Contextual Practice Essay
White entitlement in the gated community; our relationship with violence shaped by politics and memory
Jacqui Chapman in conversation with Jonathan Wateridge: 16 January 2019
From a previously ‘blindfolded’ privileged position, I am beginning to understand a broader context beyond swimming pools and sprinklers, ‘blonde and innocent, shining with angelic light’ as J.M.Coetzee describes an escape from violence behind high walls ‘guarded by bulldogs’ in Age of Iron. (Coetzee,1990 p19). With this in mind, Jonathan Wateridge and I discuss our Sub-Saharan privilege and art practices which both deal with the subject of white entitlement within the garden wall. Wateridge grew up in Zambia, and me in South Africa. We have much in common; colonial inheritance for him, the apartheid struggle for me, finally leaving Africa for the UK. As we discuss our positions I realise I am objectively unpicking my subjective experience of apartheid during the height of oppression in the 1980’s in an attempt to understand the past for which I am guilty, and yet for the most part, typically blissfully unaware.
Politics and memory are entwined for us both and we are similarly interested in making work where politics is implicit rather than didactic. His large fabricated, constructed poolside paintings have an intentional sense of unease within daylight settings.
Jacqui Chapman – JC
Jonathan Wateridge – JW
JC – I was wondering how closely autobiographical your work is?
JW – I am less interested in my own biography, even although the Enclave paintings refer to my childhood garden in Zambia. I found my way to answer the biographical. I turn inward and deconstruct it and take apart that construct of what it is, from the inside out. I am more interested in the world around me. The way I have gone about making work, building sets, bringing actors in and staging the whole thing, part of this process was keeping everything removed. It’s about image construction and how images are generated and those ideas.
JC – Did Hockney’s Californian poolside paintings of the 1970’s feed into your poolside paintings as an aspirational idea of the suburban LA Pool? You mentioned unspoken zoning, gates and a similar climate.
JW – It felt familiar. After Hockney’s celebratory paintings I wanted rather more disquiet and doubt, a sense of daylight disquiet in mine, to rupture nostalgia.
JC – I am saying that politics disrupts utopia. It’s quite similar, the gated community, the enclave, the privileged space that is detached and a bit fake. I was aware of a criminal undercurrent almost at my back even in broad daylight when I returned to South Africa in May to research the impact of violence on society since the 1994 elections.
JW – Our point of experience is the every day. I like the interface between the personal and the political because that’s how we have to absorb the world. I am interested in the space where the personal, public and political meet, the idea of who has access to a space and ultimately who has access to opportunity.
Jonathan Wateridge, Enclave Series, (2016) Oil on canvas
JC – I noticed the Enclave paintings mostly deal with white subjects around a pool yet the recent work you sent me features almost entirely black subjects. Is this an intentional shift?
JW – Yes, I think the earlier work with the black African Swimmer, I wanted the idea of this single African figure moving through this space, and then it not being very clear as to if he is part of it, alongside these nostalgic comfortable images. Does he have full access to that space? Does he inhabit it with these people? These are questions I wanted to raise. And obviously this is based on the garden I first grew up in.
JC – I realised this, with that familiar brick wall.
JW – They were everywhere. The wall was the main motif that ran inside the environment that kept people out and secured affluence and comfort within it. The second half of it wanted to open up that space to other identities and in part is a wish fulfilment of the past, which wasn’t the case back in the 1970’s in Africa. These questions are still there with the Lilo paintings, with a raft subtext to them. The future is not secure in any shape or form.
Jonathan Wateridge, Night Lilo, 2018, Oil on canvas
JC – I read that you don’t like being considered a “realist” and that you are interested in film. In speaking about constructed realities you mentioned Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy in an interview.
JW – I am very interested in film. One of the things I struggled with in the past and found quite liberating last year is in changing the way I am painting and depicting things in terms of less and less realism, this allows me to have more of a direct engagement with cinematic language. When working more closely with realism, when things were backlit or looked too cinematic, it felt like the painting was never free from the cinematic. It felt like it was imitating cinema. I needed to light things in a painterly way, or in a blank way, from the front. Whereas now that I am dealing with things in a more expressive way, I am able to use more cinematic sources because I am doing enough with paint to take it away from that territory.
