Rich & Strange

Rich & Strange

Vol 23 no 3, 2003


An overview of key issues in Australia, cutting edge art practice and their echoes in the global arena. Juliana Engberg curates FACE UP a big show for the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin and Isabel Carlos directs the 2004 Sydney Biennale. Comparisons between South African and Australian art are explored in Intersections from the BHP Billiton Collection in Melbourne. Major features on painters David Keeling. Dorothy Napangardi, and Colin McCahon, sculptors Hossein Valamanesh, Julie Rrap, Ron Mueck and Patricia Piccinini, and multi media with Jeffrey Shaw. Plus Indigenous photography and new thoughts on the meaning of Aboriginal art from Stephanie Radok.


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You are here » Artlink » Vol 23 no 3, 2003 » Sideways Glances

Sideways Glances

Author: Dr Juliette Peers, feature

With the showing of the BHP-Billiton collection of South African art at the RMIT Gallery in late 2002 early 2003, Australians not only saw convincing artworks, but also contemplated a culture that is both akin and alien. Synchronicities and differences in these two cultures and specific artistic experiences played out through the Intersections exhibition, with a recognition of the two nations being joined by mediating a white culture, looking upwards to Europe for inspiration and validation. Peers explores these and other parallels drawn between Australian and South African art and culture and addresses some of our own countries ongoing inequalities and historical misfortunes.



With the showing of the BHP-Billiton collection of South African art at the RMIT Gallery in late 2002 early 2003, Australians not only saw convincing artworks, but also contemplated a culture that is both akin and alien. There are clear parallels between the two nations' post colonial experience: white settler societies, expropriation of land and resources, obliteration of indigenous cultures and the validity and effectiveness of the reconciliation process. Also the two nations are joined by mediating a white culture, looking upwards to Europe for inspiration and validation, sharing cultural referents that lead outside from the immediate geographical surroundings to a distant culture thousands of miles away, which has little interest in one's aspirations, talents or professions of loyalty. What too of the colonialism/imperialism inherent in the centralist mythologies of modernism – how does being part of a culture so imbricated/implicated in the economic and social process of colonialism inform the understanding of modernism's virtual empire?

Both cultures mediate the homogenising impetus of globalism. The reference to basketball culture in Robin Rhode's He Got Game 2001, explicitly indicates the forces that colour experience in South Africa and Australia. Despite the different colonial experiences, male youth in both countries identify themselves with dress codes and argot that originated in North America. Australian and South African youth equally share such garments and speech patterns with youth, prosperous and marginalised, in Asia, Western and Eastern Europe. The capitalist colonisation of popular formats of talk and appearance must be noted, but their original source was in African American self-stylisation as expressive, political cultural loci of self-identification. This source is both ironic and powerful, given that Australians, frequently so coy about their own race issues, stereotypically construct South African experience as an essentialising sign of racism. At least we are not as bad as them & so the mantra goes.

Yet these global fixations can be chimerical and elusive, leading desire out of the here and now. Under the shadow of globalism, South Africa and Australia share the outsider position aspiring to the mainstream. He Got Game is as poetic as a Charles Conder (an internationally famous Australian-trained artist of the 1890s avant garde) fan painting from turn of the century Paris or London in self-creating a cultural reality from beyond, of yearning to grasp the narrative impetus, yet ironically dependent upon fragile graphic elements, rather than the solidity of a contingent reality.

Not only multinational consumer and commodity culture promotes similarities; contemporary artists across the Indian Ocean read the same texts and catalogues and respond to similar phenomena. Flash Art generates global desires as much as Nike. Artworks that respond to issues of representation and quotation such as those by Johannes Phokela and Tracey Rose have Australian counterparts. Wayne Baker's Transit Culture 1990 also resonates in Australia, where landscape painting practices and colonial artforms have been consistently interrogated and quoted in postcolonial discourses. Approaching the South African-Australian relationship as a game of 'Snap' bringing together pairs, a synthetic construction of unity, is superficial but Intersections makes Australian viewers realise how their supposedly 'unique' culture fits into wider paradigms.

