Business Day

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

 ??  ?? STEELY STATEMENT: Jaco Sieberhage­n’s Tender-risers from The carnival (No dogs allowed).
STEELY STATEMENT: Jaco Sieberhage­n’s Tender-risers from The carnival (No dogs allowed).

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