JC – I watched Antonioni’s 1960’s films on modernity and see why his approach to narrative and realism could influence painting: (L’Avventura 1960, La Notte 1961, L’Eclisse 1962). His use of composition to direct storytelling was innovative at the time. Your work gives me the same feeling as Peter Doig’s Canoe paintings, painted from a film clip of a moment in a narrative that is still but also unquiet.
JW – That pretty much sums up everything I would want a painting to do. I don’t make great claims of what a painting can do, but if it just does that I am pretty happy. Putting in a little inflection of insecurity makes you ask a few questions.
JC – Are you saying by taking a painterly interpretive position this creates painterly language freedom?
JW – Yes then the painterly language owns the image and controls it, rather than the other way around. First and foremost I am a painter, and I want paint to be a crucial aspect in terms of the way one engages with the work. Using the poetics of paint to generate meaning. The Night Lilo painting I sent you is a perfect example of that. You start off with a source image and it’s through the process of paint that you end up finding the image that you want to convey, rather than feeling however nicely you do it that you are illustrating an existing image, wanting to get away from painting as illustration.
JC – Avoiding sentimentality, but still using a personal lens, I am trying to find a way to paint the disquieting things, the unstill parallel worlds on either side of the wall in a narrative that bridges the political and the nostalgic, which your work does very well.
JW – Thank you. Especially with landscape, it’s difficult to navigate. One way of doing it is to deal with the issue of land reform in South Africa. This is massive. I think that relationship between landscape and ownership of it, because that does deal with both collective memory and personal memory, is very interesting territory. How you go about imaging that, I don’t know. If I knew, I would do it! I think that is interesting and would allow you a way in to dealing with the landscape of your youth and imagination and everything you grew up with, but also dealing with who has access to that land and who owns it, if there is a way of exploring that I think that is very rich territory.
JC – Those images; plants, animals, memories, place and space are verging on the sentimental, but if it is underpinned by loss due to politics I think this could be a way forward. I have been thinking about loss of land and identity for a long time. Land redistribution is currently a distressing area of political concern; 9% of white South Africans own 72% of the land. South Africa is in a state of crisis over how to redress the imbalance. Mandela promised 30% redistribution 25 years ago. So far, only 10 % has been addressed. The Zimbabwe farmer’s experience terrifies mostly Afrikaans South African farmers.
JW – I accept that we are a part of a growing diaspora from conflict, and thinking about other histories of violence, the holocaust for example, memory entwines with history.
JC – In the book I am reading Present Pasts by Andreas Huyssen, Urban Palimpsest and the Politics of Memory, (2003), he writes that “historical trauma has a unique power to generate works of art and the imagination as much as it has a tendency to vanish in the abyss of amnesia and wilful forgetting.” (Huysenn,, 2003 p 9). He suggests that we need to understand the past to enable us to imagine the future, but the “fear of oblivion and disappearance” seems to be more at risk in our media driven information explosion.
JW – In painting the past, the authority of the artist is interesting territory. Even among painters I admire, like Luc Tuymans, there’s occasional work that you could say he can’t really claim that. Some of his Second World War work is not his generation, nor his nation. There’s other work like Mwana Kitoko; Beautiful White Man, for the Belgian Pavilion of Patrice Lumumba, (2000) the first Prime Minister of Belgian Congo, who was assassinated and questions Belgium’s unspoken role in colonialism. Artists like Gerhardt Richter and Anselm Kiefer, who grew up in the war or aftermath, do have a genuine claim to the war and you as the viewer become your own editor and meaning generator when you go into a space and start making your own connections.
Luc Tuymans, Gas Chamber, 1986, 50 x 70 cm
JC – I think Tuymans handles difficult subjects like the holocaust sensitively, for example his small painting Gas Chamber is respectful. The burden of memory is “washed out, wrung out, or even bleached out. Pale and withdrawn from us.” (Glower, 2013) I have always felt that a genuine connection to a subject produces powerful work. Kiefer’s landscapes have struck me, not just in scale, but also in his painterly expressions of loss and destruction. They are emotional and psychological landscapes. I relate to living in a country where the political inheritance is abominable. South African right wing politics anchored its ideology on German racism. In 1995 rebuilding the nation through redemption using memory as witness began the healing through testimony in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many feel it is an incomplete process as only those perpetrators already identified, confessed. There is mistrust and anger still. It is a violent place to live; gated communities now comprise 15% of all properties.
