Muholi, whose photographs on issues affecting women in society usually stirs emotions told an arts blog, “I cannot say I am living to shock people. I am living to expose and also to educate. Sales, or no sales, it doesn’t matter to me – it has to be done”
Xingwana interpreted visual depiction of lesbian intimacy ‘pornographic’ and her decision to walk away robbed her of an opportunity to understand the context of such work. What Mpumalanga painter Linda Shongwe calls artistic illiteracy resulted in the vandalism of Brett Murray’s painting of The Spear in 2012. It seems political leadership in South Africa has a problem understanding a language art should use in a post’apartheid society.
Commenting on The Spear saga, Director of the National Arts Festival Ismail Mahomed said, “It is a sad day for SA particularly when we boast that our democracy was built on the historical legacy that the arts played a significant part in our fight against the past system.”
31-years old artist Mary Sibande feels that one of the challenges facing artists post’apartheid is to find a visual voice with which they can be able to articulate issues closer to them. She says her consistent theme, which she explores with her alter-ego named Sophie has been to tell stories of her family.
“My grandmother had two African names. Since both of them couldn’t be pronounced by her employers when she worked as a domestic worker they called her Elsie. That story made me feel sad. The stripping of people’s identity because of what they did for a living was painful”, Sibande discloses. She adds that her grandmother had lots of dreams and wanted to be a teacher. “She wanted not to be a maid. So since I was born in the ‘80s I felt that through my art I needed to tell my great-grandmother and grandmother’s stories”
Her stories, of colonialism and stolen identities are in reality relative to almost every Black South African family. Sibande’s alter ego, Sophie is an army of life-size sculpted dolls dressed in blue domestic worker overalls and aprons. Women being stripped of identity is a canvas for her work.
However the artworks that emerged post’94, unlike traditional pieces about longing and nostalgia such as those of Gerald Sekoto which commemorated a dark era in South Africa, seems to sit uncomfortable with society while trying to advocate for the same wounded society.
Johannesburg arts curator Priscilla Jacobs has observed a running theme in most of the work she exhibits. “Contemporary art which is produced locally is reflective of the way life is at the moment. Visual artists are reflecting more the HIV/AIDS reality”, Jacobs says.
Which is exactly what Muholi told Mahala about the portrait of a naked woman holding inflated condoms which she took on a Durban beach, “I wanted to articulate the lack of safe sex in our relationships. I have friends who are HIV positive or are still coming out and we still don’t have better methods [of contraception].”
“I think with visual artists issues of women emancipation are being articulated given that it’s more about the subject matter, about what happens around them. Some is even more political” adds arts curator Eunice Rooi.
The heavily varnished statuettes that zigzag the Newtown landscape narrate the story of contemporary Johannesburg. The miniature busts could easily be paying homage to the bronze statue of Brenda Fassie, which itself represents feminine greatness.
Art, both visual and craft have for many years been archives of different epochs in the history of South Africa. The Polaroids shot by the late Alf Khumalo managed to communicate a whole history of a country’s people.
Sophie represents many aspects of identity and society’s perception of beauty. “Beauty depends of what fills you. We must understand how much our identity was compromised. With curly hair you were not beautiful. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a certain look but identity plays a role”, Sibande says.
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