Friday, October 17, 2008

Curating Change

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian. It was written by Anthea Buys and features information about my exhibition at the Castle of Good Hope for the Cape Town Month of Photography. Reproductions from the newspaper can be found below.

For the month of October galleries and museums around Cape Town have purged themselves of paintings and display cabinets to make way for the sleek panes of framed photographs. It is the fourth Month of Photography (MoP4), a triennial photography festival steered by the South African Centre for Photography, and everyone who's anyone in the Cape Town gallery scene has jumped on board with related offerings, hoping to catch the overflow from a few central events.

The highlights of MoP4 include a group exhibition at the South African Museum in the Gardens, featuring works by George Hallet, Santu Mofokeng, Tracey Derrick and Sergio Santimano, among others, and the South African National Gallery's much-anticipated retrospective of American photographer Stephen Shore's colour photographs recording American landscapes and urban environments since the 1970s. But the hub of the festival is at the Castle of Good Hope, where three group exhibitions of works by local photographers establish the tone of this year's Month of Photography.

Construct, curated by Heidi Erdman, is a sparse version of her and Jacob Lebeko's travelling exhibition, Construct: Beyond the Documentary Photograph (currently at the Durban Art Gallery), which aims to foreground the constructedness of the photographic image. Then & Now is a survey of work produced by eight prominent photographers before and after South Africa's transition to democracy in 1994. Emergence & Emergency, hailed as the theme exhibition for MoP4, is curated by Jenny Altschuler and gives voice to young artists' diagnoses of the difficulties that accompany transformation at both societal and personal levels.

If the extensive programme of MoP4 had to be whittled down to a core issue it would be the illustration of change, a project taken especially seriously in Then & Now and Emergence & Emergency. Then & Now comprises 20 works each from Paul Weinberg, David Goldblatt, Graeme Williams, George Hallet, Eric Miller, Cedric Nunn and Gisèle Wulfsohn. Half of these were taken before 1994 and half after, and each artist's sets of images are juxtaposed in such a way that they build a recurrent narrative of progress from political angst to banal personal reflection.

Many of the works included in Emergence & Emergency cut straight to the latter, with artists explicitly turning their scrutiny inward into the nature of subjectivity and how this frames the act of photographic looking. Mark Oppenheimer, in a series of photo-collages titled The Process of Unravelling and Reconstructing, cuts and pastes fragments of his subjects' bodies as a metaphor for showing hospitality towards the other. Hasan and Husain Essop, the new it-boys of photographic self-portraiture, clone images of themselves to critique the conflicts faced when the individual is confronted with plural cultural influences.

A number of other works on show address the persistent marginalisation of certain groups of people even after South Africa is ostensibly "new" and transformed: Brett Rubin's The State of Freedom is a series of manipulated studio portraits that condemn the mass media for objectifying foreigners living in South Africa, and Buyaphi Mdledle's documentary photographs of Johannesburg after dark suggest that the contemporary South African city is a transitory, alienating space, particularly for migrant workers.

All of this comes on the back of MoP4's anxiety to transform its own public image. In the past selection processes for the festival's curated exhibitions have been built around what have been perceived by many artists as exclusionary criteria: these have ranged from the artists' participating fee, now optional and pegged at R400, to the whims of an insular selection committee responsible for the show in previous years.

"Because South Africa has a whole history of layers of power, these kind of rules are questioned," Altschuler says, differentiating MoP4 from its precursors. "I'm not boundaried like that. How do you evolve people who are not good enough yet? Not by sending them away until they get better."

Emergence & Emergency comprises work from a handful of artists who were not sent away -- although they might have been had they been dealing with a more particular curator. The trade-off for Altschuler's inclusive priorities is that this sprawling show is not consistently convincing, with certain works reading too bluntly, as though contributions to a catch-all student exhibition.

On the contrary, Weinberg's Then & Now would have done well to include a wider, more demographically representative pool of artists with fewer contributions from each. If MoP4 is anything to go by, it looks as though political rejuvenation and hard curating don't quite go hand in hand.

Mark Oppenheimer's project, The Process of Unravelling and Reconstructing, comprises 18 portraits of people from the United States, Russia and Israel. Each was photographed clothed, in underwear and nude, with an object of personal significance. They all answered nine questions about themselves and their views on religion, politics and sexuality. The photographs have been bisected along the waist and combined to form 324 unique images. Oppenheimer says: "The viewer is invited to participate in the process of unravelling and reconstructing by piecing together the fragments of the subjects' bodies and testimonies. In addition to exploring broad philosophical questions the project raises specific issues related to the nature of gender identity and interpersonal relationships."

