BRETT MURRAY AND THE AESTHETICS OF WHITENESS
In the welter of contemporary academic analyses of experience, there is a theoretical perspective on the notion of “whiteness” as an overriding determinant of the way the world is constructed within the individual and collective consciousness. In one way the guiding insight here is a responsive and reflexive one, riding on the back of understandings of experience as being predicated on notions like “blackness”, “negritude”, and, on a more specifically political level, “black consciousness”.
If, the question seems to be implicitly asked, blackness can be understood to overlay the qualities of experience and relations with the discourses of history, then what is specific to “whiteness”? The answer given by film critic Richard Dyer, author of seminal texts on the subject, is that it is hard to say just what it is that is specific to whiteness as an ethnic category - and that the reason for this difficulty lies precisely in the dominance of whiteness in the discourses guiding the globalised economies of thought and value within which we live today.
Dyer writes in the essay, White:
…white domination is reproduced by the way that white people ‘colonise the definition of the normal’… It is the way that black people are marked as black (are not just ‘people’) in representation that has made it relatively easy to analyse their representation, whereas white people – not there as a category and everywhere everything as a fact – are difficult if not impossible to analyse qua white. The subject seems to fall apart in your hands as soon as you begin.
(In Carte Blanche/the White Papers, published by Panchayat with the Lethaby Press/Central Sanit Martins College of Art and Design, School of Art, 1999)
And in another place in the same essay, Dyer notes:
Power in contemporary society habitually passed itself off as embodied in the normal as opposed to the superior. This is common to all discourses of power, but it works in a particularly seductive way with whiteness, because of the way it seems rooted, in common sense thought, in things other than ethnic difference.
Dyer’s point is essentially that, given the overwhelming hegemony of Western thought, value and economy, whiteness has ceased to present itself as an ethnic and historical category in the same way that blackness does. Its epistemological status, as he compellingly observes, is rather like that of white as a colour in relation to the colours of the rainbow: white is the mixture of all the different frequencies of light making up the spectrum, and, in this, “white is not anything really, not an identity, not a particularising quality, because it is everything – white is no colour because it is all colours”.
In terms of ethnic experience, by Dyer’s lights, then, whiteness is not properly an experienced category precisely because it is the notional ground against which the categories of ethnicity are figured. Its values provide the determinant against which ethnic difference is measured.
This is the globalised intellectual framework in terms of which “whiteness” is to be understood. Agencies such as the history of colonialism, Hollywood film, television (notably CNN), relief aid, capitalist economic imperialism, the United Nations and western-style democracy – to list but a few and heterodox determinants - have seen to it that the values underlying this notion of whiteness and its implicit power relations have become naturalised through most of the world – with only branches of Islam and maybe aspects of Chinese culture coming readily to mind to challenge its hegemony in discourse.
I don’t really want to argue this point out in this place: further reflection will inevitably layer complexities and caveats and nibble away at the buttressing of the white Western discourse. I only want to register the basic argumentational structure – largely, and maybe perversely, in order to note that in the context of South Africa at the present time, it only makes partial sense: the idiosyncrasies of post-Apartheid South Africa have led to a situation where the hegemony of “whiteness” is not without ambiguity, poignancy or qualification.
Indeed, after apartheid - and contra Dyer – whiteness in South Africa, far from being a neutral and invisible ground for value and the self-naturalising of the dominant discourse, has been foregrounded as an ethnic category that is not only all too identifiable, but also fraught with anxiety, guilt and opprobrium. The recent history of this country, especially after democratic elections in 1994, has been such as to stand Dyer’s categories (seen as they are from the citadels of global white power) upside down. Here and now, as the machinery of political pre-eminence gives shape to the aspirations of the black majority and seeks to redress the past, the position of the country’s whites is undergoing a substantial revision. While, to be sure whites continue to dominate South Africa economically and in terms of access to resources of knowledge and education, it is nevertheless also true that whiteness is an ethnic category at risk. To be white is to have a share in the shame of the apartheid past; to be white is to have been formerly unfairly advantaged; to be white is to have much to exculpate and, not to put too fine a point on it, to be inescapably morally suspect, having been a beneficiary of apartheid; to be white is also to be on the wrong end of social engineering and to be excluded from processes of redistribution.
