Changing Faces: Profiling Portraits in South Africa


Many, or perhaps merely some, of us, might be familiar with the mythological origin of the mirror. Legend has it that Eve was performing her ablutions in a river and became transfixed by a beautiful, glistening image gazing at her from the water. It was her own reflection, of course and 'twas a case of love, literally, at first sight. But she became rattled by the formal distortions caused by the ripples. Henceforth, she embarked on a quest to find a medium that would forevermore "freeze", "fix" and "frame" her self-image. Therein, so myth-makers insist, lies not only the origin of the mirror, but also its progenitor, the portrait - the former revealing time and change; the latter, preserving and immortalising.


Since then, humankind had basked in the reflected glow of portraiture, whether as omen and sacred fetish, divine being or historical personage; as part of nature or as conqueror of nature; as individual or emblem of a collective consciousness; as subject or object; icon or caricature. And through the ages, the portrait has served, variously, as the exemplar of how we would like to see ourselves and be seen by others; or as the portal to a truth beyond external mimesis.


'Changing Faces: Profiling Portraits in South Africa' is an exhibition that, from its title, suggests a forensic deconstruction of this genre. As with all traditions, the incarnation of portraiture - and its currency - is always dependent on the partiality of the perspective in which we view the world and ourselves, circumscribed by the times in which we live. And perhaps one of the most pressing truisms of this and previous times is that, despite the act of freezing or rendering a historical - whether through photograph, paint, film, video or sculpture - the visages of portraiture have indeed shifted, in much the same way that the conventional markings of time cleave creases, folds and furrows of age and experience into an individual face. Then, of course there are the specific vagaries of South Africa's past, during which the way in which we perceive ourselves and others were circumscribed along the fault lines of ethnicity. The challenge of this exhibition, therefore, is not merely to construct a cohesive contextual thread through the recent past and present of South African portraiture but rather to acknowledge the shifting politics of representation, as well as to engage with the revelations and mediations that accompany the general wear 'n tear of human experience itself.


In his selection of portraits, Alastair Whitton - curator of this exhibition - lays claim neither to prescriptiveness nor definitiveness. The exhibition, he explains with deceptive neutrality, showcases both earlier examples of the genre by selected South African masters, as well as more recent initiatives by both established and emerging artists exploring the subject from a contemporary viewpoint. "The objective," he adds, "is to map something of the altering attitude towards the notion of what constitutes 'the portrait' and to provide the viewer with a sense of this shift in perspective.”


Viewed from the prism of a post modern, post-apartheid context, the exhibition may be divided chronologically - albeit simplistically - into three phases of portraiture: PW (post-war) BC (Before Change) and AD (After Democracy). But this demarcation imposes its own hierarchy of context and progress, belying the complexity of personal autobiographies that underpin the most politicised of portraits. And the converse applies: beneath the surface of an ostensibly apolitical image lie entanglements of choices, both political and cultural.


Under the rubric of post-World Wars 1 & 2, for example,  are portraits executed by George Pemba, Maggie Laubser and Irma Stern in which the rudiments of European Expressionism, melded with classical portraiture, are diligently observed: monumentalised subject, presented in the foreground, either meeting the viewers' gaze or averting it, as though in contemplation. Although an obvious shift has occurred from their 19th century forebears, who depicted their sitters in formal attire, with neutralised expressions, both Laubser, and Stern imbue their subjects with a painterly emotion, but the detachment of painter from sitter or subject is self-evident. Social context and personal circumstance are barely alluded to, with the focus remaining primarily on the formal "expressionistic" components of the portrait.


While also influenced by the "classical" modernism of late nineteenth-century Europe, especially France, George Pemba’s modernist aesthetic sensibility becomes distilled into a form of social critique within the context of South Africa's history of racial and cultural discrimination. And when Pemba's work is juxtaposed against a ritualised portrait painted by artist Robert Slingsby, 'or one of photographer Pieter Hugo's monumentalised portrait, produced in  a post-apartheid, contemporary context,   the anthropological commentaries provoked by such works might re-ignite recurring and volatile debates around representation of the marginalised, exoticised "other". Another recycled debate that might well resurface through such juxtapositions revolves around the "right" to represent, not to mention the visual language through which this representation is articulated - an interrogation that assumes particular resonance within the context of debates around censorship and artistic freedom.


