By Ashraf Jamal
Between August 7 and September 3, ArtBankSA presents a show in three venues – Oliewenhuis Art Museum, the National Museum and the Freshford House Museum. Celebrating Woman’s Day, the show takes a witty and ironic approach to a global occasion. The Rights of Woman is no smaller matter. As Naomi Wolf reminds us in The Beauty Myth, women, paradoxically, are less free today, more insidiously compromised by an age-old entrapment, imprisonment, and bondage to the laws of men. The representation and value of women, tragically, ‘is not about women at all. It is about men’s institutions and institutional power’. That, today, we find ourselves still fighting for woman’s rights – more so in South Africa, a toxically misogynistic society – confirms Wolf’s dark prognosis.
The ArtBankSA show takes this anonymous quote as its premise – ‘They say you could tell what was on her mind by what was on her head’. Scathingly dark, this opinion reinforces the complex of woman and beauty, the assumption that a woman is known by how she looks. Not only is this view tyrannical, it is abusive, worse, reductive. Nevertheless, when looked upon more circumspectly, more wryly, one can, within entrapment, uncover a rebellious or contrary energy. What is the hat worn, one might ask? What does it tell us about the woman we are looking at?
Clothing need not be a prison. How one puts oneself together, and, by extension, how woman artists make up or put together their individual visions, can be liberating.
Wearing many hats suggests multiplicity, a multi-taking multi-asking identity formation – an ability to confound essentialism, nominalism, the desire, by men, or other women, to fix and imprison the woman-artist seen. As the curatorial vision reads – ‘The exhibition intends to celebrate women who effortlessly switch between the various roles they fulfil in society. A woman with many hats symbolizes modern women’s refusal to be caged by societal expectations and norms’. That said, the curatorial vision encourages women ‘to break boundaries, pursue their dreams and embrace the beauty and strength of being a woman’.
This call, while exhilarating, is by no means as easy as one might think, even in today’s supposedly more liberated moment. As Germain Greer reminds us, ‘The fear of freedom is strong within us’ – women, in other words, have been acculturated to accept the numerous prisons, or inhibiting conditions, set up to curtail their freedom. There is a ‘pattern, which leaves out women as individuals’ that ‘extends from high culture to popular mythology’, notes Wolf. And as John Berger adds, ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only the relations of men to women, but the relation of women to themselves’.
Left Thalente Khomo, Isithunzi Samanzi, Photograph on fine art rag, 59.4 x 42 cm
Right Thalente Khomo, Owesifazane wesimanje manje, Photograph on fine art rag, 59.4 x 42 cm
It is against this panoptic control of women that the exhibition – ‘She wears many hats’ – is designed to contravene. The radicality of this approach cannot be underestimated, given that ‘Women are mere “beauties” in men’s culture so that culture can be kept male’. Wolf’s view is not defeatist, rather, it is stringent. She is under no illusion that ‘When women in culture show character, thy are not desirable, as opposed to the desirable, artless ingenue’. Further, that ‘Culture stereotypes women to fit the myth by flattening the feminine into beauty-without- intelligence or intelligence-without-beauty; women are allowed a mind or body but not both’. In effect, women are divided against themselves. It is this division – psychic, emotional, bodily – which this exhibition addresses. How do women artists reconcile body-mind-beauty? What are the critical elements required in order to create a vision that not only inspires other women, but which crosses genders and changes the world?
Left Mbali Ntshalintshali, In the presence of self at the table of us, paper lithograph, Linocut,
chin colle on archival paper, 29.2 x 21.7 cm
Right Mbali Ntshalintshali, Still I Am, paper lithograph, Linocut, chin colle on archival paper, 56 x 39 cm
As the great 18th feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, justly noted, ‘I do not wish [women] to have power over men; but over themselves’. It is this personal reclamation that would prove the greater liberatory force. ‘Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience’. Self-autonomy, self-awareness, a keen grasp of context, and an ability to operate effectively in the world, are some of the fundamental necessities needed for a free and independent spirit. Measuring Wollstonecraft’s prophetic vision against today’s world, and we still find society and civilization wanting. The very notion of a ‘day’ accorded to women, affirms the systemic inequality upon which that absurd privilege is based. Still, we must continue in the great struggle for woman’s rights. If ‘Women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, men are insultingly supporting their own superiority’ is the insidious logic that underlies the supposedly witty dismissal of a woman’s mind by determining it through the appendage on their heads.
The artists selected for the exhibition – I have chosen to consider a few – are by no means so easily slighted. Mbali Tshabalala’s linocuts and lithographic prints – ‘Still I am’ and ‘In the presence of self at the table of Us’ – are by no means so easily explained away, or trivialized. Self-portraits, they are also matrilineal in their honouring of the women of the past, and those to come. The worlds seen are shamanic, or dream-like, they are immersive, meditative, even spiritual. One has a keen sense that they are not images of women created from a punitive or controlling male gaze, but that they are liberatory. Their expansiveness is psychological and physical – despite their framed containment they are far-reaching, even extra-terrestrial
By way of contrast, Jamile Phindile’s charcoal and graphite drawings on fabriano – ‘Sozendiliahla’ and ‘Hlal’ethembeni’ are magnetically intimate and personal. We are in a particular woman’s world, witnesses to her self-celebration and her contemplation. The aesthetic trigger is not the spiritual but the bodily mortal, the wonder, yearnings, and joy of an individual person. While they evoke the photographic portrait, it is the texture of charcoal and graphite that adheres, giving the works their soulful singularity and seclusion. Thalente Mitchell Khomo’s photographs on fine rag, however, present a very different order of imagery. The images are either technically manipulated or self-consciously staged, the temperament of the artist consciously reflexive, shifting. One senses a youthful zest for experimentation, an openness not only to the self, but to its infinite possibility. If Tshabalala’s vision is elemental and transcendent, Phindile’s immersed in a wondrous mortality, then Khomo’s vision evokes what Achille Mbembe dubbed ‘African Modes of Self-Writing’ or self-stylization. One senses a futurity in this vision, the abandonment of any essential notion of Africa and African’s, and, in this regard, African Womxn.
Similarly, Thabo Elton Motseki’s linocut and Dimakatso Mathopa’s cyanotype print are both performative visions of woman, the first fractured yet archetypal, the second quotidian and vaudevillian. If the first operates as a dreaming tool, a means to enter the idealised vision of woman, albeit fractured, the second functions ad an ephemeral snapshot that is historical nonetheless, a slicing of time. Between these very different visions we occupy the ever-widening bandwidth of woman’s experience. If these artists tell us anything, it is that there is no single doorway
that one can enter, that women contain multitudes. This is the conceit that founds the curatorial vision of ‘many hats’. However, the hats attached or applied are not only physical but conceptual, emotional and cerebral. Most of all, they attest to a deep desire for both inner and outer freedom. ‘My dreams were all my own’, Wollstonecraft writes, ‘they were my refuge when annoyed – my dearest pleasure when free’. When looking at an experiencing the exhibition, ‘We wear many hats’, it is with this spirit that we enter, before returning to the greater embattled world.