PM AND MR MPHO MOSHE MATHEOLANE CHAT ABOUT REPRESENTATIONAL VIOLENCE IN THE ARTS

PM is of the opinion that all sacred cows should be milked,  grilled and garnished on the nearest iconoclastic braai. “Why?” you may ask. Well Panga People, keep reading and PM will share.

If you don’t milk a cow the udders get sore and infected. The milk goes scabenga and can leak out slowly. The poor little cows udders will ach – like a lot, and become all that is painful. Then the cow will eventually lose the ability and flexibility to make milk. Shame for them! Shame for us! With no milk, black coffee will never meet is true love and no lattes or cappuccinos will be born. Alas, that sounds like a terrible ending to what could have been a beautiful love affair. Why would anyone want a sacred cow to suffer?  Just milk it for pity sake.  Right? Right.

That’s what some SA comedians, satirists, cartoonists, musicians and artists do. They milk the sacred cows – and they milk them well.  In SA (and in any country with cultural diversity) one person’s sacred cow can be another person’s Steers burger. Sometimes cutting the cow up, grilling and garnishing it, can cause great offense.  Should this be allowed under law? PM thinks yes. Should people remain silent when they are offended? PM thinks no.

Dialogue (not debating) dialogue, creates community across cultures, and if you have to grill or milk a sacred cow to open up dialogue. PM is all for it, bring on the braai and the potato salad!

That being said, can an artwork (cartoon etc) designed to unpack cultural stereotypes or social contexts, in fact promulgate and reinforce those very same stereotypes and social contexts? The ultimate backfire, if you will. Thus creating a “Gated  Community” of us and them, instead of opening the door for dialogue over tea.  PM refers to this as representational violence. When an artist is seen to be visually promulgating the same stereotypes they are trying to visually deconstruct.  Back in the day, in SA, there were artworks and exhibitions that were thought to have done just that, and a whole book of essays was written about it. The book was called Grey Areas.

 It articulated many view points in the “who can represent whom” and “who has the right to speak for whom” conversation , raging in the South Africa art arena. If you have not read it, and you are interested in South African art, you should.

Granted it’s a bit dated in PM’s opinion, but with the Speargate saga, and the Nando’s advert -viewed as Xenophobic by some, and now the cartoon of a Shangaan dressed up like Christ causing such an upset. PM sees that this is still very active debate. A debate that in PM’s opinion should be a very active dialogue.

The point of a debate is that people argue their point to win their opponent or audience over by force of law, personality, violence or fact. Debate assumes that there is only one right side. Where as a dialogue is not a “right and wrong” or “i win – you lose” situation. It’s a “I talk, I listen and I respect from where you’re coming” thing – followed by a “you talk, you listen and you respect from where I’m coming” situation.

And then what generally happens next, is people agree to disagree. This sounds like a waste of time really. Except – it is not. When they leave the dialogue, they understand a bit more about each other and what they realise is that they have a fair amount in common e.g.  A respect for difference. That, dear Panga People, is a lot to have in common with somebody –a shared respect of difference can build nations. Anyway, PM has wondered off the topic. Representational violence.

PM has a few twitter connections; one is the fabulous Mpho Moshe Matheolane @MphoMoshe. His twitter account says “Art: historian & critic | in over own head MG Online columnist | Law: constantly distracted scholar | Mem: Constitutional Court Artworks Committee”

He also has a nice hat or two, and a bike. PM first stumbled upon his blog The Native Aesthetic , like ages ago, and somehow PM and Mr MMM became connected in the bird nest called Twitter.

PM has invited Mr MMM over for some metaphorical tea and chat about representational violence and whatever else comes up.

MMM: Thanks for the intro PM, let me begin by saying that this is a most welcome exchange and I thank you for the idea. It is definitely important to share views and ideas as well as being open to them being challenged instead of being defensive. This exchange of ours has certainly been just that for me.

