruga performed The Future White Women of Azania at the 55th Venice Biennale last week. 

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