In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mary Corrigall: Re-imagining the Self through Colour

Lawrence Lemaoana, Last Line of Defence, 2008, pigment inks on cotton paper, 77.5 x 125cm
It is unthinkable to conceive of Lawrence Lemaoana’s oeuvre or the artwork Last Line of Defence (2008)1 without the colour pink. The pastel and garish pinks present in this work activate its ideological content as he exploits the social values attached to this colour. Commonly aligned to femininity and evocative of stylised renditions of white flesh, in western society pink operates as an index of race and gender thus engendering the illusion that pink has fixed meanings. Of course, in philosophical terms, colour is deemed nameless. As deconstructivist theorist Stephen Melville observes, colour is “bottomlessly resistant to nomination, attaching itself absolutely to its own specificity and the surfaces on which it has or finds visibility”.2 So while pink might appear physically fixed it is also endlessly subject to reconfiguration, not just visibly but ideologically too: the semiotics of colour are historically and socially contingent.3 In Last Line of Defence Lemaoana harnesses culturally determined values attached to pink as a means of re-imaging and reinventing himself, but in so doing he similarly destabilises those values, challenging taxonomies of colour, gender and race and the interrelationship between them.
Does the vividness of the pink ever present in this artwork or Lemaoana’s use of masquerade constitute a sense of ‘play’4 thus establishing a brand of art distinguishable from the supposedly less colourful palette of his predecessors? In the nineteenth century, French theorist Charles Blanc unequivocally declared that colour in and of itself represented the feminine sex – monochromatic drawings were viewed as essentially masculine.5 Lemaoana’s liberal use of colour isn’t in defiance of Blanc’s theory but given his ambition to subvert and undercut traditional notions of masculinity this premise further supports the artist’s deployment of such a vivid colour. Historically, colour has been subject to gendered readings; just as genders have been polarised, so too were colour ranges associated with masculinity and femininity fixed at antipodal positions. In 1809 German Romantic painter and theorist Philipp Otto Runge concocted a colour circle of ideal and real values in which a range of warm tones from yellows to orange were pegged as distinctly masculine, while at the other end of the spectrum cool blues to violets were deemed essentially feminine.6 When the neo-romantic expressionists adopted the same colour chart almost a century later, these associations were reversed. It was only after 1920 that pink became associated with women. This is attributed to the fact that blue became linked with male professions, pink, its polar opposite was by default deemed feminine.7 The manner in which pink was readily co-opted as a signifier of femininity not only confirms the unstable nature of colour but that this very instability makes it vulnerable to socially inscribed meanings.

The Last Line of Defence is a photograph featuring six identical figures configured in a line thus alluding to the soccer formation termed the “line of defence”. In all these images it is Lemaoana who is posing, but his facial features and body are completely concealed by stockings parading a garish flat shade of pink. This homogenous tone appears laboratory generated. It is a synthesised pink that one would associate with consumer goods and advertising, which brandish this tone in an effort to further entrench fixed notions about the female gender. As Joseph Sassoon observes, the use of a flat non-textured pink articulates an “exaggerated and aggressive tone,” which is an indicator of “exhibitionist intentions”.8 This manufactured form of femininity operates as an enhanced counterpoint to maleness, but it is also a synthetic tool instrumental in the act of masking his racial identity and maleness.9

Lemaoana might be confronting his viewers with an artificial or synthesised view of the self but his primary mode of communication – photography, which is associated with truth – superficially establishes this absurd masquerade as valid and real. In this way Lemaoana suggests that an ‘authentic’ identity is unperceivable to the naked eye and that physical and visual manifestations or signifiers of self are unreliable. Nevertheless, Lemaoana is aware that it is through accoutrements and colour that gender identity is concretised. As Judith Butler asserts, identity is instituted through “a stylized repetition of acts”.10 The stylisation is achieved through gestures, movements, and here, dress and colour, which all conspire to establish “the illusion of an abiding gendered self ”. Lemaoana’s consciousness of the importance of these visual rituals play in the construction of the self prompts him to co-opt these stylised acts in service of disrupting the facades that they engender. Thus in the Last Line of Defence, Lemaoana scrambles these acts by conflating elements alluding to both femininity and masculinity, selfness and otherness, in such a way that the stereotypical positions that these roles are associated with are rendered unstable. Primarily, it is with the aid of the pink toned dress Re-imagining the Self through Colour THE POLITICS OF THE PASTEL AND GARISH PINKS IN LAWRENCE LEMAOANA’S LAST LINE OF DEFENCE 06 MARY CORRIGALL that Lemaoana is able to (re)imagine himself, (re) cast himself as a paradoxical character that is both black and white, female and male. For while the feminine print of his pink ensemble alludes to femininity, the shorts and top that he dons summon generic sporting gear that is associated with dominant male sporting activities such as soccer and rugby.11 The manner in which some of the subjects use their hands to protect their privates also draws attention to their gender status. The use of a colour, which is an obvious marker of femininity, as a means of undercutting the masculinity of his subjects suggests that the act of re-determining maleness inevitably involves embracing femaleness. As Stephen Whitehead and Frank Barrett observe, “no matter how definitions of masculinities change, they are always in contrast to some definition of femininity”.12 In this way “anti-femininity lies at the heart of masculinity”. So while Lemaoana (in his role as subject) attempts to liberate himself from stereotypical notions attached to the male gender, he ultimately finds himself confined within another limiting identity: the female identity. Carl Jung proposes that a female identity resides within the interior of the male identity but it is the inherited archetypal images of women that shape this feminine persona.13 This idea is reflected in the hyperfemininity that the garish shade of pink evokes and, as will become clear later in this paper, the manner in which Lemaoana exploits the stereotypical notion that the female gender is the weaker or lesser of the sexes as a means of articulating the demotion of white males in post-apartheid society.

