A Planet of the Six Legged Horses

Indirect metaphor

 James Cameron’s Avatar (2009 )can be considered as a part of a chain reaction response to the detrimental situation our planet faces due to carbon emissions. Its release follows hotly COP 15 (the United Nation Climate Change Conference 2009) a conference where the super-powerful countries, the developing powers as well as underdeveloped countries met to discuss and find solutions to the challenges brought on by climate change due to CO2 emissions.  The conference did not reach the satisfactory results on a global level in that the drafted Copenhagen Accord document was ‘taken note of’ and ‘not adopted’ by the participating countries. Not even legally binding countries to comply with it, the Copenhagen Accord document pledged that countries should keep temperature rising to below 2 Degrees Celsius. The closure of the conference saw a division between the leaders of industrialized countries, who were happy with the accord, and leaders of other countries and non government organizations who were opposed to it.         

 It remains to be seen whether the Copenhagen Accord will be adhered to in the not so distant future. The fact in this maze of power-play is that poorer countries will be the one’s to suffer from the results of carbon emissions, with Africa being at high risk

As a motion picture Cameron’s Avatar follows on the heels of works such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) as well as The Day After tomorrow (2004) and to a somewhat metaphorical sense the documentary An inconvenient Truth (2006) by Al Gore.

 Avatar (2009) takes the phenomena of invasion and colonization to another level, which may be termed inter planetary intrusion with intent to dominate and retrieve by any means necessary what belongs to the indigenous inhabitants. In the film we see human beings invade a foreign planet with the intention to mine its precious mineral – unobtanium. If the invasion was motivated by acquiring a new and distant planet to live in due to the earth’s inhabitable condition (in the future) then their invasion could be justified, doubly so if it is done with the intention to coexists peacefully with of the original inhabitants of Pandora. However with the hostility of Planet Pandora’s air to the humans, their invasion is geared towards acquiring the precious mineral located deep within the forest of the Na’vi People – the indigenous inhabitants of Planet Pandora.  The Na’vi native occupation of the forest represents an obstacle for the acquisition of the precious minerals, to which the Na’vi seems oblivious or ignorant.

 I See You

In order to infiltrate the social infrastructure of the Na’vi people in planet Pandora Avatars have been developed to stand in for the humans. They are infiltrating humanoids that look like the Pandorians except for the noticeable five figures whereas the Pandorians have four. The Avatars have been genetically engineered to withstand the un-breathable air of Pandora which is harmful to human beings. When Jake Sully’s twin brother dies in the line of duty his brother is brought into the campaign to acquire the mineral of Pandora by operating one of the Avatars. Having being paralyses in battle, the commander who is heading this invasion mission offers him a surgery that will restore his walking ability.

After a haphazard preparation for Jake Sully to acclimatize to the control of his avatar a team is assembled to go deep within the forest of the Na’vi to do research and negotiate with the Na’vi – the Pandorians. Accidentally separated from the team in the thicket forest while attempting contact, Jake Soley undergoes an epic transformation, enculturation, acquire empathy and affinity for the Na’vi people through Neytiri, A Na’vi maiden who rescues him from being torn part by ravenous beast in the thicket forest. This leads him, through his Avatar to take sides with the Na’vi in order to stop the capitalist Neo-planetary looting that is launched.

A battle between human firepower, driven by greed, and aborigines of Pandora driven by self love and acknowledgement of nature as Mother God ensues. The Na’vi unites different tribes, defends the forests and destroy the enemy. As a reward the protagonist’s soul is transferred permanently to that of his Avatar thus reborn  as a full Pandorian.  

 There is no distance in the Universe

 There is a safety valve in place to cushion Avatar from becoming another cliché film dealing with apartheid ideology on a global level. This element is that the planet is inhabitable to human beings – without the use of oxygen  masks they cannot survive in Pandora; henceforth the use of Avatars. Avatar reminds us that in the universe all is connected to the ‘Mother Earth’ and we are all siblings and are connected to her. By hurting the earth we are simply inflicting pain to our selves in the long run.

 This, what the film teaches us, is the philosophy of self consciousness and that of our precious environment. It is with this message that one can begin to look around with a heightened consciousness, a third eye, an intense appreciation. Such appreciation will make us aware at all times that whatever we do to our environment affects all in all, this way our actions are bound to haunt us in the not so distance future.

 Avatar is a metaphor that sets the tone for the new age struggle, the fight to keep the earth habitable. This is the new age struggle; we ought to find it in us as humanity to coexist with our natural environment, to be conscious that our actions will always haunt tomorrow, a fact that resonates across cultures and continental boundaries. This is the bar that Cameron’s Avatar erects before us.

 21 January

 © Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2010

 

Films referred to 

  1. Al Gore, A.A. An Inconvinient Truth 2006. Paramount Classics.
  2. Cameron, J. Avatar 2009. Lightstorm entertainment, Dune Enternainment and Indigenous Film Partners.
  3. Mostow, J. Surrogates 2009. Touch Stone Pictures 
  4. Dune Enternainment and Indigenous Film Partners.
  5. Derrickson, S (Dir). The Day the Earth Stood Still 2008. 20th Century Fox and Alliance Films  
  6. Emmerich, R.  The Day After tomorrow 2004. 20th Century Fox  

 

 

 

Surrogates

Cyberspace, the nervous system of machines?

In 1999 when the dust had settled after the Matrix (1999) had made its mark, it had set the tone for follow-up science fiction films; it had raised the bar through its rich and intricate narrative as well as through the special effects it incorporated. Today we have inherited films such as Equilibrium and Minority Report which deal with human uprising against the machine, a theme explored in the Matrix (in essence the entire saga deals with this phenomena) and which is very central to the its message. Does Jonathan Mostow’s Surrogate (2009) represent a theme to be explored in detail by other motion pictures in the coming decade – in the twenty teens? Opening up a path towards the discourse of how humanity will one day fight to dislodge itself from its machine dependency. In the Matrix the machine had taken over and enslaved the human race and in order to fight back humans have to be plugged into the machines; the internet to duel. War takes place in the nervous system of the machines, in cyberspace. In Surrogates the narrative occurs in the grey area of that humanity’s enslavement by the machines. The climax of the narrative is the destruction of machine dependency, of surrogacy itself.

