Using Art To Understand Othering

Knowledge vs Power

An art exhibition and critical dialogue hosted in Mangaung to celebrate Africa Day, unpacked the issue of Othering, a powerful element of social relations.If we understand it we gain clearer insight into how bigotry and intolerance work.

The University of Free State’s Centre for Africa Studies in collaboration with Johannes Stegmann Gallery hosted an event with art exhibition and critical dialogue to mark Africa Day.

The theme of the event was: Representation of Otherness and Resistance.

Anton Kannemeyer, W is for White, From the series Alphabet of Democracy (2008), Lithographic print, 57 x 44.5 cm, University of the Free State Art Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and the Stevenson Gallery

Anton Kannemeyer, W is for White, From the series Alphabet of Democracy (2008), Lithographic print, 57 x 44.5 cm, University of the Free State Art Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and the Stevenson Gallery

The issue of Othering was depicted on the images of different artists whose work was exhibited. It cuts across racial lines, class, gender and sexuality. Artists such as Anton Kannemeyer whose work is about the colonial representation of what is black and what is white raised a few eyebrows yet made an awareness of what contributed to creating the notion of Othering in Africa. The two images titled, B is for Black and W is for White under his collection titled, The Alphabets of Democracy. It shows a black face represented by a man with frizzy hair and red fat lips. Underneath the image are Chambers and Oxford dictionaries meanings to define what is Black; “black, adj. opposite of white, dirty, messy, without light, dark, illegal, dim, smuggled, sombre, disastrous, dismal, obscure, sullen, bad-tempered angry, horrible, grotesque, malignant, unlucky, unhappy, depressed.”

Anton Kannemeyer, B is for Black, From the series Alphabet of Democracy (2008), Lithographic print, 57 x 44.5 cm, University of the Free State Art Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and the Stevenson Gallery

Anton Kannemeyer, B is for Black, From the series Alphabet of Democracy (2008), Lithographic print, 57 x 44.5 cm, University of the Free State Art Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and the Stevenson Gallery

In contrast to B is for Black is W is for White which shows a decent white face with a smile, it took the same reference from Chambers and Oxford dictionaries. It says, “White, adj. colour of milk or fresh snow, innocent, unstained, pure, unblemished, bright, anti-revolutionary, auspicious, reliable, favourable, honourable, upright, without bloodshed, free from guilt.”

The notion of Othering goes hand in glove with the notion of knowledge vs power in the sense knowledge was developed to empower one group while disempowering the other. In Fanonian speak, to be black is to be black in relation to whiteness.

The otherness was also embedded in different discourses such as the art work of Mary Sibande, not only the binary of black vs white. She refuses to be defined according to the perception of the white person who is perhaps her employer. She is at liberty to formulate a strong opinion about herself as a black artist in the midst of all biases she comes across, first of all as a woman and then as a black artist.

Mary Sibande, I have not, I have (2010), Digital print, 110 x 80 cm, University of the Free State Art Collection. Image courtesy of Gallery MOMO

Mary Sibande, I have not, I have (2010), Digital print, 110 x 80 cm, University of the Free State Art Collection. Image courtesy of Gallery MOMO

Mary Sibande with the image, I have, I have not, exhibited a black maid holding a flower and wearing a maid’s uniform juxtaposed with a flamboyant, dramatic, elegant and sophisticated look depicted by a fancy dress. The flower represents a childhood game of she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not. She looks beyond Othering and finds solace in a moment of being. Her art work was also exhibited at Oliewenhuis Art Museum where she celebrated previous generations of her family.

Outside the frame of artistic work presented at the exhibition, Acting Dean of Student Affairs at the University of the Free State, Cornelia Fassen, asked, “How do we solve the conundrum of otherness while we need the notion of otherness? We have to have a dialogue and make students acutely aware of how they are Othering each other, but how do you resolve that notion of race-relationship between students? But while we are showing them such, we are also Othering.”

In an attempt to answer her question, Director for the Centre for Africa Studies, Professor Heidi Hudson maintained that in a post-colonial condition hybridity is the order of the day where the self and the other eventually becomes known as a different we. “My own way of trying to make sense of the question of Othering is that it consists of the different sides of the same coin we need to polish and maybe…if we keep on talking about Othering we are talking about the differences and yet we have to acknowledge the differences …

Diversity is to me the gate point to the transformational of way of dealing with change but it remains abstract how are we going to do that,” she concluded.

Beyond analysing art we cannot detach ourselves from our own personal experiences which we use to pre-judge others and interpret the very artistic work we all saw during the exhibition. Hence the critical dialogue was introduced for that specific reason, to see different sides of the same coin.

Representations of Otherness and Resistance is at the Johannes Stegmann Art Gallery at the University of the Free State from 20th May to 19th June 2015. The Gallery hours are Mondays to Fridays from 08:30 to 16:30.

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