How to make friends and avoid Apartheid
Art Monthly Nov 2001
Australia's reputation as a stubborn white fortress against the Asian hordes has been reclaimed this week with the rejection of a teeming migrant ship and a hardening stand against immigration.
Reuters analysis 29 August 2001
It seems a fateful arrangement to have the north to the top and the south at the bottom of the world. Everything seems to begin in the north, then slide down to the southcurrencies fall, fashions coarsen, refugees descend and the enlightenment unravels. We struggle to resist the slide with financial and cultural lifelines to the northif not Europe then Asia. But we need to ask if these acts of compensation do in fact reinforce this north-south hierarchy? What might we gain from looking sideways, to cultures in our own latitudes?
There are obvious points of contact either side of us. Australia shares with South Africa and New Zealand the post-colonial project of converting European imperialism into an indigenous renaissance. Thus far, the primary forum for dialogue has been sport. Cultural exchange occurs not in the game itself, but in the pre-match formalities that demonstrate national loyalty. These days, our southern cousins use the language of their indigenous hosts. The Springboks, accompanied by Zulu warriors, sing Nkosi SikeleliAfrika in four African languages (Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho and Afrikaans). The All Blacks stomp, shout, slap and grimace their way through the Ka mate haka.
By contrast, the Wallabies seem captive to a stolid Anglo ceremony. In what seems an increasingly retrograde Advance Australia Fair, they invite their white brothers:
For loyal sons beyond the seas
But there are signs of unease with our relatively ossified ritual. For the recent Tri Nation decider in Sydney, 2MMMs Andrew Denton composed an alternative anthem for the Wallabies called the Okka, which was a spoof of the All Blacks haka. If you cant join them, mock them.
The plight of the Wallabies prompts us to consider alternative paths. In both New Zealand and South Africa, we see how art can prepare the ground for a broad indigenousness.
In New Zealand, the word for those of non-Maori descent is officially recognised in its bi-cultural constitution. Pakeha is derived from the Maori word Pakepakeha, which describes mythical fair-skinned humans whose reed canoes magically change into sailing vessels. The Pakeha experience gives a distinctive flavour to New Zealand writing. In Being Pakeha, Michael King ascribes to this identity a modest sense of antiquity, ritual, poetry, grace and humour.
In the material arts, white indigenousness is reflected in Stone, Bone and Shell movement. The work features autochthonic materials such as pounamu (New Zealand jade) and narrative motifs like the hei matau (fish hook). From the late 1960s, Pakeha artists such as Theo Schoon and Donn Salt researched Maori carving methods and disseminated the techniques overseas.
Though initially pursued with the noble aim of saving Maori crafts, the movement seems colonialist by current standards. In the post-colonial scene of Pakeha carving, someone like Owen Mapp justifies his practice by passing his skills back to Maori students as well as developing a complementary whakapapa (genealogy) in his Viking ancestry. More common stones, such as argillite, are preferred over pounamu, which is now under Maori control.
Others go beyond traditional methods. In 1988, Stone, Bone and Shell came to Australia as an exhibition, featuring not only traditional carvers but also contemporary jewellers, such as Warwick Freeman. Freeman explains his use of local materials as a quest for relevance: It was always an issue with becoming a craftsperson in the 70s, of being a craftsperson of necessity rather than indulgencea person who is wanted by its culture. One path to relevance is to create work that acknowledges the contribution of Maori legend to Pakeha identity. His series of pendants, 4 Bits of Fish, combines the Maori myth of the north island as fished out of the sea and the Pakeha evening ritual of ordering fish and chips (or fash and chups to Aussie ears). Freeman was inevitably attacked by compatriot Douglas Lloyd-Jenkins as a plunderer of the Pacific, which the jeweller took as a kind of compliment.
TheStone, bone and shellschoolis no longer exclusively Pakeha. Artists drawing on their own Pacific ancestry like Niki Hastings-McFall have also begun to make jewellery from what nature offers, such as gold-lipped mother of pearl shell. Like Freeman, she looks for odd doublings of indigenous and Western motifs, like traditional disk patterns and mag wheel designs. Her versions of traditional breastplates are based on compact disks and mini disks.
Of course, the ground is highly contested. Like the Waitangi Treaty, New Zealands bi-culturalism is fraught with mistranslations and elisions. However, it does provide soil for the evolution of a distinctively New Zealand dialogue between Maori and Pakeha. For our cousins way over to the west, however, the acquisition of indigenous status has required a dramatic reversal, from paranoid white state to a tolerant rainbow nation.
In 1995, Nelson Mandela conjured up the image of a Rainbow Nation to magically vanquish the Apartheid monster. Over the rainbow is a grim realism. Cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town are beginning to resemble yoghurt-covered raisins: raw black centres surrounded by sweet white suburbs. And there are the demons of AIDS, crime, poverty and corruption we all know so well.
But theres a certain comfort in dwelling on South Africas problems. Our world seems all the more comfortable and orderly by contrast. We rarely hear about the vibrant new culture that is emerging out of the friction between racial groups, unmoored from the Afrikaner state. Popular music is buzzing with different styles, from township Kwaito to a new Afrikaner blues. And in the art studios, there is an emerging generation of individuals looking for motifs that will stitch together a national identity out of radically different cloths.
For the moment, they doing their art degrees at places like Durbans Natal Technikon. These institutions sit uneasily on a generational fault-line. A cohort of black students is emerging to question the values of their white teachers.
