Beneath the Skin we're all the same

8 May 2016
Beneath the Skin is a curated group exhibition that looks at identity and self, exploring our differences as well as our shared similarities. (Visit the Facebook Event page >>)

The state of affairs


Racism is a matter of growing concern globally, as it spans communities, countries, and continents. Our species has been unable to embrace and celebrate the uniqueness of the various ethnic groups. Xenophobia, defined as an intense fear and dislike of foreign people, or simply racial intolerance, is manifested in every continent.

In Europe, extreme racist groups have gained more and more acceptability in countries like France, Germany, and Austria. In Australia, the Aborigines have lost much of their land and have been the victim of extreme prejudice. Many African countries have endured long-term civil wars, some beginning shortly after that nation’s freedom from former colonial countries. In Asia, Cambodians harbor extreme prejudices against the Vietnamese, and Chinese students have been forbidden access to higher education in Malaysia. In the Middle East, antagonism between the Israelis and the Palestinians continues to exist. 

Source: http://www.allaboutpopularissues.org/world-racism-faq.htm / Also read: Globalissues - http://www.globalissues.org/article/165/racism / and Your Stories of Racism around the world - http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/07/your-stories-of-racism-around-the-world-ta-nehisi-coates/398591/


In a tense political time where xenophobic and racist attacks flare up on farms, in townships and at protests, art has more responsibility than ever to communicate the spirit of Ubuntu and explore who we really are as human race. 

The findings of the 2012 Reconciliation Barometer survey pose difficult questions. In the report it is mentioned that our struggling school system may have missed an important opportunity for education about South Africa’s past, civic identity and citizenship, as well as national and constitutional values. This highlights the importance of community and family education, and the sharing of knowledge and culture in our daily lives. And this is where art has an important educational role to play. 


Art and the politics of people

A new dialogue is being created around the 75 artworks being covered or removed at the University of Cape Town, after paintings in a hostel were burnt in February during student protests. The artworks removed include Willie Bester's Saartjie Baartman and Breyten Breytenbach's Hovering Dog, as well as works by Zwelethu Mthethwa, William Kentridge and Stanley Pinker. The artworks have been removed out of fear that particular artworks could offend, and thus be damaged or destroyed. The 75 artworks were identified by a special task team who are exploring ways to advance decolonisation. A proper curatorial policy will be developed for the whole university which will take into account the interests of all in the university community. Much weight is given to the opinions of students who are offended by certain works. Read more about the task team's motivation of its approach and actions: uct.ac.za/downloads/email/ArtworksTaskTeam_March2016.pdf.

An exhibition in Molly Blackburn Hall of events in 2015 was taken down when some students disapproved of it. Some call this censorship, and the protest actions mentioned above written off as vandalism, while many realize that we need to rethink and restructure how we curate art. GroundUp editor (and post grad student at UCT) Nathan Geffen asserts that these events should result in a call for more artworks, issuing a challenge for depictions of the events on campus last year, encouraging art to flourish and develop the conversation further. He feels confident that UCT can deal with open debate about its art and cultural monuments. Alex Dodd, independent writer, editor and researcher, also says that colonial artworks can be curated in such a way that they reveal and expose the inner workings of colonialism - either set in dialogue with contemporary works, or used as conceptual raw material for the creation of radical new artworks.

At the University of the Free State students have "rewritten" history through renaming the buildings, residences, statues and trees to Biko, Sobukwe and other struggle leaders in protest to the honouring the intellectual authors of apartheid. Rachel Hatcher, Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice at the University of the Free State, calls this an important act of restorative justice. She reminds us that street art acts as an invitation to have a conversation about the issues the graffiti artists view as important. 

"It dignifies the victims of apartheid and their struggle against a racist, repressive, and violent regime. It helps to increase knowledge about that crime and the devastating effects it had on individuals, communities, and the nation." - Rachel Hatcher 

Arts can take us beyond differences and expand our cultural imagination to renew ourselves, says Nathi Mthethwa. Alex Dodd's words reaffirm this: "Art is meant to open up dialogue and give voice to difficult, complex thoughts and feelings that cannot always be reduced to language. The visual is its own language – with its own grammar and syntax. And it allows us to say things that we can’t say in words."

