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Column: Whiteness, Mandarin and Stephen Hobbs' cities

First appeared
Thursday, 20 June 2013


“Whiteness” is in the spotlight again. Every few months or so, someone points out how whiteness remains normative in South Africa some two decades after the end of formal apartheid. Technically, I suppose, this means that whiteness never actually leaves the spotlight – all the more reason to critique its dominance.

Trying to make whiteness less central is a paradoxical undertaking. Public debates about whiteness almost inevitably end up reinscribing that centrality: taking what is implicit, making it explicit, castigating it, and then allowing it to become implicit again. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling sometimes that it’s just too easy for me to be a white person in South Africa.

More specifically, it’s too easy for me to be a first-language English speaker. When I lived in Japan, both necessity and cultural insecurity drove me to study Japanese. If I faced similar pressures in my own country, I would have learned more Zulu or Xhosa by now. Don’t get me wrong, no-one else is to blame for this – the fault lies with me entirely – but it’s a telling example nonetheless.

The thing about English-speaking foreigners in east Asia (many of whom are there, as I was, to teach English) is that their sense of inadequacy for “not belonging” is matched by a deep-seated linguistic superiority complex. They delight in examples of “Engrish”, where a poor command of the English language leads to comical translations of Japanese, Mandarin or Korean adverts, slogans, signs, menus or other messages.

And yet, as Kate Arthur argues, sometimes “meaning is most illuminated” by the “clumsiness” that results when these texts are translated literally rather than idiomatically. New, unexpected meanings accrue: “Some things are lost in translation; some things are gained.” Arthur is writing in the catalogue for Stephen Hobbs’ exhibition “Be Careful in the Working Radius”, which takes its title from just such an instance.

In 2010, Hobbs observed a safety message in Chinese characters, along with the awkward English version, at a construction site in Maputo – an obvious symbol of the conjunction of African urban development and China’s economic interests across the continent. But Hobbs is not one to choose the obvious interpretation.

For him, “Be Careful in the Working Radius” is a useful instruction to an artist, particularly one who (like him) is fascinated by the geometry, and the resistance to geometric constraints, of cities such as Johannesburg. “Since the early nineties,” remarks Hobbs, Joburg “has felt like a construction site, a work in progress. For my own contradictory interests I wish it to remain ambiguous and unresolved.”

This helps to explain his obsession with the scaffolding towers that are crucial to any large building project – they signify incompleteness. The rigid crisscross and rectangular structures of these exoskeletons, however, also resemble the buildings themselves and the broader cityscape within which each building is located. This can be the street-level view of a skyline or the aerial view of a city grid, the neat blocks and rows of which urban planners are so enamoured.

Many of the works in this exhibition, such as “New Town” and “Extruded Buildings”, tease the viewer by shifting between the horizontal and the vertical plane. Others, such as “Observatory” and “Vertical City”, use mirror surfaces to gesture towards infinite height and width and depth. The effect is disorienting, part of the dizzying but exhilarating urban atmosphere Hobbs seeks to recreate.

Only two pieces, “Bridge Strike” and “Bridge Fault”, situate human figures within the abstract shapes of the city. Still, vestiges of human activity are present throughout – not least in the clues the artist leaves for us about the process of creating the exhibition. The works are all prints in one form or another (linocut, aquatint, even 3D printing) but Hobbs breaks a print tradition “taboo” by, for example, re-using the woodblock from which he had printed “First 100 Ladies” as the framework of “Big Hopes”.

Collectively, the prints depict a Johannesburg that is caught between the nightmare of rigid, exclusive apartheid city planning and the uncontrollable, undefinable metropolis its citizens celebrate but also fear. This is an exhibition, as Jacqueline Nurse notes, in which the “classic dualisms” of “utopia-dystopia” and “order-chaos” are “too static to capture the delirious urban dynamic”.  


* "Be Careful in the Working Radius" is at David Krut Projects (142 Jan Smuts Avenue, Rosebank) until 13 July 



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