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In ancient Latin, persona meant ‘mask’. Today its meaning is not that literal, but refers to the ‘social masks’ individuals choose to portray versions of themselves. These personas are selected according to the desired impression the individual wishes to create when interacting with other people. People see themselves differently from how they see others, and the personas presented vary according to the individual’s social environment.
In As you like it, Shakespeare expresses his view of this human condition in one of his most famous phrases:
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…
In their 1981 song Limelight, the Canadian rock band, Rush, interpreted this phrase into their twentieth century version:
All the world’s indeed a stage,
And we are merely players:
Performers and portrayers,
Each another’s audience,
Outside the gilded cage.
Most of us are deeply driven by our sense of identity. We categorize ourselves, and others, according to religion, culture, skin colour, language, profession and whatever else we believe separates us – putting each other in ‘boxes’. Although we broadly define ourselves by our membership of such groups, we also define ourselves by comparison and contrast with others, even when our experience of others is predominantly based on external observations.
Sanell Aggenbach explores this pre-occupation with appearance in What a lovely afternoon; essentially a ‘non-portrait’, where a group of women are portrayed wearing paper bags over their heads. Her reference for this painting was an American photograph from the 1950s, and it challenges our predominantly visual approach when interacting socially – usually based purely on appearance and ‘skin deep’ qualities.
These fascinating human characteristics regulating personal interaction offer a rich study field for psycho-analysts and artists alike. Contemporary portrait painting has thus evolved beyond the historical memorialization of the rich and powerful, the sentiment of ancestral records, or the anthropological documentation of exotic tribes.
The five Duggan-Cronin photographs included in this exhibition were taken during the 1930s and it could be argued that they are, strictly speaking, not necessarily works of art. They are, however, a fascinating example of the categorization of one group of society by another. Michael Godby, Professor of History of Art at the University of Cape Town, published a paper which investigated the original context of Duggan-Cronin’s body of work in political, anthropological and aesthetic terms. He writes:
… Duggan-Cronin may be shown to have constructed his photographs of African subjects in certain ways apparently to create a specific image of Africa that had obvious political connotations. This primitivising image made a forceful contribution to the ‘Native Question’, which was the most important single issue of South African politics of the midtwentieth century. However, given the openness of visual communication, on the one hand, and change in political circumstances, on the other, the Duggan-Cronin photographs show that, over time, the same image can serve apparently quite contradictory purposes.
The aesthetic context of Duggan-Cronin’s project may best be understood as two separate but overlapping photographic ideas. On the one hand, the photographs are clearly created as self-consciously aesthetic objects, and;
On the other hand, Duggan-Cronin clearly imposed an aesthetic frame onto his ethnographical subjects.
Duggan-Cronin used the elements of his art to create images of a society that was evidently present in front of the camera, yet simultaneously both past and distant.
One of South Africa’s earliest black painters, Gerard Bhengu, started his artistic career with a commission to paint studies of the various Zulu face markings from 1926 to 1931 for Dr Max Kohler’s anthropological research. These illustrations were published in Marriage Customs in Southern Natal (1933) and The Izangoma Diviners (1941). The examples of his work included in this exhibition were done much later, by which stage the artist had moved beyond the anthropological aspect of portrait painting to capturing the personas of his fellow countrymen.
George Pemba’s career spanned six decades from the 1940s to 2001, and his paintings provide a visual history of what he had witnessed in a dramatically transforming South Africa. Working mostly in isolation, he established himself as a pioneer of social realism, taking his inspiration from the realities and struggles of urban black people’s everyday lives in a troubled country. Of the four portraits by Pemba included in this exhibition, two are of traditional Xhosa personae, one of a young urban girl carrying firewood, and the fourth is a double portrait of Sol Plaatje. Plaatje (1876-1932) was a journalist, editor, human rights campaigner, politician, novelist and translator at the turn of the 19th century – one of the most gifted and versatile black South Africans of his generation. He devoted his many talents to one overriding cause; the struggle of the African people against injustice and dispossession, becoming the first General Corresponding Secretary of the South African Native National Congress when it was formed in 1912.
The works of Gerard Sekoto, Peter Clarke, Ezrom Legae and Dumile Feni capture the mixed emotions of these black artists under the unjust socio-political system during the 1950s and ’60s. Sekoto’s Choir singers is a nostalgic and somewhat sentimental work painted from memory while in exile. It is most likely based on his childhood memories growing up on the Botshabelo mission station, and speaks of fond memories but also of loss – a time and a country he would never experience again. His Brown head, however, stands in stark contrast with this vulnerable mood, projecting a bold and monumental presence; brimming with confidence and pride – probably inspired by the many African countries gaining their independence from the colonial powers at the time. Clarke’s Lonely Child and Feni’s bronze, Anguished woman, similarly speak of pain and suffering, while Legae’s Young man beams with pride and confidence – virtually shouting: Black is beautiful!.
