Colonial Discourse – art production

î∩ the visual arts the choice of subject matter, method of representation, the content of the work as well as the context within which a work of art is produced plays significant role in how the message inherent in the work is conveyed. Bearing these factors in mind when confronted with a work of art will stand us in good stead as we attempt to make sense of what we are looking at and aid us reach some understanding what role that particular work of art played within its original context. One can agree that a work of art continues to reflect its original intended message through time. What changes through time is the context within which it is viewed or exhibited. But the original context if known by the viewer can always be brought into the viewing in order for the viewer to appreciate what kind of a message the work might have been intended to convey when it was produced.  In this very short essay I will attempt to show how colonial discourse influenced art production by referring to two artworks. I shall analyze the two artworks in terms of

1) Colonial discourse

2) Post-colonial discourse

In order to highlight what might have influenced the production of the works. I shall first start by defining the two terms colonialism and post-colonialism respectively.

I have selected two paintings for my purpose, see figure 1. Otto Landsberg, Hottentot Venus 1860). Oil on board 23 X 37cm. Potchestroom Museum (Arnold, M 1996: Colour Plate 10) and figure 2. George French Angas, Nazea, Wife of Karel. A Malay Priest (1846 – 7).Watercolour 61 X 45,7cm. William Fehr Collection, Cape Town. Phot: Jean Brundnt (Arnold, M 1996: Colour Plate 12).

Colonialism

According to the Little Oxford Dictionary 1994, the word colonialism refers to a policy of having colonies. It further explains a colony as a settlement or settlers in a new territory remaining subject to mother country (Little Oxford Dictionary 1994). Thus colonization refers to a policy of a powerful state or country to extend its original boundaries beyond by taking, by any means, a country foreign to its self (the colonizer) and claiming it as its own thus imposing its laws upon the original inhabitants so as to entrench its control.

Post-colonialism

The prefix post- means after or behind. Thus the term post-colonialism connotes the idea that colonialism has past. This is true to our country which rid off the chains of one of the products of colonialism, apartheid, in 1994. The two artworks I have chosen for my analysis as far as these issues are concerned have been produced in the 19th century. And I shall attempt to show that they demonstrate the operation of colonialism discourse within their content.

Nazea, wife of karel, a Malay Priest (1846 – 7)

Please see figure 2. George French Angas, Nazea, wife of Karel, a Malay priest 1846 – 7. Watercolour. 61 X 45, 7 cm. William Fehr Collection, Cape Town. Photo. Jean Brundnt. (Arnold, M 1996: Colour Plate 12)

Nazea, GF Angas

In this work the figure of Nazeá stare out of the picture in a side profile. She is fashionably dressed in European attire, her dress flows elegantly to the ground. Her figure is central in this compensation. Although there is a mountain behind her with houses at the base, the woman’s figure dwarfs the landscape and acquires a state of dignity.

The scarf around her neck draws our attention to her beauty. In this work the woman’s beauty and dress projects Nazeá’s social standing – within the Malay community.

Hottentot Venus (1860s)

Please see figure 1. Otto Landsberg, Hottentot Venus (1860). Oil on board 23 X 37cm. Potchestroom Museum (Arnold, M 1996: Colour Plate 10).

Hottentots Venus, Otto Landsberg

Unlike the portrait of Nazeá this portrait lacks lighting. We are confronted by a figure of a black woman with accentuated buttocks starring out of the picture plane, almost similar to the figure if Nazeá albeit from the opposite direction. She is not smiling. The bright (white) headgear she spots propels attention to her un-cheerful countenance. The light coming through the bars of barn emphasizes the freedom she is denied. She is a captive of the colonial gaze. In this barn she is depicted with two Sheep. One can argue that she falls within the parameters of property just as the Sheep are part of property. It is as if her mere depiction, as naked as she is, lowers her being to the same level as that of the animals. She is subjugated.

Hottentot Venus and Nazeá

The question that we must tackle at this point is how these two works show colonist discourse influence. This fact can be made apparent through a contrast of the two artworks. We must remember that in these works there is an eye which has depicted two subjects – The colonial gaze. As it is we ourselves when we look at these two paintings we are looking at the two subjects through the eye of the colonizer, the prevalent ideology that informed the artists when they embarked on painting these works.

Let us pit the two artworks against each by contrasting them

Contrast

  1. While the portrait of Nazeá depicts a beautiful woman, Hottentot Venus depicts a not so beautiful woman. She is ugly, devoid of sophistication and dignity.
  2. Nazea, for the mere fact that she is clothed attains an air of dignity. Contrasted with the naked Hottentot Venus. The Hottentot Venus is stripped naked off her dignity with regard to the manner in which she is presented.
  3. Nazea’s background, the landscape with buildings and mountains in the far distance explicitly emphasizes her freedom as a person. Whereas the barn within which Hottentot Venus is represented is devoid of freedom.
  4. Nazea’s sexuality as a woman is not exploited she is wearing clothes. Contrast this fact with the Hottentot Venus, her sexuality is exposed and exploited. See her accentuated buttocks and breasts, she is an object of sexual fascination. Through the male gaze, which is the case here, considering that the artist is male.

Remarks

By contrasting the two artworks I have been able to reflect on several points about colonialism.

  1. The ‘other’, the colonized, has no identity in the case of the Hottentot Venus,
  2. The Nazea portrait reflects the fact that the Indian community they were considered above the status of the colonized or the other. This is demonstrated in the attire that Nazea is wearing and the background within which she is represented.
  3. Following the contrasting analysis that I have performed above the two works are influenced by colonialism in that they are race orientated. The Hottentot Venus expresses or represents the colonized, the weak, the backward and the other. Whereas the grandeur or the dignity that the Nazea’s portrait portrays represents the colonizer, the strong, the advances, the west. This is reflected by the western clothes she is wearing as well as the western architecture represented in the background. Thanks to linear perspective she even dwarfs the architecture behind her. She is important. The representation of the west domination is undeniable in this representation.

Conclusion

This essay has attempted to show how visual art is influenced by colonialism. The very artists who made these works were part of a world that viewed the ‘other’ black people as unimportant and prone to exploitation.

This essay has brought two works together which are ten years apart in terms of their production for the purpose of comparative viewing for the purpose of illustrating the influence of colonialism at different levels of it as a discourse. Thus in the end the ideology which is part of the socio-cultural background within which artistic practice operates is reflected in the work of art as far as the manner of representation of the subject matter is concerned.

List of illustrations

1. Otto Landsberg, Hottentot Venus (1860). Oil on board 23 X 37cm. Potchestroom Museum (Arnold, M 1996: Colour Plate 10).

2. George French Angas, Nazea, wife of Karel, a Malay priest 1846 – 7. Watercolour. 61 X 45, 7 cm. William Fehr Collection, Cape Town. Photo. Jean Brundnt. (Arnold, M 1996: Colour Plate 12)

Bibliography

 Anorld, Marion 1996. Women and Art. Palgrave Macmillan

 

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2003

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