White Like Me

by Robyn Sassen

18 June 2003


Black, white, indifferent: the discourse remains thick with emotion, ever since colonialism, basically. In South African visual culture, for the years from 1948 through the 1960s, the potency of this categorisation was hot on everyone’s lips but not necessarily on anyone’s canvases, as it was punishably illegal to be seen to act subversively.

But local baby boomers came of age and it became cool to be black and so politically astute art and theatre rocked the platforms. It was trendy to shock and be explicit, because somehow in the seditious days of protest art during from the ‘60s through the ‘80s, when censorship was rife, the art outlet of expression remained out of the reach (by and large) of the censorious Powers That Were.

But whiteness remained tainted — its colonial history was appalling and the taste of its political history in South Africa was still rank and bitter for many. In the new millennium, enter bad boy artist Brett Murray. Referred to as “The Dark Prince of Pop”, this Cape Town-based artist earns his rebellious reputation by making art gestures that mercilessly satirize our social landscape. He explicitly intends to “entertain critically” and to “hit the funny bone rather than tickle it” with his observations of post-Apartheid South Africa.

In 2002 Murray was awarded the National Young Artist accolade, sponsored by the Standard Bank of South Africa. When a corporate is willing to do the necessary to put its weight behind an individual artist, the implicit message is: this one’s for real. But Murray has, to date, been one of the more controversial winners of this annual award in a long time. He doesn’t follow the emerging trend of political correctness in selection. He is not a marginal in any of the accepted identity-based notions of the term, and he’s not even a traditional fine artist. He chooses to play with popular culture rather than navel gazing and atelier antics. Murray refuses to pussyfoot around politically correct representation of ethnic diversity. Instead, he is unfashionably doing his thing for his own whiteness — sans the apparently implicit sense of guilt and anguish at being so ludicrously unpigmented at this auspicious time in history.

Or is he? “White Like Me”, the exhibition produced as a condition of his corporate award and its accompanying status, delicately straddles a whole range of art making values. Is it conceptual? Is it offensive? Is it aesthetic? Is it confrontational? No! It’s Supermaaaan!! (Or so one is tempted to say.) It’s an art form that manifests by way of one-liners: single frame jokes or visual puns dealing with whiteness in South Africa. Each is worked up in Perspex. They are bland, two-dimensional deadpan criticism of local values. And their strength is their open-endedness.

Murray is making art that is out to parody any traditional hegemonically coloured notions of precious value. His intention is to pull the carpet from under the prissy, pretentious gallery visitor, and he aims to put one in the eye of those who take offense at this type of gesture. Does he succeed, though? Given that his transmogrification of Bart Simpson-induced Zulu shields in a triptych is a part of a public arts project, emblazoned vastly on a building in central Johannesburg, and his Oros Man influenced by hoity-toity public sculptural values, is now a familiar Cape Town landmark, I’d say yes, he has succeeded in his mission.

But the question remains as to whether the apparent emptiness of gesture will ring deep for these works’ publics. Hopefully, Murray won’t lose his maverick spark as the works become — dare I say it — historical gestures of identity politics, in time to come. It’s art because the gallery auspices make it so. It’s brilliant art because it is easy to look at but forces the traditional art beholder just a tad out of the box.

Since apartheid’s demise, we’ve been slated as the “Rainbow Nation”. White has never traditionally been acknowledged in any kind of colour spectrum, let alone one of cultural hues, but perhaps Murray’s gesture is about broadcasting the parameters of the margins: it can be cool to be white, too, even if being white means being loaded with a gutful of social baggage.

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