I note these things not in order to whinge. Such processes of history are not only understandable, but also inevitable, and (even speaking here as a white) to the broader social good, however crude and alienating the mechanisms whereby they are achieved often may be. Nor is any sense of unfairness directed against those whites who really did embrace democratic ideals and resist apartheid much to the point here. What is interesting in terms of the notion of whiteness, however, looked at from this angle at least and in the specific context of South Africa, is that it is indeed a category of difference and a category under often baleful scrutiny within the growing hegemony of a largely black-dominated political discourse. Even that underlying sense of the normality of whiteness that Dyer invokes is tainted in the South African context and frequently subject to critique – no less real for being generally uncompelling, emotionally rather than rationally driven, and frequently inconsistent and incoherent – by Africanist intellectuals.
It is also true that a specifically South African whiteness in the global scheme of things is, to a significant extent, a special case, construed, or manufactured, as an aberration (something so to speak, beyond the pale) rather than something partaking of the logics of global whiteness. One might speculate that there is, in important ways, a large measure of scapegoating here; that a useful, but in the end specious, disjunction has been fostered by European and American heirs to the discourse of power between the specifically South African conditioning of apartheid and the wider history of colonialism.
This is all on one side of the coin of whiteness in the South African context. On the other side, the sense of whiteness invoked by Dyer certainly does continue to hold sway. The new South Africa, for all the lip service of African National Congress politicians to African traditional customs and values, continues to be as powerfully underwitten by the dominant global white discourse as ever was the old. We buy into American economic and cultural values and aspirations as enthusiastically and unreflectively as we do into the compromised values of Westminster and United States democracy, not to mention abstract notions like justice and fair play. We educate and define knowledge and achievement almost exclusively in terms derived from the imperialist hegemony of the Western “white” powers.
In this sense then, as opposed to the other sketched in above, the notion of whiteness developed by Dyer continues to be determinate of “normality” and the seemingly unalterable order of things.
THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE WHITEY
White like Me. Beyond the flip and deliberately provocative inversion of a political slogan cheapened by its commodification in a somewhat downmarket product line (Black like Me), there is a complex socio- and psycho-political knot snagged up here for the artist as cultural mediator to untie. What is particularly noteworthy here though is that the artistically crucial question of identity – the creative and self-definitive position in consciousness out of which the artist operates and from which the work derives its significance and its affect – remains far more a problem than a given.
Identity is also, in its vicissitudes, a key source of subject matter and aesthetic meditation in Brett Murray’s work. It is a concern that has long been discernible and has consistently been dramatized by the iconographic or virtually iconographic insertion of the artist’s own persona and experience into the work.
For instance, there is an early body of sculptures, dating from the mid- to late-1980s, in which rotund, resin-cast figures debunkingly caricature historically embedded South African archetypes and experiential masks. Figures evoking the virtual myth of the Afrikaner Voortrekkers – Volksvader and Volksmoeder - play a sexually charged leapfrog; a policeman, sticks of dynamite inserted in his ears is about to self-destruct in a militaristic ecstasy; a manic, legless butcher figure brandishes knives after using his own flesh as the material of his trade. The series rests essentially on a caricaturing technique of psychotic exaggeration, but at the same time, Murray has emblematically taken the subject matter and the socio-historical critique within his own consciousness. And he has done this by locating his figuration against a source caricature – that of the artist himself.
This (often almost uncanny) suggestion of a caricatured self-portrait running as a kind of leitmotif throughout Murray’s work, takes us emblematically into a world made as it were in the image of the artist – but less as a manifestation of the artist’s will than as a manifestation of his doubt. It takes us into a realm of discourse where experience is questioned in terms of its conditioning and partialities and where the underpinnings of the discourse are integral to the force and the significance of the work.
