A matter of perspective

I arrived in Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival, all anticipation and glee.

Immediately, I sought out reliable sources of information in the hopes of getting an idea of which shows were and have been worth the sitting.

Brett Bailey’s Exhibit A, I had heard, had had people walking out of the theatre shedding tears and others simply stunned into a haunting silence.

Exhibit A interrogated colonialism and lays bare the once-justified practices that saw the black body treated as something worth experimenting on, an object of curiosity and little worth. Unfortunately I missed it. but it is hoped by many that it will not simply end its run in Grahamstown but go on to tour the rest of the country and offer those of us who missed out an opportunity to be equally immersed within it.

The other highlight, as was to be expected, was Steven Cohen’s Cradle of Humankind.

With a similar theme. it was always going to receive attention. Cohen’s inclusion of his former 90-something-year-old black nanny, dressed in nothing more than a sheer loincloth, was the central point, and the source of much of the controversy surrounding the performance piece.

I was not surprised. Cohen, who is known to fiddle with dildos, wearing and making use of chandeliers and abnormally high stilettos as props, is no stranger to controversy. Like many who have seen Cohen in action, I knew that I too would soon be grinning uncomfortably while putting up a brave front of aesthetic erudition when I caught the show.

There are a number of themes intrinsic to this year’s National Arts Festival, most of which relate to the question: What does it mean when we speak of arts and culture in South Africa? And how do we assess success or failure in this field?

At one of the events at the festival, the practice of writing on art was debated and discussed. In light of recent events around the arts, it only made sense that this topic be explored and unpacked. Among some of its main points was the crucial issue that, while the writer and critic of art has his or her vision of what is and what is not art, they always have to bear in mind that the audience for whom they write is not homogenous.

By implication, the suggestion was made that, in a country such as South Africa, there is not simply one way of reading or interpreting what art is or isn’t, and that this is, by and large, a culturally determined factor.

And any assumption that people are uninitiated or ignorant about the arts reflects a failure on the part of the art and cultural writer and critic, who are sources of information. It also reflects a failure on the part of an audience who refuses to take a single step into the unknown.

Of course, one must ask the logical question of whether we all have the same ideas of art and culture to begin with. We could be inclined to run with the idea that, since we live in a globalised world, where the "post" in "post-modernity" has been proven to be somewhat meaningless, there really is no difference between us.

On the other hand, as the late Dennis Dutton wrote in his seminal work The Art Instinct, it could be said that one group's concept of art (and culture by inference) is different from that of another, is an extreme version of cultural relativism. Dutton concludes that “since the meaning of any concept is constituted by other concepts and cultural forms in which it is embedded, concepts can never be intelligibly compared cross-culturally”.

It is understandable that people will tend to approach art and culture from perspectives most familiar to them, but just imagine the irony of being a locally born and raised expert in "African art" with absolutely no knowledge of even one African language.

What whole other worlds are missed through this habitation of comfort zones?

But I would suggest that it is in our differences that the paragon of our collective practices and understanding of art and culture lies.

And these differences demand to be embraced.

Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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