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LEORA FARBER IS A JOHANNESBURG-BASED ARTIST. SHE TRAINED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF THE WITWATERSRAND, SOUTH AFRICA, OBTAINING HER M.A. FINE ART (CUM LAUDE) IN 1992. SHE CURRENTLY WORKS AS A SENIOR LECTURER IN THE DEPARTMENT OF FINE ARTS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF JOHANNESBURG, SPECIALIZING IN POSTGRADUATE SUPERVISION AND RESEARCH.
This paper explores ways in which difference is grafted into/onto skin, with reference to a selected series of photographic prints. These prints form part of a larger body of artwork and an educational program and research project, titled Dis-location/Re-location. The project investigates personalized postcolonial identity through reference to colonialism, geographies, histories, political positions, and cultural affi liations. Artwork is used as a space within which to interrogate personal and collective relationships to South African British colonial history and its current personal and public residues of identity construction within the context of postcolonial, post-apartheid South Africa. In the artwork, skin forms a fi gurative and metaphorical site of intervention for the grafting of tensions, ambiguities, and differences in the formation of new hybrid, transforming conceptions of personal and collective identity formations.
> DIS-LOCATION/RE-LOCATION: "IMPLANTING AFRICA"
Grafting, as the insertion of diverse material/s sewn into/ onto skin to produce an indissoluble union and new hybrid formation, forms a material and conceptual thread running through my work. Thread itself – with its multilayered associations of needlecraft, labor, femininity, and surgical suture – becomes a refrain as that which pierces, joins, constrains, and grafts skin. Skin, in its complex relation to various controlling political trajectories and regimes, is materially and metaphorically evoked as a site for grafting hybrid, transforming conceptions of contemporary, primarily South African, gender and postcolonial identities. This paper explores ways in which difference is grafted into/onto skin, using thread as metaphor and material, stitch and suture, with reference to a selected series of photographic prints. Graft as “labor”(1) is also pertinent here, with its implications of cultivation, time, and material investment. The grafting of diverse materials and cultural signifiers into/onto skin is envisioned to allow for new, personalized conceptions of gender and postcolonial identities.
Stuart Hall proposes a theorization of identity as “a form of representation which is able to constitute us as new kinds of subjects, and thereby enable us to discover places from which to speak” (Hall cited in Ang 1999: 544). The politics of self-representation as Hall sees it reside not in the establishment of a stable, defi nitive identity in the modernist sense, but in its use as a strategy to open up avenues for new speaking trajectories. As transforming conceptions of South African identities (individual and collective) are so relevant to our post-1994 democracy, it seems pertinent to use my body through self-representation in a way that allows for the visual articulation of a new hybridity. Metaphorically played out into and onto skin, hybridity is explored in current work such as the series of photographs titled “Implanting Africa” (2004).
Produced in collaboration with the South African fashion and design team Strangelove,(2) comprising Carlo Gibson and Ziemek Pater, these works(3) form part of a major three-year collaborative project, titled Dis-location/Re-location, the fulcrum of which is a national traveling exhibition to begin touring in early 2007. Whilst expanding upon concerns previously central to my work such as the construction of gender identity, these works introduce issues predominant in the South African and global art world, such as an investigation of personalized postcolonial identity through reference to colonialism, geographies, histories, political positions, and cultural affiliations. We use the work as a space in which to interrogate our relationships to, and my identification with, South African British colonial history and its current personal and public residues of identity construction. This is achieved through negotiation of my identity as a white, middle-class Jewish female of British descent, living in a Pan-African, postcolonial environment such as Johannesburg. Being second-generation South Africans of immigrant descent (Italian and Polish respectively), Gibson and Pater share my feelings of “displacement” in relation to Johannesburg and identify with my need to “renegotiate” a sense of South African identity. Much of their design practice grapples with these issues, as embodied in a particular range of their clothing drawn upon by the work. This range grafts together Victorian dress conventions (e.g., corsets, wide skirts), African elements (e.g., tanned cowhide), and contemporary materials (e.g., parachute fabric) to produce a uniquely hybrid style.
The work aims to destabilize assumptions regarding cultural purity and authenticity. Such destabilization happens through contamination: “differences that have been brought together so that they make contact” (Tostevin cited in Brydon 1995: 136). In this series, residues of British and Jewish ancestry are grafted together with current influences from the Pan-African, postcolonial environment in which we live and work.
