The display of taboos

BRENDA ATKINSON reports on an art exhibition causing an ethical stir

IN 1994, Marylin Zimmerman, a photography professor at an American state university, threw away a roll of film containing nude photographs she had taken of her three- year-old daughter in the bath. A cleaner discovered the film, turned it over to the university’s Department of Public Safety, and Zimmerman found herself the victim of a special police investigation that set out to prove she was involved in child pornography.

This week in Johannesburg, an exhibition called Purity and Danger opened at Wits University. Its content, most notably Terry Kurgan’s photographs of her nude six-year- old son, is already proving to be provocative for all the same reasons.

In South Africa, not known for tolerating a culture of radical sex, acceptance of difference, or patience with conceptual art, an exhibition like Purity and Danger is a snake’s tail rattling in the grass of social propriety.

Its curator, the academic and artist Penny Siopis, spent a year pulling the show together. Contextualising an exhibition that will inevitably become, in itself, a form of effrontery, Siopis cites the rights of children and the disabled, pornography, abortion, circumcision, rape and burial rites. The timing of the show could hardly have been more pertinent. Words like “pollution” and “danger” might mean many things in the academy, but in the South African political landscape they are the horizons that confound social stability.

The furtive fantasies of the Immorality Act have blossomed into numerous tangible horrors. Of these, perhaps the most painful current media-frenzy involves child sexuality and its exploitation - from the streets of Hillbrow to the networks of cyberspace.

In this climate, Kurgan’s work is particularly daring. To some, it might even be dangerous. As one of 15 works on Purity and Danger, it stands out not only for its aesthetic beauty, but for the challenge it offers to our perceptions of children and their sensuality.

In Kurgan’s words, the work “strides the gap between some kind of illicit looking and the tenderness and sensuality of the mother-child link”.

While she defends the value of the photos, of which there are 39, as an attempt to reclaim the intimacy of the mother-son relationship, she is also aware of the Zimmerman case; of the anxiety that such displays can provoke. “Taboos produce desire,” she says, “and people are inclined to make uninformed opinions based on what are really very adult projections.”

The photos, which were also on view at Wits Open Day last week, have already elicited hostility. While some were moved by the sheer charisma of this child engaged in an evidently playful dialogue, many adults seemed like wriggling insects pinned by the confidence of his gaze. Murmurs of “pornography” repeatedly brushed the ears of the artist, and the crowd.

According to Siopis, part of the reason for selecting the Wits gallery as a location was to employ the specific “frame” that the institution provides: the academic community might be assumed to bring a more expansive, art-literate view to the works.

But this is also the audience whose intellectual “perspective” is most likely to neutralise the power of a show that should not, after all, be blushing at its own premise. Kurgan’s work, offered with the engagement of a mother and an artist, is one of several prepared to face the withering private whisper or disapproving public gaze.

Purity and Danger is on show at the Gertrude Posel Gallery at Wits until June 7. A full review of the exhibition will follow next week

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