Tracey Rose: Comical, cynical, carnivalesque

South Africa is a nation that is addicted to hope. Hope and heroes, or rather, Messianic figures. Not so long ago it was Madiba, then we had a whole slew of them including Julius Malema and most recently Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini. 

Ours is a world that oscillates violently between naïve optimism and blinding rage. There is no greater illustration of this than the insurrection that erupted in July 2021 after the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma. 

The history of art, literature and performance provides us with many instances where, after or during traumatic events, artists reflect on the absurdity of life. 

I have often described Tracey Rose’s work as carnivalesque. Carnivals in formerly enslaved communities reflect a history where slaves mocked masters in performances such as the cake walk. Similarly, the Dadaist and Absurdist movements emerged in Europe after the trauma suffered by Europe in the two World Wars. 

In 2011 a Swiss-American curator, Renaud Proch, and I cocurated probably the first survey exhibition of Trace Rose in a South African museum. It was during this encounter that I first realised: the work of Tracey Rose is the medicine we didn’t know we needed. 

What happens when you strip the world of its illusions? You end up in the world of Rose’s often comical, sometimes nightmarish, dystopian artistic expression.

One of the works that was featured on the show was The Cockpit (2008). It is a performance consisting of a series of scenes containing a motley crew of characters: there is a jester, a policeman, a naval officer, and a British soldier in uniform, complete with a red coat and busby hat. Others characters are portrayed by men in drag. One character resembles a Hollywood-inspired Jesus, and another is a robot, similar perhaps to the Tin Man from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). In this scene the camera pans to the side and focuses on a bearded white man in white robes and is wreathed in heart-shaped stage lights in a manner that suggests he is some kind of deity. His appearance solicits exuberance from the other characters. However, the scene soon turns ugly as the characters jeer at this God-like figure and proceed to “necklace” him. 

Considering the often raw commentary in Rose’s artworks another archetype comes to mind. The cynic. Contrary to everyday use of the word, to say that someone is a cynic does not mean they are a passive, disinterested observer. 

The cynic is perhaps more than anyone the most dedicated to the attainment of that most elusive of human endeavours: freedom. The cynic understands that whatever else freedom might mean, the one trait that is antithetical to the pursuit of freedom is wilful ignorance and self-deception. The job of the cynic is to strip humanity of these enemies of freedom. It is a thankless task because the thing that unites the oppressor and the oppressed alike are reassuring lies. 

This figure has appeared in many different guises in different contexts: as Diogenes in Greek history, as the lunatic or drunkard in many an African novel, or in some cases as a child, as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland or Ben Okri’s The Famished Road or, closer to home, Azure in K Sello Duiker’s Thirteen Cents. In popular culture this figure could be S’dumo, Joe Mafela’s character in the 1990s sitcom S’gudi S’nice. Often the figure is an outsider or outcast but for that same reason is able to diagnose what ails society without prejudice, malice or desire for personal gain. 

Many artists purport to live up to that figure but fail dismally because whatever critical edge they might have is blunted by their ego, narcissism and a paradoxical desire to be recognised by the very society they seek to critique.

To a cynic, the question of whether the glass is half full or half empty is irrelevant. The cynic sees the glass as permanently poisoned. The job of the cynic is to strip the world of its illusions. It is a thankless job but one that is most desperately needed in times where the world is littered with would-be saviours. 

Rose shines a blinding spotlight on the excesses of power.

In 2005 Rose did a performance titled San Pedro V: The Hope I Hope. It was staged at Jerusalem’s Western Wall separating Israelis from Palestinians. In it Rose is topless wearing a wig, her face painted in blackface, and in fishnet stockings and a pair of leopard-print underwear. During the performance Rose plays the Israeli national anthem, the Hatikvah, on a broken guitar and finishes the performance by urinating on the so-called apartheid wall. This performance is interesting because, rather than take the social-realist method of critique that one often sees in photojournalism, Rose’s approach is to show the fragility of power by mocking it and rendering it impotent. 

Sometimes Rose’s acerbic commentary is directed at the art world elite, such as in the performance lecture The Cant Show which was a critique of the absence of women of colour from the Global Feminisms exhibition that was held in the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2007. Among the targets of her performance was the curator of the exhibition Linda Lochlin.

Rose’s work has evolved quite dramatically over the decades of her practice. While some of her more earlier work tended to focus on peeling the layers of identity politics in South Africa, in particular coloured identity, her work proceeded to challenge the hegemony of narratives and myths in society, including Judeo-Christian narratives such as Lucie’s Fur: The Prelude (2004) and Waiting For God (2011). In the wake of 9/11 she did a performance dressed like a cheerleader where she chanted “I Love Islam”.

It is not that Rose is necessarily telling us something we do not already know. From the absurdity of politicians wearing red overalls over Gucci and Louis Vuitton in parliament to people drinking petrol believing that it can be turned into orange juice, we have witnessed absurdity every single day in our streets and on our TV screens. What Tracey Rose does instead is to disabuse us of the notion that my buffoon is better than yours.

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