Portraits of the family or friends of an artist will usually have an added sense of endearment and compassion because of the close bond between painter and subject. Maggie Laubser’s portrait of her dear friend Bosman di Ravelli is a telling example of such a work, and when viewing Maud Sumner’s Poet, one also gets the distinct feeling that the subject must be somebody she knew, understood and admired. Peter Eastman’s very abstracted, minimalist portraits of two artist friends, Pieter and Sarah – both photographers – confirm how well he knows and understands them, requiring only a few lines to define their personas. Pieter Hugo, the subject in one of Peter Eastman’s portraits, explores this notion of closeness on a different level with his photograph of Dayaba Usman with the monkey Clear, taken in Abuja, Nigeria. It highlights the fact that man’s underlying primal qualities may have a much greater influence on his behaviour – and persona – than we would like to admit.
The examples of dashing young men by Christo Coetzee, Cecil Higgs and Alexis Preller are each of very different personae, but are all filled with youthful confidence and the promise of a bright future. Preller’s portrait of his lover, Guna, offers a classical side profile reminiscent of the busts and reliefs of Roman emperors – obviously painted with great affection and adoration.
Cecil Skotnes’ seminal influences were the art of the ancient cultures, and Cubism from the Modern era, but it was the masks and woodcarvings of African tribesmen which he recognised as a direct expression of the African environment. Skotnes’ carved portraits symbolically express his contemporary experience of mankind, as is evident in the two works included in this exhibition; one a complex starry eyed persona, and the other confident, bold and radiant.
Referring to Skotnes’ iconography in his visualisation of archetypes, Frieda Harmsen notes: It is soon evident that the strange homanoid creatures with their feinting and posturing are vehicles of the ironic Skotnes paradox in which the eternal mystery of the human psyche is countered by humour and ridicule. Such ambiguity always intrigued Skotnes. He endeavored to probe and understand the fundamental character of humankind, but simultaneously he encountered flippancy and fickleness, grandiose ambitions and feeble achievements, venerable idealism and tragic failure.
Contemporary artists, including William Kentridge, Marlene Dumas and Georgina Gratrix, often utilise the portrayal of humanity to deal with political and social themes from a personal and, at times, autobiographical point of view. Dumas uses different personae to critique contemporary ideas of racial, sexual, and social identity. She often manages to capture her human subjects in their own moment in history, stating: I still believe in the Socratic dialogue. Art is really something that you learn from being around people. Her approach is illustrated very successfully by both works included in this exhibition; Barbie (with pearl necklace) and A young Nelson Mandela – the latter inscribed with the question: Would you trust this man with your daughter?
Gratrix’s portraits range from socialite ‘cover-girls’, where she examines the cult of celebrity, to the re-mixing of Old Masters. She challenges the aesthetic hierarchies within art history in her Woman Wallpaper series by translating famous paintings of women by Modern icons, such as Picasso (Les Demoiselles), Manet (Olympia) and De Kooning (Woman V), into stripes. Commenting on the more serious nature of these paintings, she said: Yes, they were quite a lot more calculated ….I wanted to make a painting that was completely banal on one level – to be wallpaper – but also incredibly funny and angry a little too. Her reply also hints at her desire to tease these sacrosanct masters for objectifying women in such a chauvinistic fashion, by deconstructing their masterpieces.
In Kentridge’s series of nine short films, of which Felix in Exile is the fifth, he introduces two characters or personas – Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum. They depict the emotional and political struggle endured by many South Africans during the pre-democracy era, while specifically highlighting some of the inner conflicts of white South Africans.
The injustices inflicted by the political and ideological dominants of a population are similarly commented on by David Brown in the series of bronze sculptures titled Eleven Deadly Sinners. Inspired by Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag: a history, Brown comments: I made the Engine Driver, struck by the harrowing train journey to the forced labour camps. I wondered what the train drivers must have thought.
This series developed further around the concept of complicity by the sometimes seemingly innocent participants who individually and collectively helped maintain the status quo of this unjust system.
In the same vein, Brett Murray’s diptych, titled I am an African too, offers a satirical approach, although quite different from that of a political cartoonist. This work formed part of an exhibition titled Crocodile Tears which looked at the African Renaissance ideologies of the Mbeki era, and refers directly to his I am an African speech. It comments specifically on Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy regarding the political catastrophe that was developing in Zimbabwe under Mugabe.
The arts writer Amanda Botha observes that people were always important to Marjorie Wallace, but she never had a voyeur’s approach. She lived alongside the people in her paintings… her lasting contribution is her cultural-historical record of work on the marginalised people in society. Wallace captures the misery and desperation of poverty with much empathy in Mother and children. The exhausted mother figure watches over seven children – seemingly not all hers by birth, but her responsibility nevertheless.