It has also become an oversimplification to impose an overarching theory of portraiture during and after apartheid as a progression from rigid hierarchies of identity into a more egalitarian vision. Although this is of course true, Changing Faces is not just an exhibition about the shifts wrought through the elimination of previous political and artistic hierarchies, and expressions thereof by artists operating in a democratised country. Within each of the portraits on display reside complex, personal, social and cultural narratives, as evoked through the portraits of Claudette Shreuders, which, although executed in a post-apartheid context, may still be read as vehicles for her perspective on a fragmented, racially-cleaved society defined primarily by its fictions of representation. Contrast these works with the defiantly, exuberantly romanticised reveries of Sophie, the avatar-maid and alter-ego constructed by Mary Sibanda, who finds freedom  from the drudgery of domestic labour through her fantasies of super-heroism. In the works of both these artists the notion of the subject - and its association with hierarchy and otherness - becomes subverted and, ultimately eliminated.


Another truism reinforced by this exhibition is that the subject and struggle of all art is, ultimately, the self and the meaning thereof. This struggle assumes augmented resonance, particularly when articulated against the backdrop of a society in which definitions of self and other were so rigidly prescribed. The juxtaposition of these portraits ignite discourse into the paradoxes of self-assertion, abjectness and the contradictions inherent to any form of re-presentation, thereby reinforcing the fallacy of aesthetic neutrality and the unmediated eye (or I).

There is nothing overly heretical in Whitton's selections. But with some exceptions his choices of "portraits" serve to displace our notions of the conventions constitutes by this genre. Favouring sometimes anomalous examples of "portraiture" over other more traditional choices, Whitton's curatorial methodology generates sometime incongruous discourses around identities - racial, personal and political - that are, in places compellingly dissonant.


Instead of focussing primarily on individualised faces one associates with this tradition, Whitton presents portraits that are more emblematic of existential exploration than a quest for prima facie likeness. Tracey Payne and William Kentridge, for example, both present de-individuated figures in archetypal poses - Payne's "Rebirth" portrait evoking a womb with an inner view and Kentridge's form presented as a disfigured variation on the theme of a reclining nude. In these works, the invisible is rendered concrete through their portrayal of the darker sides of the subconscious. The truths of these "portraits", therefore, attest more to states of mind - an interior reality - rather than a m ore representative, external one evoked through the minutiae of physical likeness.


Contrast these self-reflexive forms with Marlene Dumas’ iconoclastic portrait of 'former president Nelson Mandela as a young man,' whose deliberate crudeness of execution, translates more as the rudimentary sketch of a matinee idol than as a labour-intensive effort at "verisimilitude". Through the provocation of text - a handwritten scrawled message across the bottom of the canvas reading: "Would you trust this man with your daughter?" - Dumas has the playfully subverted the tradition of deferentially lionising leaders for historic and patriotic purposes. She has deliberately decontextualised - and arguably, demeaned - the most recognised and revered global icon of our time by removing traditional referents to his stature and replacing them with the inference of profanity. Also throwing gravel into the Vaselined notion of the sanctity of political office is Anton Kannemeyer’s caricature of President Jacob Zuma, which derides the office or "affairs" of our head of state, augmented through the addition of irreverent textual commentary.


Straddling the satirical and inchoate are Georgina Gratrix's portraits. Under her lurid, unashamedly smudged palette she attempts a denouement of the grandiose and sacrosanct in art. Her "subjects" are neither discernible as individuals nor as types. In her seemingly unrelenting quest to nudge all vestiges of hierarchy off their pedestals, Gratrix produces visages of crude, even lewd excess.


The history of caricature and satire – and its subversion of the traditionally grandiose portrait - may be traced back to the medieval period, where human faces were distorted into monstrous demons, or beautified into angelic visages. But the above mentioned subtleties of historical and cultural and self-referencing, not to mention strategies of appropriation and desecration, are very much a feature of South Africa's post-apartheid iconography and iconology.


