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Say White? Derek Zietsman's Performing 'man' explores South African white masculinity

by Marilyn de Freitas posted on January 25, 2013 in Reviews.

Derek Zietsman with one of his works, Hoodie, 2012, Monotype printed on Hahnemuhle paper

The theory of male whiteness in global trends and movements has largely developed silently, seen almost as invisible as injustices and dehumanisation of the 'other' and so subtle they appear normal. "Historically the white male is regarded as the position of the normative, that is, maleness is considered, like whiteness, to be the position from which all 'otherness' is read," states Chloe Webb in her dissertation discussing whiteness in English literature. But in the South African context, whiteness has never been invisible and has always been a political and social issue. How is whiteness experienced by South African white males?

South African artist, Derek Zietsman's Masters exhibition entitled Performing 'man', presented by the Fried Contemporary Gallery in Pretoria, focuses on how white South African male artists tackle whiteness. His works, primarily black and white prints, reflect an uncertainty around white masculine identity performativity within the complex South African society and satirically explores themes relevant to both historic white Afrikaner Calvinistic cultural ideals and post-apartheid political correctness. He draws from his research into white male artists such as Anton Kannemeyer and William Kentridge and their use of alter-ego personas in their work in order to depict his own alter-ego self portraits performing in roles which comment on this perceived uncertainty in post-apartheid South African white male identity.

Various scholars of South African whiteness, such as Melissa Steyn and Robert Morrell, describe how post-apartheid white South Africans try to adapt to a changed South Africa, which vary from denial; 'educating' the 'other' in how to perform to 'our' Western, white ideals; emigrating to countries perceived as more 'white'; to adopting hybrid, integrated, identity constructs where whiteness is adjusted into neither white nor black but interstitial.

Zietsman's prints with inherent Afrikaner and religious symbolism contrasted with phallic symbology not only questions the historic development of white masculine Afrikanerness and Englishness, but also how these two constructs are adapted and adapting in a post apartheid South Africa. The works aim to satirise typical apartheid-era white male identity performativities as well a perceived post-apartheid uncertainty in white male identity.

"In this body of prints, I consider what it means to be a white man in post apartheid South Africa through what I consider my heteroglot voices - my voice as the artist, the author, of the works; my voice as an identifiable alter-ego self-portrait 'character' in the works; and the subject matter in the works, my 'story-voice'", Zietsman states.

Zietsman, with reference to American post-structuralist philosopher, Judith Butler, approaches white masculinity as "performances of identity which change according to how [their] environment and contingencies change and that is particularly pertinent in South Africa because we have been through massive changes." White men are still uncertain on how to 'perform' as a man in a changing society. This search for identity undergoes constant reconceptualization, a process of identification which is never complete, always adapting to changing conditions.

His tongue-in-cheek large ink monotype self portraits play on how appearance plays a role in asserting one's performed identity and how others perceive you. These portraits evaluate the self-conscious and vulnerable qualities of whiteness. "Sies Man", his alter ego character, like Kannemeyer's "Joe Dog" and William Kentridge's "Soho Eckstein" are placed in contradictory situations and positions. Through the use of an alter-ego the artist is able to depict roles that may be far outside of the artist's own personal values. Zietsman's works can be considered intentionally autoethnographic.

"'Sies Man' allows me to construct performances of a hybrid, creolised, insider-outsider, observer-participant, [as part of] the ambivalent identities inherently linked to the post apartheid bottling," says Zietsman.

"[Through] 'Sies Man', he is able to speak confidently, with frigidity, ambiguously, humorously, darkly, confrontationally for the precarious place of the white man in a changing post apartheid South Africa," David Paton, Senior Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg, corroborated.

Zietsman makes use of absurd scenes , playing with the reality of the situations he portrays in his prints. Assumption and ambiguity are strong aspects in his works. Deliberately creating confusion, one gets the sense that something is not as it should be in the familiar South African scenes.

"In studying whiteness, by 'making it strange' one can perhaps move away from the ideas that associate whiteness with power and privilege," Chloe Webb states. Through the performances of the characters in the works, he pokes fun at post-apartheid whiteness aiming to create debate and discussion on the concept.

Zietsman explores in his works, such as his small Karoo streetscapes, irrational 'performances' satires how white South African males are attempting to adjust to post apartheid South Africa. Upon closer inspection of the buildings such as churches, phallus imagery offers the viewer a satirical take on values and roles inherent in, inter alia, historic white Afrikaner patriarchy and post-apartheid political correctness. His aggressive watercolour monotypes give a sense of a mixture of bravado and uncertainty discussing macho masculinity. The tattooed torsos and militant stances show how white males acted with crude masculinity during apartheid in an arrogant abuse of political and social power.

"Is this the white man fighting back, calling back to a lost place of privilege and power, is this a renegotiation of the ... liberating tsunamis?" said Paton referencing Zietsman's notion of participation from the viewer. He described Zietsman's works as "prescient, timeous, and deeply and provocatively relevant in the face of the Spear debacle."

Zietsman states that through his prints he is trying to ask the viewer to question him or herself on where they 'fit in' in post-apartheid South Africa, but leaving the interpretation up to the viewer. He uses satirical self portraits and imagery through various absurd performances in order to create awareness and debate around the issue of whiteness.

But are the works limited to one point of view of whiteness? The question could be rather be to "rehabilitate whiteness" rather than satire race completely especially within the political and social landscape we find ourselves.

"I'm not trying to preach or present my point of view," he states, "I see the role of the artist as to create awareness without necessarily taking a particular political or moral stance. My job is to get the viewer to ask; 'Who am I? Where do I fit in? How should I perform my identity?'"

The exhibition heads to The Artist Proof Studio in Johannesburg in July 2013.


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