Work by young South African artists seeks to heal the wounds of recent history. A Durban artist Lange Mangwa has produced an installation that features a large horn woven from animal skin. The horn has layers of meaning that pervade every corner of Zulu culture. It can be used to contain medicine, chase away evil spirits and snakes, blow as a trumpet, and even administer enemas. The Zulu nation was forged through the horns of the beast battle formation, which encircles the enemy. This is re-enacted in the Zulu wedding ceremony, where bride and grooms family arrange themselves as two horns in a battle of song. The harmony of this song, isigubudu, describes the convergence of horns of the beast. The opening words of the nation anthem advise Africa to Lift her horn on high.
But rather than simply celebrate the strength of a previously disadvantaged black culture, Mangwa links this symbol with Western culture by placing a speaker inside the horn. The result evokes the gramophone, one of the originary demonstrations of white magic. The Zulu word for white person is Umlungu, meaning those who practice magic. The speaker plays news from all the different radio stations in Durban. Mangwa celebrates the cacophony of languages in the title Made in China.
Shtembiso Shangase is a ceramicist who introduces motifs from the black, white and coloured cultures of South Africa. His work is informed by his Shembe faith, from the Church of Nazarite Baptists, which adopts Christian ritual to African values. As well as incorporating traditional Zulu dance and song, it also celebrates indigenous Scottish culture of kilts and bagpipes. Shtembiso describes the impact of the bagpipes used in Shembe ceremonies: You can feel the naturality they have a certain inside that communicates with Godmighty!
The new generation are not only making art, they are changing the context in which it is viewed. The sculptor Nathi Khanyile talks about an African Renaissance where artists are viewed as healers rather than individual muses. One of his white teachers, Jeremy Wafer, confesses difficulty in knowing how to assess a healer within the framework of art education.
White artists also engage with the healing mission in the crusade for upliftment and the alleviation of rural poverty. Many of white craft practitioners have given up the bench to work on the craft programs, such as the sponsorship of telephone wire baskets by Telkom. These white women with missionary zeal help with product design so works from subsistence rural villages might find a market in the wealthy white homes from Sandton to Stockholm.
In Durban, Nathi Khanyile creates installations incorporating the basketry of rural women weavers. His lecturer, Andries Botha, has created a trust Amazwi Abesifazane (Voices of Women), which produces memory cloths for sale that depict the traumatic experiences of womens lives.
In his own work, Andries Botha aims to re-calibrate Afrikaner identity in order to develop a relationship with black South Africans that is based on fundamental human values. Yet to be exhibited is a massive sculptural installation featuring figures that ram together the two historical antagonisms. In one piece, a three-metre high steel-plated man with Afrikaner hat is clutching a straw woman in Zulu headdress performing a dance known in Afrikaans as binne boet (inside the arse). The carnivalesque Afrikaner folk traditions offer a Boer culture that is more conducive to inter-racial reciprocity.
Yet for some artists, particularly young white males with African attitude, it is the very incompatibility of whites with the new South Africa that is their source of identity. In the centre of Cape Town is a public art work that features a generic Ivory Coast curio, expanded to a three-metre high bronze statue, on which are placed garish yellow Bart Simpson heads. The sculptor Brett Murray sets up his work to be read in two ways: as either a critique on the effect of globalised culture in Africa, or a statement about the status of whites in the new South Africalike flies on a turd. Murrays light-fittings, quoting images from the in your face Afrikaner Bitter Comix series, adorn Cape Town bars and cafés.
The emerging network of contemporary white visual artists has a strange relationship with the outside world. While many are becoming part of the Biennale circuit, there is a determination to confront internal issues that might not be so flavoursome to the primitivist agendas of the first world. The Johannesburg group Trinity Sessions organised this years art exhibition for Afrikaans-speaking Klein Karoo Festival, which included a commanding work by Pretoria-based sculptor Wim Bothaa life-size crucified Christ sculpted out of bibles. The end of apartheid has led many ex-members of the Dutch Reformed Church to confront those they had previously abhorrednot just heathen natives but also Western idolatry, such as the Holy Roman Catholic church.
For young white Africans, Australia is perceived as a safe, almost sleepy country. For young black Africans, the impression is more disturbing. The softly spoken Langwe reflects on what friends have reported after visiting Australia: What was happening in South Africa, its still happening there in Australia. Because a lot of white people who are moving from South Africa are going to Australia, they dont want this kind of collaboration, different cultures, mixing
The horns that urge cultural Apartheid in Australia come from different directions. On the one hand, the white woman with popularist zeal has characterised Aboriginal Australians as privileged leeches on the system. And on the other hand, post-colonial deference to the originary voice of the other has stalled dialogue between races. There are few occasions where the white and black intersect in a reciprocal fashion (the Alice Springs Beanie festival as a notable example).
We are beginning to hear suggestions that the mantle of white isolationism is slowly drifting west across the Indian Ocean, from its birthplace in the Transvaal to the breakfast tables in our suburbs. Germaine Greer taunts us with the label Apartheid, which is only confirmed by the overseas commentators on the Tampa crisis. Isolated counties like Australia seem vulnerable to popularists urging a blinkered defensiveness. There is a danger thatas South Africa, Albania, Serbia, Iraq and Afghanistansermons from outside only strengthen the resolve to dig in our heels against the world and show everyone that were no soft touch.
If this happens, we may need to call on our liberated cousins on our own latitudes. It may be their turn to support us and, in doing so, forge new friendships.
Kevin Murray writes in Melbourne, a city that lies between Rotarua and Cape Town.
Travel to New Zealand and South Africa was supported by the Craft Leadership Fund of the Australia Council. The interviews may be heard on Radio Nationals Arts Talk, Sundays in November. Images and further details are accessible in the Southern Exposure website (www.craftvic.asn.au/south).
Copyright held by author Kevin Murray