How can you tell a whitey from an Afrikaner? A dire matter in the context of international relations and national security, I know. I mean, who is a boer and who is a brother?
Bringing us that much closer to absolute racial transparency is Jong Afrikaner, showing at the Commune 1 gallery in Cape Town until 26 July. With the vim of a true ethnographer, artist Roelof Petrus van Wyk has drawn a scientifically objective sample group of Afrikaners from his friends and photographed them from all four sides with a stylistic emphasis on their surface physicality. So much beautified pinky-whiteness on a black background, I can’t say n-n-n-neo-Aryan without stuttering.
With the portraits together as a whole making up the artwork, this is the first time that the full experience of Caucasian hipsters and socialites is being shown in its entirety. Previously, a selection of the photos was shown on the Figures and Fictions exhibition of South African photography at the V&A Museum in London last year. Comprising the work of 17 photographers, it is noteworthy that besides isolated images by Jodi Bieber, David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo, the only photos of white South Africans are Van Wyk’s.
To be frank, this is the only explanation I can give for why they were included. That and the fact that white-skinned head-and-shoulders shots floating on black nothingness perpetuates the easy-to-swallow concept of Afrikaners – and whiteys, since who can tell the difference especially if you’re not as finely tuned to racial nuance as a South African is – being completely decontextualized and not belonging in Africa.
When asked why he thinks he was included Van Wyk agrees: “All the work on the show was photographing black people and when there were photographs of white people, it was white people in relation to black people.” Okay, he’s level-headed I’m thinking, maybe I got it all wrong.
No: “My work is about white people in relation to white people and what it means to be white, not in relation to black people but within our own specific culture,” he goes on. Oh, of course you’re making art about white people for white people, what a noble cause. Not narcissistic at all. (“I’m an artist, what do you expect?” he replies to that accusation later).
“[The exhibition] is also a critical evaluation of white people and how I believe whiteness has become broken down to become much more inclusive, in an African way of looking and absorbing, and broadening what it means to be African.” Funny, seeing a whole bunch of white people in a room by themselves doesn’t exactly convey that message to me. It is also a sad indictment on South Africa that an artist would seek to “Africanise” by showing Afrikaners through a racist lens, as though being African is being the subject of racism.
Over lunch Van Wyk tries to explain by telling me the stories behind the photos: one Afrikaner married a Zulu man, another Afrikaner became a sangoma, an Afrikaner gay couple adopted a black child, and a teenage Afrikaner learnt to play the saxophone in the township. Really I’m not interested though as firstly it seems like clutching at straws and secondly no one who goes to the gallery is going to be privy to that information, since the works do not even have names, or explanations, beneath them – like old ethnographic photographs.
Unfortunately it’s a cliché, but one does tend to see this kind over-produced, under-conceived artwork coming from artists brought up in the advertising industry. Van Wyk himself boasts that he has about 25 Loeries to his name from his days as creative director and owner of Trigger, with Gavin Rooke.
“This is not an ad campaign for Afrikaners, you can quote me on that one,” he explicates, exasperated by questions of how this representation vindicates Afrikaners? How can he call his selection process inclusive? What preconceived ideas of Afrikaners are challenged by the work? And how would this exhibition would go down in Khayelitsha? He’s a nice guy and he bought me lunch. However, it just seems that the work simply does not stand up to rigorous questioning.
It’s easy to think that showing a historically racist ethnographic grouping, in a historically racist photographic format, is ironic and that irony is redeeming. To then hang these portraits of a historically racist ethnographic grouping, who are increasingly the victims of an ironic racism themselves – even though everyone knows that they are still financially and socially advantaged – in an elite inner-city gallery and invite everyone over for a glass of wine is… I have no words. It really just seems like a mockery of the grave dehumanization of ethnographic photography!
One point that I do concede to Van Wyk is that for the photographing of white people in South Africa to become less problematic, then we need a lot more varied representations than simply David Goldblatt’s open-ended empathy and Roger Ballen’s monsters. Maybe the question to ask is why there are so few photographic representations of white people in South Africa?
Published by Mahala, 29 June 2012