An outsider’s bare act of defiance


We all have this naked body under our clothes. It’s a basic variation on two broad themes and yet in so many ways it’s still the most radical thing there is: a real showstopper, and a taboo viewed more seriously than extreme acts of violence. Ask photojournalist-turned-artist Dean Hutton, whose exhibition The Cradle opened earlier this week.

When the 2008 xenophobic crisis in Johannesburg split the surface of society and spilled blood on the pavements, Hutton photographed it for newsdesks all over the world and became defined by these terrible and astonishing images.

“I shot for four to five days without a minute of sleep. I had a lot of post-traumatic stress after that,” says Hutton. “It forever changed my perception of the country. I don’t believe in patriotism. It’s just another fucking conceit about how to separate yourself from outsiders.”

Hutton speaks of not ever having had a personal sense of belonging. “I wasn’t a real part of my family. I wasn’t a part of the children I went to school with. I always identified myself as an outsider. Being a journalist taught me much more about a sense of community. Working collaboratively on art projects has taught me about being a human being engaged in relevant work.”

Today, Hutton emerges as a performance artist. The ineffable and mesmerising beauty of the persona Goldendean smashes boundaries. By no means does Hutton’s naked body fit fashionable Western standards of physical beauty. It’s patently female. It’s not toned or primped. It’s painted gold. And when you’re in the experience, you are cowed by the unutterable beauty of it. It is like being in the presence of a god.

Mircea Eliade, in his ground-breaking 1957 text The Sacred and the Profane, writes about the concatenation of the human body with an understanding of the natural elements of the world, as a sacred entity in religion’s history. Looking at Hutton’s work – and the art-related gestures of other performance artists such as Steven Cohen – there’s a curious mix of the imperative of the shock effect in contemporary art with the deep resonance of these very roots that underpin the body as sacred, and honour it as such.

Goldendean brings you to a point of emotional stillness. You want to weep, not out of empathy for the person’s vulnerability or nakedness, but for your own sense of place in the world.

“Two years ago, I made the decision to become ‘Dean’,” Hutton told the Mail & Guardian. “I was not happy with the name given to me when I was born. It doesn’t fit me. I wanted a name to fit my gender. I am genderqueer, beyond the binaries of male or female. I’ve never particularly felt like a woman. When I was a kid, until the terrible rude awakening of puberty, I considered myself more a boy than a girl and yet I don’t feel comfortable trying to claim male privilege. I don’t belong in the binary.

“It’s a world in which it is comfortable to do that now. There have been others that have come before me. They give a language to what I have felt my entire life.”

In saying this, Hutton references the work of fellow South African Cohen who, some 20 years ago, was denounced by media professionals almost hysterical with laughter. His work developed from silkscreening in the 1980s to performance art in a corruption of drag, but many people just saw great tracts of exposed skin or his genitals and shrilly deemed Cohen shamefully naked.

Could laughter in this context be deemed the laughter of embarrassment? Is it the laughter society has generated to cover the foisted reflection on the self that nakedness presents? And why should nakedness be shameful? Anthropologist Mary Douglas comments in Purity and Danger (1966) that any taboo articulated by society comes from a sense of complicity held by that society.

Last July, an anonymous young woman made a curiously public and private gesture to the statue of Nelson Mandela in Sandton. She stripped naked, conducted what looked to outsiders like a personal ritual, got dressed and left. People filmed this. Some laughed uproariously. It went viral on social media. But it channelled a level of mystery that discomfited many.

“People can build themselves outside of the strictures of tradition, religion, race,” says Hutton.

Cohen is white, middle-aged, homosexual and Jewish: an outsider, like Hutton. A catalyst that made him realise the need to make art was a forced confrontation with his maleness: his compulsory conscription in South Africa’s army in the 1980s.

“It’s important to know not where you fit in the world, but where you don’t fit,” adds Hutton.

Robyn Sassen writes on the arts and is a subeditor at the Mail & Guardian

The Cradle, created by Dean Hutton with Alberta Whittle, Anna Lorenzen and Hutton’s dogs, is on at GoetheonMain in Maboneng, Johannesburg, until October 25

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Robyn Sassen
Robyn Sassen
A freelance arts writer since 1998, I fell in love with the theatre as a toddler, proved rubbish as a ballerina: my starring role was as Mrs Pussy in Noddy as a seven-year-old, and earned my stripes as an academic in Fine Arts and Art History, in subsequent years. I write for a range of online and print publications, including the Sunday Times, the Mail & Guardian and and was formerly the arts editor of the SA Jewish Report, a weekly newspaper with which I was associated for 16 years. This blog promises you new stories every week, be they reviews, profiles, news stories or features.

Related stories

Slice of life: Living her own life again

'It was hard to survive without performance'

Kegel exercises aren’t solely for people with vaginas

Often people think that kegels are targeted solely at women who want to increase the tightness of their vagina, whereas in fact the exercises are for everyone who wants to engage in better sex

Who wants to live forever?

Longevity enthusiasts believe immortality is a worthwhile goal. But refugees from the past could create problems for future generations

Terms of social engagement

Someone’s watching you. Sometimes they’re invisible, other times not. What does their behaviour mean?

Beware the psychopath boss

Their behaviour causes stress, burnout, thoughts of suicide, high absenteeism rates and physical illness

Beware the toxic narcissist

Their grandiosity masks insecurity and any perceived threat to their image leads to abuse in relationships

Ingonyama Trust Board moves to retrench staff

More than 50 workers at the Ingonyama Trust Board have been issued section 189 notices

Tito needs the IMF, South Africa doesn’t

The IMF loan is given with false motivation — to provide political cover for entrenched neoliberalism and deep cuts in the public service

No proof of Covid-19 reinfection, yet

Some people report testing positive for Covid-19 after initially having the disease and then testing negative. Scientists are still trying to understand if this means that reinfection is possible

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday