Ventriloquism: On the commodification of masculinity in South African art

Nicholas Hlobe, Igqirha Lendleia
Nicholas Hlobo, Igqirha Lendleiha, 2005, leather, ribbon, rubber, fabric

On the cover of a glossy magazine geared for the off-road vehicle enthusiast is a picture of Xhosa male initiates set in an idyllic landscape. The initiates are wearing nothing but the characteristic white body paint and blankets, and they carry sticks. This kind of image can also be seen in a number of different consumer products including postcards and tourist brochures.

In a world where black males are still perceived with suspicion and whose bodies are considered as hyper-sexualised, as having big penises, rampant uncontrollable sexual organs, there has to be some caution when dealing with issues of sexuality. This essay seeks to show that images in contemporary South African art have a tendency to putting black bodies and black sexuality on display for the consumption not only by popular media but also the elite, largely white gallery-going public rather than black communities. Putting black bodies on trial – i.e. as being transgressive, gross, abnormal – reduces black male sexuality to an instrument of violence and sexual excess while ignoring aspects of sensuality and tenderness.

More than most contemporary South African artists, the work of Nicholas Hlobo and Churchill Madikida has brought issues of male sexuality and masculinity in Xhosa society into sharp focus. Among the cultural practices these artist have dealt with is the male initiation rite ukoluka . These artists are by no means the only ones that have dealt with the issue of male circumcision. Some of the other artists are Thembinkosi Goniwe, Colbert Mashile, Mgcineni Sobopha and Peet Pienaar. But it is Madikida and Hlobo that have received considerable local and international attention.In recent years there has been some controversy surrounding this ritual because of the young men that have been maimed during the circumcision, while others have died when things went terribly wrong. This controversy has largely been played out in the national media. In the process a number of intersecting issues have been contested, namely the erosion of traditional beliefs and morality, the intrusion of Western norms and medicine, the violation of secrecy and of the sacred ritual, along with notions of primitivism, exoticism and voyeurism.

Nicholas Hlobo, Isisindo Samadiozi
Nicholas Hlobo, Isisindo Samadiozi, 2006, rubber, cottonwood, scales

Nicholas Hlobo addresses homophobia in Xhosa communities and by extension gender and sexuality in a variety of contexts. Take the work Igqirha Lendlela (2005), which uses the kind of leather jacket often associated with motorcycle culture and its machismo and attaches to it a kind of bag which is made of rubber tubing (a reference to tyres and cars). Stitching with pink ribbon evokes the feminine. Looking at the work, one would initially find it hard to associate it with Xhosa culture except for the title. The work draws its title from a Xhosa folk song that was made famous by Miriam Makeba, which is more commonly known as the “click song”. By juxtaposing the feminine and the masculine Hlobo highlights how there are often homoerotic undertones in male culture. At the first performance of Igqirha Lendlela, where he wore the costume, the artist also had on a skirt made of neckties. In this way, Hlobo collapsed the association of masculinity with the wearing of pants. It is also worth remembering that traditionally, in many cultural groups in South Africa, men wear loin cloths that look more like skirts than trousers.

Another work by Nicholas Hlobo, Isisindo samadlozi (2006), consists of a pair of oversized black “balls”hanging from a set of scales, between which is suspended a black dildo or penis-like object. According to the artist, the word “samadlozi” has different meanings: in Zulu it means ancestors but in Xhosa it means sperm. The implication is that either the semen or the ancestors and the penis are burdensome. Another possible reading is that masculinity in Xhosa communities is measured by the size or weight of one’s sexual organs.

Churchill Madikida has delved into a number of concerns, including HIV/AIDS, sport, fatherhood and masculinity. These are addressed through the prism of his own life experiences. Among them, his sister’s death through AIDS, being abandoned by his biological father and the responsibility that fell upon him as a young person to be a father figure to his siblings. Churchill questions the validity of certain Xhosa traditions and his own Xhosa identity after discovering that his biological father is Sotho. In an emotive documentary-style interview entitled Like Father Like Son? Churchill interrogates his biological father, Joseph Thupa Mokhele.

Churchill Madikida, Like Father Like Son? video installation
Chruchill Madikida, Like Father Like Son?, 2006, video installation

There is an underlying assumption in many texts that there is a common understanding of what it means to be Xhosa in contemporary South Africa. Yet even when one is talking about as time-honoured a tradition such as ukoluka one cannot assume that it holds the same amount of influence in the town of Butterworth, Eastern Cape where Churchill grew up as it does in cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg, or even within members of the same community.

One might expect exotic images of black people and their strange customs from the tourist industry but exoticism is a demon that has not been thoroughly exorcised in the art world. Take the example of an article on the artist Nicholas Hlobo by Ruth Kirkham-Simbao in the 2006 Summer edition of Art South Africa and you will find, highlighted in red, a line that reads: “I come from a culture (Xhosa) where the penis is very important.”