Suppression of feelings is an answer to peace?

In Equilibrium we were introduced to a world where feelings have been outlawed. Feelings are seen as stumbling blocs to the achievement of peace. In an attempt to reach a peaceful existence a drug ‘prosium’ is introduced into the soceity to be taken at various intervals of the day to suppress feelings. The protagonist (Preston) is part of a new order that curb out sense offenders and eliminate them by processing (execution). In the development of the narrative he will steer off the path by mistake and get a glimpse of what ‘feeling’ is, from then onwards never to use Prozium looking back so to speak (or in the context of the motion picture never be on the drug); he then tears apart, the system he had sought to uphold and protect, from the inside – freeing humanity for good.

What is it that deflects the flow of the narrative away from the monotonous rhythm of balance set out by the first few minutes of the film? The in-cry for human liberation from absolute control by the ‘other’, freedom from an established order that has come to dictate how life should be lived and experienced. We first witness it when Preston, confronting a haunting memory of the loss of his wife for the first time with un-suppressed feelings, realizes that the whole setup of outlawing feeling is rather limiting and that it is falsehood to life experience. In Minority Report another utopian idealized world is represented, a world where crime can actually be stopped before it happens, thanks to the psychic powers of unique so called ‘three miracles’ which consists of a set of twins and a girl who were discovered by the state to possess the powers of precognition and a new crime fighting division – Precrime – was established around them to help fight crime by stopping it before it happens. When the three miracles predict that the protagonist (John) will commit murder; he seeks to prove his innocence thus running in direct collision course with the future murder event, simultaneously proving that the system that he has been led to believe in and uphold as a custodian is faulty. One can consider the ultimate blow as the one where the viewer discovers that the man who runs Precrime had set John up so that he can solely run the new crime fighting industry solehandedly. The foe, at the closure of the motion picture having realized that his selfish motives have been unearthed kills himself instead of killing John. This reinforces the fact that the system has a glitch. In the final analysis we learn that our future actions no matter how cruel or well intended they may be, they are govern by choice. And choice, we may agree, is a forever evolving entity as move towards what we want. As humans we are bound to change our actions, no matter how devious the primary plan may be, we may choose not to go ahead with it or to do it. In Equilibrium freedom is gained when Prozium, once revered to have liberated humanity, is no longer used, for not to feel robs away one of humankind’s unique gift in his symbiotic relationship with his family, community and the world at large – sensitivity.

In Minority Report Precrime gets shut down. This gives humanity the choice to choose how the future turns out. For by being arrested before you commit a crime removes the essential part which is in opposition to the acting on the criminal act, choice, walking away without harming anyone or stealing or killing your self. One can always change one’s mind which is a human right to be upheld at all times by our civilization. In Surrogate we are introduced into a world where humanity has retreated into the dark corners in search of safety – their homes and their experience of the world is through humanlike machines. Well the procedure is remarkably simple. Apparently in the not so distant future we sit cropped on chairs which look like those of the dentists and through what look like an evolved head phone stereo we plug our ears and eyes into a computer generated gizmo-gadget that ensures that our fingers manipulate our machine counter part in the outer world. Moving out of our bedroom and going to work on our behalf. These machines can be stored in our bedroom or simply tucked away somewhere in a street corner not far from the train station or bus stop from whence we can plug in and be turned on and navigated to work. Through this Neo-Cyber machines human mortality has been curbed by 100 percent – ensuring longevity to the operators of the puppets for no harm can come to them. Harm starts and ends with our Cyber-puppet counterpart; our machine self. And there is also an added benefit; one can choose their Surrogates to be young, old or identical to themselves or to be a woman, why not?

Against the Virtual

Having a Facebook or Myspace or Twitter account and other social networking utilities available today has partly laid the foundation for the possibility of an ‘accident free existence’, as much as it has had positive results to business ventures and the idea of getting in touch with the world at a global level; it has also thrown the idea of privacy into stark relief. Both ¹Slavoj Žižek (1996) and ²Paul Virilio (1997 & 2000) caution us and comment on the acceleration of the computer generated world and forecast its tricky and sometimes fatal consequences.

The film Surrogates shows you such a world gone concrete.

While the two philosophers takes on the virtual space and its consequences, the film Surrogates takes a radical stance and visualize that ‘accident free world experience’ through the machines. When ‘the machine experience’ invades real space, the societal space – we cannot speak terms of ‘real society’ when we speak of ‘interaction’ for interaction itself would’ve been rendered artificial by the bowing in of the machine interaction vehicle into the real social space. The world of being here or there without being here or there would be erected before our very own eyes. This then will connote a fact that social interaction in the universe of causality without leaving your home will move from cyberspace (in the sense of our contemporary period where social networking utilities in cyberspace dominates the interaction space) into causal space (the near future period where the machine becomes a vehicle utilized to carry our interaction on a humanoid level) – this can occur in the upcoming historical space.

This upcoming historical space is an ‘accident free world’ where nothing can ever happen to you except through your concretized virtual self – ‘your machine stand in’. This brings to mind the sentinel Smith’s words in the Matrix when he said to Morphious, during an interrogation as to the location of Zion (the last retreat of humanity), that the history of humanity belongs to the machines since the machines started to do human jobs for the humans at a certain point in life; that the moment that occurrence took hold humanity lost its claim to history. In the future world of Surrogacy (machine vehicles), when causality inevitable does take place, the world will be experienced via your cyber-puppet. Your experience will start and it will end there, with your cyber-puppet leaving you entirely cushioned from harm of the real event. Physically that is; the film does not have the same rhetoric as that super text the Matrix where it is asserted that the mind never forgets. However it presents into the plot a malicious virus that has the capability of destroying the Surrogate and killing the operator. Thus this causes the expulsion of the accident free utopia that our future counter parts seemed to have come to cherished.

Like in Minority Report the protagonist in Surrogates has lost a child and is estranged to his wife. They live in the same home but they hardly ever see each other, in the real meaning of the term ‘see’. At least we can infer that their surrogates may bump into each other now and then, and I mean that word in its double connotation. On a serious note what we recognize as far as Tom and his estranged wife are concerned is that she upholds this cyber-puppet experience of reality whereas he seeks the full experience of human interaction. The protagonist like the one in Minority Report is part of the System that enforces the law, he is the lawman of the future. When he loses his machine counterpart in a crook chase and having realized that what the crooks have in their hands could prove fatal to the surrogacy world view his disillusionment in the cyber-puppet world interaction is further reinforced and he enters the world as himself not as an operator. By so doing a chain reaction is set in motion in which he will tear the system from inside due to the now existence of a fatal glitch.

I shall go no further than the steps I have taken in terms of showing how this ‘film’ continues the path laid bare by the Matrix a decade ago after Equilibrium as well as Minority Report, least I give away everything and ruin the viewer’s experience when the time comes to experience the text.

What I actually wanted to make clear was that if ten years ago the Matrix introduced a new type of war (between man and machine) that looms somewhere in the not so distant future; Surrogates takes another step further in the shadows of other Sci-Fi films dealing with human insurrection against machines; and that in order for us to find parallels in our contemporary period we need not look any further than the internet puppets of our selves which we have erected through various social media utilities. The point is if we forget that our digital selves are not real; this will be the beginning of a process of our digital selves which may one day find expression in a concretized form – which might be machines – our Surrogates.

One thing for certain that texts which deal with this dilemma of human experience captivity or liberation by machine experience are trying to surfaces to us is that our human nature should not be eclipsed by this new found ways of living. We are the one’s who are in charge not our virtual selves.

January 10

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2010

Endnotes

1. Žižek, S. 1996. The Indivisible Reminder: On Schelling and Related Matters. Verso. The reader may find chapter 3: Quantum Physics with Lacan, of interet to the content dealt with here in the present essay.

2. Virilio, P. 1997. Open Sky. Verso and Virilio, P. 2000. The Information Bomb. Verso. In the two texts respectively Virilio continues to investigate and meditate on our contemporary society’s proliferation of the ‘Information Highway’.

Films referred to

Mostow, J. Surrogates (2009). Touch Stone Pictures.

Spielberg, S. Minority Report (2002). 20th Century Fox.

The Wachowski Brothers. The Matrix (1999). Village Roadshow Pictures.

Afterthought

At the closure of 2009, an interesting decade, I personally have start to witness a phenomena that is not surprising if one has been following sci-fi films. After Gamer, Surrogates and the epic Avatar one can’t miss out on the fact that more and more the artistic consciousness is starting to discourse new coming technologies and those available against human nature. A question seems to loom. What is precious in a forever environmentally depreciating world?

Primitivism and Modernism

In the present essay I am going to discuss and show how modernism as an artistic visual language, in order to reach its goal of renewal, shared a colonialist path of exploiting primitivism to renew itself. This renewal was none the less a search for a new artistic visual language.

I have selected three artists of which I shall discuss three artworks of in order to illustrate that that modernism shared a path in colonialist discourse by exploiting the primitive through the incorporation of primitive/African/the ‘other’s’ artistic features in the oeuvre of artworks produced towards and after the twentieth century.

The inclusion of short biographical details of the artists are meant to give the backdrop or context within which the artists practiced. This approach renders the backdrop within which the work was produced explicit for our understanding of the conditions that nourished the development of modern art.

Modernism

What is modernism? As a preparation for arguments raised below we must start with this question. Charles Harrison (1982: 55) exclaims that before the sixties the term modernism was generally used in a vague way to refer to what it was that made works of art seem ‘contemporary’. Harrison points out that the rise or the beginning of Modernism saw:

A taste for the so called ‘primitive’ people and art of the ancient cultures gained at the expense of enthusiasm for the more ‘sophisticated’ art of classical periods  of the Renaissance and much of the period after (1982: 56).

This means that although Modernism was recent, it characterized the stylistic principles of both the primitive arts and the ancient cultures. Here the word we need to take into account and define is the word Primitive.

Primitivism

Compared to Modernism, which is said to be dynamic, as both an Ideology and artistic approach bound or subjected to change, Primitivism is define as [sic] at an early stage of civilization; crude; simple1. Through Colonialism of the other continents (countries), the West (Europe) gained access to the artifacts of the colonized cultures.

This is true of Africa, the Americas, the East and Oceania which were charted and colonized by Europe. Thus the word Primitive means any cultural groups whose culture, measured against European culture standard, is seen as not civilized. The added ideal of colonizing these parts outside of Europe was to expand European territory beyond its shore, imperialism.

The Visual Arts, the Western Arts

When is the deployment and the incorporation of the primitive art influences become evident throughout the years within the history of western art? Fleming draws up Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903) as the first major artists to employ the exotic patterns and motifs in his woodcuts and painting.

We will come back to Gauguin, for the moment we need to find our footing. Lynton points out that at the turn of the twentieth century who ever saw and made his fellow artist see the power of these strange, remote and in a sense timeless arts (primitive art) opened up a rich rain in the world’s gold mine of creative art (1980: 29).

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954) and Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) first saw African sculptures in Andre Derain’s (1880 – 1954) studio. Derain had bought the sculptures from Maurice de Vlammick (1876 – 1958) Whereas Vlammick started having interest in primitive artifacts after he had been to the Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology Gallery – Musee de L’ Homme (Lynton: 1980: 29).

From the above paragraph it is clear that the exchange of ideas and interests brought and spread the knowledge of primitive artifacts which have been taken form their original context to the attention of Modern artists.

What interested the Modern artist about these artifacts was that the primitive artists was uninitiated by the material values, the false and fragile glamour of western society. There was no need to borrow characteristic from ‘material orientated object’. What mattered was that one should seek to be as unworldly and as unliterary as the primitive artist and to use the expressive means of art directly and fully (See Lynton 1980: 48).

Here I must stress that Modern artists, while seeking a new artistic visual language or renewal, rejected the classical idea of what art should be or was expected to be by the society at large. This attitude can be seen as a catalyst that propelled western artists to look beyond their shores in pushing tradition out of the expected bounds through new innovation2.  The western artist saw an opportunity in incorporating primitivism or non European art in his work, it can be supposed that the western artist was tired of the established ideals in terms of what was permissible in the visual arts, thus he looked elsewhere for new technical approaches, inspiration and self expression – he looked beyond the shores of his own world.

