When Does Nudity Become Art ?

Beauty . Pic credit: Jada Pinkett Smith
Beauty . Pic credit: Jada Pinkett Smith

An Exploring Nudity, Art and the Black (female) Body

What makes nudity art? Perhaps this is an elementary question but bear with me please. Your child might ask you this question one day. So it’s worth a thought.  First let’s look at the prominent spate of controversies surrounding  the artistic representation of the black body in two continents (Africa and Europe 2009 to present day).   Let’s start here at home in South Africa where  Photographer Zanele Muholi’s depiction of Lesbians (women who love other women) in 2009  was classified as  “nation- destroying’ pornography by the then South African Arts and Culture minister Lulu Xingwana who was so disgusted by the images of women showing affection for each other ( touch, hug, embrace) she immediately walked out  of the exhibition held at the  historic Women’s Goal  or  jail at Constitution Hill ( previously  known as number four ) declaring  the content of the exhibition as a danger to society. The same place, where, less than two decades ago women were incarcerated for opposing various forms of apartheid oppression or for just simply walking the city’s streets beyond the state instituted “curfew”  for black women, men, and children in Johannesburg. They conceivably sat together at some point or other ( I imagine) showing each other affection (hugs, touch, and embrace) to console each other and to give each other strength against the mammoth evil that paraded them in and out of their cells every day. Her response to the exhibition was controversial because the exhibition was in fact sponsored by her own department of arts and culture. Her reaction was shocking because she demonstrated a complete lack of respect for the artist and a complete intolerance towards a number of enshrined freedoms such as the freedom of association, sexual identity and expression. Her behavior, in my opinion was tantamount to inciting continued violence against lesbian woman in particular and fueling more hate into the raging furnace of homophobia in the country in general.  Enter artist Brett Mare with a depiction of South African President Jacob Zuma with his genitalia exposed, a public outcry divided the country along racial lines;  Mare’s work was a cheap racist art form which demonstrated a complete lack of respect for the president and his office and by extension the South Africa government. A violation of the President’s human right to dignity. Brett Mare was justified to portray the president with his genitalia exposed, because as President, Zuma is a public figure and is therefore open to criticism and or ridicule by the public or artists commenting on the country’s socio-political-landscape.  Moreover the presidents’ own private use of his genitalia played a significant role in his rise to power, as  explicitly expressed in  his rape trial in 2006 for which he was found not guilty and his current number of wives and children.  It is because Brett Mare is a white artist that so many black people were enraged? Is it because the president is black that The Spear as an art work exists? Had it been a white president would he have dared do the same thing?  Lulu Xingwana is a black woman, who walked out of another black woman’s exhibition of black women in-love with each other. Had the minister been white would the “media” outcry been any different, what difference would color make?  In Europe the Swedish Minister of Arts and Culture refused to bend to public pressure calling for her resignation after she was accused of racism and a lack of judgment for gleefully participating in the symbolic reenactment of the mutilation of a black woman, by cutting a black woman cake on her “clitoris” while the artist groaned and screamed in “mock” pain.  The minister used the right for artists’ to freely express and offend as her defense. “Art needs to be provocative” she said.  The artist did the work to create awareness on the Female Genital Mutilation (also known as female circumcision in some quarters) which is still being practiced (secretly in some cases) in a number of African countries. In this instance the artist was black, the minister who part-took in the “mutilation” white. Would the artists’ work have made a greater impact had he made a white woman cake instead? Would the minister have cut its genitalia to eat as desert with the same amount of glee? Would that change the truth of how, where and on whom FGM as is practiced? By whom? How did the Black Women Cake and the minister’s participation contribute to the fight against FGM on the continent? Perhaps the artist just wanted to “trap” the minister to “prove” that she was indeed “racist”? Now recently a gallery in South Africa took down art work depicting   South African President Jacob Zuma and former President Nelson Mandela as white. No valid reason was given except to say the gallery had a right to decide what work to put up for exhibit and had exercised its right to do so by pulling the work ahead of the planned exhibition on World Art Day on the 15th of April. The work was part of a series other prominent South African political leaders painted in races other than their own.   Does it matter today that Zuma is depicted as a white man and Pik Botha Black?

Is art, or the artist obliged to make a positive contribution to society?

