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Performing our fluid identities

by Marilyn de Freitas posted on August 20, 2014 in Reviews.

Through our interactions with other people and with society at large, the body serves as a critical site of identity performance. We use or bodies and our sense of identity to convey and project information about ourselves. Feminist philosopher Judith Butler explored the notion of performativity in her analysis of gender development. Butler sees gender as a constructed act through modes of norms and beliefs of the society in which we live, “scripted by hegemonic social conventions and ideologies” (Felluga, 2006). Butler sees gender not as an expression of an inherent essential quality in us but as performances that one unconsciously adapts in order to ‘fit’ into society.

The exhibition, Performing Wo/Man, curated by Derek Zietsman at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery explores performativity of gender identity in contemporary South African art and features work by Bambo Sibiya, Bevan de Wet, Christiaan Diedericks, Collin Cole, Daandrey Steyn, Derek Zietsman, Diane Victor, Gordon Froud, Karin Preller, Grace da Costa, Jaco van Schalkwyk, Paul Molete, Richardt Strydom, Tanisha Bhana, Yannis Generalis and more. The exhibition, a first in Zietsman’s curatorial career, expands on his Masters dissertation of 2013 in which he focused on performativity of gender with specific reference to the white male identity in post-apartheid South Africa.

Zietsman, quoting Butler and Stuart Hall, states that performing gender, as a part of one’s identity, is not something that is fixed. Identity is always changing as people adapt and reconceptualize to changing social circumstances. We are always ‘becoming’ rather than ‘being’. Becoming involves continuously adapting to your environment, for example where you live, the people you interact with, the politics of the country you live in, the colour of your skin, the job you do, and so on, all impact on how you perform your gender identity in different social situations.

The works selected deal with elements of gender performativity with specific reference to social commentary. Zietsman gathered artists who deal with issues around the historic and contemporary construction of South African identities; masculinity; femininity; patriarchal hegemony; sexual identity; social identity; racial identity; social expectations for post-apartheid gender performativity; political and social change and its effects on gender performativity; rape and violence in South Africa; and abuses of power by role models and politicians. The artists, to varying degrees, reference issues from their personal experiences, or from issues (often around hegemonic exploitation) they may have read and care about to visually explore how these issues affects people’s gender performativities.

Diane Victor
“Oh my God” Bible stories for misogynist – Evictions
Charcoal, pastel, ash (129 x 151cm)

The artworks on display explore a variance of gender performativity issues. Diane Victor’s large charcoal, ash and pastel drawings, Acts of God, reference the patriarchal and demanding Christian God depicted in the stories of the Old Testament. In the drawing, Oh my God: Bible stories for misogynist – Evictions, Victor satirically narrates the eviction of Adam and Eve from Eden but with a contemporary twist. The angels are replaced with 'Red Ants', who evict people from their homes often using heavy-handed tactics. The Old Testament parables are given a new format and assume a biting political commentary on questionable actions in contemporary South Africa. The works of Richardt Strydom and Derek Zietsman also reference a religious theme, but more from the impact of apartheid-era white Afrikaner Calvinist hegemony on the artists. The artists comment on a system where the focus was on the patriarchal white male as head of all aspects in society which, for these artists, resulted in disillusionment with the system. They debunk how they as boys and then as men were 'supposed' to behave and think. Strydom's work is direct in his apparent anger and rebelling against these preconceived hegemonic structuring of what it means to be a white Afrikaner male.

The exhibition questions the general role of women and challenge the stereotypical concept of 'women's work', the contrast between what is 'expected' of them to their reconceptualising performativities in contemporary South Africa. Jaco van Schalkwyk’s delicately and tenderly structured paintings reference his experiences as a child growing up on the East Rand and reflects on how the women in his community assume labour-intensive performances of responsibility for the benefit of the community. In a similar vein, Bambo Sibiya’s work pays homage to his mother who raised him and kept the family together despite gruelling circumstances of alcoholism and poverty. Tanisha Bhana's altered photographs depict the waste of today’s consumerist society where she often unearths the derelict sites herself on the outskirts of the urban, dystopian environments of Gauteng – often featuring sex workers as models in her photographs. Her works on this exhibition can be read as homage to the poor and demoralized women in society, those who are usually ignored.

A striking feature of the exhibition is the overall sense the viewer gets of the differing lived realities people have and how this impacts on their visual explorations of gender performativities. Each of the works depict individual and unique lived realities inherent to South African society. Collin Cole’s large installation reflects on his experiences as a member of the South African army during the infamous ‘bush’ war of the 1980s. The installation suggests that the war had a life-altering impact on Collin and hints at the futility of fighting a war that was essentially to protect white privilege in South Africa. The installation consists of photographs, newspapers and trinkets Cole collected during his time in the army, each item containing a personal story. Karin Preller's paintings, using old family photographs as source material, seem to nostalgically reinterpret her childhood memories. The works refer to Montgomery Park, a suburb in Johannesburg where Preller grew up during 1960s and 1970s . Although seemingly containing a romantic essence of 'longing' for a time when life (for whites) was easier and predictable, Preller compels the viewer to examine their own lived experiences and, by extension, their gender performativity in post-apartheid South Africa.

The aim of the exhibition is to cause the viewer to examine previously imposed and preconceived identities. The exhibition effectively foregrounds that gender performativities assume a large variety of different guises, that identity is fluid, the concept of an essentialist identity is negated, and affirms that gender identity is always in the process of becoming, identity is never complete. The exhibition strives to raise questions for the viewer on his/her own conception of identity structure, how structures that lead to hegemonic exploitation can be challenged, even negated, and how the still continuing international polarisation of the normative (male and white) vs the Other (female and black) should be perceived in post-apartheid South Africa.

Derek Zietsman hosts a walkabout of Performing Wo/Man on Saturday 6 September at 10:30. The exhibition runs until 10 September 2014.

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