Paul Gauguin (1848 – 1903)

Paul Gauguin grew up in a family environment that was dominated by writers. His father was a journalist and his maternal grand mother had been a feminist lecture and writer (See Chipp 1968: 51).

Lynton points out that Gauguin [sic] was the most openly primitivists of the post impressionists. He had given up a career as the stock exchanger to become a painter and then [he gave up] his wife and family when he could no longer support them, he had gone to Brittany because life was cheaper there but also because there he could re-orientate himself with the simple life and ancient superstitions of the peasants. He later moved on to the South Seas to live among the natives, using them and their setting in his art as well as exotic material gathered elsewhere (Lynton 1980: 22)  

Please see figure 1. Paul Gauguin. Faa Iheihe (Pastorale) 1898. Oil on canvas, 21¼ X 66¾.

figure 1

In this artwork the natives (the Tahitian) are represented without decorum or dignity. The middle figure is half naked as her left hand snake within her loins. Her right hand is elegantly half raise reminding us of some of the Virgin Mary depictions of the Renaissance period. These gestures of her two hands contradict each other.

Presently while engaged in this visual analysis we need to be aware of a triad nature of the gaze of the artist, Gauguin, his depiction of the Tahitian is from a male point of view firstly, secondly from a patriarchal point of view as well as from a Western perspective of who the Tahitians are.

The woman’s head bow towards three figures and a dog. The figures, one of them a man, seem to be on a fruit and flower foraging expedition. Towards the left of the central figure a naked woman turns her back to the viewer. This woman seem to be gazing at a distant light with a naked man on horseback riding into the picture plane, hunched and seeming to be whispering into the ears of the dark horse, completes the composition.

As a narrative this work informs the viewer of the Tahitians as a carefree and of a simple social organization when pitted against the culture of Western civilization. Gauguin once wrote to J.F. Willumsen before leaving France for the Island of Tahiti that Europe is under the grip of material preoccupation with devastating effects on the psyche of Europeans whereas, where he was headed, the Tahitian were the inhabitants of an unknown paradise in Oceania3.

How does Faa Iheihe (Pastorale) 1898 illustrate or demonstrate Gauguin’s participation in the colonialist’s path to exploit the art of the ‘other’ or even culture? From a documentary perspective the artwork construct a narrative perspective document of the Tahitian lifestyle. Viewed from the documentary context we can conclude that this work is a visual recording of the Tahitians and their indigenous environment. Whether this representation is accurate it is a different matter that begs an exclusive study.

With the regard to the year of its execution and also from a visual art context Faa Iheihe is an excellent example of the result of an artist exploring a new theme. However it explores this new theme at the expense of the Tahitian. The Tahitian as the subject matter of this artwork and by being the represented Gauguin speaks on their behalf through situating them in an exotic setting. Gauguin is their voice, he is in a powerful position in that he chooses what his audience will see back home or to be specific what the West/Europe expects to see of non Europeans or the ‘other’. It should be bared in mind that Gauguin, as an artist, had an art market in mind when he executed the work4.

Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)

In 1878 and 1879 oars, arrows and harpoons of Polynesian craftsmanship were collected and shown in Paris expositions the viewers were struck by the approach of the ‘non western’ craftsmanship in working with both wood and stone, a new approach to visual art practice was heralded by these artifacts5.

See figure 2. Henri Matisse Bathers by the river 1916 – 17. Oil on canvas, 103 X 154.

figure 2

In this work the forms of the figures reminds us of the sharpness of African sculptures. Please compare the roundness of the heads of figures with that of the mask in figure 3.

figure 3

Earlier on I have pointed out that André Derain had several African sculptures in his studio and that Henri Matisse together with Pablo Picasso saw African art there.

In Bathers by the River Henri Matisse abandons altogether form as it has been accorded the human figure by simplifying the bathers into sculptural forms reminiscent of African sculpture. The composition is simple in comparison to Faa Ihaihe by Gauguin, however it is not innocent to the European Modernist notion of renewal, by breaking down with tradition, through borrowing from ‘primitivism’, the art of the ‘other’ – in this instance from African art. Knowledge of African sculpture helped Matisse, the modern artist, to simplify the depiction of his subject matter, especially the human figure, Bathers by the river illustrates this point.

Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973)

Picasso was a Spaniard, born in Malaga in 1881. He had established himself among the younger generation of artists at Barcelona between 1895 – 1904 before migrating to France in 1904.

See figure 4. Pablo Picasso.Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1907. Oil on canvas, 96 X 92.

figure 4

Prior to painting Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1907, Picasso turned to Iberian sculptures, El Greco and sculptures of Paul Gauguin (Fry 1966: 13).

Habasque points out that Picasso denied the influence of African Art to in his work6. However Chipp claims that Picasso had a passion for art of the Negro (African) which he ranked far above that of the Egyptians (Chipp 1968: 200). Here we have contradictory statements opposing one another as to the culture that influenced Picasso’s art practice. What one can infer, with colonialism in mind and the western thought assertion of itself, in terms of civilization, as being above that of the colonised worlds, is that at some point Picasso might not have properly attributed influences in his work based on biases of the ‘other’.

Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon sharply displays influences of African Art. Please refer to the illustration. The faces of the two right hand positioned women recalls African masks; even the features of the faces of the women distinctly mimics the features of African Art Sculptures.

The sculptures he had seen at André Derain’s studio years ago and also at the Ethonological Museum Trucadero while looking for a new visual art language. Like the Matisse Bathers by the River, discussed above, Picasso’s figures all in all recall African Art Sculpture with regard to form.

Steinberg suggests that in their original composition the women were intended to be in a brothel (see Steinberg, L 1978: 115 – 133). The women’s nakedness and their rather cavernous background echo the literary meaning of the word primitive. I venture to say that Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon whether experimental in intention, as it has been suggested in art history, or not – as a visual artwork it contains influences of African Art in its formal language.

As a Modern artist Picasso apropos Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon played a role in the colonialist path of exploiting, primitivism; the art of the other to renew his art making process thus removing it from earlier conventions adhered to by European artists.

Conclusion

This essay showed how Modern artisst played a role in the Colonialist path through exploitation of non European art, the primitive or the ‘other’ in order to renew their approach to their art production.