This statement was originally made by the artist as part of a longer artist’s statement for Izele, an exhibition held at the Michael Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town. This sound-bite encapsulates two worrying trends: the ethnicising of contemporary art and a continued fascination with black men’s penises. In reference to Blood On My Hands, a work by Churchill Madikida, Lize van der Watt’s essay in the catalogue for Personal Affects (2004) reads: “Suddenly the image is manipulated so that the hands morph and mutate into grotesque Rorschach images that suggest the unregulated, undisciplined body – oozing, alien and explicitly sexual.” Contrast this with Madikida's words in the same catalogue: “My intentions when I started working with the concept of Blood On My Hands related to the fact that I was going to be presenting a commercial show. I believe that the reason why cultural or traditional practices are being demeaned is because of commercialism: it’s all about money.”

To what extent are artists and commentators responsible for this voyeuristic element? This was certainly the issue when South African photographer Steve Hilton-Barber took pictures of Sotho initiates on his father’s farm. When these photographs were exhibited at the Rembrandt Gallery in Johannesburg they caused a public uproar. A number of members of the public as well as the black members of the gallery staff protested, feeling that these images depicted a sacred ritual and that not only the dignity of the initiates had been violated but the dignity of all people who revere the ritual. The fact that this was a white photographer taking pictures of black subjects and the fact that the initiation school had taken place on the photographer’s father’s farm elicited claims that these photographs were racist in nature and intention. The photographs were later “stolen” or perhaps secretly removed from the gallery.

It would be wrong to advocate that issues of black sexuality should not be explored. But some questions remain. How should contemporary artists and critics avoid or rather take these factors into account? What relevance does ethnicity have in works of contemporary art? Whom does the work of the artists seek to address and who reads art publications? How are issues of sexuality to be presented in such a way that they do not harm the dignity of the subjects and the audience? It has to be said that artists are not entirely without blame.

Even in cases where the artist is complicit in pandering to the voyeuristic appetite of audiences, it does not absolve the observer from the responsibility of extending or complicating the reading of their work. While it is true that these artists are primarily preoccupied with masculinity as seen through their own life experiences and the communities in which they grew up, it is dangerous to divorce issues of race, poverty, the geopolitics of apartheid and the many ghettos it spawned, from the pressures and possibilities offered by contemporary society.

If we are serious about a thorough analysis of Churchill’s work we cannot fail to bring to the argument conditions that conspired to undermine the coherence of black families, the system of enforced labour and migrant labour, about how racial exclusions were also figured through the system of  “Bantustans”. These effects are still felt in the poverty that pervades the former ethnic “homelands”. One cannot also forget to remember how many families and communities were arbitrarily assigned to ethnic homelands and racial townships. Hence even when we talk about the work of Churchill in relation to AIDS this cannot be done to the exclusion of the racialised way in which HIV infections occur nor the issue of access to medical care and the disproportionate standards of living between black and white South Africans.

There could be a number of possible reasons for the new forms of exoticism and they are not always consistent with one another. One possibility is that it offers to the critic, who in many instances is white, a way of talking about race in a way that neutralises the politics of race and de-historicises ethnicity (invoking once again a timeless Africa). By so doing, he/she also fails to acknowledge that being black has economic and social consequences that, in many cases, cannot be overlooked or wished away.

Churchill Madikida, Struggles Of The Heart
Churchill Madikida, Struggles Of The Heart, 2003, digital print

There is also a need for South African institutions to reflect some of the spirit of reconciliation as embodied by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This spirit supposes that there is racial harmony and that to speak in racial terms is to be regressive and counter-productive and irrelevant. If you are going to sell blackness make it sexy and make sure it does not call whiteness into question. Culture talk neutralises the politicisation of identity.

It is not only necessary to point out that ethnicities have many histories but also that the very notion of ethnicity and how it has been marshalled for political goals, has a very particular history. A closer reading of South African politics will reveal that notions of ethnicity follow the history of colonialism and of apartheid closely. Hence there is no way that either adherents of ethnic identities nor their commentators can look at ethnicity to the exclusion of South African racial dynamics as they have been or as they stand.

Sadly, blackness too has become yet another commodity to be traded on a market that demands that black artists need to be seen participating in the artworld; or, at the very least, included. While it is true that identities should and can be challenged and while it is also true that identity is also largely performative and indeed fluid, it would be erroneous in the extreme to consider identities as inconsequential (this sort of argument also assumes that identity is always generated from within).

It is necessary also to point out that art historians and critics remain largely white despite the fact that there have been growing numbers of blacks who have graduated from institutions of higher learning. Add to this the fact that there are few art publications and critical writing (much writing is promotional work) and you have conditions where received notions such as ethnicity are left unquestioned.

Khwezi Gule is Curator, Contemporary Collections, Johannesburg Art Gallery, South Africa

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