Brokenness and violence: some examples of recent South African art

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This is a continuation of a previous article (Joubert 2014), which focuses on ways in which representations of a radical human brokenness can deepen and enrich relationships between art and religion. In the limited application which a Christian perspective has found so far in art theory, Calvin Seerveld has opened possibilities for research, particularly through his methodological development of an iconotypical troubled cosmos tradition which recognises the complexity of interpretations. Locally it is further expanded by Dirk van den Berg and is followed here as a research principle. The fundamentals of the Christian religion – man’s inherited burden of sin, grace and reconciliation through Jesus Christ’s crucifixion – are central to my interpretation.

Violence is a part of our broken cosmos. During Roman times the cross was widely used as a violent means of execution. While Christ's incarnation confirms God's existence, it also means that he could suffer and die as a human person on the cross. It bears testimony to the fact that God and people may touch in an embodied relationship as in Rembrandt van Rijn's Descent from the cross (figure 1). Touching may bring healing, as the experience of the apostle Thomas illustrates.

People can effectively get rid of violence if it is not experienced as something they are personally involved in, but as a necessity imposed from the outside. Rembrandt van Rijn's Woman hanging on a gibbet (figure 3 and 4) represents a legal execution, while Jane Alexander's Stripped ("Oh Yes" Girl) (figure 5.1) depicts an illegal execution or murder. Girard (1977) draws attention to the problematic relationships between violence, religion and legal systems.

The visual interest of my approach calls for a hermeneutic exploration of visual texts. It will serve here as the methodological framework for communicative interaction between art and spectators. The complexity of the current violent climate in South Africa (Hurst 2007) has had a significant influence on the work of some South African artists and also plays a decisive role in it. As an aspect of a profound brokenness it forms the central point of inquiry here. Artists who give the most profound interpretation of an enduring blend of grace and hope within the radicality of brokenness could work from a broken-cosmos tradition.

Through its specific approach to violence, Jane Alexander's art gives meaning to humanity. The world of her art does not exist as a meta-artistic self-reflection, but as a search for a commitment to and understanding of everyday life and the world, of humanity in the broadest and most fundamental sense, with a focus on the radicality of human brokenness. Her deformed (or miscreated) sculptural figures may also bring promises of hope, grace and mercy in our fragile world. These sculptures explore the enormous human potential for "resilience, agency, empowerment, generosity, and dignity in the face of adversity, distress and deprivation as well as the insecurity, fear and anxiety of individuals in positions of power and command" (Subirós 2011:25). A radical change in value systems, an acceptance of responsibility and care for fellow human beings and the recognition of mutual communality can be initiated in South Africa and beyond by this.

Botha's scapegoat simultaneously represents concepts of a burnt offering, a scapegoat and a satyr. This means that the crucified figure does not refer exclusively to a Christian worldview, but that its meaning is extended. Enriching ambiguities between man and animal, satyr and scapegoat, preservation and destruction suggested by the depiction may refer to an operation oficonoclash, but also to troubled relations between art and religion. Sacrificing a scapegoat suggests a violent act against a surrogate victim. Botha's commune: suspension of disbelief(figure 9) which represents the crucified figure of Christ, may, in this sense, also personify a scapegoat. At the same time it acts as an image radically opposing that of the scapegoat, especially through using carved bibles, translated into the eleven languages used in South Africa, as a sculptural medium.

The main themes of Dumas's work (as, too, those of Botha’s) can be identified as the basic human drives of birth, love, sexuality, guilt, dishonour, suffering and death, but also human brokenness and vulnerability. These are never used in a militant or absolute way, but represent very personal feelings associated with universal themes. She paints the anonymous bodies of African immigrants washed up on the beaches of Spain or Italy, people who had committed suicide, murder victims, victims of war violence, and unknown bodies in mortuaries. The title of her exhibition, One Hundred Models and Endless Rejects (2001), highlights her unending commitment to people, especially the "rejects" – the outcasts and outsiders, refugees and prisoners. Her paintings give them a face, a new presence, a remembrance and commemoration and a place in a community. Spectators can share in a concern for human dignity. The monumental scale of her work, as found in an alternative manner in Gutter's work, powerfully explores what it means to be part of the world today.

Pauline Gutter's work has an ongoing interest in the land – in its very soil – and people's commitment to it. The problems addressed are universal in nature, but the presentations are specifically South African. Daily existence is pervasively exposed to evil, life-threatening danger which makes voiceless, vulnerable and helpless victims of the animals, the people and the country. Spectators are confronted with the exceptional scale of her work. The scratch marks and the colours of the pigment bring to life a disturbing violent reality. The communication is not confrontational, but intimate, empathic, inviting interaction. Her visualisation of human vulnerability invites spectators to become active and imaginative witnesses of the depictions of human brokenness, but also to get involved in care and responsibility. In a dangerous and broken world injustice and violence are actively opposed with integrity.

Rembrandt van Rijn's approach to brokenness resonates in the hidden violence of Jane Alexander's installations, especially in the inevitable contamination that violence entails. Botha's installations can find their embodiment in Girard's explorations of violence, especially in his interest in the displaced violence of the scapegoat principle. Rembrandt van Rijn's empathic interaction with the everyday world of people and his suggestions of communication between the self and others find an alternative response in Marlene Dumas's inclusion in and identification with a violent, broken world. The non-violent resistance to violence in Pauline Gutter's representations join the non-violent interaction with violence characteristic of Jane Alexander's installations. This involvement with violence, but simultaneously with resistance, reconciliation and the continuous presence of hope, characterising the work of these contemporary artists, will form the key examples of brokenness here.

Artists themselves do not escape the effects of brokenness and violence. The brokenness of the self finds expression in Botha's diverse self-presentations. The meaning of being an artist and the naked exposure and vulnerability of artists in front of spectators are recognised in several of Marlene Dumas' unidealised self-presentations. The relations between defiling, staining and the action of painting gives an indication of how deeply and constantly self-critically Dumas thinks about the ethical dimensions of painting. Even when she deals with humour, satire or mockery in her paintings, human vulnerability and brokenness are part of the whole. This suggests that introspection in the artist's work never leaves the self untouched.

Violence, disparities and suffering cannot be described as only colonial, apartheid and post-apartheid phenomena. It forms part of the human intent and history from the beginning of human existence. However, in this condition of brokenness and fallibility, possibilities of compassion, grace and mercy can also be found. The broken-cosmos tradition offers numerous possibilities for investigating images that refer to this radicality, while it also enhances understanding.

Keywords: broken-cosmos tradition, brokenness, cross, execution, grace, Jane Alexander, Marlene Dumas, mercy, Pauline Gutter, post-apartheid South African art, religion, Rembrandt van Rijn, resilience, scapegoat mechanism, suffering, violence, Wim Botha

Lees die Afrikaanse artikel: Gebrokenheid en geweld: enkele voorbeelde van hedendaagse Suid-Afrikaanse kuns

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