Monday, May 19, 2014

Fashioning the Rainbow Dream

Mary Sibande's A Terrible Beauty is Born (2013)
The one enduring motif that emerged from the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (International Surrealist exhibition) at the Galerie Beaux-Arts in Paris was the female mannequin. This landmark exhibition was like a veritable shop window colonised by mannequins except for their bizarre getups. Some had large amorphous balls of cottonwool attached to their heads (head in the clouds?), others were covered in fishing nets and accessorised with magnets.  Surrealism was, after all, concerned with "exploring the borderline between the inner and the outer world, a borderline that is physically and psychologically entirely real ('surreal')", as Max Ernst, one of the central proponents of the movement, explained.

The mannequin, it seemed, operated as the ideal conduit to articulate or make real the unreal, the surreal, being the invisible world of the mind, the psyche and its longings, which seek affirmation in the real world.
Fashion retailers have exploited this condition; filling shop windows with ideal human supplicants that project or make real the fantasised imaginings of observers, encouraging them to believe that they could enter this world if they purchased the outfits and accessories that adorn these lifeless beings.

As we all know, this illusion can be sustained long after you have taken these new purchases out of the bag; for the dream scenario remains locked in the mind, shaping what the eye cannot see.
But it does take some effort on the part of the wearer to maintain the fantasy and eventually there does come a day when they can no longer do so, compelling them to jettison the garment or wear it with less sense of pride or energy.

The word "dream" has dominated discussions around South Africa's 20 years of democracy and our concept of the post-apartheid landscape. This dream has been so powerful it has worked as the lens through which we have viewed our past, present and future. Reflecting on how South Africans "manufactured" Mandela, he observed: "I am the product of the South African intelligentsia of every colour, who have laboured to give our society knowledge of itself and to fashion our people's aspirations into a reasonable dream."
What is this dream that haunts our national consciousness and which has come to function as a yardstick to measure how far we have come?  Or, to conceive of it in another way; is the dream any different to a shop-window display peopled by mannequins and props working towards situating this fantasy as real, achievable? This analogy can perhaps be deepened or made more convincing by the fact that largely in discourses delineating the nature of the dream or its failure to be realised, commentators tend to list the material or quantifiable properties along which we can measure the reality against the dream.

Figures and statistics are often used in such a pursuit and it is not to say that we shouldn't map transformation in terms of wealth or land distribution, unemployment levels or by the quality of our public education and health institutions. These very real realities need to be constantly addressed and assessed.
However, in terms of measuring a "dream", they perhaps only offer us insight into the physical dimensions of how it might manifest but not the power of the fantasy itself. Just as studying the dimensions of an Armani jacket cannot help us fully grasp the psychic pay-off that the wearer hopes it might fulfil.
The kind of dreaming that clothing or seductive presentations elicit is not rooted in possessing the garments per se but the sense of pleasure-seeking image that they might deliver.
This is one of the reasons that the patterns of the consumption of fashion remains so insatiable; the clothing ultimately can never deliver on the dream, forcing individuals to keep on accumulating garments as a means of chasing or turning the pleasurable dramas in the shop window into reality.
Ruga's White Woman of Azania in Grahamstown (2012)

Coincidentally, the new imagined post-apartheid identity was first made real through clothing and an identity-driven art photography culture that focused on "dressing up" and trying out new identities.
The focus on the body as the site on which to project transformation wasn't unexpected: the country's oppressive racial past centred on hard categories based on physical appearance.
A new crop of designer labels who found prominence on the ramps of SA Fashion Week, such as Amanda Laird Cherry, Nkhensani (Manganyi) Nkosi of the Stoned Cherrie label, Craig Native and Jacques van der Watt of the Black Coffee label, all started working at forging a new vocabulary that was recognisably different from before, though also familiar enough for wearers to understand what it communicated.