This series was shot in the grounds of the period, Victorian Sammy Marks Museum, Pretoria – a site that has visual and conceptual links to the content of the work. Sammy Marks”(4) background as an immigrant Jew from Lithuania correlates with my personal background. His humble beginnings as a peddler may be likened to that of my grandparents, who, as Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, made a new life in South Africa, beginning as general dealers. Further, his immigrant status parallels broader postcolonial concerns of the Diasporic immigrant and migrant communities that form part of the broader Pan-African, polyglot South African society.
Using my image as a metonym for myself and Bertha Guttmann – a Jewess brought to South Africa from Sheffield to enter into an arranged marriage with Marks – the work references South African Victorian colonialism, yet locates this referent within the present, signified by the plastic fabric of the skirt and my short, boyish haircut. Whilst Bertha’s experience was a colonial one, which attempted to retain Anglicized customs, morals, behaviors, and values combined with a reestablishment of these in terms considered applicable to an alienating environment, my experience is postcolonial. A starting point is the conception that all identities are hybrid – necessitating understanding and questioning as well as representation of historical placement – and that they are constructed through multiplicity and difference. My habitation of this “transitional space” may be linked to Homi Bhabha’s (cited in Christian 2001: 116) conception of the “third space”, i.e., that which “enables other positions to emerge . . . displaces the histories that constitute it, and sets up new structures of authority, new political initiatives, which are inadequately understood through received wisdom.” This “third space” allows for unpredictable outcomes to emerge from the grafting of diverse materials and cultures, giving rise to new identity formulations. Implicit in my understanding of the term is the emergence, or “coming into being,” of unscripted formations of expressions, positions, and production.
Figure 3 - Implanting Africa
Bhabha’s description of the interface between cultures as “those “in-between” spaces that provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of self-hood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, in the act of defining the idea of society itself” (1994: 1, 2) encapsulates the possibilities in hybrid, transforming conceptions of contemporary South African identity. Constituents of South African identity in the work are thus polyglot and complex, and aligned with issues of space – personal, cultural or/and geographic – implicating issues of belonging (or not) and displacement. “Self” and “other” become negotiated spaces through investigations of sameness and difference/foreign and familiar, embodied in, contingent upon, and subject to the flux and transition of society and the self as an individual within contemporary South African society.
In the first image of this series, I/Bertha, dressed in Strangelove’s Victorian-/African-style clothing, is seated in the formal rose garden, originally laid out by Bertha. I/she is represented as engaged in needlework activities, considered as “women’s work” in the Victorian era and as a signifier of ideal “femininity,” with its associations of passivity and docility through labor. Labor here is turned inward onto the self – through the use of theatrical make-up techniques, I/she appears to be working onto my/her skin instead of fabric. These activities are metonyms for my attempts, as a South African white woman with English affiliations, to negotiate a sense of being “African” within a postcolonial environment. I/Bertha sews onto herself not the conventional forms of embroidery traditionally expected of a Victorian lady but other images that convey a sense of embodied “African” identity. In this case, I/she “plants” a seedling aloe plant (indigenous to South Africa) into my/her forearm, having chosen this specimen from a variety of seedling aloes contained in my/her sewing box. Surrounded by the “niceties” of colonial Victorianism, I/she attempts to graft “Africa” metaphorically into my/her pale, Anglicized body. The gentle politeness of the needlecraft action, executed in the pleasantries of my/her surroundings, is undermined by the horror of self-violation.
Figure 4 - Implanting Africa
In the second image of the series, I/she is shown sleeping in a grove of large aloe plants, which threaten to engulf the fi gure. The aloe has taken root in the body; its stem has extended; new leaves have sprouted. Particular emphasis is placed on making it appear as if the plant is growing under the skin, marking my/her hybrid identity as “embodied.” The third panel shows me/her seated in the African veld.(5) Bereft of “civilizing” accessories (gloves, shoes), staring into the golden sunset, I/she appears “displaced” in this landscape. The aloe has matured, now comprising a full crown of leaves and roots, which appear to sprout from my/her wrist, signifying my/her transitional status. Set within the timeframe of a day (signified by my/her actions of taking morning tea, an afternoon nap, and a sunset walk in the respective images as well as the accompanying light changes), the aloes’ growth in the series is accelerated, visually fast-forwarding the implied contamination and acculturation processes.