As an opener or foreword to the answers that I give to your questions let me wax lyrical for a bit about what I think are some of the things that have come out of the past few weeks when it comes to representations and reactions to them. I cannot say I have read Grey Areas, but will give it a bash when I can as it sounds proper. To deal with the issue of who represents whom in this country I think that it is important to notice that when we speak of representation in SA, it is or has usually been of one group being represented by the voices of another. Essentially what we call othering which is more than an art historical means of analysis – Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Other is a seminal work on the subject particularly as it is written from a journalistic [telling of stories on behalf of others].

In a country such as South Africa, I do not think we can ever say that there is a specifically neutral point at which representation occurs where the represented and represent(ers) are of different perspectives.  Perhaps this position will be found eventually – I certainly do hope so – but that requires that the suspicion of motives that many South Africans have of one another, from across the colour line, be done away with. A white artist representing black people is always going to draw attention in a way that they wouldn’t if the subject were white or the artist himself were black. 

I cannot say that there is anything fundamentally wrong with that as it is the artist’s prerogative. I do however think that the influence of anthropological tools have made themselves at home in art practice because many situations the white artist comes across as an ethnographer – presenting his or her findings as if they are scientific truth instead of artistic nuance. Personally I do not believe that a white artist can represent a black person, not in this day and age because it will never be the full picture and in any case, are we not of equal voices now?

It is strange when artists want to invoke a reaction but then attempt to guide or determine that reaction especially if it turns out to be more than they imagined it would be.

PM: So what’s your take on the Shangaan/ Christ cartoon?

PM has a Shangaan colleague who has suffered being called Mkwere- kwere and has often felt discrimination while working in Cape Town. PM also has a Xhosa friend whose husband is Shangaan, and her being Xhosa was a big problem for his family. So yes, PM gets that there are cultural stereotypes that are hurtful and still effect people’s judgements of each other. PM however, does not get why this cartoon is offensive.

When PM views it, PM sees the cartoonist unpacking the stupidity of judging a person and aligning more or less value to them, because of the culture they belong to. PM thinks it’s good to take the piss out of, and question the value of stereotypes in this way. And for the life of PM, PM really does not understand why the Christians are offended. What’s PM missing here?

 MMM: I can’t say I have been too surprised by the responses to the Shangaan Jesus cartoon. I don’t have much energy to entertain the Christian front – they were always going to get their undies in knot although what interests me most is whether their uproar is due to the depiction of Jesus as Black or the context, regardless of colour, that he has been presented in? I can definitely understand the cultural responses by those who feel that it is a perpetuation of cultural stereotypes. I think however, that the cartoon is far less offensive as compared to it being a reminder of a stereotype so yes, a little bit of a thick skin may be in need. The thing about intercultural or tribal stereotypes is that they are just as demeaning as racial stereotypes, perpetuated in even more subtle tones and uses of language than the latter.

 In some groups the prefix used to refer to other groups which are particularly different is of the objectifying kind as opposed to that used on themselves or those similar to themselves. A brief example: in Setswana, the use of ‘mo’ in Motswana signifies a person or the personal but the use of ‘le’, which often gets employed for many other groups for example, leZulu, signifies an object. Necessarily, there are still tensions that exist in the way some local language groups see each other.

 Many of the observations surrounding the reactions to The Spear did not seem to want to acknowledge the full spectrum of courses for the public reactions that resulted. While some groups reacted out of political loyalty or to prevent a supposed White vs Black apocalyptic civil war, many others out there reacted from a point of association, cultural sensitivity and collective memory of the treatment of the black body by the white person, artist or not. These latter reactions, as far as I can see, are no less valid than those of so-called ‘cultured’ folk who know so much about what art is, isn’t or should be.  