The artworks discussed shed light to the influence as well of the context within which primitive art was deployed to renew western art. Modern art’s renewal through the influence of the art of the ‘other’ is then a sharp rejection of established tradition in setting out a new way of rendering the immediate world by responding to borrowed foreign forms; with this factor in mind we may perhaps agree with Lynton when he states that [sic] a work of art is an answer to another work of art (1980: 343 – 344)

Western art, in order to reach its renewal at the dawn of the modern period, had to look beyond its shores for new approaches to art making. By deploying the art of the ‘other’, the primitive – the colonised – Modernism played a role in the colonialist path of exploiting primitivism in order to reach its goal of renewal.

*

Endnotes

1. See The little Oxford Dictionary (1995) for the definition of Primitivism.

2. Chipp points out that the years 1885 – 1900 marks the years in which artists participating in the subjectivist movements can be grouped together. He maintains that these artists rejected the realist conceptions of art that had prevailed for the preceding generation. The movement was a result of new freedoms made possible by throwing the obligation to ‘represent’ the tangible world, and of new stimuli gained from an exploration of the subjective world. The new freedom and stimuli also allowed the range of ideas on what constituted proper subject matter for painting to be greatly expanded  (Chipp, HB 1968: 48).

3. As for me, my mind is made up. I am going soon to the Tahiti…there the material necessities of life can be had without money…a terrible epoch is brewing in Europe for the coming generation: the kingdom of gold. When in Europe men and women survive only after unceasing labour during which they struggle in convulsions of cold and hunger, a prey to misery, the Tahitians on the contrary, happy inhabitant of unknown paradise of Oceania, know only sweetness of life (an excerpt from a letter to J.F. Willunsen, Pont-Even, autumn, 1890 (Chipp 1968: 79).

4. Lynton informs us that while in the islands of Tahiti, having left France in 1891, Gauguin send his work through Daniel de Monfreid his best friend in France (Lynton 1980: 20).

5. Fleming confirms that Primitive arts complete negation of the notion of progress, seemed to be a promise of a new beginning. What was especially appealing was the animistic attitude of the primitive (non western) carvers who divined the spirit of wood and stone and expressed it in the grains, textures and shapes of the materials (Fleming 1974: 365)

6. Habasque differs on account that Picasso had on several occasions denied that he learnt anything from African carvings, pointing out that if any influence was to be found in his work, it was that of Medivial Spanish Art (Habasque, G 1959: 16)

List of Illustrations

1. Paul Gauguin. Faa Iheihe (Pastoral) 1898. Oil on canvas, 21 ¼ X 66 ¾ in London, Tate Gallery (see Lynton, N 1980:20).

Image uploaded from

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/paul-gauguin-faa-iheihe

2. Henri Matisse. Bathers by the river. 1916 – 17. Oil on canvas, 103 X 154 in Art Institute of Chicago (see Lynton, N 1980:73).

Image uploaded from

http://www.artchive.com/artchive/M/matisse/bathers_by_a_river.jpg.html

3. Unknown Artists. Fang Mask, not dated. Wood carve in France, Collection of Geneviere Taillade. Formerly owned by Andre Derain (see Lynton, N 1980: 29, another example).

Image uploaded from

http://www.rebirth.co.za/images/fang_mask_SIE0762.jpg

4. Pablo Picasso.Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon 1907. Oil on canvas, 96 X 92 in New York, Museum of Modern Art. Lille P. Bliss bequest (see Lynton, N 1980: 53).

Image uploaded from

http://www.artquotes.net/masters/picasso/pablo_ledemoiselles1907.htm

Bibliography

Chipp, HB 1968 (Comp). 1968. Theories of Modern Art: a sourcebook by artists and critics. Los Angels: UC Press.

Fleming, W 1974. Art and Ideology. New York: Capital City Press.

Fry, EJ 1966. Cubis. Paris: Oxford Press

Harris, G 1959. Cubism. Paris: Oxford Press

Harrison, C 1982. Introduction: Modernism, problems and methods. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Lynton, N 1980. The Story of Modern Art. Great Britain Phaidon Press Limited.

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009

Visual Art Infrastructure

I

My favorite exhibition in Tshwane/Pretoria is opening very soon, SASOL New Signatures Art Competition. This exhibition represents an avenue through which an artist’ career can be launched. Unfortunately what is sad about the exhibition is accessibility to a wider participation of artists residing in the periphery of the City of Tshwane (and I suppose elsewhere). By this I mean artists residing in the far away localities who may not be able to easily access information regarding the exhibition. The coordinators of the exhibition are well aware of this fact and have taken steps to curb the problems of accessibility to the art competition by staging briefings and discussions in the peripheral communities. In real time and space.

II

Not always are the efforts that the coordinators take to make the art competition accessible successful in that there is

always the challenge of space in the communities and the unreliability of the community artists to receive this gesture. Thus because of lack of contact the artists who reside in the peripheral communities remain uninformed about the aim of this art competition and the nature of artworks that may be entered into the competition. There exist a mis- communication between the center and the periphery and the results is that of work of a disappointing nature been ferried to the art competition only to be thwarted out because contextually they do not fit within the paradigm that SASOL New Signatures upholds – which is conceptual art.

An exhibition’s core aim, never mind the content of the artworks, is to bring a body of work, executed by different or the same artist, into one space and create a dialogue between the artworks – this is also subordinate to the content of the work forming the exhibition; meaning the vision of what the overall feel of the exhibition should be is a huddle that must be negotiated by the artworks to be entered into the competition.

At a heightened level it is the artists who are in dialogue with one another through their artworks. Let us meditate on the word dialogue. Dialogue constitutes a conversation. It cannot be overstated that those in a dialogue should share a common language. And this is precisely what is missing in those artworks that are rejected from an exhibition, they do not contribute to the erected paradigm of the art competition, they do not accentuate the ideals of what the exhibition is about.

Do we have to care to reverse this misunderstanding that these aspirant artists suffer? The answer is emphatically yes. It is a question of erecting an infrastructure that that can regulate the vision of the art competition. That is if the ideal of the competition is also to educate the artists and the society about the movement that visual art finds itself evolving into. What do I mean by this? In order to get to the meaning of my feeble statement I shall retreat a little bit backwards into the genesis of the visual art practitioner to be. This genesis is in two modes. The privilege mode and the under privilege mode.

