Afrikaner others

Jong Afrikaner
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.

Jong Afrikaner

“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

Shit is trending

Design Indaba - More Rainbow Shit

“Do shit that matters,” declared Bielenberg in the second presentation of Design Indaba 2012. His sentiments echoing the closing refrain of last year’s penultimate speaker, Robert Wong from Google, who beseeched: “Do epic shit.”

John Bielenberg, Rene Redzepi, Rahim Bhimani, Alfredo Brillembourg, Sissel Tolaas and Clive van Heerden all said it: shit. And the hipsters were all the happier.

With a working methodology based on “thinking wrong”, Bielenberg further provoked by emphasizing that all the shit around us is invented and it need not be that way. Primarily a socially motivated design instigator in Alabama, Bielenberg called for more do-good shit. At best it’s also good shit, but Bielenberg warned against shitting yourself before even starting.

Design Indaba - Making Future Shit

Surely though, no one could make better shit than the world’s top-rated chef, Rene Redzepi of Noma in Norway? Redzepi quoted his friend, Dutch food designer Marije Vogelzang, in pointing out that all of his work ends up as shit within 24 hours. “Food is just the shit eventually,” he said in his imperfect English. One can quite accurately say that he makes ‘future shit’. Get on it before it becomes a trend, son.

Although not on the formal Design Indaba programme, the official tweeter for the conference, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, was quick to point out her own shit, eChromi. A British interaction designer specialising in synthetic biology, Ginsberg has reengineered the eColi bacteria to emit different colours, making rainbow-coloured shit.

Design Indaba - Opening Image

That the repositories of shit – toilets – should come up on the first day of the Design Indaba was prosaic after Patricia de Lille had yet again been harangued about shit service delivery at the World Design Capital 2014 public forum the day before. What to do when the shit hits the fan? Tell the designers that they’re responsible for resolving shit.

Canadian industrial design graduate Rahim Bhimani showed off the flat-pack toilet he created for use after natural disasters. Shit happens, after all. So when deep in the post-apocalyptic shit, the loo is simply assembled using a coin to turn the screws. The handy wheels make it easy to cart the shit to a hygienic distance.

Design Indaba - Shit on Wheels

In turn, Chilean architect Alfredo Brillembourg, of Urban Think Tank, described a more permanent shit solution. The Dry Toilet. The idea is put Dry Toilets at the top of the hillsides where there was a shortage of water. It came from the residents of the favela they were working in. Brillembourg was illustrating the power of the collective community insight into getting their shit together. Further dynamics of the Dry Toilet remained, well, a little murky.

Putting shit to good use was, then, a natural evolution of the shit trend. The director of Design-Led Innovation at Philips Design, South African-born Clive van Heerden, sent everyone a shitter (and a twitter) with the Philips methane gas digester for the kitchen. Converting excrement and leftover food into methane. Philips proposes this as a sustainable source of cooking gas. Cooking with shit!

That shit be treated with such disgust is perhaps an indictment on our smell-sanitised world. It clearly has weight in the design world. As Norwegian smell designer Sissel Tolaas said: “Nothing stinks, only thinking makes it so.”

Published by Mahala, 7 March 2012