"Artworks can serve as triggers for a very particular kind of engaged, embodied, socially attuned dialogue." - Alex Dodd

In Beneath the Skin the artists explore what makes us human, and the similarities we share regardless of race, gender, culture or sexual orientation. 


We are all of flesh and bone


South Africa is a rainbow nation “born out of different people from different cultural orientation with the overarching principle of unity in diversity”. - Sihle Zikalala

Sihle Zikalala asserts that we should appreciate and promote different cultures as equal and parallel pillars of one nation, and that the community - coordinated through cultural and religious activities - should be an anchor for instilling the values of Ubuntu.  Maybe the only viable means of truly dealing with our current issues is a deeply spiritual and personal one. 

In ORGANISM,  our April solo exhibition by Janet Botes, the artist's message was centred around us as a species essentially being the same and equal to the other animals on our planet.  She quoted naturalist, writer, psychiatrist and former rugby Springbok, Ian McCallum: 

"Looking back upon our molecular origins, to our geology, to those first cellular membranes and to the eventual expression of a species capable of reflecting upon itself, it would appear that we are indeed the "salt of the Earth"... ...The animals, then, are in us and with us; we share their genes and their juices. Made up of countless molecules, cells and complex organs, each one of us is the carrier not only of the pattern of embryonic gills and tails, but the entire history of life also. It would appear that the aboriginal "water of life" still circulates through the blood of every animal, including us."

Perhaps we should be focusing on our similarities and our ancient shared beginnings, rather than the differences that have invoked so much violence and injustice during the past 300 years.  In "Call of the Wild" by Kendall-Leigh Nash our integral nature within ecology and the web of life is accentuated by plant life reaching out and entwining with the limbs of the figures. 

"I explore ideas of ‘the self’ and identity through the people I meet and photograph... I try to capture the idea of oneness and the notion that we are more alike than we like to admit. " - Kendall-Leigh Nash 

Corné Eksteen's work, on the other hand, looks more at personal identity, "expressed as a series of disjointed concepts in a continuous state of flux". Different faces or identities are melded into one portrait, in which these layers hide as well as reveal pieces of what makes a person 'himself".  


 
From left to right: Yin Yang 1, Corné Eksteen, Oil on Canvas, 100 x 100 x 4 cm, 2016  //   "let us make man, in our own image...", Ntobeko Mjijwa, 41.5 x 59.5 cm, 2016  //  Mindscape, Gary Frier, 79cm x 79cm, Oil on Canvas, 2016


Louisa Betteridge sees any type of art as story-telling and "baring your soul", which also reflects in Gary Frier's angle of perception for his work 'Mindscape', in which the natural and geological landscape are shown within man - evoking the notion of the human soul as timeless and unlimited, and also further connecting to the thoughts within Kendall's work.  Ntobeko Mjijwa's paintings aim to depict the arrogance and ignorance of how we. as South Africans, deal with issues such as politics, race, lust for power, and greed. In his work "let us make man, in our own image..."  these issues are hinted at, but the concept that we as humans have the power and possibility of gods, is also implied.  
    
In these artists' work we can feel and see the differences and the similarities of us as human beings, not only do we share our nature as a species and a shared existence as a part of universal and natural laws. We are individuals with endless souls and limitless possbilities - and the ability to have compassion, understanding and to build a better future together. 


Let start a conversation! When viewing the works exhibited, please share your thoughts on twitter, facebook and instagram with the hashtag #beneaththeskin and #stateofthe_art


Also support the campaign against racism: stopracism.iol.co.za
Sources: Independent Online, NEWS24, Mail & Guardian, Litnet, teleSURtv.net "http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Graffiti-Is-a-Revolutionary-Act-at-a-South-Africa-University-20160328-0040.html".