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Neo Fragility

by Unathi Kondile / 09.07.2012

It’s Thursday. I’m freezing outside my office waiting for renovators to finish plastering the walls. They started on the Monday. Promised to be done by Wednesday.
“Gents, what’s the plan here? When do you plan to actually finish this job?” I ask.
“No, sir, we’re done plastering.” Which I can see. “We just need to paint the walls. We’ll be done today, sir!”
Whilst perambulating a cellphone reminder beeps:
Subject: Roelof van Wyk’s
Description: Jong Afrikaner
Where: Commune.1
Date: 28 June 2012
Start: 18h30. Reminder: 16h30

Indeed, two hours later I’m outside Commune.1 gallery, on Wale Street. As I enter I’m greeted by a cloud of Dunhill light.

And as has come to be the norm in Cape Town events I attend, I tend to find I’m the first or second black in a sea of whiteness. Such consciousness of one’s black duck presence drives me to the bar first. Get myself that social lubricant called wine and proceed to diversify the space, musing at what Roelof van Wyk has to offer.

The first work I encounter is a gigantic nude young Afrikaner – near-dead flaccid shaft and an oversized scrotum. You’d swear artists like Roelof van Wyk and Brett Murray were raised by Robert Mapplethorpe himself or they were raised on a rigid curriculum of explicit phallocentrism. How else can one go about explaining their infatuation with penises in their 40s?

Moving along, from ground floor to creaky firstfloor, it dawns on me that we’re all occupying a hazardous space. Even the walls resemble those of my office, before it was re-plastered, that is. Or maybe cracked and unplastered walls are an aesthetic statement? Art, even? In which case renovators probably defaced my office with cement and new paint?

Since I’m not writing for Top Billing I might as well go back to talking art. After that gigantic nude picture things take a turn for the better once inside. Pictures are still naked or semi, but it’s just head and shoulders. Mugshots. Nothing to write letters home about, just pretty pictures of pretty people posing. Seeing as the theme is Jong Afrikaners I didn’t much anticipate seeing any black Afrikaners. That expectation was well managed.

But, here’s the kicker, for me that is: these Afrikaners are mostly skinny, hip and happening. Some are gay, some are lesbian, some are straight some are etceteras of everything English in their appearance.

To my mind Van Wyk is somehow attempting to break the Afrikaner stereotype – introducing the image of Afrikaner as cool and not just some khaki-clad fanatic on a horse. The pictures are everything except that. The males lack masculinity and the females lack that whimpering tired housewife look.

To this extent Van Wyk deserves a round of applause, because as a black observer I was taken aback by how taken aback I was upon seeing this work. Eugene Terre’Blanche must be hemorrhaging in hell at the thought of such (mis?)representation.

Somehow, though I can’t put my finger on it, Van Wyk humanises the Afrikaner, or, the boere. My coming from a black background where an Afrikaner symbolized racism, hatred and all things evil, it was an interesting contrast to my experience of Afrikaners pre-1994. I doubt that when Julius Malema chants “Dubul’ibhunu!” he has van Wyk’s pictures in mind. How would one begin to sing “Dubul’ibhunu!” to such neo-fragility? You can’t. To that extent, the artist wins.

Even, as I looked around the gallery – it was mostly young well-dressed Afrikaners, speaking Afrikaans proudly whilst quaffing Zorgvleit wines, chitter chatting smilingly. Such that one fellow struck up a conversation with me, in Afrikaans, at first. My response was a blank stare even though I have a working knowledge of Afrikaans.

He apologized and resumed in English, asking me what I think of the work to which I said it’s pretty and I wish more black audiences could see it – if anything just to mess around with their perception of what Afrikaners are, too, today.

Little did I know that I was opening up a floodgate of academic yak as he proceeded bandying about words like “existentialism” and the hard-laboured cliché of identity in art. He told me the art was rubbish and that Van Wyk is race-obsessed. I recall him uttering strings of “why?” “Why?” “Why?” at some stage. “Can’t we all just get over race and move on!?” Was the exasperated question that ended the conversation. I excused myself. I don’t take seriously anyone who asks me that.

I noticed quite a number of people who walked in and walked out quickly; with near disapproving looks of “what a waste of time!”

As I head for the door I bump into artist, Stuart Bird. We chat about the exhibition. Agree on the exhibition. A young lady joins in and rides something I was saying about Afrikaner stereotypes. She tells me not all Afrikaners are right-wing nutcases. In fact, the right wing and Afrikaner extremists are just a small small part of the Afrikaner community – it’s just that the media gives them too much attention. “We’re not all like that!” She says emphatically. I turn to look at Stuart for a response, but he’s long vanished. She goes on and on and on and on and on about how much she resents the media for painting an obscure image of Afrikaners. “They make us seem like we’re all part of that right-wing movement, like we’re all racists!” she even takes a dig at English liberalism. “We can’t all be English!” I smile. Keep quiet. Nod. Move along.

By this stage I have developed a curiosity around prices. How much are these pretty, yet simple, pictures going for?

I go check. No prices on the walls. That’s the artworld for you – it isn’t about the money when in actual fact it’s almost always mostly about the money. I don’t bother to follow up on this detail. Who would invest in this kind of work and for what reason?

Buying mugshots of someone else’s friends just doesn’t seem like a wise investment. But who knows? Maybe it being Jong Afrikaner does add some commercial weight to it. Would a Young Xhosa exhibition elicit as much interest? If a black artist, let’s say Zwelethu Mthethwa, took his camera to shoot 49 of his friends, would such ‘work’ adorn the cover of Art Times? Get a full spread in the Sunday Times Lifestyle section and various other media? I doubt it. What’s art about shooting your friends? Sorry, let me rephrase that: What’s art about taking pictures of your friends?

Why must an artist like Mthethwa go do a shoot in squatter camps, townships and other far off places? When he can actually just take pictures of his friends and bam! Identity affirmed. If Mthethwa were to ever attempt such. Lord forbid. He’d probably have to take pictures of his black friends in graduation regalia or in suits for it to achieve the near equivalent effect of Van Wyk’s work.

The response to such an attempt would be: So what? Van Wyk’s work has the potential to evoke the same response.

Such exhibitions would stand a much better chance if they were exhibited in different contexts. Perhaps take Van Wyk’s work to a black audience, gauge what the response is – what emotion it evokes, if any. Perhaps it can educate. Change mindsets. Affect perceptions. But keeping it in the confines of Commune.1, until the 26th of July, simply means it’s only meant for a certain milieu.

So what?

*A Xhosa version of this article is available here

** Unathi Kondile teaches teaches New Media at the University of Cape Town.

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