Broad brush strokes to blot out art

2010-03-06 14:36

ARTS and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana’s attempts at damage control, following her controversial walkout of an art exhibition last year, has revealed a minister with a squeamish constitution and a limited knowledge of art.

In a statement released this week, in which the minister defends her decision of refusing to open the Innovative Women exhibition at Constitution Hill last year, she describes the work she “deemed offensive” as images “of naked bodies presumably involved in sexual acts”.

“I was particularly revolted by an image of Self Rape depicting a sexual act with a nature scene as the backdrop,” she says.

The work in question is actually The Rape of Europa by Nandipha Mntambo and despite its title does not depict a rape.

Rather, says ­Mntambo, the piece plays on historical, artistic and mythological ­references. It is based on a sketch by Pablo Picasso of a minotaur – a mythological creature who is half bull and half human – caressing a girl. It is named after a painting by the same name by Titian, an Italian painter who was a leader in the Venetian renaissance.

Mntambo depicts herself as both the girl and the minotaur.

“It’s about self-reflection and looking at the things you don’t like about yourself. It was about me ­looking at myself. It really has ­nothing to do with rape,” explains ­Mntambo.

“It’s sad that the minister, despite her judgments, could not engage with the social issues raised by the exhibition that South Africa women have to deal with every day, such as rape, lesbianism and abuse. It’s sad that as a woman she wasn’t sympathetic, regardless of what she ­personally agrees with.”

Other works the minister found contentious were photographs by Zanele Muholi.

A month after the minister’s walkout, Muholi scored a double-whammy when she won both the prestigious Casa Africa award for best female photographer and ­Fondation Blachère award at the Bamako biennial festival of African photography. She also received a ­Fanny Ann Eddy accolade from IRN-Africa for her ­outstanding contributions in the study of sexuality in Africa at the Genders and Sexualities in Africa Conference held in New York. She was also the 2009 Ida Ely Rubin ­Artist-in-Residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Xingwana’s statement describes both artists work as being unsuitable for a family audience. “To my mind, these were not works of arts but crude misrepresentations of women (both black and white) masquerading as artworks rather than engaged in questioning or interrogating – which I believe is what art is about. Those particular works of art stereotyped black women.”

But it is precisely the minister’s decision not to interrogate the artists or the curator on the work that has sparked the ire of the artistic ­community.

A curator at a public gallery who asked not to be named for fear of ­reprisal – Xingwana apparently ­suspended two department officials after the exhibition – describes the minister’s decision to not engage as “reactionary”. He believes the ­minister’s reaction forms part of the conservatism that is pervasive in the country and reflects a minister out of her depth.

“If the minister had been ­exposed to enough art, she would know that it is not just about the production and promotion of prosaic work that promotes nation building. Some of the images were indeed about sexual violence and when an artist confronts these harsh issues through photography that is a form of nation-building. ­Nation-building is not just about beadwork, singing the national ­anthem and Zulu dancing,” he says.

It is a sentiment echoed by artist Tracy Rose: “Her reaction portrays her as ignorant and uninformed in terms of her duty as a minister of arts and culture.”

In her statement the minister contends that the work of Muholi and Mntambo is “pornographic” and a crude misrepresentation of black women. This, says Joburg Art Fair director Ross Douglas, is extremely ironic considering the praise heaped on Mntambo and Muholi ­internationally for their work.

“Zanele is a global ambassador for South Africa for her work, which challenges how we deal with rape and sexuality. She’s a real South ­African success story,” says ­Douglas.

Commenting on the minister’s ­objection to the work on moral grounds, he says: “You couldn’t find two more exemplary artists both in terms of their profession and their artistic practice. Both Zanele and Nandipha are highly regarded by their peers.”

Douglas and Rose both say they welcome the minister’s desire for ­debate and engagement.

“I say bring it on,” says Rose, “there is a complete ignorance about art in South Africa”.

The upside to the debacle, says Rose, is that the minister has inadvertently sparked a very necessary public debate on art.

“When you make a work you want people to engage. Her reaction might be stupid and ignorant, but it’s still valid.”

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