Artist tackles SA’s violence head on

South Africans should talk about violence at the dinner table, in their cars, on buses and around the braai — not just in political forums.

This is the view of fine arts PhD candidate Thembalakhe Shibase, who believes that: "South Africa has moments of peace, with violence waiting just around the corner, and when we talk about this we usually talk about it as a political matter, like 'government is not doing enough'. 

"But it's a problem that needs to be dealt with at an individual level because it's a problem within us. We need to confront our insecurities and deal with them — especially men," said Shibase, who is studying towards a doctorate in masculinity at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Shibase registered as a PhD student in the gender studies department at the university this year, after completing his master's degree in fine art at Durban University of Technology.

Through paintings and interviews with artists, as well as people he thinks "are in a better position [than politicians]" to help us understand the problem, Shibase's thesis aims to research the relationship between '"Africanness', violence and masculinity".

His choice of topic was "a long time coming", he said, and is rooted in his earlier work as an artist. His paintings focus on African leaders with a history of dictatorship who had committed atrocities — people such as former president of Uganda Idi Amin and former president of the Democratic Republic of Congo Mobutu Sese Seko.

He wanted "to try [to] understand more about this common problem with African leaders and their reliance on violence to control their subjects, which leads to Africa's slow development".

Shibase's solo exhibition, titled Paint, Masculinity, Power and Violence, ran at the Erdmann Contemporary and the Photographers Gallery in Cape Town from February 27 to March 23.

The work that was on display was "confrontational with undertones of violence" and his handling of the physical body "overt", he said.

"Some of the work is quite explicit. The viewer will be confronted with images that will make you think: 'What is wrong with this image?'"

One of the paintings was of a man who at first glance was portrayed as bold and confident, yet harmless. "But there is underlying sense of threat and insecurity in the image," he said. 

There were also images of beautiful women shown in a way that might be seen as unacceptably explicit by conservative people, he said.

"The manifestation of people's discomfort with how a woman portrays herself often results in the woman being violated. Look at the miniskirt case where a woman was physically violated by taxi drivers for showing too much skin."

The dynamic in this kind of gender violence seems to be that "if you feel uncomfortable by how I present myself I am the one that must be violated somehow", Shibase said.

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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