Thinking about art and the black body I am reminded of the role I myself once played in this contested space as a nude model for two white South African Artists, Karl Gietl and Wayne Barker in my early twenties. I was working then as a journalist for the public broadcaster, so when they asked me if I would be interested in posing in the nude for their “Great African Nudes” exhibition I willingly said yes.  I was still nostalgic about art (having studied Art in high school) and having had to forgo Fine Art for Journalism studies.  I wanted a chance to partake in the creation of art – my job as a radio journalist not allowing me enough “creativity” in my opinion.  I also wanted to see what it is about the gaze of the white male eye on a female (because I am female) black “African” body (because I am black and African) that made so many of us desire to be “embraced” by  “them”- as a direct or indirect response to the ” The fear of the Black man”

What about African Nudes I asked, what you are saying?. They are beautiful he said, we just love women’s bodies. Black women, white women, all women are the great African nudes he said.  So I’m just going to take off my clothes and you are going to paint me and that’s it? Yes he said. But you have no control of the end product (can’t dictate the outcome of the work) I’m not going to ask you to make pornographic poses (I basically stood in front of the camera naked) etc. So I posed for them on condition that I will get a piece of art in exchange for my time and use of my image.

Why is nudity more violent and therefore less acceptable for public consumption than say a violent assault, murder or rape on a television series?          

I gathered my friends to go and see the opening of the show, curious to see how they “chose” to represent the “African” Nude aka me and other women of course.  I was surprised to see a huge life-size depiction of a black woman in a reclining position with long braids. Me.  I was truly fascinated by the work.  I was not expecting a real-life representation of my person, because I had ostensibly given away the power to control how they chose to use my image the minute I took off my clothes to pose for them.  I didn’t like the work but I was glad for the experience, the work said nothing about black women or women in general to me, it made no political statement, there was nothing provocative or offensive about the work other it being a collection of distorted women bodies painted in various positions.  There was nothing to be said about the work, accept that it was made.  Or was there?

Wayne Barkers‘ interpretation of the “African Nude” was more abstract and modern, his work in my opinion was more focused on developing a new painting technique he was experimenting with than the ‘ African -nudes”  who seemed to be more of an after-thought addition to his work.

It was art for art sake.

What did stand out for me though was the fact that there were more white women nudes in the collection compared to black women. What is to be said about that? Are white women not African? Are African women not engaged in art for art sake? Why are black women not willing to “pose” in that manner in front of the camera? Why should they have to?

“Come on Jedi we can also do this, we can also be artists if this is art” said my friend as we walked around the gallery in stitches.  The work generated no noticeable emotion on my part except perhaps some compassion for the artist (for having a sad and depressing view of the female form  I did not see the beauty he raved about while he was convincing me to take off my clothes – but beauty is in the eye of the beholder is it not?) and later a bit of bitterness after  Wayne Barker refused to give me a work of art he had promised on the grounds that it was his work and his money and it was “art” and he was “entitled” to “earn” money from it, and by asking him to give me what he had promised I was infringing on his “future” earned income. In other words, though he promised to part with one of his art pieces in exchange for my modeling services, he reserved the right to refuse compensation should the work be perceived to be of more value than he had anticipated at the time of conception/creation or agreement.  However on the other side of the coin the art work was so valuable to the artist  Karl Gietl that confessed to painting over the “Great African Nude” ( a life-size painting of me ) with black paint because it had proved to be of no value or consequence  to the gallery the audience and most importantly himself. It was his work. “I needed the canvass” He said as if to massage my barely visible ego.

So what is it all about then?

The great renaissance artist Michelangelo says “What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?”

Michelangelo (“Michelangelo’s David 1504)

Wikipedia described the nude as “a tradition in Western art, and has been used to express ideals of male and female beauty and other human qualities. It was a central preoccupation of Ancient Greek art, and after a semi-dormant period in the middle Ages returned to a central position in Western art with the Renaissance. Athletes, dancers, and warriors are depicted to express human energy and life, and nudes in various poses may express basic or complex emotions such as pathos.[1] The nude is a work of fine art that has as its primary subject the unclothed human body,[2] forming a subject genre of art, in the same way as landscapes and still life. Unclothed figures may also play a part in other types of art, such as history painting, allegorical, or religious art”

And here allow me to share my views. The beauty of art is that it really does neither the artist nor the audience  which consumes the art any favours. It is the great equalizer.It is like a double-edged sword in that it reveals both the motives and inner world, deep seeded secrete workings of the mind and soul of the artist creating the work as well as the persons or audiences who consume the work.  No one involved in the process of creating art is left untouched/unchanged in some way by the work regardless of the emotions it evokes or lack there of.

