Dead dogs and cowboys

2008-02-01 00:00

Currently on show at the KZNSA gallery is an exhibition that chronicles an emotionally charged coming of age story. Entitled “… want almal se hart klop nie dieseldfe nie …” (“… because not everybody's heart beats the same …”), it looks at the social and family pressures to conform to a certain identity, a certain mode of being. It is also the story of how a young girl growing up in semi-rural northern KwaZulu-Natal grew to become the artist called Anet Norval.

It's a journey through memories, thoughts and fantasies. A journey filled with dead dogs and cowboys, tanks and cars and horses, adventures and misadventures, dislocations and invocations. At its centre are the experiences of a tomboy who desperately wanted to be “daddy's little princess” but became something very different instead.

Norval says that the work explores the challenges that arise from the construction and articulation of identity. And although the paintings on the gallery walls detail the very specific experiences of one individual, their account of the internal/external conflicts that being “different” entails, has a universal resonance. For despite all the pressure to conform to labels, definitions and stereotypes that we face, Norval recognises that we are all different, regardless of whether those differences are made evident in the flesh or hide from the world, lurking under the skin.

“Nobody is the same. What would hurt you might not affect me at all. So by putting up this work, I'm saying, ‘This is what makes me, and this is what makes my heart beat this way'. Someone else could walk in here and go ‘What the hell?', but someone else could go ‘Oh cool, I understand'.”

Blending found objects and images from her life and her parents' lives with paint and ink on canvas, she deftly and effectively conveys what she calls “the romanticising of awkward understandings of complex experiences”. And located deep in her images is the way the forces of culture and history intersect with our personal life, providing a texture of things that forever become part of us, regardless of our actual relationship to them. In much the same way that a certain smell on a winter morning might stay with you forever, and that a certain “whites only” bench in a Johannesburg park will forever be part of my consciousness, regardless of whether I ever think about it again or not.

This intricate journey of self-discovery, self-exploration and self-acceptance took place in an environment that left little space for difference and the Other. By drawing from her childhood, she navigates the viewer through complex personal identity issues involving gender politics, sexuality and identity.

It is from this sweet and tender, brutal and violent world of childhood and adolescence that we eventually become adults; and it is also from this world that we must eventually break free. Norval talks about the “violent idealisation” of difference, and a closer inspection of the individuals we become and the identities we inhabit. This violent idealisation takes place in two very different but not unrelated ways. On the one hand there is what the world does to us. On the other hand, there is what we do to ourselves

Norval says that her work wasn't directly influenced by the events or culture of the old South Africa. But she does laugh happily and say: “But it is easier to be yourself in the new South Africa”. And I too laugh happily because, although the work is entirely devoid of political intent, the political and social transformation of South Africa is implicit in the exhibition's grasping for personal freedom. The world of 1960s and '70s South Africa is filtered through the reality of Norval, despite the fact that she wasn't even born yet. There is a sense of that world in the images, even if it is not Norval's own direct reality but fragments of her parent's world that have had a powerful impact on her consciousness. Much of this is implicit in the fact that her drawings and paintings contain vaguely familiar fragments of a time in history that has now passed from view.

I ask Norval if she is gay. I kind of presume that she is - I have known her vaguely for a while - but still in this time and place of freedom about which we have been talking, it is a loaded question, and one that I myself am always a little uncomfortable answering despite the fact that I am completely open about my sexuality.

And in a way, in the context of Norval's work, the question retains a greater resonance than the answer. Norval is gay, for what it's worth, and so am I, but both of us are wary of the label. Because like all labels, all definitions, it is essentially limiting. And I would hate to see the cultural definition of myself get in the way of a possible relationship with Uma Thurman or Natalie Portman. And I suspect that Norval might feel the same way about James Dean - whom she idealises - or perhaps even Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.

We talk about that movie - which we both loved and to which we both had profound emotional responses. In many ways, the same social and romantic themes are echoed on the walls of the gallery. Both are filled with longing and concerned with notions of belonging. And both are filled with cowboys.

•“… want almal se hart klop nie dieseldfe nie …” is on show at the KZNSA Gallery in Bulwer Road until June 17.

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