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Column: Valley of Grace / All our Mothers

First appeared
Thursday, 23 May 2013


Perhaps the most important thing that works of art can “do” is to surprise. This does not mean simply to shock – provocation for its own sake can be valuable, but it’s usually too easy (and sometimes, as Brett Murray discovered last year, artists can cause great offence and public outrage beyond proportion to the actual images they produce). Nor is it merely to perplex, playing obscure games with audiences, viewers or readers.

Genuine surprises occur when a work of art escapes its own bounds, transcending even the artist’s conception of its possibilities and flouting the consumer’s expectations: the familiar is made strange, the mundane becomes haunting.

When I read that Heike Allerton-Davies’ new exhibition, Valley of Grace (at Artspace until 1 June) was about “beauty and fragility ... the blessing and curse of being female”, I had it all figured out. This would be a kooky, new-agey form of gender politics, I thought – the kind of lazy, watered-down feminism that cannot address social issues because it lacks nuance.

Oprah Winfrey used to be guilty of this. Marelise van der Merwe and other critics of the One Billion Rising campaign earlier this year pointed out that the South African incarnation of the V-Day Initiative seemed “superficial” and “gimmicky” in “the aftermath of Anene Booysen’s assault and murder”. I feared I might encounter similar shortcomings in an exhibition exploring the simultaneous “vulnerability and strength of women”.

How wrong I was.

Allerton-Davies is interested in the universal or archetypal only insofar as it is expressed in the local and specific. The “Valley of Grace” is not a blissful, existential state – it is a physical space, the village of Genadendal in the Western Cape’s Overberg region (it was given that name by Georg Schmidt when he founded a Moravian mission station in 1738).

The contemporary community documented by Allerton-Davies is far from a state of grace: for many of the young people in Genadendal, poverty, geographical isolation and limited social mobility produce quite the opposite effect. As in most other parts of the country, a culture of violence against women – sexual violence in particular – is deeply entrenched.

Yet, as Allerton-Davies points out, it would be wrong to assume that this means the women lack agency or “assertion”. In her portraits of them, she combines victimhood and defiance; the subjects are rendered as “fragile yet fierce”. The pictures assert this paradox again and again until the viewer accepts it. We are not allowed to subscribe either to the idyllic clichés of tourist websites or to the equally reductive depiction of rural South African life as one of endemic deprivation.

Allerton-Davies achieves this balance through an unsentimental representation of the women that allows their own facial expressions, postures and gestures to remain ambiguous. The dark acrylic and ink is lightened, briefly, with splashes of colour in the eyes. This, in turn, reflects a recessive blue- or green-eyed gene in this “coloured” community – evidence of centuries of racial mixing that give the lie to ethnically exclusive narratives of South Africa’s past.

Dog-fighting is a popular pastime in Genadendal, its viciousness both a function and a mirror of human violence in the area. The dogs, associated with a relentlessly aggressive masculinity (and sometimes even used to threaten or “control” women), find their way into Allerton-Davies’ portraits. Here again, however, the paintings subvert our assumptions; the dogs become sympathetic, protective companions to the women portrayed.

There are also a few surprises in store across Jan Smuts Avenue at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, where Sue Williamson’s All our Mothers is on display until 15 June. The space is dominated by a video installation that juxtaposes struggle veterans and their daughters or granddaughters to provide “young” and “old” perspectives on the struggle against apartheid.

Williamson’s carefully-spliced footage is deceptive. Like the photographs on the surrounding walls, which appear to offer “natural” or “journalistic” portraits of anti-apartheid activists (like Helen Joseph, Mamphela Ramphele, Charlotte Maxeke, Fatima Meer and Cheryl Carolus), the various inter-generational conversations are carefully constructed. They pay tribute to freedom fighters – Amina Cachalia, Brigalia Bam, Bram Fischer and Hugh Lewin amongst others – but also disrupt dominant “struggle stories” by questioning their often-unspoken impact on the families and descendents of political icons.



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