The artist whether they like it or not are revealing themselves, their inner core when they present their works: “throwing up” “their fears, hopes and dreams, what they think of themselves and the society in which they live, or the subject matter they tackle.   Many artists often deny that what they produce has anything to do with “them”. Often sayings it’s not “personal”. I disagree with that notion wholeheartedly I believe all artwork is personal.  However what makes one artwork different from the other is the artists’ level of  “maturity” coupled with a number of contributing factors, education, training, mentor ship, confidence, skill in the chosen medium etc.  And let’s not forget the maturity of the audience  consuming the work. The artists’ ability to come face to face with his or her deepest and darkest fears,  their  most tender feelings, their most hurt self with   distance and critical analysis employed to observe the “other”, without making excuses or shying away from what ‘hurts” is how one can possibly  “ measure” maturity.  EQ in modern terms.   You have to guess what an infant or child wants when they cry, and sometimes you have to try a few things before you can locate the source of the problem, as the child grows as they are able use  language to communicate their needs. An adult is expected to be able to identify a problem, articulate it clearly and find solutions to solve it. The extent to which an artist is able to do this in a single piece of work (not that they are by any means expected to) is a measure of their maturity.

My 16-year-old brother says if a piece of art does not evoke an emotional “response” of any kind it is not art, it is like an Ikea chair, practical and functional, but not provocative. So the examples I have used above then should qualify or meet the basic criteria of being ‘art-works’ because they have all caused enormous emotive responses  – of anger, disgust and even hate.  I empathized and appreciate Zanele Muholi’s work because I also share a need to see and appreciate black African female bodies depicted in a beautiful compassionate way, in a society which women are repeatedly mutilated/ assaulted by their husbands, boyfriends’, other women. I want to live in a gentler kinder world, love and be loved – I can identify with Muholi’s search for beauty within herself, her relationships and the world around her. I am in that journey too.  Then minister of Arts and Culture Lulu Xingwana’s reaction to her work is that of disgust, anger, of rebuke.  That says a lot about her personal feelings about same-sex relationships .She is violently opposed to them and is unable to contain her feelings  despite her position as the chief custodian of artistic expression requiring that she be the “bigger woman”. She could not reason with herself. Perhaps she saw a woman, a girl, who looked like one of her daughters, her cousin, a niece a friend, someone she knows. I cannot help but feel violated by the Swedish artist FGM intervention it is repulsive for me in every way because it continues to victimize, exploit, and  offend. I am offended by  it.

The Black Woman Cake
The Black Woman Cake

 Perhaps it exposes a  dislike of white women – because at one point in my life they seemed to have access to ‘everything” a black woman was not “allowed”.  I was angered beyond belief, I was disgusted. But I have forgiven.  Myself. I love. the woman I am creating. But I first had to recognize that it was not white women who needed to change. I needed to change and then only could I move on from being a “victim”.  I feel compassion towards the artist  – because though he is black the “black woman cake” reveals so much violence and turmoil about how he feels about  his “blackness” / Africanness.  I understand what it means to be tormented by hate cloaked in so many  seemingly righteous anger at other injustices’.

 I was shocked that the Swedish minister was able to cut an a groaning piece of cake and eat it with a smile on her face. If art is meant to provoke and offend as she said, she was neither provoked nor offended by  the most grotesque piece of art I’ve seen so far. I do hope that both the artist and the minister including  everyone who laughed with them have  grown from that experience – I certainly have.  With The spear, my response is an unfair but good example of why I personally do not agree with the artist lack of depth in this instance. Newspaper cartoonist Zapiro’s clothed depiction of President Jacob Zuma’s general (mis) conduct with regard to respect for the rule of law, women and himself  is far more provocative and insightful than Mare’s depiction of his bare phallus.  Here’s Why. So What’s Art to you?

President Jacob Zuma and Lady Justice by Zapiro
President Jacob Zuma and Lady Justice by Zapiro



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