Self-portraits offer a unique view into the psyches, personalities, emotions, and lives of artists, as they are forced to study their own personas – both physically and emotionally. In her dissertation titled The exploration of Self: What artists find when they search in the mirror, Jeanne Ivy writes: For all artists, the self-portrait is an exploration, an opportunity to see beyond the image in the mirror and begin to search into the soul.
Although artists may attempt to capture their identities in selfportraits, most will show only what they want us to see, while some may reveal personal secrets. Self-portraits regularly reveal complicated psychological insights into the inner state and well-being of an artist. A good example was Pablo Picasso, who throughout his long career often used self-portraits to depict himself in the many different guises, disguises and incarnations of his autobiographical artistic persona. Another famous self-portraitist who struggled to accept many of his personal afflictions, Vincent van Gogh, painted himself thirty-seven times in just four years.
There are 8 self-portraits of 7 artists included in this exhibition – JH Pierneef is represented by the only two linocut self-portraits he ever produced. Robert Hodgins’ self-portrait is very aptly titled An old man remembering, and Gregoire Boonzaier’s is inscribed on its back with the telling message: An hour’s sketch! + a lifetime’s struggle!. Marjorie Wallace’s self-portrait at age 70 captures her playing ‘Patience’ on her sunlit back stoep – evidence of the peaceful rural lifestyle she and her husband Jan Rabie enjoyed in the sea-side village of Onrus/Vermont towards the end of their lives.
One of the more innovative self-portraits is Sanell Aggenbach’s painting titled Sonic Baby, for which an X-ray of herself with headphones served as a reference – it depicts how she typically likes to paint while listening to her favourite music. Walter Meyer’s unintended and conceptual self-portrait shows his shadow precariously balancing a composition of late afternoon sunlight and shadows against a wintery Kalahari hillside. The artist’s triangular shadow anchors the metaphorical aspects of light and darkness; the yin and yang of the persona – typically a continuous struggle for all of mankind.
Marc Stanes’ striking photograph of Nelson Mandela on Cecil John Rhodes’ chair with the bust of Alfred Beit in the window, was photographed in the Beit Room at Rhodes House in Oxford. Madiba’s regal persona fittingly overpowers the setting as he most likely would have experienced a sense of triumph over the colonial raider who was the architect of many discriminatory laws and policies in his native land.
Famous musicians, authors, and artists usually have large followings, and not surprisingly, many fine artists will often paint portraits of their idols. Joshua Miles knew and admired Marjorie Wallace and Jan Rabie, and captures a quirky Marjorie in her studio with much warmth in his mono-chromatic reduction woodcut. Although Cobus van Bosch never met Alexis Preller, Trevor Mancoba or Fred Page, his sincere, painterly portraits of these revered fellow artists speak of understanding and empathy – as only somebody who has to deal with the same questions, doubts and challenges can portray. Ceramic artist Hennie Meyer created a series of complex portraits inside three-dimensional ceramic frames. Three of these – Maria Callas, Francis Bacon and Virginia Woolf – form a part of this exhibition. Each work has either a naught or a cross as an overlay – could the artist be hinting at a game of sorts with the women displayed inside the naughts and the men crossed out?
The two sculptures titled The lookout and Lesson learnt by Jaco Sieberhagen and Zach Taljaard respectively, both comment on the caring for, and protection of children and the vulnerable members of society. About the boy in a cement suit, Taljaard comments:
We protectively build ourselves in behind cement walls for fear of violent intrusion by man and nature. Although these protective layers are an instant solution and create a feeling of safety, they become a personal burden to us, and especially to those who will follow. These protective measures not only weigh us down mentally, but also alienate us from our immediate environment and the people around us. The suit, reminiscent of a space exploration suit, however, also celebrates those vulnerable individuals who are brave enough to break down the borders and explore ‘alien’ environments in search of personal growth.
Richard Mudariki’s painting, The dog anatomy lesson, is a fitting end piece in the catalogue, as it reflects on many of the issues investigated by other works included in this exhibition. This work was inspired by the famous 1632 oil painting by Rembrandt, titled The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, in which Dr Tulp, as official City Anatomist, explains the musculature of the arm to medical professionals of the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons. The concept of dissecting a subject in an effort to learn and understand more of its functions, becomes a metaphor for the suits, or those in charge, analysing their constituency in a dog-eat-dog world. There is, however, a striking difference here – the marked-up dog subject is alive and well, challenging its audience of dog-like personae. A possible interpretation of this scenario could be the analysis of society by the ruling elite in an effort to determine the best strategy to divide and rule.
The idea for an exhibition of this nature has fascinated me for a number of years, and it is has been an exciting process to bring it to fruition. As this diverse collection of works was discovered and collected over the last few years, the complexity of the concept of personae became much more intriguing. It was with regret that we had to set the deadline, as it would be almost impossible to find many of these works available again. I trust that most art lovers and collectors will find a number of works that will intrigue them and provide them with some cerebral gymnastics.