Masculinity fleshed out

Michael Meyersfeld’s exhibition Twelve Naked Men inaugurated the recently opened David Brown Fine Art Gallery in Rosebank. The wall-sized portraits of brooding individuals in the buff make up a sort of narrative that one critic has called a depiction of the male life cycle.

The contrived set-ups also display that there is not a single South African male reality, although the individuals modelling here all seem pretty healthy.

Meyersfeld knows how to construct a window on a landscape. As a photographer of fashion and advertising and in his work as an artist, he has succeeded in making something aesthetic out of the impossible, taking the edge off what society regards as negative attributes such as old age and fat. In Gaze, his 2003 book of portraits of gays and lesbians, he did a job on a smattering of drags, activists and cross-cultural couples making queer life look stereotypically creative, however improvised.

This is Meyersfeld’s skill as a commercial photographer—he manages to give equal validity to fashion models and aged men alike. Twelve Naked Men is not an attempt at documentary photography. Here he is consciously painting with camera and computer (the mammoth works are digital prints).

The carefully selected locations range from run-down buildings, to a limousine interior and occupational environs. As he has pointed out, there are beds in many: “The place where we are free to luxuriate in the forbidden, to be all things that in the world of the real we would not do.” The titles are merely suggestive, giving clues to what the characters may be, or be guilty of, entitled Greed, Repentance, Bewildered, Sin and so on.

In an interview, he relates how the exhibition is his first thematic attempt: “Naked men for me represent man as he is born. I didn’t want to use naked women—I think it has been used to death.” In his artist’s notes he writes about the female nude being “depicted in a manner far removed from reality”, and he quite blatantly argues that, outside of classical art, the naked male form “has been owned by the gay world. We have become conditioned to view the male nude with a degree of suspicion.”

What the work plays on then is “a kind of discomfort with the male nude. In turn, I would have hoped people would recognise the discomfort in themselves.”

The images are perhaps too subtly staged to cause real discomfort. This is not a series of trashed-out junkies or people in the throes of sexual foreplay à la Nan Goldin, after all. Yet in his defense Meyersfeld says a restaurant was obliged to remove a poster after complaints.

The picture in question was titled Custom, the signature image of the exhibition, in which an African man, in identifiably traditional circumcision rite body paint, is lying on his back, writhing in agony.

The process of taking the shot is interesting: it was the only image for which an entire set was built, and a sangoma enlisted to authentically adorn the model. “I got my shot,” Meyersfeld notes. “Well I thought I had, then this man said to me: ‘let me give you the correct shot—tell me when you are ready.’ And he gave a scream that I will never forget. Afterwards he said to me that the horror of the actual knife to this day upsets him in terms of the custom that he had to endure.”

Twelve Naked Men shows at the David Brown Gallery, Keyes Avenue, Rosebank until July 10. Tel: (011) 788 4435

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse