Myths and masculinity

2011-07-23 00:00

GREEK mythology features strongly in a new series of prints created by Pietermaritzburg-based printmaker Vuli Nyoni for two exhibitions.

One is a solo show at the African Art Centre in Florida Road, Durban, and the other is a group exhibition at the Upstairs at Bamboo Gallery in Melville, Johannesburg.

Explaining why his new work draws so strongly on classical mythology, Nyoni said simply: “It’s something which has always interested me.”

The story, which he tells in a series of lino cuts, silk-screen prints and lithography, is that of the beautiful youth Ganymede, who was kidnapped by Zeus and given the role of wine bearer to the gods.

“He was the male equivalent of Helen of Troy,” explained Nyoni, who lectures in printmaking, drawing and photography at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg.

“Zeus came down in the form of an eagle and took him to Mount Olympus and later placed him among the heavens as the star sign Aquarius, the water bearer.

“Male figures in myth relate to me, probably because of my sexuality and as a man who constantly questions proscribed ideas of masculinity.

“There is an assumed universality to masculinity but we know that’s not true. In my work, I’ve tried not to go with the typical strong macho-male ideal, but rather a more vulnerable male figure.”

Nyoni, who has been using classical drawing techniques to create his human figures, also hopes the work will prompt a discussion about the different kinds of relationships that men have. For example, those of teacher, lover, friend.

Also featuring strongly in the new work are birds, and in particular roosters, which are symbols, he says, which keep cropping up in his work.

“In Greek myth, the cockerel is the prescribed gift between men, while in an African context it has many issues relating to masculinity,” he said.

In one of the new prints, titled Parliament, Nyoni has gathered together a variety of “birds of ill omen” in one place. They include a marabou stork, vulture, hammerkop, a pied crow, and a ground hornbill. This bird parliament is being run by a rooster dancing in a colonial-style chair and seemingly oblivious to what’s going on around him.

Nyoni said the work is one of many which examines patriarchy in African society and speaks to his concerns about dictatorship on the continent.

To capture his winged subjects correctly the artist spent time at the African Bird of Prey Centre, where he took photos and got inspiration from the birds, and the humans who handle them.

Nyoni, who was born in Chilimanzi, Zimbabwe, in 1976, said he is delighted to be showing his work at the African Art Centre.

“It’s my first solo show there,” he said. “There will be about 10 works. The space is quite intimate and I didn’t want to crowd it.”

The exhibition, which was opened on Wednesday by Dr Juliette Leed-du Toit (an independent researcher and former colleague of Nyoni at the Centre for Visual Art in Ridge Road), will run until August 6.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

THE African Art Centre is at 94 Florida Road, Morningside. Gallery hours are 8.30 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday, and from 9 am to 3 pm on Saturday. For more information, phone 031 312 3804/5.

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