Zwelethu Mthethwa's photographs of Black Men and Masculinity 1999, resonate with a school of Australian photography that for the past twenty years sought to document the 'ordinary', the 'real', defined as working class and explicitly not middle class, by photographers such as Ponch Hawkes and Carole Jerrems. Yet the seeming 'realism' of the Australian photographs is also didactic when the ordinariness is a sentimentalised bohemian take on working class 'grittiness'. Do Mthethwa's photographs negotiate more real issues than the imagined, self-aware and duplicitous class war of Australian culture? The Australian essay in the Intersections catalogue reads – as does a lot of Australian high culture – as disengaged from the vernacular, addressing a more specialist audience than the South African essays. Of course there is a slightly different function between the South African and Australian content. The South African essays had to perform a clearer functional brief of explaining, introducing and contextualising.

This self-consciousness amongst cultural authorities is very Australian. Similar battle lines to the North American 'Culture Wars' have been drawn over the past five years in Australia, but the public discussion is much different. Historically the Australian Left firmly held both content and distribution systems. Opposition was firstly non-existent and is now pragmatic. Whilst virtually patternless and voiceless, conservative forces, given de facto licence under the Howard Government, outflank the self-contained, self-referential discourses and representations policed by Australian radicalism, but flatten/threaten cultural expression in the process. The cultural fabric is damaged by explicitly invoking hostility between Australian radical intellectual culture and the experiences of a mittelstand that declares itself – with some justification – exploited/neglected in the system of cultural representation. No workable solution is in fact offered. As an outsider, one feels conversely that South Africans have never enjoyed the luxury of performing public space and public power as gesture and style. Over there differences and imbalances were visible and structural expressions of power.

Highlighted by the collecting brief of the Billiton Collection to comment upon South Africa in transition, protest art seems mainstream in South Africa, whilst it has often been placed as outside of the Australian mainstream when a message may seem 'uncool' or unsophisticated. Intersections seemed to indicate that 'contemporary art' and political comment were not divorced in South Africa as they are frequently in Australia over the past two and a half decades. Whether one is viewing the selection for the exhibition as specific event, the act of a curator at a given moment, tempered by costs and conservation issues, or an 'accurate' impression of South African art is hard for an outsider to call. This question is raised by any touring exhibition drawn up on national lines if a country's art history is not part of that internationally recognisable continuum formed over the past few centuries by Italian, French, British and North American art. Political artists in Australia and South Africa share European precedents such as Weimar Republic photomontage (as evidenced by Jane Alexander) and posters or cartoons.

Whilst the big structure of race relations is clearly similar, the weighting of the immediate experience is different. Nikos Papastergiardis' essay makes the important point that Australia's blindness about neighboring nations is strategic, rather than innocent or clumsy. New Zealand is patronised to flatteringly deflect Australian anxieties about irrelevance and provincialism. Australia expresses a degree of moral repugnance about South Africa, most dramatically enacted in the street protests over the Springbok tours in the 1960s, which defined the superiority of 'radical' Australia over 'racist' South Africa, but the relationship is darker and more uneasy. Post colonialism suggests that Australia's unnamed demarcations are not so different to the visible structure of Apartheid.

Conversely white South African artists - even through protest and shame – relate directly to the nation whereas white Australians seem increasingly unable to articulate their place. Once in Australia the indigenous was erased, relegated to the second division, if it were even considered, now the white presence strikes the false embarrassing note and seems insubstantial, unreal. The braggadocio of white Australian self-construction is now revealed as empty and hollow. Is it impossible currently to conceive Australia as a rainbow nation – granted that the South African rainbow may be a utopian fiction difficult to realise. An Australian rainbow may be unthinkable not only because of pervasive racism, but because the white presence is frequently cast as tainted and irrelevant. The coin has flipped but the modernist either/or remains. Intersections talks of an imbrication (even the negative one of master servant, oppressed oppressor) of different groups that in an Australian context is rendered impossible by anti-racist values as much as racism. White Australians rarely now can contemplate 'the nation' so candidly as Intersection artists or advocate indigenous issues as directly as Sue Williamson's up-beat images of female leaders or Paul Stopforth's moving, mystic evocation of Steve Biko's Foot 1978.