As this Afrocentric turn in fashion took hold, eventually populating store windows with mannequins adorned in A-line Skirts with Xhosa trims, any manner of garment in Seshweshwe prints, and Seventies style T-shirts bearing Steve Biko's likeness, the dream of the new democratic country seemed possible. Nothing articulates transformation faster than a change of dress. As a multiracial melting-pot and hot-bed of creativity, Sophiatown at its height in the 40s and 50s became the guiding light for the Stoned Cherrie aesthetic or the road map to the new imagined identity. The blueprint for who we wanted to be was hidden in the past.
But fashions come and go, and by the mid-Noughties, this vocabulary had grown tired, and seemed flawed and superficial; the African references were vague, designers used them without knowing their historical significance and, more importantly, the Afrochic vibe as it was called, started to become so rigid that it sought to fix identity in ways that seemed reminiscent of the past. Besides, the euphoria of the early years of democracy was starting to wane.
"We have a more sober approach to the country's politics; we are nervous. We are questioning the government. The crime phenomenon and constant electricity blackouts have changed the mood," observed Laird Cherry, reflecting on the shift in her design vocabulary.

No new visual language in fashion replaced the Afrochic vibe; this seemed to coincide with the realisation that the Rainbow Nation was a little more complex than had initially been envisaged.
The pervasive sense of disillusionment with the status quo may be read as not only dissatisfaction with current conditions (political, economic, social) but also as a sense of loss that the dream promised in the virtual and real store-window displays had not been attained.
Like the multi-coloured ballooned costume that the artist Athi-Patra Ruga pops at the conclusion of his White Women of Azania performances (a series of works from 2010 to date), this psychic attachment to the Rainbow Nation dream had surely been deflated.
Ruga's costume has proved the ideal metaphor for this dream of a better future; aside from its multi-coloured appearance, balloons are symbols of celebrations, and their lifespan as fleeting as the jubilant parties they decorate.

Like Ruga's artificial plastic costume, the dream is easily deflated, is just a screen to disguise the truth. It is not so much that Ruga wants to show us what exists behind the fantasy, but rather exposes the mechanics of dreaming.
Through his performance art and, more recently, his solo exhibition, White Women of Azania Saga, Ruga demonstrates how necessary utopian fantasies are; and how hard they are to resist; they are so seductive.
Yet as his performances conclude with annihilating the euphoric facade, and in fact as observers of this we anticipate this ending, he shows how we are also paradoxically fixated with dismantling the fantasy. It is only when the fantasy is destroyed that we are free from it. For as liberating as it may be to be able to dream, one can be enslaved by dreams.

This is one of the observations that can be gleaned from Mary Sibande's extraordinary series of installation works and photographs centred on the biographical character Sophie, a mannequin modelled on the artist that debuted in 2009. Sophie is always depicted with her eyes closed, indicating that she lives in her mind and is caught in a dream-state.
Her outfit, a fusion of a domestic worker's outfit and royal attire from the Victorian era, becomes an expression of her inner desires, her dream of liberation from servitude, which the regal aspects to her dress signify.

Sophie's fantasies are often weighed down by reality; her outfit is still predominantly a domestic worker outfit and her "liberation" is only realised in small nods to a colonial authority through her flamboyant dress.
The title of the work The Wait Seems to Go on Forever (2009), which pictures Sophie standing at a bus stop, indicates that Sophie's fantasies might have taken flight because liberation seemed unattainable. The barrier that remains constant to Sophie's liberation in all of Sibande's works is, of course, her psyche, which remains haunted by the legacy of servitude and oppression. She cannot "dream" away her past.
As the title of Ruga's work indicates, the dream of Azania, this utopian pre-colonial African state, is entangled in this future desire for a new nation; a state where the past has been left behind, erased even.
In this way, it seems that the dream that South Africans have so closely held on to before and after the landmark elections of 1994 is propelled by a desire to transcend reality itself. In other words, to be completely submerged in a "dream state" as is Sibande's Sophie character. - first published in The Sunday Independent, April 27, 2014

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