Locating the heart

2008-04-19 00:00

Leora Farber, with her sparse use of make-up and practical clothes seems like the lady next door, until she opens her mouth. It’s as though she just tasted language for the first time, feeling the texture of her words as they blossom on her tongue.

Dislocation/Relocation is an art exhibition that is touring the country. A collaboration between Farber and Strangelove design team Carlo Gibson and Ziemek Pater, it represents three women — Bertha Guttman, the Jewess brought from England to colonial South Africa to marry immigrant entrepreneur Sammy Marks; Farber, a second-generation Jew and her mother who came to South Africa from Eastern Europe. Farber is the common thread — the actor and the artist.

The exhibition is ambitious, it combines photographs as big as an entire wall together with life-size installations. It explores how identity is formed and how it evolves, how identity becomes a hybrid of different parts, like Leora’s flowers that are part rose, part aloe, part plastic and part wax. It is about how identities take on new forms in new environments, like the roses in one of the sculptures that have started melting from the heat of the lights, wax dripping down the wall, so that as the exhibition moves from one building to another and one part of the country to another, it too changes.

The locations were chosen for their architecture. “I chose national museums because many of them are examples of neo-classical architecture or Victorian era. The work refers to architecture, it subtly critiques South Africa’s colonial and establishes a dialogue between architecture and the work.

The Albany Museum in Grahamstown, where the exhibition opened, is a typically colonial neo-classical building. The Nelson Mandela metropolitan museum in Port Elizabeth was built in 1925 and its symmetry and balance held the exhibition perfectly. Leora’s dress, designed and crafted by Strangelove is Victorian in style, like the type of dress Bertha would’ve worn.

“When I look at the photographs, I see Bertha and me,” says Farber who literally put herself in Bertha’s shoes by wearing a corset made of tanned cow hide (an African material) and a dress made of parachute material – a combination of Victorian and African style. The clothes and fabrics are constricting and this helped Farber get into Bertha’s mindset.

Although shy in front of the camera when being herself, Farber chose to use herself as the actress for Dis-Location/Re-Location.

“The process of being Leora and Bertha was about my body becoming the vehicle. It’s looking at myself as an outsider. If I got someone else to pose, it would’ve become about that person — their features, their body. It was so important to use my own body, especially what I went through for the special effects. I had eight hours of make-up done prior to the shoot and the preparation took weeks,” explains Farber.

Countless discussions were had with the team in order to garner a rich interpretation of the subject matter so that it became a fluid narrative.

“We were very careful about detail. The composition isn’t jarring and it doesn’t look wrong until you look a little closer. The shock value is subtle, like a pinprick. The idea is to lure the viewer in, and as they get closer, as they are enjoying the vision, then jab,” says Farber in her fairy voice.

Pat of the shock value is Leora sewing an aloe into her thigh. It represents hybridisation, the aloe is an indigenous plant and by sewing it into her body, the protagonist attempts to integrate with her new surroundings.

In real life, Farber doesn’t seem to wear her art on her sleeve, but in the exhibition photographs she makes a point of wearing unstatic identity on her arm, and various other parts of her body.

The Victorian element is very grounding in its heaviness, but with the minute attention to detail, such as the flowers on the wall, the work grasps for something ethereal.

“The project took years of work. The first year the project grew through experimental thinking, finding out about Bertha Marx and doing research. The second year the ideas were clearer and we proceeded to put the project together. Dis-Location/Re-Location is more than an exhibition, it is a catalogue, a book and an educational supplement,” explains Farber.

The exhibition has created a space within which Farber explores her identification with South African British colonial history and its current personal and public residues of identity construction.

Through the space she moderates her identity as a white, middle-class Jewish female of British descent, living in the Pan-African, postcolonial environment of Johannesburg where she lives and works.

•Leora Farber’s Dis-Location/Re-Location exhibition, in collaboration with Strangelove, will be on at the Durban Art Gallery, where it concludes, from 15th May to 27th July 2008.

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