Thus, for instance, in Oros Goes Ndebele, Murray welds the advertising icon of a white childhood with not only the essentially debased stylization of Ndebele “African” patterning in constructing the post-modern iconic portrait. In doing this he also brings his white suburban childhood into a kind of interpretive risk by overlaying it with what was signally excluded from that childhood.
Where this leads is to a sustained interrogation of identity that lies at the heart of Brett Murray’s practice as an artist. But it is also a deferred interrogation, one that plays out through the confrontation of symbol systems and discourses implicit within them. Hence, in a particularly controversial piece – so controversial that city officials nearly prevented its planned installation in St Georges Mall, Cape Town – Murray cast a generically African figure sculpture in bronze, violently disturbing the integrity of its surface and identity by appending little manic models of the head of the cartoon character Bart Simpson on its surface.
More explicitly in terms of the interrogation of whiteness and blackness, in one of the framed photographs included in his installation Guilt and Innocence 1960-1990, Murray presents an image of himself aged six, dressed in a loincloth and wearing blackface.
The image is one of a group of more than 100 culled from family photograph albums to record Murray’s life in counterpoint with the incarceration of Nelson Mandela (as evoked in the dates included in the title). As a whole the collection of images provides a chronicle of a peculiarly South African half-life, shadowed by, but hermetically sealed off within its white suburban world, from the broader life of South African society. As Murray himself noted in the catalogue to the exhibition, entitled Thirty Minutes, where the work was installed at the Robben Island Museum:
The political and social forces beyond the confines of my family formed a system which protected and infringed on me, empowered and disempowered, promoted and denied me. When I looked beyond my private experience of loves and relationships, family and friends and boy becoming man, the contradictions in this system, which divided my life from others, resulted in a cross-questioning of responsibility and complicity.
In this context of a meditation on “whiteness” in South Africa, the picture of the artist as a six year old Zulu warrior – particularly in the light of the (fortuitous but inescapable hauntedness of the expression on the young Murray’s face) becomes an arrestingly South African image. In one way it records a kind of innocence in respect of the complexities of race. In another it shines forth as hubris against the gods of political correctness - a token of the historical arrogance of whites in what was a virtual institution of the white childhood, a dressing up as a “little savage” in drollery.
But beyond such basically visceral responses the image also has something about it of the icon. In the context of the present socio-politics of South Africa, it embodies a psychic crisis built into the form of the experiencer. It images the white as the black and in this enacts in the framework of doubt, the struggle of the South African white to discover or create an African identity, some kind of inner reconciliation with Africanness.
This notion of a psychic crisis of Africanness is perhaps the key thematic explored in the Standard Bank exhibition. As is Brett Murray’s postmodernist wont, the tensions and contradictions that determine this crisis are explored through disjunction, disruption and paradox at the level of stylistic charge, iconography and the languages of visual representation – in other words at the level of visual discourse – rather than by any kind of literal depiction.
There is a series of three small painted bronze sculptures under the title of Bubble Heads- after the generically “African” carvings made specifically for the tourist market - that can be taken as a virtual emblematisation of the concerns referred to above. Though cast in bronze (rather than polished wood, the three figures are, from neck to toe, executed in the proportions and formal volumes identified with West and Central African tribal art, or, more generally and less fastidiously, with African curios. But topping the neck of each figure, there is what looks like a kind of painted bronze balloon – referred to by Murray as an “exploding head”. What is visually significant at least is the way the head “explodes” – evoking the symmetries of Western mechanics in the form of the perfect sphere, standing at odds with the folksy organic traceries in the way the figure is carved.
