Poking political fingers at the state
ARECENT incident at The Castle in Cape Town was a sobering reminder that the suppression of artistic freedom looms over South Africans as a credible threat. It was also, however, a salutary lesson in the extent to which things are much worse for artists in other parts of the world.
On a scale of one to 10 — with one being Facebook complaints by “concerned” citizens who don’t approve of an artist’s moral or ideological views, five being almost everything Lulu Xingwana did while arts and culture minister, and nine being the ruling party’s response to The Spear last year — it was probably not more than a three.
A group of Chinese tourists, visiting the Dinner for 101 exhibition in The Castle’s Lady Anne Barnard Banqueting Hall, took exception to Julie Lovelace’s work I Did it Mao Wei Wei. Lovelace has taken a commemorative ceramic plate featuring Mao Zedong and added two streams of bloody tears running from the beloved chairman’s eyes.
The punning title, alluding to much-persecuted contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, poses a provocative question: would Mao have approved of the current Chinese authorities’ actions?
But most of the young Chinese visitors, it turns out, had no idea who Weiwei is or why he has been incarcerated. They were objecting to the defacing of Mao’s image. They wanted to buy the plate so they could destroy it.
All this got me thinking about the Chinese artists whose work was included in Making Way, an SA-China collaboration curated by Ruth Simbao earlier this year.
There’s no doubt that Chinese arts practitioners are heavily constrained by censorship; they have to find oblique, often allegorical, methods to criticise the state. The most prominent piece in Making Way was an animation by Wu Junyong, in which silhouetted figures played out the violent consequences of the greed, ambition, jealousy and cruelty of the power-hungry.
There was a clear resonance with the work of William Kentridge, both his early stopframe Felix and Soho charcoal animations and his more recent film installations, which draw heavily on the iconography of the Soviet Union.
It seems fairly obvious that communist Russia, lateapartheid SA and contemporary China share a lack of tolerance for dissent. Government oppression feeds citizens’ psychological repression, and it is unsurprising that works of art representing this combination take on sublime and nightmarish qualities — along with healthy doses of black comedy.
It is noteworthy, then, that these features are present in Jaco Sieberhagen’s The Carnival (No dogs allowed). Sieberhagen’s medium is steel; his method is laser-cutting. Yet his parade of “floats” snaking through the Artspace Gallery seems to be in motion — and, as the individual sculptures are so thin that they appear two-dimensional, they become silhouettes, like shadowpuppets against the white walls.
Sieberhagen is working in a democratic state and enjoys the protection of its constitution. His critiques are direct and explicit, not submerged or tangential. Yet the carnivalesque and chaotic and social milieu he portrays seems closer to the USSR, the People’s Republic of China or apartheid SA in its absurd contradictions and downright hypocrisy.
The exhibition’s subtitle refers to Jacob Zuma’s notorious quip about dogs and “clever blacks”, and there are invocations of news stories reflecting the troubled state of the nation: Marikana, the Limpopo textbooks scandal, Nkandla, tenderpreneurship, the high-end whisky consumption of “revolutionary” youth leaders.
But the works also protest against the daily anxieties of the citizenry: violent crime, a feeling of voicelessness, apparently irreconcilable differences between different sectors of society. If the carnivalesque is supposed to represent subversion of social roles and hierarchies, in this South African carnival the power relations are simply reinforced: the politicianbusinessman-jesters are having fun at constituents’ expense.
The Carnival (No dogs allowed) runs until April 30 www.artspace-jhb.co.za