I first came across the exhibition statement of this show, ‘Love thy Neighbour’ by Lisette Forsyth, on the State of the Art Gallery website. Since the gallery operates with online sales, images of the artworks are available on the site. The statement expressed the way the artist perceives strangers as they look at her when walking on the streets of Johannesburg. She says “this stranger may be a man in a coat and tie, or a woman who wears the cotton uniform of a maid, or a construction worker stripped to the waist…He may look at me with resentment, or longing, or with the twistedness that comes with hating… I am defined by the eyes that see me in the street. I cannot escape them. I cannot change them…” These statements read immensely on personal perceptions and thought of other people. The artist is passing judgement on these people but she cannot read their minds and what they are thinking as they might be going about their own business. Forsyth’s description of the stranger provides a mental picture of the person(s) she is imposing these thoughts on. This has in effect dulled my thoughts and created metal images for me, but I will not say just so I do not impose my own selective judgement as well.
Upon entering the gallery, I notice how small the space is. The artworks are mounted on gallery walls and movable dry walls, with little space between them. Moreover there is a rack of more artworks on the floor of the gallery. There is variety in the choice of material and the works have a sense of common purpose. Immediately I am drawn to the colour photocopies of identity books, passports and permits, all belonging to foreign nationals and showing details of who they are and where they are from. On the copy are painted portraits of the person the document belongs to: one individual born in South Africa to Congolese parents, another a citizen from Kenya, passports from Malawi and Mali and the rest are temporary permits of persons from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Somalia and Congo.
The portraits are snapshots where the subjects often appear to be looking away from the camera and with either a smile or some sort of serene expression. Entrenched in the nature of portraiture painting is its tendency in representing the likeness, mood and personality of a person. Forsyth’s use of the camera becomes a new medium of convenience to capture still images. Unlike before when the artist had the subject as a sitter, now the camera, in the hands of the artist, becomes the object for capturing her subject. The history and development of cameras being included in paintings has existed since the time of Impressionist art as a means to capture movement and real life moments appearing frozen, which enabling focus on detail and contrast. They painted everyday activities of people with thought-out compositions and the use of complimentary colours contributed to the painting’s vibrancy in giving the impression that they are alive. Forsyth seems to capture the same idea in her realistic portraiture renditions of her subjects which further resembles, in my opinion a school textbook illustration.
The quality of the photocopy is very good and it shows the appealing line designs, water marks and colours from the original documents. Forsyth is consist in intentionally painting portraits over the text not hiding any of the information, because of her washed up tones of colour, like watercolour, which allow you to see the text through the paint. By adding layers of paint on already printed documents, especially relative to this selection she has, elevated the artworks beyond the confines of the gallery into the public, interrogating the role the Department of Home Affairs has as managers of these documents. By law these are personal documents with information not meant to be shared with just anyone. Information such as identification numbers, finger prints and signatures are unique representations of individuals and no one has the same trademark as the other. It is for this reason we keep it confidential; like a pin code.
Forsyth’s attempt of seeking “to depict the warmth and personality of her characters in contrast to the coldness of the identity numbers, conditions, stamps and crest that document the individuals to whom they belong”, challenges the meaning and significance of these documents. The South African identity book was established during the apartheid era and was known as “the book of life” because it directed who you were, where you were from and where you belonged. Consequently, the document spoke to issues of identity-following in its name. The same identity reveals the fact that the artist is white and her subject is black. Her act of collecting these documents resembles the past apartheid laws of the dompas. This, in my opinion, has resulted is a political act that has been turned into an artistic performance rather than on that is didactic in its method. This becomes clear in her failure to mentioning the fact that foreign nationals carry permits and passports on them on a daily basis because they still experience the same treatment from the police, similar to that of the dompas. They are forced to show these documents on request to indicate they are legal immigrants. With the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa, request for them to prove their identity have heightened and with the outcome of about hundred foreign nationals found with illegal documents in the city of Cape Town alone.
The artist obtained the documents from the owners and she says ‘finding people who would trust me with their document – and getting to know them better, has been very rewarding.’ With many complaints on the unbearable queues and long waiting periods endured with the various Departments of Home Affairs to release these papers, it now seems negligent for a person to give a document like this to a stranger. This is especially true when hearing about cases of identity theft where one finds people caught in debt because of forgery or fraud. I am left questioning the amount of thought put in the choice of material and production of these artworks. The amount of personal information exposed in this exhibition, from the personal documents, the painted portraits and statements found under each artwork about where each subject is currently staying and working as you walk out, with nothing left for the imagination.
What is missing from the exhibition is the artist’s presence in the narrative of her subject. These are immigrants, migrating and with some leaving families behind for better opportunities. She has no personal relationship to them accept that of documenting, collecting and displaying their information. The colour copies and the stories seem to be used as aesthetic objects that the artist has documented without any sensitivity or caution in revealing the instability of the immigrant’s life even though she herself was born in Namibia. Forsyth’s skin colour has not allowed her to experience the same treatment as her subjects, thus she has stable and enjoys different privileges unlike those experienced by some of her subjects who make a living being car guards and woodcraft sellers.
Forsyth’s exhibition uses very politically sensitive material in a way that puts the life of her subject as public display. I find it difficult to believe this neighbourly love found in the title of her exhibition, ‘Love Thy Neighbour.’ According to Corinthians 13, love does not keep a record of wrongs, it does not dishonour and is not self-seeking, and therefore love does not impose judgment nor does it create a divide. A single-sided narrative struggles to tell a good story.