The hurt, the damage…the effects of a violence that the artist extracts from the personal, where it is usually secreted, and puts in/to the public eye – literally, as an exhibit. It’s Blaam II’s nail in the eye. The wounds seem self-inflicted but self-infliction would be a misattribution, as the wounds surface becoming. These are the marks of making, of being made. This becoming is through violations inflicted upon the subject.
The “contents” of the wounds signify their structural grounds. This is the damage done by Afrikaner nationalism.
In the Dwang series Strydom, in a corrective repeat, also shows us the violations that happen in plain view. This series is based on a childhood memory of “public medical examinations administered by state doctors that all pre-adolescent boys in state schools had to undergo during the 1980s”. These are violations usually confined to private spaces that have been normalised in public spaces: in the institutional settings of schools where children’s bodies are corralled into gender and race and sexuality, and then ritually invaded. Institutions that rest on the compulsory accessibility of the child’s body to the adult, of the boy’s body to the adult male. The Dwang series is Strydom’s most aesthetic work. Issues of agency come to the fore in the artist’s decision to place young men instead of boys on the receiving end. The relational positioning of the two figures conveys the power imbalance – the subjection. This is complicated by the models’ adoption of receptive stances. They aim to please. The onlooker can derive pleasure from the image. The onlooker becomes complicit. The corrective repeat lies in that the work reiterates the gesture of shifting the private violation to the public but with a vital difference: it exposes normalised actions of everyday violation and demands our examination of complicity in them.
Violence/violation is constitutive of the subject under review in Strydom’s work: ‘the Afrikaner man’. It is a truism that identification is in itself an act of violence: making the ‘I’ is always already an exclusion, the ejection of what is ‘not-I’. That said, the historical conditions of the construction of ‘the Afrikaner’ are the violences of colonialism and apartheid. These are structural violences that bled into the South African War (1899-1902), the so-called Border War in Namibia and Angola, which involved the ‘frontline states’ (1960s-1990), and the violent repression inside the country (1976-1994). It is an identity born in blood, its own and other’s.
When called upon to take up arms to defend the apartheid state against the swart gevaar (black peril) and the rooi gevaar (red peril) in the 1960s, the violent features of this variant of colonial white masculinity intensified. Militarisation of the identity saw a hyper-masculinisation. Strydom’s work cleaves open the damages that the project of whiteness has inflicted on this version of masculinity, captured in the title of this retrospective exhibition: Bleek, or pale. The title suggests not only pigmentation but also bleakness (of life) and, in translation, “beyond the pale”. The identity that achieved hegemony during apartheid has been stigmatised. It seeks a new lease on life.
The White Masks – Portrait of a Young Man series includes images of worn orifices, re-opened scars, deep purple bruises, partially stitched wounds – all superimposed on faces. This identity is not only wounding but violating. It obscures/displaces whatever intact ‘I’ could have existed. The addition of a hand gesture indicating a pistol positioned in the mouth, on the temple or the heart, or under the throat, reinvokes the violence suggested by the injuries, and also the response: self-obliteration through violence. The wounds of this identity make it unliveable. As part of the same series, ‘(the male) sex on the brain’ is pictorially depicted: a penis and scrotum superimposed on a face and forehead. The ‘cocked pistol’ is under the throat. The combination hints at a sexualised violence, which is also suggested in the ‘hand/pistol’ in the mouth in this series. The work hints at the slippage between homoeroticism and Afrikaner masculinity’s homosociality, despite its heteronormative pretensions.
The unpicking of the strands of sexuality and gender is continued with the addition of affect in the Dwang series. The artist’s explanation of the work as based on public medical examinations positions this series as a critique of normalised violations. At the same time the images show a submission that is eroticised. The eroticism seems intermingled with affect, a tenderness even in the intrusion of the disembodied hand in the mouth. Invoked here are the losses in intimacy and humanity due to the brutality of abiding by an exacting heteronorm in the service of whiteness.
In the A verbis ad verbera – From words to blows collection, the hard-hitting double-panel work Speak and Spell draws together Strydom’s critique of Afrikaner masculinity in two images which lend themselves to a double reading, aptly. The left panel shows the artist with the words ‘Daddy fucked me’ carved with bloody cuts into his forearm. In the right panel, the artist shows his tongue, cut to split it. In one reading, the previous generations of Afrikaner men did indeed ‘fuck’ the current generations, by inducting them into an identity so exclusionary and injurious as to render it unliveable. How does one speak as a white Afrikaans man, given the guilt (Blaam is the title of two of the works), the doubt (Weifeling is another)… Clinging to whiteness demands speaking with a split tongue: speaking in one way among those like you, and in another with other South Africans. The second reading is that of sexual violence inside Afrikaner families, including against boys by fathers, which is yet to be acknowledged and worked through. There again a split tongue is the only way to maintain the veneer. But the violence is carved into the body.
It could seem as though Strydom balances on a thin line, especially with the Dubul iBhunu series, which at first sight simply suggests the well-worn claims of Afrikaner male victimhood. Again the hand-as-gun is employed, sometimes in combination with what seems to be small facial wounds. Viewers are invited to listen to the Afrikaner nationalist Die Lied van Jong Suid-Afrika, which Strydom had commissioned a composer to recast in reverse form, overlaid with vocals by Afrikaans men singing an African nationalist struggle song with the phrase ‘Dubul’ iBhunu’ (Kill the Boer). But the work proposes that nothing less but a scrambling of the Afrikaner nationalist discourse, combined with an opening up to the black other – a making vulnerable to the black other – is demanded of white Afrikaans men.
The post-apartheid strategy has been for Afrikaner masculinity to deny its privilege while bemoaning victimhood to reclaim the former position of ‘mighty man’, of ‘priest and king’, as popular lay preacher Angus Buchan would have it. In contrast, Strydom’s oeuvre surfaces the injuriousness of formerly hegemonic Afrikaner hetero-masculinity in its establishment of a hierarchy in which some men are positioned as ‘lesser’. Strydom’s art is not violence, as Magritte’s work Ceci n’est pas une pipe reminds us. It is a surfacing of the actual but hidden victimisation suffered by generations of men under the hands/pistols of the priest and king.
Dr Christi van der Westhuizen is author of White Power & the Rise and Fall of the National Party and a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (Huma), University of Cape Town.