Horticulturally, a graft’s purpose is to cultivate new orders, through actions of cutting, severing, transplanting, and attaching different things to and from each other. Likewise, “hybridity” began as a bio logical term used to describe the outcomes of crossing two plants or species, possibly as the result of grafting. Commonly used in post colonial discourse to describe a range of social and cultural borrowings, exchanges, and intersections across ethnic boundaries as well as the emergence of new cultural forms that might ensue from such mixes, these terms reference both biological and cultural “merging” in this work. Colin Richard’s (1997: 234) use of the term “graft”(6) seems particularly pertinent to the foregrounding of hybridity through the co-joining of skin and plant as organic materials in this series:
Before contact, a “graft” involves cutting. The cut is not simply a boundary . . . but a deep, even traumatic incision, an inscription. In cutting into and across “difference”, “graft” enjoins the discourse of “hybridity” without disavowing the violence and desire which underpins cultural fusion.
As Richards (1997: 234) notes, “graft” requires contact and exchange – interactions that commonly intersect across difference. The colonialists imported plant specimens to be grown in local soil, which were often unsuited to the local climate and conditions. They also grafted these imports onto indigenous plant forms, producing new hybrids. Metaphorically, they attempted to graft a version of their culture – its laws, values, morals, codes of conduct – onto their new environment and, in certain cases, its indigenous peoples, just as the colonizers themselves were physically grafted onto an alien land.
Richards (1997: 235) continues that grafts are “also about disfigurations, cultural error, the sometimes violent aesthetic of the imperfect fit . . . [they] can seem monstrous misfits attesting to the effects of our most well-intentioned ‘cross cultural’ contacts.”
In the “Implanting Africa” series, my skin is the site of grotesque disfiguration – the violence of the plant’s implied growth is the product of a self-initiated violent action of cutting and insertion, arising from a desire to integrate or “belong,” yet it ultimately becomes a metaphor for cultural contamination and contestation. As foreign to the body, the aloe plant signifies insertion of an alien culture, which takes root and disfigures the body through its forceful growth under the skin, turning I/Bertha into something akin to a “monstrous misfit.” Such bodily violation implies not only physical but also psychical trauma inherent in the acculturation and contamination processes.
Styling choices are based on a re-creation of colonial imagery, in certain instances loosely referencing selected photographic poses, framing, lighting, and the sensibility of the Victorian era.(7) We adopt these styling choices in an attempt to show how, as Richards observes (1997: 235), grafts can succeed in demonstrating a “rootedness in ‘cross-cultural’ fantasies often grounded in . . . colonial imagery”. However, we decided not to employ image-manipulation techniques such as sepia or pastel hand-tinted coloring, choosing rather to reproduce the images as full-color prints, as a further means of locating colonial imagery and representational conventions within a contemporary framework. The Victorian sensibility often tended toward sweet sentimentality. Whilst consciously re-creating this “chocolate-box” sweetness, we intend to simultaneously disrupt it through representation of visceral intervention into/onto the skin, possibly provoking a mix of attraction (beauty) and repulsion (horror) for the viewer.
Certain other contemporary artists have explored the visual, technical, and conceptual potential of grafting organic material onto the body (and the arm in particular); perhaps most notably the Australian artist, Stelarc, who is well-known for his work that combines science, technology, biology, and art. In realizing his ¼ Scale Ear Project (2003) Stelarc initially worked with SIAL8 researchers to develop a three-dimensional model of a “third” ear, envisioned to be grown onto his arm. Three-dimensional SIAL laser scanners were used to scan his ear and arm to create models. The models were subsequently merged and mapped with skin textures, before being printed out in 3D with the SIAL 3D Wax Printer (Stelarc n.d.). Thereafter, in collaboration with the Tissue Culture and Art Project,9 he succeeded in growing a quarter-scale replica of his ear using human and mouse cells. Cultivation in a rotating microgravity bioreactor allows the cells to grow three-dimensionally (Stelarc 2003). The cells are kept in a sterile covering, requiring nutrients every three to four days. Ultimately, the ear could be grown using Stelarc’s bone marrow cells, before being inserted beneath the skin on his arm (Stelarc 2003). These proposed grafts into/onto skin differ from those referenced in the “Implanting Africa” series, in that they propose an actual merging of skin cells. In our series, the graft and its resulting hybrid formations are simulacra – illusionistic re-creations of a metaphorical process created through artistic make-up techniques and materials. Similarly, physical/psychical pain is visually evoked yet not experienced. Conceptually, a critical difference is that Stelarc’s work attempts to graft (his) body with like, i.e., with its own skin cells, to create an apparently seamless combination. In the “Implanting Africa” series, emphasis is on contact and subsequent combination of difference through processes that imply bodily violation, disfi guration, and pain.