In one way the image has an almost morbid or pathological quality, the sense of an unhealthy mutation, and one that supplants the human visage – what above all we relate to in the work of art – with something that is mute in the face of physiognomic interrogation. In another way, the specific disruption of the figure suggests no interpretative closure. The sphere as a form is quintessentially silent; it is a single geometric tendency creating itself in all directions; it relates to nothing except itself; it holds its interior wholly within itself. At the same time, the sphere is also a globe, a planetary sphere transposed onto the human torso; and also a customary symbol of the mysteries of creation. A point, as it were, in “big bang”.
All of this is built into the presence of the work, and the ambiguities and the denial of the interpretative urge are precisely what determine the identity of the figures almost as genii loci of the exhibition as a whole.
There is something almost, albeit perversely, mystical about the Bubble Head figures,and human figuration as a vehicle for manifesting identity is explored and developed in mainly more pessimistic vein in the exhibition. A series of blank pink shapes, cartoon variants of a head – some zoomorphic, other more evocative of the vegetable - are arranged in a grid formation on a burgundy background and titled Pale Mutants. The basic import of the work is pretty much inescapable – the pinkness of the image inevitably evokes the so-called “white”; the basic form is presented as essentially unstable, implicitly subject to genetic mutation, the result of processes of natural or unnatural selection; the absence of any featuring or the suggestion of a consciousness as well as the basic cartooning style within the mutant forms renders them as metamorphic objects rather than subjects; and so on. However it might be worth recalling here that in the preparatory stages, Murray had planned to label the individual mutant heads (or at least to provide a listing of those of whom these were putatively portraits as part of the work). The names in the list included his own with those of close friends.
Equally blank and essentially mute in terms of direct human communication is another series of “mutant” heads, this time three in number. These are indeed accompanied and offset by pieces of text, reading, respectively, as follows: “If I can’t throw stones at bad government because I am white… what can I say?”; “If I’m a racist because I think Mbeki is an arsehole… what can I say?” and; “If I can’t wipe my arse with the flag of black fascism… what can I say?”
There is a curious kind of aphasia here, between the anodyne blandness of the representation of the heads themselves, and the gritty, confrontational quality of the text - an aphasia echoed in the misalliance in the title, Mbeki, Mugabe and Me. Like the Pale Mutants, these heads occupy a curious position between visual assertion or suggestion of the human visage and mere pattern.If there is a kind of threshold at which the eye psycho-optically constructs a physiognomy, bringing the brute marks that are received by the retina within the framework of human interpretation, then these images only barely cross that threshold. They carry virtually no affect nor assertion of identity: considered as evocations of the human consciousness they have been robbed in their mutation of all their humanity and more particularly their force. They are, above all, images of pathos and impotence, and, as such, sit uncomfortably with the in-your-face rhetoric of the script.
THE COLOUR WHITE
Describing the current exhibition Brett Murray told me he wasn’t trying to create some kind of magnum opus or meisterwerk in deference to the gravity of the Standard Bank Young Artist award, nor even to effect any kind of closure on his oeuvre thus far. Instead, he said, he had simply allowed himself to carry on with what he was doing anyway, in some cases making works that he had had in mind, but on the back burner, for some months or years. He also spoke of the works being planned and executed at the time for the pending exhibition as visual “one liners”.
Many of course also have, literally, the quality of verbal one liners, with single lines of directly quoted text appended to drawings derived from and echoing a somewhat dated and generically “white” cartooning style most closely identified with the New Yorker magazine of the 1950s and 1960s.
“Are we… the other or the other other or another other?” a caricatured businessman, drawn in this vein, asks his colleague over pasta and wine served on a gingham checked tablecloth. Everything in the drawing of the image works towards achieving the effect of visual blandness. The checks on the gingham create an excessively dull visual effect, only emphasised by the mirroring of creases in the fabric; equally drolly symmetrical is the positioning of two wine glasses, a salt and pepper set, and the two businessmen themselves, seated in identical forties or fifties chairs on either end of the composition.
