South Africa with all its contradictions is one of the countries well presented in the ARS 11 exhibition. For the South African artists Brett Bailey and Steven Cohen, politics and art are one. Both artists have brought skulls to Kiasma, although in very different ways.
South Africa is a country where traditional and modern, extreme poverty and wealth, black and white coexist. Apartheid lives on in the minds and hearts of the people, even though it was officially abolished in the 1990s. Historical periods intertwine with everyday life in many ways. Old rituals live on in the form of animal sacrifice in suburban settings and in initiations performed along motorways. Social diversity, conflicts and variety are also apparent in many South African artists’ way of thinking and creating art.
GIVING VOICE TO A SILENCED HISTORY
The ARS programme at Kiasma Theatre in the autumn will feature work by the South African theatre director Brett Bailey and the performance artist Steven Cohen. The latter also has a video piece on exhibit in the galleries.
There are surprisingly many common features in the work of these two South African artists. Both have provoked audiences with their live art at home as well as abroad. The work of both artists bridges the divide between visual and performance art, and has been exhibited all over the world.
Both artists belong to the generation of those born in the 1960s that grew up in white suburbia with very little contact with blacks. Each artist has severely criticised apartheid. They examine the not-so-flattering history of humanity with its oppression, racism and mass destruction. Both artists would also like to give a voice to those things and people who otherwise are not heard properly.
COHEN AND THE SKULLS OF CAPITALISM
In his performance video, Golgotha, Steven Cohen walks on Wall Street wearing high heels made of skulls. The work was inspired by skulls he found in an antique store in Soho. But on whose skulls is Cohen strutting on Wall Street?'
Golgotha can be seen as a comment on the amorality of trading and capitalist society where everything is for sale. On the other hand, the skulls can also be seen as an allusion to those who bear the brunt of the creation of wealth, those who pay the bill for capitalism without getting any of its benefits themselves. The thinking in the piece spans from African slaves imported into America to the exploited labour of today.
BAILEY’S SKULLS TELL ABOUT MASS DESTRUCTION
Brett Bailey brings skulls on stage in a performance and in photographs. Exhibit A is a performance installation in which skulls of the Nama people sing touching stories about the mass execution of the Nama and Herero peoples by the Germans in South-West Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The skulls were used as exhibits in Europe and pseudo-scientific studies were conducted on them. Germany returned 59 skulls to Namibia as late as 2010 after prolonged negotiations. Proof of the skulls and of the mass executions is found in photographs that used to be sold in stores specialising in colonial produce.
A few black-and-white photographs showing the heads of Nama men executed in 1906 are included in Exhibit A. There is also a workshop for Finnish immigrants associated with the work.
Brett Bailey: Exhibit A Premiere 6 October