A conversation implies input, and the exchange of knowledge.

Monday, May 11, 2015 | Coral Bijoux | Essay

The Conversations We Do Not Have exhibition series features artwork from the Voices of Women Collection of embroidered, appliqued and beaded cloths made by women, and artwork from other private or institutional collections, inviting both serious and lighter discourse. In a South Africa that is so free constitutionally, yet so constrained in its ability to speak openly and with conviction lest it be perceived as ‘un-PC’, the exhibition allows us to speak as we wish. It does not have to be documented, recorded, agreed to, or disagreed over. The topics for discussion are in the mind and experience of you, the viewer, and in the artworks themselves. But an exchange is necessary. Whether to participate and engage in the multiple layers of meaning offered in the selected works, drawing from your own experience, or not – you decide. There is not one answer. The exhibition narrative asks us to consider our own acquiescence in the creation of the society presented through the women’s stories and artworks selected for the exhibition. At first glance, the answers seem obvious. A little closer and we begin to question who is responsible, ultimately, for these reflections on feminine discourse: culturally, socially and throughout our times. Is this, then, a contemporary vision of women’s experience in South Africa? If it is, will it change? Do we want it to change?

The Voices of Women Collection is at the core of this exhibition series. Each exhibition takes place in a different regional location and considers the specific provincial nuance of these varied contexts. Art from the Collection are exhibited with, and contextualized by, selected artworks from permanent institutional and private collections such as the Mary Stainbank Collection, Phansi Museum Collection, MTN Art Collection, the Durban Art Gallery, the William Humphries Gallery, the Andries Botha Foundation and others. The intention of these juxtapositions is to develop ‘conversations’ between the artworks and the viewers in order to begin an interrogation of issues related to gender – issues that continue to impact on the role and status of women within contemporary South African and African society.

The Collection speaks to us through both text and visual metaphor. The defining theme of the exhibition is framed by the women2 who share their personal stories, made visible through embroidery, appliquéd and beaded techniques and their own creative talents. This is a way for women around South Africa to creatively share their personal narratives with us. The embroidered pieces and artworks give voice to the ‘voiceless’, and in the process allow each woman to tell her story within a broader narrative. The series of exhibitions focuses, in particular, on women’s identity within the cultural and social context of South Africa, both past and present. It provides a vehicle with which to consider women’s ‘acceptances’ of adverse situations and how ‘being silent’ about these disadvantages women domestically, and within a broader world context. Some artworks selected for the Conversations exhibitions such as lace bonnets, izibhayi/isikoti’s (beaded marriage capes), and the memory cloths, made by women as part of the Voices of Women Project, interrogate whether garments and objects are complicit as ‘instruments of women’s acquiescence’. The Muslim burqa, slavery to brand names and high heels (as seen in Faiza Galdhari’s work, Depths of Devotion or Purdah) could also be considered as such ‘instruments’. Societal and self-expectations of imagined ‘perfections’ especially, but not exclusively, promoted by the media industry, see women striving, at great expense and effort, to achieve standards of feminine beauty in the hope that they will secure husbands and be guaranteed acceptability in desirable social circles. The beauty, cosmetic, fashion, diet and hairdressing industries are proof of this. And while some Muslim women see the burqa as ‘protection’ from the male gaze, a Western mind-set often argues that we need to ‘present ourselves’ as images of perfection in order for us – women – to be taken seriously. These issues all have merit, but we must however interrogate each and consider which of these holds us ‘in acquiescence’.

The Conversations exhibitions invite us to engage and contemplate our world through the words and imagery of ordinary women, those often ‘invisible’ women whom we prefer not to see or acknowledge as they are constant reminders of what society has become. These works engage us in an introspective dialogue between artwork, narrative and the viewer, where we are able to unpack the layers of meaning embedded within. Here, viewers place themselves within this juxtaposition of image, text and concept. These meditations in colour, line and design support ideas of identity. Narratives and creative interventions within the Collection speak across time, language and social barriers. The idea of a sustained ‘conversation’ defines the exhibitions and invites viewers to consider their own views and opinions, encouraging them to assess the status or measure of their own particular acquiescence. Selected artists such as Mary Stainbank, Penny Siopis and Faiza Galdhari, in conversation with the core selection of work from the Collection, invite an exploration of a world of female subservience from a colonial and pre-colonial past into the current era. Stainbank’s works, Medusa and Effort, for example, draw attention to the way this artist executed powerful creations in the challenging medium of marble and stone. Her particular references to sexuality and feminine power, especially in the Medusa work, question levels of female compliance expected in society. Stainbank and her work defied the accepted codes of artistic conventions for women of the time and so were largely marginalised by the art world.