Privilege mode

My reader should not misunderstand me here, when I talk about privilege artist I speak about that artist who has had the opportunity to study art at a higher institution of learning after matriculation, this artist is gifted, this artist has a vision to be a practicing artist and through the appropriate pedagogy this artist ascend into that dimension in which the western and global conventions of what constitutes visual art make sense to him both when reaching backwards into the history of the visual arts as well as firmly standing in the present tense looking at what is going on around him as far as contemporary art is concerned and simultaneously projecting the possibilities of the nature that the visual art as an ever evolving organism. This type of an artist confidently contributes into that future nature of art that will be called contemporary2.

It is utterly simple then to situate the underprivileged artist. He/she will represent the opposite of what I have just said about the privilege artists. And it is at him that much work should be done in order that he/she can comply with the status quo. It is in this locality where the talk shops and the workshops in the communities are in demand. It is here that we can learn what developments are taking place when there is interaction with the ‘community based artist’1. It is here that real developments from the sponsor of an art competition I much needed.

The art organizations and associations based in the communities must take steps also so that they can meet the opportunity halfway. This is not only an opportunity to be informed about an art competition which promises a five digit sum but it is also an educational opportunity for  the artists since issues of presentation of artworks can be covered in an interactive process until all conceives the exact intention of the art competition. Then there can also be networking for other opportunities in order to further develop the artist and negotiate the underprivileged mode of genesis of the artist into a better level.

But this is not the only solution, it is only a part of it. Within the formal educational system in South Africa both at the tertiary level and the secondary level the nature of art should be exhausted holistically in order to foster dedication, professionalism and confidence in the aspiring artist. Here those who are in power to assimilate information must do so in a efficient, sensible and responsible manner. It is only when we face these facts that in time we will begin to see the glimmer of an infrastructure ,accommodating on an equal footing, formal art students as well as informally trained artists lacking formal education in the visual arts.

May I reiterate? This can only happen when we acknowledge the challenge. The challenge is that those who are in power (the educated classes and the those for whom art represent a commodity) of the nature of the status quo must acknowledge that by inserting an opportunity of an art competition, with arguments for it as a developmental modal for promotion of a virtually unknown artist are contributing to the development of the contemporary artist through monetary award and The fact that there is money at stake gets everybody’s ears pricked. It is the latter that mislead mostly, henceforth rigorous information assimilation and regulation on either side of the sphere to create an equal footing so that the artist treats the prize as an opportunity for sustenance and further development in their quest to forge careers as visual art practitioner.

III

Like I said I always look forward to SASOL, it is full of surprises. Last year’s runner up’s work was interesting in that what mmutlethe artist did was simple. The artist Nare Mokgotho loaned the work that won 2007 overall winner and subverted it by presenting the work again in the 2008 exhibition with him as a collaborator thus questioning the nature of originality of the conception of the artwork bringing into scrutiny ownership. He initially radically wanted to claim co-authorship with all artworks that made it to the final selection however he was limited to the 2007 piece which SASOL owns due to the non compliance of the finalist artists, which is understandable. Here we see that this artist was operating within the present tense and was able to interrogate the status quo of what constitutes conceptual art in terms of SASOL New Signature. From a structuralist perspective Mokgotho achieved a dialogue between the conception of what constitutes contemporary art in the context of conceptual art and the 2007 judges’ choice of what they saw as a conceptually loaded artwork representing contemporary art. It is this critical thinking that must be naturalized in the aspiring artist aiming to practice within the conceptual art paradigm. This is what we need to grasp in order tackle visual art development never mind the institution or informal structures we belong to if we please to reach goal. We must have interaction between the center and the periphery.

SASOL New Signatures opens on 26 August at the Pretoria Art Museum.

Notes

1. The idea of a community based artist can be regarded as derogatory in that it perpetuates the myth of separation of communities based on binary opposition which in essence does not exists because the so called community artist opposes the equilibrium of such a notion when they dislodge themselves from their communities and enter into the centre/art gallery/art museum/art competition and their work is accessed by the external community foreign to their immediate realm.

2. Let us keep in mind that the word contemporary is subordinate to the context of the speaker, it is a shifting phenomenon.

13 August

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009

Zakes Mda’s Cion

Some time mid last year there were talks on national television concerning the definition of an African. The debate was centered between two polarities of identity – black and white. Of course this debate has been going on for a long time. In one particular debate televised on ‘Weekend Live’ sister show to ‘Morning Live’ breakfast show; two ladies vied with one another with regard to who qualifies to be an African, specifically a South African. One proposed, from a global stance as far as the question is concerned, that an African will be someone who is born and raised in Africa and this is extended to the white people living in the African continent. The other’s position was that an African is someone who is born on the continent, acknowledges the languages spoken in the country of their birth to such an extend that even they themselves speak some of the languages of that country. What is more, the second speaker pressed on, that persons have to acknowledge the colonial heritage and segregated historical past that goes hand in hand with that constructed African identity based on the cultural background that they claim they identify with of the country of their birth.

On our behalf Zakes Mda’s Cion (2007) casts a metaphoric look across the Atlantic Ocean to ponder the issue of identity through the assertions of the Quiqly family; an American family of mix race heritage. In this exposition the narrative explicitly reflects back to us the dodgy nature of Race.

We are reacquainted with Mda’s character from Ways of Dying (1995) Toloki. It’s several years since we last saw him and unfortunately his beloved Noria has passed on. Non the less she has made a profound impression on our dear yellow skinned friend as far as matter of hygiene are concerned. You will gather that in the prequel to the present book the self initiated monk of his self invented order of the oppression of mourning hardly ever washed. His cheer entry into the crowds of the many funerals he had served involuntarily made way to his persons especially when he took alms following the exhaustive task of weeping and wailing for the dearly departed souls.

