Nataniël, one of the most iconic Afrikaans artists, is known for his spectacular productions and extravagant costumes. As the ever-changing starting point of his stories, the artist’s outfits form his shows’ point of departure. Understood from the perspective of literary tradition, his excessive “fashioning of the self” may be seen as a “borrowing” from existing models that form part of a repertoire of conceptual strategies representing a particular set of beliefs, motives and postures. However, Nataniël’s strategies also relate to popular culture standard practices – particularly those of the star persona as manifested within metatextual and multidiscursive self-presentation. As observable within the artist’s memoirs, interviews, newspaper articles, and reviews, self- and hetero-presentations show that Nataniël’s self-fashioning suggests a paradoxical juxtaposition between an exhibitionist star text and a highly private, introverted individual. Simultaneously they confirm the artist’s individuality and consistent divergence from the ordinary – to the point of rebellion against entrenched social structures.
The said aspect of Nataniël’s unique persona as singer, storyteller, writer and entrepreneur suggests examination by way of an interpretative model based on the idea of Renaissance self-fashioning. This methodological choice is motivated by the observation that the artist deliberately constructs his public image in reaction to dominant forms of social control or authority (cf. Greenblatt 1980). In this regard, Greenblatt’s terms such as threatening Other, the absence of order and the demonic parody of order are relevant to our discussion. From Greenblatt’s perspective, self-fashioning always occurs when the self is threatened, undermined, or adrift.
In addition to Greenblatt’s thought, relevant approaches from Bourdieu’s work (1984; 1993; 1996a; 1996b) serve to inform a nuanced and detailed interpretation of the artist’s self-fashioning. As one of Bourdieu's most influential concepts, the idea of habitus is central to our reading. It refers to the physical embodiment of cultural capital and the profoundly innate dispositions that form the basis of self-construction. From this perspective, the star phenomenon is a calculated commodity and a concept that implies historical, ideological, and aesthetic value. Again, Bourdieu’s terms habitus, trajectory and strategy serve to describe meaningful aspects of Nataniël’s image, both as mediated product and as aestheticised construct, interpreted within a particular set of social contexts and realities. The artist describes his childhood, as the early foundation of his habitus, as horrible. He experienced humiliation and isolation on the grounds of his “otherness” and lived in fear of his father. However, at a young age, he rejected “group mentality”. During his teens, he established his individuality through his dress style, which would, later on, form an essential aspect of his bodily hexis. Numinous experiences during his childhood sparked his inner conviction to resist repressive social forces. Yet he suffered from a growing awareness of the “threatening other” – which in his later life he overcame by the sheer overabundance of his artistic persona. Still, his sexual orientation brought him into conflict with his family and Afrikaans social circle, and during the early years of his career, led to public harassment. Though his rebellion against forms of ordinariness and social compliance inspired his highly visible artistic persona, privately he is an introvert who prefers minimalist surroundings.
Our analysis of Nataniël’s self- and hetero-presentations, structured according to Greenblatt’s concepts such as absolute authority, the “threatening other”, and the chaotic or the false, confirms the relevance of the theory of Renaissance self-fashioning for elucidating the artist’s public image. While the idea of excess (another of Greenblatt’s terms) is central to his persona, simultaneously, the pain and alienation of “otherness” are aestheticised in his work. In this respect, language, both verbal and musical, forms a central facet of his art.
An analysis of Nataniël’s music video “Gold” (2004) serves as a popular-cultural example of Renaissance self-fashioning, again highlighting contradictions within his persona. Our reading draws on the aforementioned theoretical viewpoints and perspectives from popular music studies and popular culture studies. The video clearly illustrates that the artist uses marketing techniques and strategies associated with commercial music production. However, its packaging is subtle. It confirms that Nataniël most effectively demonstrates his protest against the ordinary and forms of domination in the hexis-habitus (Bourdieu) of his ever-changing, extravagant outfits. Still, the ambiguous verbal, sonic, and visual meta-text of his image remains a complex, contradictory construct. While in his productions, he often references historic postures or models (cf. Meizoz 2010), ultimately his art speaks of an individual set of values, beliefs, and artistic as well as personal motivations.
These aspects of his personality, also showcased in “Gold”, highlight Nataniël’s sexuality as a central facet of his posture. It is a paradox that the artist, who in his younger days openly flaunted a gay image, is adored by Afrikaans and English fans from all walks of life and sexual orientation. In his more subdued projection of sexual orientation, some may argue that the artist has become a sell-out to please a broader spectrum of fans. Yet in a recent review of his memoirs, Kyk na my, Nataniël was typified as “a gay national treasure” and as “South Africa’s leading exponent of the solo stage act”. These characterisations serve as an affirmation of his status within the local gay community. The paradox of his popularity within conservative Afrikaans populations we understand from the perspective of Van der Westhuizen’s (2013:88) explanation of his unique embodiment of the role of the jester, “traditionally a eunuch”, or a “female male”, castrated and thus sexually neutered and “safe”. She describes such a character as simultaneously the “Wise Fool” and “an outsider”; “a favourite figure of Afrikaans cultural narratives employed to speak ‘truth’ about the Afrikaans condition”.
While, therefore, Nataniël’s self-fashioning both highlights and hides his sexuality, he does not focus on homo-eroticism in his narratives as an overarching theme, but rather on “otherness”. Consequently, his stories (and lyrics) show a broader sense of social consciousness and the pathos and compassion with which his fans identify. From this perspective we ascribe his popularity to a carefully constructed marketing strategy, and his protest of recognisable aspects of Afrikaner-ness stemming from strong personal habits and beliefs.
As (apparently) genderless outsider, Nataniël’s artistic meta-text thus simultaneously mediates exceptional visibility and invisibility. Such self-fashioning, underlining contrasting aspects of his persona, empowers him to engage in a wide range of role play. Therefore, he is able to capture the imagination of his audiences as an innocent observer, as a wise jester – and as a vulnerable, exotic other.
Keywords: field theory; Nataniël; posture; Renaissance self-fashioning; star text