By grafting dualities of resistance and submission, I am attempt ing to recontextualize issues of bodily control, i.e., to place these in a South African context whilst asserting their continuing importance to Western feminism. Whilst the abject body may be considered to have been “done” to the point of cliché during the 1990s, to me, skin still seems to hold currency in South African terms. Given the historical legacy of skin as determinant of privilege/inferiority within the South African body politic, skin, and particularly skin color, forms a fulcrum around which South African identities are constructed. Encouraged by a constitution that upholds and protects individual liberties and promotes freedom from discrimination on a number of grounds, including race, gender, and sexual orientation, for me, skin forms a figurative and metaphorical site of intervention in the exploration of gender and postcolonial identities. Co-joined by thread as material and metaphorical stitch and suture, skin becomes a site for the grafting of tensions, ambiguities, and differences in the formation of new hybrid, transforming conceptions of personal and collective identity formations.
1. Commonly associated with labor, graft is also South African slang for “hard work.”
2. As a collaborative team, Gibson, Pater, and myself will hereafter be referred to as “we.”
3. The exhibition will travel to six South African National Galleries, chosen for their historical neocolonial associations, and will be accompanied by numerous outputs such as a catalog publication, journal articles, and an educational program aimed at primary, secondary, and tertiary learners in each venue.
4. Sammy Marks arrived penniless in South Africa in 1868. He made his fortune through diamond dealing, thereafter expanding his business ventures into other fields. He subsequently became a leading businessman and industrialist in the Pretoria region of the South African Republic.
5. Veld: South African colloquial term for the bush; Afrikaans in origin. This term could describe many varieties of South African landscape – in this instance, effort was made to locate the shoot in a site that epitomized a dry, uninhabited yellow grass scape, common to the Gauteng province in which Johannesburg and Pretoria are located. This contrasts with the rose garden, which represents a colonial formalizing and cultivation of nature.
6. “Graft” is the title of an article and an exhibition of the same name, authored and curated by Richards as part of Traderoutes: History and Geography (1997).
7. With each photographic series, we will set up a formal portrait shot with the fi gure posed in a stiff, frontal position. This pose is to be repeated each time despite changes in environment and make-up simulations. These works will be hung together as a single work on exhibition.
8. Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory.
9. The Tissue Culture and Art Project was founded by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr. Catts is an artist and researcher who uses living tissue as a medium and is the Artistic Director of SymbioticA: The Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory at the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, University of Western Australia. It is a research laboratory dedicated to the exploration of how tissue engineering, amongst other biological technologies, can be used by artists. Zurr is a biological artist who has participated in an artist’s residency at SymbioticA (The Tissue Culture & Art Project n.d.).
Ang, I. 1999. “On Not Speaking Chinese: Postmodern Ethnicity and the Politics of Diaspora.” In M. Schiach (ed.) Feminism and Cultural Studies, pp. 540–64. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bhabha, H.J. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.
Brydon, D. 1995. “The White Inuit Speaks: Contamination as Literary Strategy.” In B. Ashcroft, G. Griffi ths and H. Tiffin (eds) The Postcolonial Studies Reader, pp. 136–42. London: Routledge.
Christian, M. 2001. Multiracial Identity: An International Perspective. London: Macmillan.
Richards, C. 1997. “Graft.” In O. Enwezor Traderoutes: History and Geography, pp. 234–70. Johannesburg: Metropolitan Council and the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.
Stelarc. 2003. ¼ Scare Ear Project. http://www.stelarc.va.com.au/quarterear/earanim accessed June 15, 2004.
Stelarc. n.d. Tissue, Culture and Art, Clemenger Contemporary Art Award.
http://www.sial.rmit.edu.au/Projects/stelarc_Tissue_Culture_and_Art.php accessed June 15, 2004.
The Tissue Culture and Art Project in Collaboration with Stelarc. n.d. Semi-living Extra Ear ¼ Scale. http://www.eaf.asn.au/biotech/tca.html accessed June 15, 2004.