Another of the self-evident shifts between eras of South African art during and post-apartheid, apart from the  oft-repeated epithets accompanying liberation, is the supplanting of the dominance of a modern European "style" by a celebration of hybrid cultural expression. One of the legitimising myths of apartheid was of cultural stasis and separateness although, historically, the converse has proven the case. Even the choice of the term "subject", as a term of inherent subjugation, has been confronted and challenged, alongside a sense of enhanced freedom to deconstruct, parody and debunk attempts to impose a freeze-frame on flux. But this does not necessarily presuppose the preponderance of a multicultural potjiekos of intentionality and execution; but rather an acknowledgment of diverse, still conflicting and sometimes conflating narratives comprising the contemporary cultural landscape. 


We cannot separate the shifts in South African portraiture from international trends in visual production and reception. And within the global interface of visual dialects, the dual-duelling voices of photography and painting in portraiture have become amplified. Since the invention of the first primitive daguerreotype in the 19th century, photographed truth and realism in painting have shared a complicated relationship. But it is largely since the advent of the digital age, with the conflation of conceptualism, pop art and a melee of predominantly urban cultural movements that the conventional boundaries between the two mediums have dissipated. Indeed, as reinforced in this exhibition, painting’s aesthetic is now inextricably linked to photographic representation - whether through advertising or fashion, in which the facts or fictions of mass media, constantly challenged.


Such is the case with the works of Asha Zero, whose street smart imagery initially resembles a collaged pastiche or bricolage of typography, commercial art and "tromp l'oeil" hyper-realism. But on closer examination the Artists "portraits" of our contemporary, urban topography are revealed to be intricately constructed in acrylic paint, melding "formal representation" with recognisable global referents in the grunge apparel of late capitalism. A hip hop between a conceptualist vision and the tradition of mimesis is also performed by Sanell Aggenbach, albeit to very different effect. In her painted portraits she simultaneously plays off the inverted spaces - dark and light, negative and positive - of the photographed image, subverting the traditional values accorded the "finished" or final product.


And within the contemporary South African nexus, there continues to exist a very real and urgent interrogation of identity from a state-imposed sense of nationalism to a greater sense of self-determination. The binaries of nationhood and alienation are encapsulated in the photographed portraits of Roelof Petrus Van Wyk. His sitters - young Afrikaners - are photographed ostensibly in the tradition of grand portraiture or as anthropological studies during the mid-19th century - the latter depicting oppressed racial and cultural groups as ethnic subjects or subjugated objects.  But Van Wyk's models pose for the camera almost defiantly, defying the constructs used by their forebears to classify, categorise and conquer. They speak more of an anthroposophical quest - an individualised need to access and address the profound spiritual questions of humanity, and of new ways in which to relate to the world and themselves, through artistic, personal and political freedom.


While the quest to tie pretty bows is always fraught with frustration - art doesn't lend itself to neat endings - it is tempting to synthesize an overarching theory, - a detour-free trail - of the direction portraiture has taken in South Africa, If one has to convey the shifts within South African portraiture through prosaic imagery, one might think of pre-democracy representations as occupying a stairwell of hierarchies. In contrast, post-apartheid portraiture, it might be argued, is represented by the supermarket or the online one-stop shopping experience: nothing is taboo from the artists' shopping trolley; it's all out there on the shelves to be picked, consumed, recontextualised and discarded at will. We may observe the growth of appreciation for artistic license, a greater empowerment of artistic choice and the freedom to exercise individual prerogative concerning the semantics and direction of the portrait. We may hail the growing power of the artist as agent and interpreter, of the pre-eminence of internal truths over the slavish adherence to appearance.


But there are warning signs. The furore over Brett Murray’s The Spear and, more recently, the removal of portraits painted by Koos Myburgh, depicting President Zuma and former President Mandela, from an art exhibition in Nelspruit, suggest an ominous caveat attached to the label of creative expression.  Painted as white men, the presidential portraits painted by Myburgh were deemed by one of the municipality’s self-appointed cultural custodians to be "not suitable" for public viewing". The Aesopian moral of this cautionary tale:  the mirrors and portraits of reflection, commentary and critique so exuberantly displayed in this exhibition are under threat of being silenced by the distorted reflections of patronage and power.


Hazel Friedman 2013