In terms of the internal logic of the New Yorker cartoon genre of course, the non-committal quality of the drawing is intrinsic to the humour – characteristically playing between outrageous paradoxes, ironies and whimsies in the text, and a severe suburban primitivism in the style and the subject matter in the accompanying image. In a way it strives towards a no-style of artistic representation, a common and lulling sense of visual normality to be offset against the explosion of humour in the text. (One is reminded in the cartooning style and the way it has established itself as a kind of absence of style in the Western aesthetic consciousness of Richard Dyer’s characterisation as the colour white being a mixture of all the colours but seeming to be no colour at all.)
Murray of takes the drollery of his stylistic quotation to a whole new level however by rendering his images in heroic mode. By rendering his cartoons in relatively monumental proportions and hanging them on the wall, he draws our attention to the image in a different way, a way essentially disruptive of the naturalisation of the style within consciousness. What comes to the fore is the set of relations that position the style and the image within a discourse, its oddity rather than the “normality” which is its discursive currency. Part of this oddity depends on the slightly archaic quality of the manner that Murray has adopted, the historical remove at which the sense of normality has been placed. At the same time, all of these interruptions are enhanced by the technique, the way that in one series of cartooning works on the exhibition, Brett Murray has taken what is essentially a short-order and fluid sketching style and rendered it by means of painstakingly cut out dark plastic embedded in a perverse kind of mosaic to a white perspex background.
In another series, to more or less the same philosophical effect, though with a different kind of aesthetic charge, Murray has cut his line drawings out of single sheets of metal, reprising a substantial body of earlier metal wall reliefs around such subjects as African wildlife, nationalist propaganda and tourist ethnography. As with those works, here the virtual line thrown by shadows is activated as both a monumentalising and formally disruptive mechanism.
In this climate of formal alienation, Murray’s one-liners, even when they are funny – and some are very funny – are also presented in such a way as to disturb, and burn in consciousness rather more hotly, rather than merely amuse.
“Send my greetings to your tribal elders,” one businessman, briefcase in hand says in parting to another.
“What parts of you are from Africa?” a characteristically bemused businessman punter earnestly asks another at a bar counter.
“On Wednesdays I’ll be doing ancestor worship in phonetic Xhosa”, an ingratiating curate informs a parishioner couple after the service.
“Say… I want to go to heaven… in Zulu”, St Peter, at the Pearly Gates asks a recent arrival before admitting him.
“I must learn to speak Xhosa!” a captain of industry, earnestly on his knees before going to bed at night, resolves in his nightly prayers.
It is not my intention here to interpret the cartooning works individually; the task is thankless and the jokes speak pretty much for themselves. But it might be worth noting a few points in passing.
Several, like those mentioned above, rely on a simple transposition of South African politically correct cliché into a foreign setting. They confront, as it were the milieu of “whiteness” a la Dyer as a seeming normality with the idiosyncratic concerns of South African political correctness and in that confrontation a kind of potential difference is generated - and the explosive release of the joke.
Other pieces in the series rely on scatological, sexual and political double entendres. In this vein, two businessmen before a fire; one, pipe in hand, wonders: “Is brown-nosing the president in the Kama sutra?” And in a related piece, a husband and wife are, postcoitally, in bed, with shocked expressions on their faces; “Is that brown-nosing the president”, the wife wants to know.
It is maybe worth noting that the humorous charge depends, in a relatively convoluted fashion, on a certain discomfort generated by the making literal and the foregrounding, as though this were an accepted political practice, of the notion of “brown-nosing the president”. In a way the real point here lies in the insult to the institution of the presidency more than it does in any kind of wit, and personally, while I have no objection to the bathos, I don’t find the two pieces particularly “funny”.
I note the above especially in order to bring home the point that funniness in the cartoon works is only partially, and only sometimes, the desired effect. The very first time I met Brett Murray – nearly 20 years ago – he made an observation about his work that has stayed with me ever since, and is of particular relevance here. We were talking about a series of sculptures he had made debunking the mythologies of the Boers (still in power at the time), and Murray noted that his intention was not to amuse, but, as he put it, to “hit the funny bone”. To spell it out: when you hit your funny bone (whatever that actually is anatomically), the sensation is jolting, distinctly unpleasant, and only just short of painful – far from anything one actually associates with humour or amusement. On this metaphor, what Murray is looking to achieve in the confrontations he generates in his works, is an almost visceral and reflexive kind of shock, something that shorts the essentially rational circuitry of thought and discourse.