MoP4 runs at various venues throughout Cape Town. A detailed programme of events can be accessed at the South African Centre for Photography's website:

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Censorship rears its ugly head

This article also appears on The Media Online. For further discussion of this article have a look a David Ansara's article on Quid Pro Quo entilted The costs of censorship.

The Films and Publication Board has effectively banned the award winning film XXY by refusing to grant the Out in Africa Film Festival a licence to show it. This should bring back warm memories for those harking back to the glory days of Apartheid when you could not watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show, read Black Beauty or pick up a copy of Scope without seeing stars. For the rest of us, this outrageous act of censorship ought to be viewed as a call to arms. As an emerging democracy we can not allow our newly won freedoms to be so easily trampled on.

XXY received two awards at Cannes and it has been submitted to the Oscars for Best Foreign film. The film centers on the life of a hermaphrodite uncovering his/her sexual identity. Despite the fact that the actress playing the role is 22 years old, the board has justified the ban on the basis that the film amounts to child pornography. If you thought that child pornography necessarily involved the use of children, then you thought wrong. Since the character in the film is portrayed as a 15 year old, our legislation deems it contraband.

The Films and Publications Act prohibits two types of child pornography. The first type, "real child pornography", involves actual children. This is the type of pornography that evokes a universal sense of moral outrage. It is not only that the material is offensive; it is the permanent record of a particularly vile form of child abuse. Children that are involved in pornography are harmed via its creation and the distribution of the material is a further harm against their dignity and privacy.

The legislation also takes aim at another form of child pornography. This type does not involve real children. This "virtual child pornography" is made up of a number of different types of erotic material. It includes paintings, cartoons, sketches and written descriptions of minors involved in sexual conduct. It also includes depictions of adults, which are represented as being under the age of 18, engaged in sexual conduct.

In the recent case of Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition the United States Supreme Court held that virtual child pornography does "not involve, let alone harm, any children in the production process... The statute proscribes the visual depiction of an idea - that of teenagers engaging in sexual activity - that is a fact of modern society and has been a theme in art and literature throughout the ages." In spite of this, the South African legislation specifically states that artistic films and publications are not exempted from prohibition if they constitute virtual child pornography.

XXY is not the only work on the chopping block; a host of pieces are threatened by the Act, including paintings by the prominent artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Shiele. The recent Oscar winning films Traffic and American Beauty both feature scenes depicting woman under the age of 18 involved in sexual conduct. The most famous love story ever written, Romeo and Juliet, involves a relationship between two teenagers, one of whom is only 13 years old. Several adaptations of the play have been produced for film and some of them show the lovers involved in sexual conduct. Given the patent absurdity of prohibiting the above mentioned works of art, it must be asked why virtual child pornography is banned in the first place.

Firstly, it may be argued that since virtual child pornography may be used to entice children to have sex with paedophiles, it ought to be prohibited. This argument fails on the basis that innocent objects like cartoons and candy may be misused by paedophiles to achieve the same end of seducing children, but we do not think that it would be appropriate to prohibit those items. Furthermore, the prohibition would not be an effective way of preventing pedophiles from enticing children, since they would continue to entice children with innocent objects.

Secondly, in some cases it is not possible to distinguish virtual child pornography from real child pornography. This will be the case where adults are made to look younger then the age of 18 or where images are created through the use of digital imaging software, which does not make use of performers at all. It is therefore argued that in order to prosecute real child pornographers it is necessary to prohibit the virtual counterpart.

However, in the Ashcroft case it was held that if it really is the case that a certain class of virtual images is indistinguishable from real images, "the illegal images would be driven from the market by the indistinguishable substitutes. Few pornographers would risk prosecution by abusing real children if fictional, computerised images would suffice." It seems that virtual child pornography would have the positive effect of reducing the amount of real child pornography being produced; it would in fact be saving children from suffering abuse.

In essence, what is being argued is that in order to prohibit unprotected forms of expression it is necessary to prohibit forms of expression that would otherwise be protected. However, in the Broadrick case this type of argument was held to be an affront to the very principle of freedom expression.

In the same way that it is better to let ten guilty people go free than to punish one innocent person, "the possible harm to society in permitting some unprotected speech to go unpunished is outweighed by the possibility that the protected speech of others may be muted".