ArtThrob has been running since 1997. Our archives contain a particular history of South African art. ArtThrob will be highlighting some of this history in a new series called Archive Dive. The following piece comes from March 2004. The issue of ArtThrob (we ran monthly issues back then) was called ‘The Pink Issue,’ and was guest edited by Andrew Lamprecht. This piece is by Storm Janse Van Rensberg and considers how queer culture has been integrated into South Africa, but issues of queer art still remain unexplored. He also voices a nostalgia for the days of more agressive queer activism. The image is by Steven Cohen.
The original article can be found here.
The invitation to contribute to a ‘Pink Issue’ unleashed strange emotions, akin to nostalgia, for the heady days of queer politics and the moffie movements of the 1980s and 1990s. Since then it seems us queer folk have been fully integrated into tourism campaigns and niche target markets. Time has cleansed the filth of history, and we are entering the era of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages and child adoptions. Our constitutional rights have allowed us to be assimilated into polite society, the process of acculturation almost complete. We have been painted beige.
As we collectively sail forth on our heterosexual-like dreamboat, I cannot help but recount some recent experiences of venturing outside of the bubble. My partner and I went house hunting in an upmarket suburb for a pad to rent. Fortunately (in hindsight) we had to retreat back to our inner city grey area, as door upon door slammed in our face. Our credential formula of two-professionals-in-a-same-sex-mixed-race partnership does not gel with property owners.
But this contribution is about art. In 1995 I presented a paper at the ‘First Southern African Colloquium on Gay and Lesbian Studies’ at the University of Cape Town. (To my knowledge this was also the last conference under the Gay and Lesbian umbrella.) I presented on the work of Steven Cohen, in reference to his work and the emergence of gay/queer identity in South Africa.
The premise was taken from a famous work of Cohen’s, that of Mandela in a large white wig in a Marie-Antoinette parody, with the infamous speech bubble: “Let them eat cock”. In my own quest for self-expression and affirmation as a young homosexual ‘discovering’ this work made the penny drop. It is also a fitting portrait of an early 1990s ‘gay liberation’.
Cohen’s work, of course, is rooted in the experience of the queer, the monster outsider whose societal destiny and role it is to out-freak as much as freak out. Earlier work consisted largely of silk-screened images, used to upholster furniture, thereby turning chairs into art. In Cohen’s own words: “If you look at it is art, and if you sit on it it’s a chair – and your bum is the catalyst”. His body works, or performances, pushed these earlier concerns even further, and his direct interactions with the public has been an ongoing project of immense courage, creativity and dare one say, beauty.
It is Cohen’s example that leads to an understanding that ‘camp’ can be a weapon, a tool for transgression and change. And style, or even sensibility, is a strong signifier of sexuality, orientation, and in art, carriers meaning. But trying to apply the above template on the work of gay artists does not turn the work gay – or does it? Is there gay art, and what qualifies as homoerotic art? And is there a context in South Africa for ‘art with queer content’?
Hugh MacFarlane, an amateur photographer, left some legacy. During the late 1950s into the 1970s he (presumably starting as a hobby) took images of young men, mostly naked. These were distributed through an informal network of middleclass gay men in the bigger cities. Also known in certain circles as the ‘Pornogravin’ (Porno Duchess), MacFarlane took images of what some believed were also lovers. Proof exists that he advertised in European and American ‘beefcake’ periodicals and distributed images internationally through catalogue sales. Given the apartheid regime’s position on homosexuality and its associated cultures, this was a dangerous pastime.
These images are provocative and an important link with the past, and should be reclaimed in some kind of public process: publications, exhibitions, etc. To date, however, MacFarlane remains largely unknown outside a generation of gay men in their late seventies. The importance of these images as an early document of South African white gay male experience and imaging must be emphasised, particularly as a reclaiming exercise.
According to Nayland Blake (writing on beefcake and Tom of Finland, but also applicable here) it is the circulation of these pin-up images that created a placeless community before physical communities existed, creating ‘image reservoirs’ around which identity was constructed.
MacFarlane died in 1995, and a friend removed a large collection of his work consisting of prints, negatives and catalogues from his house right after his death before family arrived. Paranoia of persecution persisted, and he destroyed some of this material. Thankfully, a couple of years later he donated what was left to the then Gay and Lesbian Organisation Pretoria (GLOP). It was later handed over to the Gay and Lesbian Archives South Africa (GALA), where it is currently housed at the University of Witwatersrand.
Both Steven Cohen and Hentie van der Merwe have made use of MacFarlane’s imagery. Some of the pinup images popped up in early Cohen silkscreens, and van der Merwe, in an untitled installation from 1997, appropriated images from the MacFarlane archives. The images used were official photographic documentation MacFarlane took for the South African military in the 1940s, while he was in service. This archive consists of hundreds of images of naked men, presumably fresh conscripts and army recruits, taken for an unknown kind of ethnographic exercise. All ‘portraits’ were of men standing in the same pose, rigid and with blank expressions, looking vulnerable and exposed.
The existence of these images in private (MacFarlane’s) hands raises some ethical questions, and so does the use of them by van der Merwe. Fully aware of this, he (re)presented the images in this installation, obscuring access to the small room (filled floor to ceiling with these portraits) by a barrier of glass. This restriction and obfuscation places the viewer ‘on the spot’, making them aware of his/her power as a spectator. The view itself turned inside. According to Lauri Firstenberg, this technique also served as a critique of gay /queer desire.
The queer thread in contemporary South African art is seemingly becoming thinner. A black gay and lesbian voice is virtually absent from contemporary discourse. Other than Cohen and van der Merwe, Clive van den Berg’s oeuvre is also responsive to and comments on homosexual experience; the same could be said of certain works produced by Andrew Verster. Other names do not come to mind quickly. Some might also claim that their sexual orientation is not important as material for content.
As homosexuals seemingly become more ‘integrated’ with the rest of them, the immediate, obvious struggle seems to be over. However, this is in times when the expression of homosexual desire is still a contested terrain in all kinds of social manifestations. Does the constitution guarantee personal protection as we live our lives in townships, farms and in the workplace? I suspect we tend to keep our status quiet. We may even be hiding in new, slightly roomier closets.