This intention also underlies the affect in cartoon pieces with children. In one the kids are playing a board game, which, we can see, is called “Overkill, The Game”. About to throw dice one says: “We’ve played white-fascist white-fascist… now let’s play black-fascist, black fascist.” In a sense, the sentiment expressed presents us with a kind of historical analysis-by-numbers of South Africa in the current political climate. It is not a particularly subtle, complete or thoughtful one, but neither is it meant to be: the point is to debunk and remove historical underpinnings, to reduce, in provocation, the complexities of history to simple stupidities.
Or maybe not so simple: in the reductions and the bathos of the texts – played out heroic amplifications in the presentation, there is also a deconstruction effected. What is thrown into relief, through removing it from its effective context, is not so much the sentiment expressed in the texts as the nature of the text itself – in a word the discourse within which it is operating. The point then is not merely the basically unregenerate white – almost what one would think of as “Rhodesian” – attitudes that are being presented on the surface, but rather a manifestation of the determining structures of discourse and mythology.
WE ARE NIGERIANS
This impulse towards the debunking of the dominant South African discourse is given a somewhat different cast in a series of wall pieces whose protagonists are cartoon aliens. In one two identical aliens are figured in separate vertically composed panel. One bears the legend “Us”, the other “Them”.
Another, in very similar vein, presents the same alien figure in the same tall format, with a series of African nationalities – Algerian, Somalian, Namibian, etc.- crossed out to leave only “South African” at the end of the sequence. Though it is hardly needed to nail down the point about the mythologies of heroic national self-identification, the piece is entitled “Proud Nation”.
And so the series, using aliens, as humans inevitably do, to highlight and ironise the specifically human condition, continues. In one piece, an alien, just disembarked from his flying saucer and presumably wanting to give shape to the shadow world of his pre-mission briefing, asks a dispirited looking white: “Are you… the other”.
Another group of aliens decide not to disembark at all. They turn their flying saucer away from a presumably poisoned planet expressing their prejudice: “To many whites”.
Aliens, like prejudices, come in many shapes and shades, as Murray reminds us in another piece in the series, playing here on another sense of the word alien. Three antennaed aliens have disembarked and are surveying the new land. The text reads: “We are from Nigeria… we want your women and your jobs.”
As Murray noted, this particular exhibition is not designed as a tour de force. What it does is something that is maybe far more important though if less ego affirming, than the Big Show. It presents, and forces the viewer to engage with, real and present contradictions in the discourse and the experience of our time and place.
This on a general level. More specifically, what Murray hangs out, like so much dirty washing is his own prejudice, his own position vis a vis the dominant discourse. He locates himself as a white in South Africa, reproducing (or at least standing in some identifiable relationship with) many of the visceral responses common to whites in South Africa at this juncture in history. And beyond the politically confrontational charge of the exhibition, and more meditationally, he structures an aesthetic dynamic in the layering of the presentation whereby these are deconstructed and made available to scrutiny.
To be sure, one of the impulses behind the work is a sense of betrayal and dislocation. Murray, like many (though not that many) other whites in the 1980s and early 1990s, actively identified himself with the struggle for democratic values in South Africa. And like many such whites, he experiences and expresses a sense of disappointment and anger with the fruits of that struggle – the replacement, as Murray puts it in the mouths of babes, of white fascism with black fascism. Like few however, he takes those responses and places them at a kind of aesthetic remove, to speak about their own position within the discourse at the same time as they express the sentiments of which they are possessed. The head, so to speak is not something fixed, but… exploding.
Veiw the White Like Meworks