Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town
Taking place in the male and female bathrooms at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, ‘It’s rude to stare but you’re welcome to see’ ran for only one evening. The group show’s curator, Isabella Chydenius, said the staff didn’t want people to feel uncomfortable using the bathroom with others coming in to view the art: this would transgress the privacy and safety that the bathroom is supposed to provide. Ironically, many works exhibited that evening reflected the constant transgression of such a sense of safety.
It was the first time I’d noticed it – the pink. Before it was just a bathroom, a row of cubicles, the serifed L of the LADIES screwed onto the door slightly skew. A place to change or relieve oneself or maybe have a cry. Who, in a higher education cultural institution, would choose to paint the walls pink?
I looked at the mirror, at the woman’s face – a cut out from a famous painting – pasted onto it. Her eyes were cut out too, her head floating in that reflective space. The flower in her hair was a perfect match for the walls.
“It’s so smart,” my friend said, “such a simple medium, yet conveying so much.”
“Well” – they paused – “like, where does ‘the nude’ become naked? And speaking to this painting” – they gestured to Manet’s Olympia’s floating head – “as the watershed work that made us confront that question. Then bringing it into this space – the every day – asking the viewer to occupy it themselves: am I sexual object or do I have autonomy?”
“And then also locating that – this whole exhibition – in this historical art context.”
The curation, my friend pointed out, functioned as an intervention – a disruption of gendered spaces – showing the difference between the institutional space and the conversations that are happening within it. A voice, singing, drew me towards the furthest cubicle. It was a sound piece, playing from a speaker on the shelf. The voice was sweet and resonant.
“I cannot believe in the Bible for the Bible does not believe in me.”
The recording echoed, like a song in a church, or a school hall, the sound of the singer’s feet on the floorboards, providing a beat. Their breath was audible.
“This man, this man, made me feel so cold.”
Kim Windvoegel, the artist, made the work in response to an experience of sexual harassment, after which they took refuge in Hiddingh hall, a space which, they found “echoed at the slightest whimper.” They remained there, singing away their fear. The voice, ringing out the speaker, was beautiful – sad and tired and angry.
As we exited ‘the ladies’, I was confronted with a double volume black and white canvas bearing a roughly painted rendering of the Alphabet.
“A is for AIDS
B is for BISEXUAL
C is for CONVERSION”
It was dark and nostalgic and etched with resonance – childhood, sex, violence, pain – tempered with humour and honesty. “Remember to paint this” was written in pencil on the corner. “AlphaButt” – I read – “aims to be a functional and educational work around the current and historical relevance of queerness.” I liked the title, the play on words, the showing up of the hegemony of language, the way some of the letters bled into each other: “C is for conversion” reading as “cis”. Those scrawled letters shocked and moved me. Reading the words, I felt like I knew the artist – Brett Charles Seiler – knew him intimately. This speaks to the exhibition title, a reference to seeing and being seen.
The boys’ bathroom door bore the classic male stick figure. The short corridor opened up to steps, leading down into a cavernous room. It was below ground level and felt dingy, despite the walls being painted – I wanted to laugh – baby blue. There were photographs of a person surrounded by flowers, and firelight; colours too joyous for the space. “It doesn’t smell as bad in here as I would have expected,” my friend said.
In the first stall, was a video by Dean Hutton, taken with a webcam. The footage uses the thermal filter, and mirror effect, rendering a trippy sequence of blue-green-red-yellow shades. Alone in front of a camera, the artist moves their hands, as if observing the effect, the coalescence of flesh. Classical music plays in the background. The more I watched, the sadder the image became: a series of isolated bodily reflections, which felt intimate yet also profoundly lonely. Titled Holodean, the body then becomes holographic? Hollow? Haloed? Holy? The work had no description, but the artist’s bio stated a strategy of “improvised actions by a ‘Fat Queer White Trans body’ [which] share moments of soft courage to affirm the right of all bodies to exist, to be celebrated and protected.”
A digital collage hung above the toilet in the adjacent stall. Artist Thembeka Heidi Sincuba’s description of the work was the briefest of the entire show:
“This is a piece about hopelessness. Absolute futility in the realization that certain bodies are doomed to unspeakable violences. Perhaps they are speakable. But they will never be spoken.” They are pictured on the toilet, their panties pulled down to their ankles. It is a vulnerable stance. Having that image in the male bathrooms, with the sounds of the other videos and people talking and laughing, felt (aptly and painfully) violating.
In the Ritchie building, I sat down beside a conversation with eli – a piece by Luvuyo Equiano Nyawose, featuring a double mattress stuck on the wall, a sound recording emanating from behind it. Even sitting, I strained to hear, adding to the sense of intimacy. In the unedited conversation, eli and the artist spoke about bodily knowledge and autonomy, ego, self-worth, fear and falling in love. The artist spoke of a crush, their reservations about his masculine presentation, and the implications that would have in sex. This became a discussion of prescribed positions and the way queer folks can reinforce traditional roles. The worn familiarity of the mattress concretized these words.
The photographs on the opposite wall were beautiful, but felt flat next to the mattress, with a photographic sheen like magazine print.“Queer representation so often reverts to pornographic.” My friend had joined from outside. “I mean, I know that’s often our first point of reference for experiencing our difference. But, maybe that’s the idea behind the work.”
The white walls felt like a gallery space: a bit unexciting, sanitized. The bathrooms, on the other hand, activated the works, gave them a weight and relevance – this is real. This feeling was bolstered by so many of the works being interactive or performative. It is tempting to say that the more powerful works were the ones that drew on, and evoked, an experiential reality, rather than on theory, image, or “art-speak.” But, that would also be reductive. That would be saying: “Gender isn’t this, it’s that” or “It’s not seen, it’s felt,” which is bullshit. Indeed, that evening showed that gender is everything: the bathrooms, the mirrors, the art-speak, the memories, the sound, the smell, the walls and all of the lives taking place inside them.