NOT MY WAR exhibition

Exhibition texts by Natasha Norman

  • 3SAI: A Rite of Passage
    3SAI: A Rite of Passage

    Paul Emmanuel
    2008, Single channel, HD video, stereo soundtrack, 14 minutes. Courtesy Format Digital Production and Art Source South Africa © Paul Emmanuel

  • Decoy

    Chris Swift
    2012, Mirage F1 CZ, courtesy Chris Teale of the SAAF Museum at Ysterplaat, Dimentions variable.

  • Conscripts ‘make their weapons safe’ before entering their base
    Conscripts ‘make their weapons safe’ before entering their base

    John Liebenberg
    Ruacana, 1988, 1988, Archival print, 42 x 59,4cm.

“They can’t do this.”
It was almost a whisper. He may even have sworn under his breath and I realised that the stillness was fear. It was the fear that shocked me. This great, invincible, bearded, gentle giant: was afraid.
The year was 1988 and it was a letter from the military. My father had been recalled to do a civilian camp despite having served an extra year of conscription at the time to avoid being called up for camps. I was suddenly aware of a bigger world opening up around me.

The Michaelis Galleries and the Gordon Institute for Creative and Performing Arts (GIPCA) present NOT MY WAR, an exhibition of works by significant South African artists reflecting on the country’s involvement in border wars in Northern Namibia and Southern Angola during the 1960’s to 1980’s. The exhibition opening is at 18:00 on 29 June, and it will run until 25 July.

Shortly after they finished high school our fathers were conscripted into the South African Defence Force (SADF). Most were put through rigorous physical and skills training and many sent to fight in South Africa’s so-called Border War in Northern South West Africa and Southern Angola in what has been popularly mythologised as a ‘coming of age’ initiation for the white South African male.

Up until 1994, almost all able-bodied white male South Africans were called up for National Service around the year they turned 18. As far as most of these young men were concerned there was little option but to perform this duty. One’s call-up could be deferred for a few years if one studied, but to avoid it meant facing harsh consequences. The options were to object on conscientious or religious grounds and face a six-year jail term, or flee the country.

Since the radical shift in political power in 1994, the Border War and those who fought it have been cast in an insidious light. From an institutional point of view the conflict is now widely regarded as one that upheld the racist interests of Apartheid. The Border War, it would seem, has become easier to officially forget in post-Apartheid South Africa then to struggle to reconcile the propaganda, trauma, heroism and racism implicit in a discussion of its nature.

In recent years a large amount material concerning South Africa’s Border War in Namibia/Angola has exploded onto the cultural landscape. Where a decade ago such material was scarce, in the last five years there has been a considerable surge of novels, biographies, documentaries, films, theatre, photography and visual art all dealing with this subject. It would seem that the muzzle on South Africa’s ‘silent war’ – in the cultural sphere at least – has begun to lift.

Marking the 25th anniversary of the war’s bloodiest and most decisive battles, most notably at Cuito Cuanavale, NOT MY WAR looks at how a number of significant South African artists have been impacted by and responded to the Border War. Furthering the resurgence of dialogue around this ‘silent war’, NOT MY WAR will echo the multiple viewpoints on this complex conflict, as well as highlight its continuing relevance and effect on South African society.

Particpating artists are Wayne Barker, Christo Doherty, Paul Emmanuel, John Liebenberg, Jo Ractliffe, Colin Richards, Chad Rossouw, Penny Siopis, Christopher Swift & Daniella Mooney and Gavin Young. Exhibition texts by Natasha Norman.

Who’s war was it anyway? Review by Rebecca Davis Daily Maverick. 9 July 2012.

Gagging Order

Gagging Order

Woodcut rotation print
Edition of 5

In December 2010, artist Elgin Rust asked me to respond to her Masters installation titled Redress1-Un-Dressed, Advocate Alice Presents: R v JR 2010. I was presented with a haunting construction of objects, images and sound recordings. Her project sought to investigate the processes of ‘judicial and aesthetic redress to offer fresh perspectives on the victim within the criminal justice system.’ The fictional characters, Advocate Alice and Detective Little Prince (clear references to the childrens stories by Lewis Carol and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) narrate the installation for the final case hearing in Rust’s thesis. The concluding evocation is one of the space being an open-ended site with the judgement pending.

I was immediately taken with the allegorical language in the exhibition and agreed to participate in a ‘concluding’ exhibition held at the AVA (Association for Visual Arts) in Cape Town from 18 April to 13 May 2011. The exhibition was titled Judgement, Uitspraak 2011 Case No. 001/05/2008 and included works by 14 participating artists.

The invited responses were understood to form a judgement, that is an ‘opinion, estimate, notion or conclusion’ in response to Rust’s installation. My response was a woodcut print titled Gagging Order.

Gagging Order explores the subtle power relations between parties within the legal system. Sometimes imposed as a form of protection for witnesses or to prevent partiality within the legal system, the gag order is nevertheless an act of silencing. I found the mute masks in Rust’s exhibition space particularly evocative of this. Their placement on chairs or on the prow of a ship of courtroom furniture simultaneously referenced the world of child’s play while evoking a more sinister caricature of the confrontation implicit in a legal battle between two parties.

The pair of masks depicted in this print were isolated somewhat from the main installation. Rust’s use of lighting in their section of the exhibition was quite dramatic and long shadows were cast on the walls around them. Two seemingly banal paper maché faces suddenly took on a theatrical evocation of hidden elements evoking a sense of confrontation and power relation between prosecutor and witness.

The entire project and its other carnations are archived here.

  • Detail of trial installation, R v JR 2010.
    Detail of trial installation, R v JR 2010.

    Elgin Rust

  • Detail of trial installation, R v JR 2010.
    Detail of trial installation, R v JR 2010.

    Elgin Rust

  • Detail of trial installation, R v JR 2010.
    Detail of trial installation, R v JR 2010.

    Elgin Rust