Rising from the ashes

“This man is frail. He’s past the prime of life,” the tour guide says, gesturing at the old man hunched in the portrait beside her. “He’s old and powerless.”

Ash Man-Johnny, a portrait by Diane Victor, is a dark opening to Contemporary Art/South Africa, which examines South Africa’s cultural his- tory from the 1960s to the present. The exhibit unravels the horrors of apartheid and the challenges of the following years through video projections, etchings, photos, and sketches by native South African artists. Curated by a group of seven students under the guidance of Kate Ezra, the Nolen Curator of Education and Academic Affairs and also my tour guide, the exhibit took a year and a half to create. On display through Sept. 14, the exhibition features a core group of works from the YUAG’s collection, and incorporates borrowed pieces from galleries including MoMA, the Newark Museum, and private collections.

The subject of Ash Man-Johnny speaks Afrikaans, the language of the oppressive apartheid government that held power in South Africa until 1994. Yet here, he stands before us not as a subjugator, but as a tired old man sketched in burned ashes. He suffers the fate of all humans—the natural deterioration of old age. The artist is angry, yes, scattering embers on the page and shaping them into a shriveled, guilty form, but there is empathy in her strokes. She uses this piece to oppose apartheid, to convey that the oppressors can’t escape death any more than the oppressed can.

Empathy strikes me as a surprising note to start on, especially as the tour continues in front of a powder blue dress standing starkly in the middle of the room, towering over Kate Ezra. The dress belonged to Senzeni Marasela’s mother, a domestic worker in South Africa during the apartheid era. “It’s deliberately left very flat and empty to refer to her mother’s absence,” Ezra explained. During her youth, Marasela’s mother was away taking care of an- other family’s children and household, and was also periodically treated for mental illness. The dress is adorned with embroidered scenes of lynching, and each beaded string of its belt is tied in a tiny, chilling noose, an image that she repeatedly drew while hospitalized.

The dress is a reminder that ripples from apartheid still affect South Africans today. Broken childhoods can’t be magically mended; empathy doesn’t change the facts. “The past is always in the present now,” said Denise Lim, GRD ’20, one of the student curators. “Events aren’t really fixed.”

The title of the exhibit itself, printed boldly on the far wall, harbors its own subtext that is almost as charged as the art itself. The slash between Contemporary Art and South Africa is “used to both separate and connect,” said Lim. “We didn’t want to set up dichotomies or binaries, but we see a constructed relationship between these two ideas.” It begs viewers to ask how nationality can define art—or how art can define a nation. “The students wanted to call attention to the history of separation and classification, but also to the idea of connections and interface and collaboration,” Ezra said. The pieces all teeter on the thin slashes between each section title: Art/ Politics, Personal/Social, and Here/There. A painting becomes an opposition movement; a mother’s dress becomes every child’s pain; a South African revolution enters the international conscience.

The most explicit symbol of apartheid is For Thirty Years Next to His Heart by Sue Williamson. A man’s passbook, the papers all black South Africans were required to carry during apartheid, is photographed and laid out page by page. This is a man’s identity as defined by the government, reduced to a few words and pictures. Without it, he is vulnerable to arrest at any point.

As it exists today, the South African constitution is “one of the most progressive, liberal, democratic constitutions of any nation in the world,” Ezra said. But there is a difference between words on a page and a fundamentally altered national culture. “There are things that the country can be really proud of in terms of accomplishments, but there’s always the sense that they need to work through these complex social problems,” Lim added.

The problems are not limited to racial equality. Same sex marriage is le- gal, but discrimination based on sexual orientation is still a serious problem. Just last month, a lesbian woman was killed in a case of “corrective rape.” Zenelli Muholi, a visual activist whose work highlights this injustice, has taken hundreds of photographs of the transgender/homosexual community. Two are featured at the YUAG, “documenting who [the women] are, how they present themselves, their diversity, and their humanity,” Ezra said.

Some pieces aren’t as easy to decipher. I pass three video screens with rapidly changing images by William Kentridge. A cartwheeling figure turns into a bug, then into a teapot, and the words “A Backwards Glance,” flash on the screen. Suddenly I think I understand. “Needing to Let Go” comes next. More images twist and turn, are erased and redrawn. “Wanting to Hold on” appears last.

The last words stay with me as I exit Contemporary Art/South Africa under Ash Man-Johnny’s cold gaze. The slash binds two ideas together—something like the interlocking memories that unite a country. Past/future. Remembering/forgetting. Letting go/holding on.


Illustration by Grant Laster

Leave a Reply