/ 9 October 2008

Lemaoana’s fabric of life

Young artist Lawrence Lemaoana couldn’t have had better luck with Art Extra’s exhibition diary this year.

His solo show, Fortune Telling in Black, White and Red, which in part interrogates the role of media in determining the fate of South Africa’s political leaders, opened during the week when newspaper headlines bade farewell to Thabo Mbeki and ushered Kgalema Motlanthe into his place as post-apartheid president number three.

The exhibition, which runs at Art Extra in Johannesburg until October 29, is a strident critique of the media’s influence in society, a theme that has gained prevalence in Lemaoana’s work in the past few years. The show has two distinct bodies. The first is a series of quilt-like textile constructions that approximate newspaper front pages and the headline posters that populate urban lamp posts. The second is a handful of digital photo-collage renderings of Lemaoana’s trademark “Zuma” figure, a pink-stockinged, faceless version of ANC president Jacob Zuma. In two earlier photographic works, Hierarchy of Mockery and Hierarchy of Colour, images of Zuma were interspersed with mobs of the pink variety, but now the Zuma surrogates stand alone, grabbing their crotches, gesticulating and decorated with saintly haloes.

Zuma’s monopoly of the front pages aside, why is Lemaoana so interested in the man? “I look at Zuma as what I call an ‘old masculine’ living in contemporary times. The ‘old masculine’ figure is really about an outmoded construct of masculinity, which, in Zuma’s case, still asserts its power today,” he says. Zuma has featured in previous works as a member of a rugby team, as a rapper and as a saint, but it is the iconic image of him as a struggle comrade, his fist dutifully raised, that dominates Fortune Telling in Black, White and Red. “I mean to represent the raising of the fist as an element of power,” Lemaoana says. “Once the raised fist was a symbol used to motivate the people for a public cause, in the struggle era, that is, but here Zuma uses it as a tool to motivate and enrich himself, to ­bolster himself against any criticism or interference.”

Beyond Zuma the show presents an important critical point that has universal relevance, the artist suggests. For him the relationship between the media and the subjects they represent centres on the media’s control of public knowledge, the power they have to deify or demonise their subjects before a captive audience. “I think the media have a huge influence on what people think. They very much shape the psyche of the masses,” he says. “When you’re driving down Jan Smuts Avenue you get hit by these headlines on the side of the road. On the one hand it’s informative but it’s also dangerous; there’s almost a propagandistic element to it. It shapes the way we live.”

Lemaoana’s textile versions of these posters are made from kanga fabric, a material that in many South African cultures signifies spiritual potency and is worn by sangomas and diviners. In this choice of medium he paints the press as doomsday prophets, predicting and directing the events that make the news as much as they report them. Extrapolating from psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan’s theory of the Symbolic — which, in a nutshell, is the patriarchal, individually and socially regulating operation of language — Lemaoana suggests this constitutes the “phallic” function of the media. Just as the Law of the Father, in Lacanian terms, polices the individual psyche, the media determine the system of knowledge according to which society must operate.

This complex discourse is hinted at in a set of fabric constructions that bear the subtly tweaked logo of the “Male & Guardian”. Elaborating on the pun Lemaoana says: “It refers to the patriarchal structures of South African society, which are still very much in place and are upheld by the media. The media readily criticises these structures and at the same time enforces them to an extent.”

The irony in reviewing Lemaoana’s exhibition is that, despite his work’s inversion of the typical one-way flow of analysis from journalist to artist, the press have the final say on his public image. In this case it is the artist’s prerogative to amble through a labyrinth of criticism and meta-criticism, while the journalist guards the exit.

On this relationship Lemaoana says: “I am aware of these power imbalances and I realise what the media are capable of in terms of shaping an artist’s career. My statement is about the media, their purposes and their intentions, and I suppose the power of the media over the artist is ultimately part of that critique.”

Fortune Telling in Black, White and Red shows at Art Extra, 373 Jan Smuts Avenue, Craighall Park, until October 29. Tel: 011 326 0034