Faiza Galdhari’s work refers to Muslim cultural traditions such as the practice of purdah or the wearing of a burqa. This broadens the discussion to include global influences that affect and, in some cases, limit the potential of women in particular societies. This is an important metaphor within the Conversations exhibitions – one that asks us to consider how and why, we, the female viewers, wear our metaphorical ‘burqas’, albeit in different guises. Women also find ways of expressing their (dis)content through coded messages. The izibhayi/isikoti’s from the Bergville area in KwaZulu-Natal, for example, carry information in their beaded colours, images and text that allow women to communicate information about their lives. By disrupting socially sanctioned uses of garments, some women in Zulu-speaking communities have also been able to express their discontent at their circumstances and challenge patriarchally determined norms expected of them. Other artwork featured at various times in the Conversations exhibitions include Penny Siopis’s Prospect: Saartjie Baartman; Andries Botha’s Bloodlines, which formed, in part, a catalyst for the Project; a donation to the Collection, Nicole Maurelle’s, Oranje Blanje Blou, Wie is ons dan nou?, which brings to our attention largely unheard Afrikaner women’s narratives of their experiences in British concentration camps; Sue Williamson’s Some South Africans; and Kim Berman’s Women and Walls. In framing the KwaZulu-Natal, Durban Conversations We Do Not Have: Acquiescence exhibition, I began to consider the possibility of dreaming a world that is respectful of those who are perceived to be different to ourselves – where we consider the self in relation to the idea of the feminine as a basis for how we relate to one another. The feminine voice is one that embodies aspects of nurturing, caring, strength and the ability to make tough decisions, based on the needs of the greater good. This is not only a trait inherent in women, but many women live their lives according to this mind-set/heart-set. The purpose of this exhibition is to view the narratives communicated to us by the selected artworks and to place ourselves at the heart of these conversations on gender and power. In my opinion the often subservient position of women is enabled through multiple and complex acts of acquiescence. This form of compliance has many different cultural modalities, which the exhibitions interrogate in order to find solutions to the global epidemic of abuse and the perceived powerlessness of women and girls. In the Western Cape context, the Conversations exhibition will reveal a discourse around issues of slavery, a cornerstone of the growth and development of colonial life at the Cape, and still endemic in the unequal social constitution of this region. The exhibition series will also focus on the emerging voice of contemporary Malay identity within the Western Cape and within a broader South African context. In contrast, the Northern Cape exhibition at the William Humphreys Gallery and Museum draws particular attention to the journey of the San Bushmen – a people ravaged by systematic annihilation, dislocation, trauma and loss. They are the inheritors of rich spiritual imaginings, whose vestiges are traced across the landscape and rock faces of Southern Africa. Denigrated, disempowered and denied the space in which to live those dreams, their cultural distinctiveness is under threat. It is the women who still hold those dreams for the future. In recognising their role, Voices of Women workshop3 encouraged them to visualise aspects (refer to figs. 20 and 32 ) of their troubled past in their embroidered works. These narratives of past and present disempowerment play out in expressions of who they are and who they might become.

The artwork For Martha Mkwanyana by Andries Botha is a late addition to the Conversations exhibitions. The title For Martha Mkwanyana is less about Martha as it is for Martha. This portrait elevates her to the status of ‘queen’ or supreme matriarch within the curatorial metaphor of the exhibition. It presents her respectfully. In the work, and as with many of the women in the Collection, she emanates an unquestioning quiet acceptance of the humble role she plays in society. We acknowledge that she is a breadwinner, manages daily challenges of survival and is a woman who has hopes and vision for her children and her community. We honour her as such and place her amongst the many invisible people, and women in particular,
who continue to hold dreams of their own.

CONCLUSION

Conversations We Do Not Have invites women and men to examine themselves and their complicity in processes of acquiescence to social systems that entrench inequality in culturally defined relationships. In spite of the fact that these relationships are now in crisis, the question remains why we continue to cling to them. Conversations We Do Not Have is a title that speaks directly to what needs to happen: a dialogue between men and women and between women from diverse contexts. This must happen so that we can find ways in which we may re-imagine ourselves and, in so doing, create a revitalised society through each other and through creativity and art. These are not easy conversations and it is not yet certain that these conversations will lead to transformation. I imagine another world – an ideal world – a place of dreaming where mutual respect exists, a world that does not require negotiation or debate, policy or legislation, or perceptions of perfection. It requires rather a shift in consciousness as the basis for a new cultural language. Once achieved, society can begin with the more complex political agenda of reconstruction. I invite you on this journey, and I insist that we all abandon the idea of being polite.