According to Lemaoana, the poses he strikes in this image not only recall the line of defence that a soccer team configures to fend off a goal but the iconography of two idealised and idolised male figures: Jesus and Superman. It is in the placement of the feet and the glowing light behind his subjects’ heads that make reference to his source of inspiration for the image: a scene from Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece of the resurrection of Christ (1512-16), on display at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar, Alsace, France. In an interview, Lemaoana observed, “I looked at the glow at the back of his [Jesus’s] head and his feet removed from the earth and it reminded me of a Superman pose. It was the position of the feet that caught my attention; there is an unearthly feeling about it. When Superman is flying off his feet are in the same position.”

The pink stockings which conceal Lemaoana’s frame in this artwork recalls the stereotypical dress of comic book superheroes; by covering their mortal flesh superheroes are rendered invincible and unearthly. By mimicking these stylised male personas Lemaoana summons a ‘performative’ masculinity, a “masculine masquerade”, echoing the notion of the feminine masquerade which psychoanalyst Joan Riviere proposed in Womanliness as Masquerade (1929).14 The notion of a masculine masquerade might have once been viewed as an oxymoron but theorists15 agree that masculinity is no longer the authentic monolithic gender; it too is propped up by malleable façades. The figures of Jesus and Superman accentuate the artificiality of the hypermale ideal; they also embody the avatar of whiteness, thus implying that the male ideal is white skinned. It is the swathes of pink that envelop Lemaoana’s body that undercut his hero status. The colour of the body stocking enhances his subject’s vulnerability, its pinkness alluding to delicacy. If one surveys the canon of the western art tradition the appearance of pink flesh is largely associated with the female nude and thus objectification. “Putting on a (pink) mask is a way of becoming an object,” remarked Lemaoana.

Pink flesh tones are associated with male subjects in the work of David Hockney. In Room Tarzana (1967) a male nude is presented as a passive object inviting the male gaze much in the manner of the female nude in The Reclining Girl (1751) by Francois Boucher, which has often been cited as a reference for the positioning of the nude in Hockney’s artwork. As Marco Livingstone has observed the use of pink in Hockney’s nudes, it is more predominant in his treatment of his subjects’ buttocks; thus the colour is used to “emphasize a man’s sexual desirability” and his/their object status.16

The relationship between Hockney’s nudes and the canon of female nude painting underscores the assertion that re-imaging the male self inextricably involves summoning the female position. This is obviously particularly relevant to the representation of homosexual men, whose sexuality is thought to present a departure from the historical masculine identity. Dressing men in pink or associating them with this feminine colour has functioned as shorthand for gender inappropriateness.

Lemaoana has observed that the predominance of pink in his artworks has led people to assume that he is homosexual. No doubt he revels in this misconception; not only does it confirm that the highly stylised ensemble he wears is a credible mask but that the effeminate male persona is as much a masquerade as heterosexual machismo.

The artificial pink fleshy tone that enrobes Lemaoana’s body also recasts him as a white male, the once preferred male ideal in apartheid South Africa. Growing up during this epoch, Lemaoana, who was a keen rugby player, felt out of place and self-conscious participating in this white dominated sport. According to Lemaoana, he vacillated between white and black social circles, never feeling completely at home in either camp. The pink body stocking that he dons is part of a ‘disguise’ to enable him to fit in with what is perceived to be the ‘norm’. Of course, the garish artificial façade, which brazenly parades femininity, works at undercutting this imperative. Thus his attempt to re imagine himself as a white male is a sardonic one, which satirises whiteness and its assumed superiority. This resonates with Homi K. Bhabha’s assertion that a fine line exists between mimicry and mockery.17 In this artwork Lemaoana’s attempt at mimicking the white male ideal has an overt derisive tone. This is not necessarily driven by resentment but rather an attempt to articulate the manner in which the white males’ position of authority has been destabilised since the advent of a democratic government.

As Lemaoana explained: “Historically the Afrikaans male was the ultimate man. Once that power was taken away everyone was repositioned. We are no longer secure in our embodiment. The white male is no longer in a position of power, especially in the job market where preference is given to black applicants. Jacob Zuma now represents the new powerful male figure.”

Thus the exaggerated pink flesh tone not only operates as a signifier of whiteness but of disempowerment, which Lemaoana associates with femininity. So while he casts his male figures in the mould of superheroes, they are ‘weakened’ and vulnerable characters, whose power has been eroded by political and social forces. According to Lemaoana, the pink disguise also satisfies another impulse: to conceal his Africaness, which he believes is associated with blackness, and the presence thereof within an African artwork.

Ultimately, in the Last Line of Defence, Lemaoana demonstrates that the colour pink, like all other physical manifestations of identity is only a superficial marker. Thus while this colour is a potent signifier it is also meaningless. From this point of view the perception of colour, particularly such a bold feminine tone as pink, might be evidence of playfulness or lightness in an artwork seems improbable. For the notion that colour denotes what Ashraf Jamal terms “play” or “wakefulness” is no different to Blanc’s assertion that monochromatic drawings are evidence of a masculine sensibility.

Mary Corrigall is a Research Fellow at the Research Centre for Visual Identities in Art and Design at the University of Johannesburg 

NOTES 1. Last Line of Defence was first exhibited on Lemaoana’s first commercial gallery solo exhibition Fortune Telling in Black, Red and White, at the Art Extra gallery, Johannesburg in October 2008. 
2. Cited in John Gage, Color and Meaning: Art, Science and Symbolism (Berkley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), p.7. 
3. Ibid, p.8. 
4. This is a reference to Ashraf Jamal’s Colour of Wakefulness, presented at the Colour colloquium, Rhodes University, March 27 – 28, 2010. The lack of colour in the South African canon, Jamal stated, indicated a state of mind pervading South African art. Moral seriousness overrides a playful form of expression, he argued, which he likened to a kind of “wakefulness”. 
5. Gage, op. cit., p.35. 
6. Ibid, p.35. 
7. Eva Heller cited in Veronika Koller’s, ‘Not just a colour: Pink as a gender and sexuality marker in visual communication’, in Visual Communication, 2008, Vol. 7(4), p.403. 
8. Joseph Sassoon, ‘Colors, Artifacts, and Ideologies’, in P. Gagliardi (ed.) Symbols and Artifacts: Views of the Corporate Landscape (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1990), p.181. 
9. Lemaoana’s racial and gender identities are not mutually exclusive. As Jefferey Brown observes, “We must keep in mind that the standard phallic version of the masculine ideal is deeply grounded not just in misogynistic and homophobic ideology but also in thinly veiled racist terms”. ‘Comic book masculinity and the new black superhero’, African American Review, Spring 1999, Vol. 33(1), p.25. 
10. Judith Butler, ‘Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory’, in Theatre Journal, December 1988, Vol. 40(4), p.519. 
11. In an interview (February 13, 2010, Doornfontein, Johannesburg) Lemaoana suggested that the outfits his subjects were in this photographic artwork were an amalgamation of soccer and rugby gear. 
12. Stephen M. Whitehead and Frank J. Barrett, The Masculinities Reader (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), p.23. 
13. Cited in R.W. Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), p.12. 
14. Riviere proposes that in order to compensate for their desire for masculinity women paraded a “mask of womanliness” in order to deflect or disguise their envy and thus not disturb the male identity, according to Niti Sampat Patel, Postcolonial masquerades: Culture and politics in literature, film, video and photography (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 2001). 
15. See Helaine Posner, ‘The Masculine Masquerade: Masculinity Represented in Recent Art’, A. Perchuk (ed.) in The Masculine Masquerade: Masculinity and Representation (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1995), p.29. 
16. Marco Livingstone, David Hockney (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), p.82. 
17. Homi K. Bhaba, The Location of Culture (London & New York: Routledge Classics, 1994), p.86

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