Ten years on
One image has come to define the 'Decade of Democracy' exhibition now showing at the South African National Gallery (SANG). The Kiss, a photographic work by Tracey Rose, depicts an apparently white naked female on the lap of a black naked male, locked in an intimate embrace. The reference to Auguste Rodin's famous marble sculpture by the same name is clear. The two are seated on a pedestal in a gallery.
The image at first appears to address race issues. This interpretation is encouraged by the context of this exhibition: a celebration of 10 years of democracy following the abolition of apartheid. But in fact it is far more complex.
The image pokes a bit of fun at the artist's own relationship with the business world. The laughing woman in The Kiss is the artist herself and the lap belongs to her American art dealer. It can therefore be said to make some tongue-in-cheek comment on the commercial imperatives of being an artist.
The reason this image is such a fitting icon for the exhibition as a whole is the way it undermines one's expectations. Those viewers after a Rainbow Nation glow will be disappointed. The artworks on display do not present a coherent, unified picture of a post-apartheid society bathing in its own glory, as one might anticipate. Instead, they fracture the New South Africa into a multiplicity of issues ranging from gender to health, from human rights to identity.
Another reason The Kiss stands out is its use of the human figure. This preoccupation is a common thread weaving through the nine rooms that make up the exhibition, which includes 150 works from the past decade. From Lynne Lomofsky's video about the effects of cancer on her body to Berni Searle's imprints of her naked form in spices, the body has arguably replaced landscape as the metaphor of choice for South African contemporary artists.
Emma Bedford, the exhibition's curator, says using the figure is obviously not new to this decade. Rather, South Africans are now living in a more "people-driven" era. She says: "I think we are far more people-oriented. A lot of works pick up on issues of human rights - the Bill of Rights, for example, has conscientised people � and given us a new perspective� we have realised it is vital we learn to relate to one another."
As the exhibition guide states, one of the most remarkable features of the decade is the way South Africans faced one another to come to terms with the past, as for example, in The Truth Commission. In Sue Williamson's interactive video work, Can't Forget, Can't Remember (2000), the viewer gets the choice of which testimony to hear and a click of the mouse affects the projection. The tactic is effectively disconcerting: one becomes partially responsible both for the unfolding stories and for what one is prepared to hear.
Related works, like Colin Richards' The Veil series, deal with specific events like the death of Steven Biko. Others make a broader comment on the process of remembering. Johannes Segogela's History Press reminds us that history is always written by the victors.
Segogela's concern is shared by other artists on show. A lot of the works look at history - some going as far back as the 17th century, while others look at slavery at the Cape or the Groot Trek. Bedford adds: "A lot of artists are trying to come to terms with the past, where we have come from ... a process of revision, of rewriting and re-thinking history."
The rooms are thematically arranged, beginning with an introduction that views democracy as a whole. It is a rich and varied trip that raises a whole range of issues confronting South Africans today, with the human figure often the site of that exploration. The artists fracture our post-apartheid reality into a series of projections, exciting in their diversity of theme and media, while negating a monolithic idea of a Rainbow Nation.
Opens: April 3
Closes: August 31
South African National Gallery, Government Avenue, Company Gardens, Cape Town
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Hours: Tues - Sun 10 am - 5 pm
Interview with the author on Fine Music Radio, April 16, 2004