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Arts and Culture
Review: Mntambo and Marinovich
Protest comes in different forms. There is the impressive spectacle of a march; there is the quiet but bold act of a dissenting vote by a ruling party parliamentarian. In the visual arts, there is the angry, bitter satire of “Hail to the Thief”: Brett Murray’s ongoing evisceration of the corrupt South African (elite) body politic, the latest manifestation of which is currently on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.
Then there are artists whose work constitutes a subdued protest – directed not at individuals or institutions but at social phenomena, at the rank injustices that are so much a part of the human experience, especially in a country like South Africa. Such protests can also take the form of celebration: celebrating opposition, or beauty in despite of inequality, or perhaps simply survival. The twin exhibitions sharing the split-level space at the Standard Bank Gallery arguably fall into this latter category.
Downstairs, Leonie Marinovich’s “Not Me – Not Mine” consists of a series of photographic portraits of HIV-positive women: a South African demographic that is ubiquitous but, for the most part, silent (or silenced). The photographs themselves deliberately eschew the over-familiarity of HIV/AIDS discourses; Marinovich notes that she aimed to “strip as much as possible of the environmental ‘coding’ from the subjects ... I wanted to force people to look at and relate to them as individual women, minimizing background, status, race, complexion and the other visual codes we use to judge people”.
The ‘visual’ component of the exhibition is indeed successful in this aim; looking only at the photographs, their subjects by turns playful and pensive, smiling and serious, the viewer would be encouraged to pursue a relatively unprejudiced line of conjecture in imagining the details of the women’s lives. But visitors to the gallery cannot avoid, alongside each portrait, the text in which the woman is named, her dates of birth and HIV diagnosis given, and her story narrated in her own words.
These personal histories return us again and again to the tired but pervasive themes explaining how and why the spread of HIV among South African women, in particular, has been so relentless: misogyny and domestic abuse in the name of ‘tradition’, poverty and desperation, drug and alcohol abuse, the indifference of the privileged to the suffering of the underprivileged. ‘We’ may be tired of these issues, but that does not mean they will disappear; one of the strands of continuity running through the stories is the way in which violence and unhealthy sexuality are perpetuated as they pass from one generation to the next.
Moreover, as the title of the exhibition implies, that ‘we’ is a dangerous construct. One of Marinovich’s subjects, Anne Leon, told her that the “never me, never mine” mentality – “almost everybody still seems to think that HIV won’t happen to them or those close to them” – was chiefly responsible for the pandemic. It is tempting to interpret the reformulation of Leon’s words as an allusion to William Kentridge’s recent body of work, “I am not me, the horse is not mine”, in which Kentridge (invoking the Russian revolution and the totalitarianism that followed it as a lens through which to refract South Africa’s various kinds of ‘socialism’) explores the tension between the individual and the communal.
Upstairs, Nandipha Mntambo’s “Faena” echoes Marinovich’s anxieties about patriarchy, but affirms the artist’s role in challenging it. Mntambo has, over the last few years, sustained a creative reinvention of the symbol of the bull in both South Africa and Spain. Working with cowhide and horns, Mntambo has transgressed the line between the animal and the human in both self-portraits and in provocative sculptures.
“Faena”, a word describing the final stage in the ‘combat’ between matador and bull (which suggests that it may be Mntambo’s last engagement with the subject matter), continues to exploit this anthropomorphic fascination. The most prominent works in the exhibition are finely crafted cowhide dresses, suggestive of the female form, that still carry the strong smell of flesh and bone.
The conflation of women and cattle as objects to be admired, feared, desired, possessed or slaughtered is rendered differently through two video projections. In one, Mntambo ‘performs’ in an empty bullring, both mocking the posturing of the toreador and claiming his virility for herself. In another, we see the bodies (and briefly glimpse the faces) of a couple performing the paso doble, that Flamenco dance most obviously mimicking the passionate aggression of the bullfight; again, the masculine-feminine paradigm is subverted, with two prominent female dancers, Dada Masilo and Lulu Mlangeni, appropriating and adapting the roles for themselves.
* At the Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg, until 9 June.