The practical enforcement of Apartheid has created an artistic vocabulary, a visual reality of military hardware, vehicles, checkpoints, executions that has no obvious parallel in the Australian streetscape, (Australian artist Colin Howard's military hardware is frequently located off-shore not in his home country). The coded messages of Willem Boshoff's Bangboek 1979, impervious to surveillance, are a highly visible difference to laissez-faire Australian hedonism. Not since the Viet Nam war have Australian artists faced up to conscription and the moral and physical discomforts of military service, directly complicit in upholding racist structures. Beyond military images, Apartheid's physical by-products have prompted grid-like artworks, referencing/subverting official paperwork, schedules, forms, barriers, themselves without Australian equivalents.

So far few Australian indigenous artists have re/claimed the European centre in the manner of Johannes Phokela. Gordon Bennett's cross cultural quotations are politically strategic, rather aesthetic/connoisseurship commentaries. Phokela's explicit references to European Baroque art and the Maniera refuse stereotypes that folky 'township' art is quintessentially South African. A 'conservative' life class is politicised if the 'mastering' gaze is black and the model is white, reversing hierarchies, engaging pervasive folk myths and turning the classical tradition on itself, where once Enlightenment pseudo-science excluded non-whites from the lucid world of intellectual consciousness. Art history and systems of representation, as well as formidable skill in 'traditional' painting are Phokela's core values; placing oneself at the centre rather than in the provincial margins equally challenges reductive racist constructions.

Racism is not the only difference. South African practitioners at the Intersections symposium highlighted Calvinist elements in the Afrikaner inheritance that mistrusted the 'graven image'. Perhaps in South Africa art had to be overtly functional, articulating identity and political affiliations or parading as tourist kitsch to counter suspicion of the image's voluptuous and seductive qualities. Even though mid 20th Century Australians frequently regretted not having been colonised by a warmer, Mediterranean power other than the British - thus gaining artistic, culinary and sexual sophistication - pictorial art has never needed to negotiate a public space shaped by Calvinism. Censorship was a more formal and systematic force in South Africa with real powers to suppress and monitor dissent. Controversies about classifications and restrictions of films - the most visible expression of censorship in Australia - are au fond, despite the self aggrandising rhetoric of civil libertarians, lifestyle and taste issues: not seeing a particular sexual act in the cinema did not kill any Australian citizen.

South African women face a mythology that is inflected differently to Australian nationalist symbolism. Anne McClintock in Imperial Leather: Race Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (1995) discusses Boer performances and ritual. In pageantry, reenactment and monumental statuary, the woman in the white bonnet, the virtuous wife and mother, is revered as a defender of national values. With the incarceration of Boer civilian families in the concentration camps, women shared in the national sacrifice, their blood shed on and for the land was sacred. Australian identity/nationalism has frequently been developed away and apart from female influence. From this position Australian women were imaged as hostile/alien to the state, thus raping or plotting to kill (white) women have at certain historical occasions been defined as patriotic acts of responsible sons of the nation. Generally Australian mythologies have been written over women's absence, if not their prone bodies. At the symposium it was suggested that the Boer wife seated beside her husband on the covered wagon unleashed particular pressures and stereotypes that impacted upon female South African artists. After nearly three decades of feminism artworks charting female sexuality are expected fare in Australia. Tracy Rose's Ciccolina 2001, and Boxer 2001, or Minette Vari's Self Portrait I 1995 still challenge South African expectation of white women's roles and demeanour. Conversely Hentie van der Merwe's Cape Mounted Rifleman 2000 invokes historical synchronicities between the two countries' obsession with the mystic power of the masculine. Few Australian artists would dare infer that these fetisished uniforms were more suited to wearing for singing the Merry Widow waltz (if not a cabaret song) than 'building the nation' or 'forging mateship' as does van der Merwe's disturbing and perversely beautiful work.

Australian craft theorist Kevin Murray speaking at the Intersections symposium suggested that Australian gaze mostly travels vertically up to the Northern Hemisphere, either Europe or North America, and neglects the horizontal axis, sideways to South Africa or South America. One could add that even paranoias travelled North/South to Australia with invasion fears coming from Russia in the 19th Century (the forts and cannons intended to defend white Australia from the Czar's navy and army still stand nearly a century after the fall of the Romanovs) and Asia in the twentieth. Whilst literary studies validates links between many former British Empire possessions with 'Commonwealth Literature' an accepted academic field, and popular sport through rugby and cricket frequently unites South Africa, Australia and New Zealand it is harder to wean Australian eyes from the still pond of nationalist mythologies/obsessions to see who stands besides us and listen to what they may be saying.


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