He is in the USA, Ohio – Athens during Halloween Day Celebration when we reacquaint with him.We learn that he has traveled the world (Africa and Europe) in search of mourning; the Sciolist, his conscience must be applauded for this global displacement: for in his search of mourning he got the opportunity to see the world as well. We immediately behold the world of phantoms: Where mummies, dead politicians, mythological personages both ancient and modern (Super Heroes) roam in hordes that leave our Toloki intrigued and mesmerized. The introduction of a mischievous character, Obed Quiqley, in the guise of a man whom he calls a slave ancestor anchors to us the fact that the spectacle that we have hitherto witnessed is that of Halloween. There is a technical effect in how this world is introduced to us, by the narrator, in that the layering of this fictional world moves from magic realism towards reality as, through our reading, we put two and two together – trying to make sense of where the events are taking place. This device is actually used several times through out the narrative.

Abednico, Obed Quiqley’s guise, and his brother Nicodemus escaped from a slave plantation – Fairfield Farm. After being tracked by slave bounty hunters they were caught in Ohio during a stop in one of the stations of the ‘secret’ Underground Railways Station. The bounty hunters have shot and killed Abednico and brought back Nicodemus. Presently that station has been turned into a house and the ghost of Abednico haunts and torments the tenants. It has become widespread knowledge that the ghost is fond of squeezing and fondling breasts of young women and that many women have left the house after their encounter with the ghosts. Ironically the present occupants find such encounters with the ghost a delight and have stayed one. Prior to his meeting with Toloki, Obed had impersonated the breast fondler by breaking into the house and hiding in the supposedly haunted basement. Unfortunately Obed squeezed too hard for a ghost and he was discovered. Clad in his slave costume he escapes to the Halloween carnival and meet Toloki.

Mwelele Cele, a friend of mine, once drew my attention to the fact that the literary output of the late Sello K Duiker, Phawane Mpe (also late) and Zakes Mda tends to spill into fantasy – magical realism to be specific, while simultaneously holding on to realism thus blurring the fine line that separate the two modes of perception in representation. Until then this writer has not yet made the connection. Cion attests to this fact; here we see Mda at his best form in merging the two modes of perception. Cion is about a family coming to terms with its slave heritage. In chapter two the tracing of this heritage is traced, we are introduced to the Abyssinian woman, a slave woman oozing with so much power in the slave plantation of Fairfield Farm that with hands down she commands the attention of the slave master himself and in turn threatens the mistress of the plantation. She gives birth to slave off springs herself but unlike the rest of the slave breeding slave women who are immediately severed from their children she maintains contact with her two sons – desiring only freedom to tem. Of noteworthy is the Abyssinian woman’s ability to tell mythological fables fused in the traditional quilts that the slave women make to the children including her two sons. Privately she taught her sons to decipher the coded language hidden in the quilts which when understood yield the key to freedom from slavery: escape routes and networks. In chapter three Toloki takes over the duty of telling the story (one point perspective) and tells the reader how he saves the mischievous Obed Quiqley from being convicted of burglary and breast fondling. He ends up staying with Obed’s family – while still in search of mourning, in chapter four we ride the myth wave as the ghost Trees of Athens Ohio takes over the telling of the story picking up where we left off in chapter two (I shall not give away the telling my self). In chapter five the main protagonist, Toloki assumes the narrative role once more. In chapter six the authoritative narrator takes over as life is shone on the slave heritage of the Quiqley’s; hereafter a synthesis occur in that the point of telling the story unite into one in the authoritative narrator. In stark relief the story of the Abyssinian woman, the narrative told by the ghost trees are reconciled to be part of the slave heritage of the Quiqley’s in particular and in general the early beginnings of the community of Athens, Ohio. Such is the narratology of this fine novel, it is transactional in the opening chapters, to open up the plot and gain ground over narration. However the technique of giving back the authoritative narrator the role of telling the story knit the plot into unison in the later chapters.

To the discerning reader as they get to the conclusion of the novel, it might dawn on them that in Cion Mda has touched on the fact that given the treacherous twists and turns of history and the complexity of social heritage it is unwarranted to speak of a pure race. Although the Ohio community provides the setting for Cion, this novel is an assessment of identity – it is a metaphorical offering on our current identity preoccupations.

Moreover Cion inspires one to look at one’s own South Africannes with a delicate sense of humor in order to acknowledge that we cannot be hundred percent accurate to claim that we are of a pure tribe or cultural identity given the fact that the turmoil that has taken place in the past centuries have brought about a drastic synthesis across our colour lines and ethnic demarcations: blurring tribal ideologies and racial differences through displacements brought about by ideological repressive policies towards the ‘other’. Who is an African then, specifically South African? Cion, I believe, is the metaphorical answer to this troubling question of our time.

*NB. This review was originally published in my earlier blog The Couch Potato on 7 February 2008.  Although slightly altered from the original piece, this reworked version retains the original arguments and observations of the original.

07 February

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2008

Responsibility in Representation: Buthelezi

It is disappointing when one reads an article, in a reputable newspaper, that sparks serious debate or controversy with no person’s name attached to it! But then again there is something of a damaging effect attached to that article when the reader infers wrong meaning based on what the article under scrutiny purports. I draw the art supporter and lover of the visual arts to an article published in the recent South African Art Times (August 2009), page 13, wherein the ‘Staff Writer’ of this important art newspaper writes about the artist Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi. It is my belief that the Staff writer owes Buthelezi an apology.

The ‘Staff Writer’ of this prestigious newspaper has done three things which are not palatable as far as representation is concerned. Firstly he or she has misquoted a question that was posed to the artist by me. 2 Mbongeni at Work Catalogue

Secondly he or she has given away market value of the artists work as if they were doing a sale pitch as well as alluded to the artist life style.

Thirdly the writer of this article has ignored to reveal the contribution of Mbongeni R. Buthelezi to Contemporary South African Art, by so doing this he/she denies South Africa to be acquainted with one of the most important artist in our country practicing today¹.

This approach to writing gives a discerning reader acquainted with this country’s art the impression that the newspaper in question is careless in its approach to content concerning ‘some artists’.

By hiding behind the name ‘Staff Writer’, which in a sense, delimits debate and is imbibed with the grey area effect – for we do not know who writes, is suspicious of disrespect for the subject matter. As far as the article in question is concerned the discerning reader must just read between the lines to pick up the underlying message; that the development of black artists in this country has as its highest rung luxury and a disengagement with their immediate community. Such is a stigma that is erected and fixed.

