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.