Like Susan Sontag, Harvey Tyson ex-editor of The Star left wing Johannesburg newspaper, also believed that violent images have a time limit because shock wears off as images become familiar. Sontag thinks people choose not to see to protect themselves from what upsets them, being “habituated to horror”. She believes for engagement to happen we need to feel compassion and argues that there are two widespread ideas: Firstly, because we live in a society of spectacle the media controls which images we see thus making atrocities real. Secondly, over saturation of images makes us callous. Violence starts to become meaningless. (Sontag, 2003, p73, p90)
JW – If you address a particular issue then historically your work could potentially have a cease of function. But, because painting is old and has a lot of baggage it has a slightly side-ways look at issues if you are going to take them on. I like subtext to set up a series of questions or ideas that you can take or leave as you come to it as the viewer.
JC – I understand that apartheid could be seen as yesterday’s news, but it persists. In order to refresh these histories I am reading biographies that witness these events, like writer Mike Nicol who insists in The Waiting Country, A South African Witness, to understand our amnesiac attitude towards violence, we need to face the agony in detail. He describes a woman being ‘neck-laced’ by her husband. He was forced to strike the match that lit 3 petrol filled tyres around her neck in front of their children. This is violent crime so carnal and evil it’s impossible to erase from my memory. (Nicol 1995 p102)
JW – On one level we make images because we genuinely aesthetically enjoy the process. On the other hand it could be testament, paying witness to something, but I think painting is not a great journalistic medium. There are better more instant ways of reporting on the world now.
Juhan Kuus, White Border Farmers in the Northern Transvaal, 1985
JC – Thinking about Sontag and our need to distance ourselves from violence, did you know the far right Afrikaners created a whites-only Afrikaners-only ‘Volkstaat’. They believed that their way was morally right and ordained by God. They lived in commandos expecting full-scale civil war, which they believed they would win. All women learned self-defence and to shoot. I have chosen to use an image by Juhan Kuus, a photojournalist during apartheid, where the traditional icon of Madonna and Child is subverted.
JW – The proximity of violence, or the distancing of us from it, is also evident in Martha Rosler’s work Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful where images from Life magazine of the Vietnam War are collaged as a view from an American sitting room, bringing the distant war closer.
JC – Rosler forces us to rethink the boundaries between the social and the political particularly because this work shared space in a glossy magazine. She deals with the Iraq war in a similar vein, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, New Series (2004).
Martha Rosler, Cleaning the Drapes from the series House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home (1967-1972)
JW – In thinking about activist art, Kudzanai Chiurai, exiled himself to South Africa to avoid Zimbabwe’s prisons for a mural he painted criticising the Government.
JC – Similar to your concept, his recent work constructs photographic staged scenes from a colonial past using African people, but his combination of image with text in his paintings where he disjoints and isolates parts of the imagery within the composition, has made me think about text as image in my work. Fragmented memory operates like this, what is left out giving space for reflection, or a dislocation of separate recollections.
Kudzanai Chiurai, Tender, (2010) Oil on canvas, 160 x 200 x 5cm
Wateridge and my interest in telling these histories where politics and memory offer more questions than answers and a privileged escape comfortably couches our nostalgic voices as children of the African diaspora, the “poetics of paint” offer a new engagement. Huysenn writes, “Focus on trauma is legitimate where nations or groups of people are trying to come to terms with a history of violence suffered or violence perpetuated.” (Huyssen, 2003 p9). Sontag believes that people often feel the need to refresh their memories and many victim peoples want a memory museum. (Sontag, 2004 p78). In architect Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, he creates a zigzag building where at each intersection from the bottom to the top of the building there is a slice of empty space. It cannot be entered, only viewed from a series of small bridges that cross at these intersections, and which he calls the void. (Huyssen, 2003, p68) When the burden of memory escapes us, a gap for reflection may be more empathetic.
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