So I shall write back to the Staff Writer, let us get rid of the quotation marks – for I am addressing the South African Art Times itself – it is they who have given space to a shallow reportage covering one of our most important contemporary artists in this country carelessly.

Let us established a fact concerning the day when Mbongeni R. Buthelezi gave a Walkabout of his exhibition to the Art Museum’s volunteers – the education assistants with whom I work very closely, it is only that day when I was present to ask a few questions, which one of them you misquote in your article, Staff Writer.

Were you there when Mbongeni gave the Education Assistants of the Pretoria Art Museum a walkabout?  If you were part of the group on that afternoon prior to the opening of the exhibition you will have gathered that the gallery owner that represents Mbongeni was present as well. You will also have heard him speak about the danger that an artist can run in inflating prices of his artworks at the outset when his or her career takes off, even during the development and run of the practice. A name must be built gradually as a brand.

You would also remember, that is if you were there which I doubt you were, dear Staff Writer, that the words you put in my mouth were not my exact words.

I asked: how did you develop your innovative technique of painting with plastic?

You say I asked: how did you develop the unusual and rather smelly technique?

Now dear staff writer (see how you loose your capitalization) why did you not introduce your self at the walkabout? The artist was there; available for discussion of his artistic output and I was also there to discuss the education benefits of having that exhibition at the Art Museum, and while you were at it you should’ve asked permission to quote me – you have no right to assert the power of documentation until you have stated your identity and we (your subject matter; the documented) grants you permission; by your carelessness you missed a one on one engagement with the artist. Surely your article is devoid of this intercourse (one on one) for those of us fortunate enough to have been there, and those who follow your column on a regular basis.

mbongeni in his studio

Reading your article, it is as if you are reporting a lethal riot from a remote podium without direct contact with the unfolding events. By entering the real space of your reportage you would’ve been able to highlight the fact that the artist, later in his career, returned to Funda (not forgetting the education he received at Wits) to teach and more also that he has been involved in Social development programmes using art as a tool to transform our society towards creativity and environmental preservation awareness which is an issue at the top of the agenda on this planet. You omitted these vital facts thus not revealing to your readers the emergence of new media’s interrogation with the degradation of our natural environment as far as humanity is concerned and Mbongeni’s contribution towards the reversal of the negative impact of this phenomenon – pollution by humanity, If we bear this fact in mind Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi advances further into the horizon by a giant leap amongst South African contemporary artists practicing today with regard to the green revolution.

Instead of entering real space and informing us that your paper was planning to write a profile article on Mbongeni you piped the same old song about struggle in the township and the yearning of the aspiring black artist to become a successful visual art practitioner which we have heard and read many times before. Why is this not the same methodology (omissions of vital information) you employ when you write about ‘other’ artists in your prestigious paper?

Naturally you have situated Buthelezi within a stereotypical fabric which will stay with his documentation forever when he is encountered through research. Need I remind you, staff writer, that your paper is part of a process of documentation of the development of South African Art? That it is presently constructing, together with other publications, the narrative of South African Art history. Black artists have evolved beyond the ideology you allude to in your article: They do not feel sorry for themselves anymore, they engage with the discourses of the visual art on the same platform as any other artists alive today does. You failed to reveal this in your article.

Your article lacks first hand intercourse with the artist. It is as if you used other newspapers and other publications’ contributions covering Mbongeni to construct your article. Take heed staff writer that should you have, on the day you claim your presence in our midst, introduced your self as a writer of the SA Art Times the artist would’ve joyously given you an exclusive interview, you would have learn that over the run of the exhibition the artist was going to do demonstrations of his ‘plastic fantastic’ painting technique and if you cared you would have attended and experienced the technique your self and have a better phrase for it your self. And you would have covered this in your exposition. This revelation of the practical demonstration would have inspired an interest in those venues where the exhibition is scheduled to go after Tshwane/Pretoria.

After that direct contact even more so you will have respected the fact that you do not have the right to speak about prices of artworks when you profile an artist – but if it is a sale pitch at an auction by all means you can. You would’ve covered the technical explanation of the artistic production of Mbongeni R. Buthelezi’s innovative painting with decorum like your paper does with other artists it covers (as I have hinted above already).

You have wasted space by not praising an achievement that is in the person of Mbongeni R. Buthelezi as far as evolving a progressive stylistic approach to painting using a non traditional medium is concerned. In a nut shell you should’ve reflected on new media which is an avenue whose door continues to open ever so wider in contemporary art’s evolution with reference to this artist.

Your article, while it might be well meant to other readers out there, it lacks first hand intercourse with the subject matter it purports to be about and runs the risk of an ideology that this country has interrogated and phased out. You take us backward SA Art Times and I believe you owe Mbongeni R. Buthelezi an apology.

*The images appearing in this article were scanned from the new catalog of Mbongeni Richman Buthelezi’s  work.  The catalog accompanied his exhibition entitled Imizwa Yami (My Feelings) that was on show at the Pretoria Art Museum  during from 13 May – 16 August 2009.

11 August

© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2009

note

1. The reader may find it interesting to read the article Mbongeni Buthelezi: Blowing life into plastic http://wp.me/ptAqt-H this work narrates my first impression with the artist.

Tshepo Mosopa’s Seemo Sa Boraro (Third Class)

Seemo sa Boraro

Seemo sa Boraro

One thing that Art cannot separate itself from it’s the experience of its maker. Without experience art cannot be. It cannot spring out of a void and say something, it has to be a part of a particular reality to hold its ground. That anchorage, that experience is emphatically intertwined with the life of the artist. Art is a reportage, it is a reportage of a one point perspective of the artist as he or she goes through life. But unlike less gifted majority of the members of our society the artist is able, through his craft, to beam to the world their unique experiences in pictorial format just as a fiction writer is able to relate their experience through fiction as a metaphor of the real world. Such is the nature of Seemo Sa Boraro 2008. It is a report on the cramped space experienced by public transport users in South Africa. But what is profound about this artwork is that it is not just a vision that the artist as a shaman retrieves from the spiritual dimension or causal realm. The artwork represents the lived-real experience of the artists, Tshepo Mosopa.

(more…)