 Thanks to serendipity, I have a good example to give. I met with an elderly Black businessman who told me about his days during apartheid. He said that when they had to look for work in the city, they would have to stand in a line along Albert St [where the old Pass Law offices used to be] for their dompasses to be verified. While standing in this line, they had to be naked and a white warden and assistant would go down the line checking their bodies, asking them to lift their genitals for god knows what reason. Long story short, he remarked that the Spear, had the profound effect of reminding him of those days instead of invoking some kind of ANC loyalty or Zuma sympathy in him. I wondered if it is then a valid retort to tell this person that they are just not getting the artwork, that they are not cultured enough. Bullshit is my answer to these pretentious questions – there is no one way of interpreting art. Art can just as easily perpetuate an ideological position, even if through subtlety, as much as it can serve as the tool with which an ideological position is broken down.

I think that we have a bit of a way to go before we can expect people to just take things with a pinch of salt. The joke always seems funnier when you are not the butt of it – perhaps this is the nerve that the Shangaan Jesus has touched.

PM: It seems to PM that the JHB visual arts community really does not like the CT visual arts community. Have you noticed that? Being that you live in JHB – what’s your take on this?

CT and JHB in the ringer.

MMM: Indeed I have. I think that on surface of it, there is probably a clash of egos involved. Each community envisions itself as having and providing the best space or environment for the rearing [if you may] of great artistic production. I spent 5 years in Cape Town, having moved there immediately after completing my undergrad in Art History. I worked at what was then Cape Africa Platform, CAPE, an arts NGO with the unrealistic ambition of putting together a Cape Town Biennale event that would grow to be sustainable. My tenure was followed by another at [Michael] Stevenson Gallery and it was during these experiences that I believe that I got to see the underbelly of CT art scene. We already have a small national art community coupled with inadequate funding but the egos within this small pond of the arts are truly something else.

I do also think that it is a mutual dislike or mistrust of one another that goes on. Artists from Jhb find it hard to crack into the CT market and vice versa…except of course the big names. I remember being at a show at Goodman CT where Kudzanai Chiurai was having his first exhibition after joining the gallery’s stable. It was dismal compared to the attention he could and still does, demand in Jhb. I am still learning the Jhb art scene but so far it seems to have aspects of it that resemble CT and others that are indicative of the truly Afropolitan city that it is. The dislike of the CT arts community is no different from the dislike of the CT community in general.

PM: Irony seems to be undervalued at best, and not accessed at all, by a lot of people who read artworks/cartoons. An artwork can be using irony to show the stupidity of cultural stereotyping and yet people just over look the “irony” like it does not exist, and only read the stereotype. Then they feel offended. Have you noticed this? Is it just limited visual literacy, or is it because any depiction of a stereotype is automatically representational violence?

MMM: When it comes to visual representations and literacy I do not believe that there is one way of reading things. The supposedly informed art connoisseurs make the same mistake that they accuse the supposedly uninformed of making and that is, to overlook what may be valid reasons for certain readings and interpretations of visual work. I am of the position that we in SA are not homogenous, that being the case, the percentage of people who have a western sense of what art is, is much smaller compared to that of those who do not. Culturally influenced readings are not invalid in the interpretation of art. Someone who grows up taught that nakedness is a private thing is unlikely to be too pleased with a nude. This does not make them uncomfortable with their own nakedness or limited in their understanding of expression. Perhaps the greater issue at hand points to the need for us to access what our identity is when it comes to artistic/cultural representations. It is falsely assumed that we share the same perspectives when we do not.

A black comedian made the remark that satire and irony are not necessarily things that black people treat or understand in the same way as white people in this country. Something may not be a joke to them because they simple do not see it as such or see it another way which may be literal. These are things that arts education, as it is presented at Universities and written about by the critics, should be aware off.

Aunty Panga thinks that Mr MMM is lovely, and has informed PM that PM can have Mr MMM round for tea and lemon meringue when ever PM wants. PM thinks this is a great idea, and PM runs with every opportunity that gets Aunty Panga baking !

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