The problematics of sexual orientation and gender identity
The fact that the New York Time Out dedicates about six pages (on average) to its art section, and three to its gay and lesbian section can only be put into some sort of perspective when one knows that New York has almost 1000 galleries. While, according to Gary van Wyk of Axis Gallery, only about 100 of those are considered 'serious', that is still a load of galleries, and, presumably, a load of GLBT activity in the Big Apple.
Half of the activity is not often seen, not in the average press anyway and perhaps the same can be said of queer art in South Africa. When I was asked to contribute to the Pink Issue I wondered whether it was still an issue. Apart from some of the stalwarts, like Steven Cohen and Clive van den Berg, who consistently put out thought provoking work (see van den Berg's last Goodman show 'Love's Ballast' which had ArtThrob editor Sean O'Toole's acknowledgement of intellectual grappling) there seems to be a bit of a dearth. Gender doesn't seem that high on the agenda at the moment.
If one compares it to the race and identity issue then queer pales into insignificance. The issues are still there, even fairly recently shows with homosexual content managed to get protesting letters in the papers, albeit with less burning intensity. Even in conservative America, where it is still legal in some states to deny homosexuals a fair range of rights (including renting a space) the television is full of gay and lesbian series that are deemed suitable for family viewing.
Apart from the long running and ever popular Will and Grace, the new hits of the moment are Queer Eye and The L Factor, and what with the Madonna and Britney thing it seems there is a certain co-option by the mainstream.
KwaZulu Natal (KZN) certainly has its fair share of artists who are queer but not many who are queer artists if you understand my distinction. Few engage overtly with any issues around same sex orientation in their work. Of the old guard, one of the few exceptions is Andrew Verster. Well versed in the art of queer presentation, his highly decorative paintings sell like hot cakes while his linear drawings of naked men embracing have gotten him into trouble more than once.
On reflection I realised it is the middle generation of lesbian and gay arts practitioners, in this province at least, that have their attention elsewhere (which I suppose is revealing in its own right), but interestingly there is a new group of up-and-coming artists who are grappling with personal identity issues around sexual orientation. They are doing this with a tact and a wit that makes the work nuanced and unpredictable.
Recent graduates of the Fine Art department at DIT Anet Norval, Vaughan Sadie and Andre Mostert all explore the problematics of sexual orientation and gender identity in their work. Norval tackles gender politics in a world that to this day prescribes the particular colour deemed appropriate for baby boys and girls. In the adult world gender roles still play themselves out in equally expected ways and Norval's sense of being at odds with this is presented in a series of drawings and paintings that are often witty and sometimes poignant.
Overturning gender expectations in such works as the wickedly funny 'I am Miss World', with its tiny addendum 'somebody kill me', she plays up stereotypical images of little girls culled from children's story books by setting them off against 'boys' toys - trucks and cars. Stories of her desire to imitate her father and match his abilities in male terrains such as fishing and car maintenance become movingly personal in the telling. Interestingly, Norval reveals another displaced voice when she does not eschew her Afrikaans background, choosing to present her narratives in Afrikaans as often as in English.
Vaughan Sadie has built up a body of work around performance, video and photography that explores issues of censure, public denial and personal censoring. Low-key works that are sometimes only vaguely visible and works that actively involve erasure as part of their meaning predominate in his production.
Exploring the finer degrees of discretion, sometimes called into play by a sexual orientation confronted by society's approbation, is Sadie's series of six plates. Fixed vertically to a wall, echoing his own six-foot height, the words "I am" are glazed white on white onto their surface, and are almost invisible to the eye. In a recent performance at the NSA, Sadie took a phrase about the performativity of gender from queer theorist Judith Butler and had the letters placed against the wall.
During the performance he took the letters of the phrase one by one, removing them to another location to build another sentence - a work that in its action acknowledged the performing act and at the same time the doubt that often informs it. His final phrase read: "I cannot find the gesture". Andre Mostert, while not as prolific as the other two, is a young photographer, whose dark and evocative images of elusive moments in male on male interaction also show promise.