A moment in allegory: Seeing the animal within ourselves before we do in others

The Circus and the Zoo: A group exhibition curated by Nkule Mabaso

By Heinrich Groenewald 

In the light of constant racial strife as the rainbow ideology is quickly turning to shades of grey between stark black and white, this year has been marked by a particular outrage over the comparison a white woman from KwaZulu-Natal made when she called black New Years day beach goers “monkeys”.

The black body is no stranger to such violence imposed by the allegorical language of being compared to animals. In the exhibition The Circus and the Zoo, curated by Nkule Mabaso, the invited works from seven artists engage with such subject positioning, alluding to the persistence of dehumanizing stereotypes that still pervade as a denominator for inherent racism.

Such a phenomenon is rooted in semantics and toys with notions of animal-like characteristics as revealing something about the primal nature of humans – undoubtedly a method of representative humiliation in service of group/race-based discrimination. However, The Circus and the Zoo seeks to not only tie human-animal comparisons down to the confines of identity politics but attempts to explore a far wider scope of unresolved historical grievances persisting in South Africa, through the topical medium of allegory. This exhibition serves as a visual investigation into the myriad of tacit and explicit forms violence can assume, to provide the viewer with insight into the ways allegorical meaning goes beyond literal representation.

cofThe works of Ronald Machatuta opens a pathway for such exploration. Large charcoal drawings of gesturally-drawn women morphing into hyenas and snakes speak to the spiritual quality of Machatuta’s work. In parts the figures assume sexualised poses maimed in their animal transfiguration, portraying a sinister quality that speaks to the supposed ‘transformed’ state of the exhibition’s context: In an interview with Weekend Argus (1 March 2016) Machatuta (a Zimbabwean resident) states: “All Africans who choose to migrate or try to have a better life here don’t consider that they inherit the struggles that come with this land.” (Image, right: Ronald Machatuta, Shanduka l, Transformation l, 2014)

cofIn opposition Dolla Sapeta’s stylistically static caricatures are imbued with subtle sarcasm and haunting wit. A toothless dog ferociously barking. A profile of a bird bearing a pilot’s cap and goggles. These strangely vulnerable characters speak of the objectifying impact city spaces impart on those who live in them. While bearing a universal message, the cynicism within Sapeta’s claustrophobic painted spaces also speaks to his own lived experience; struggling through poverty, persisting as an artist under Apartheid rule, and moving between the township and urban city centers – divided in the spaces where his art could exist. (Image, right:  Dolla Sapeta, Title Blow Dog, 2010)

cofForming a larger scope, this exhibition does not just represent a contemporary reflection. In Dumile Feni’s I am not a Donkey (no date, image, right) the artist draws himself with a donkey’s head and beastly hands. For Feni, who left South Africa in 1968, this anthropomorphic depiction of himself can tell us a story of how it must have been to not be supported by the very nation you are a part of; to live a life scarred by poverty, subjugation and political harassment.

cofAs a tool for storytelling and as characteristic of myths, allegory has a witty way of providing satire for politics. Themba Shibase’s Metaphoric Portrait of a Chief (2015) paints the picture of an owl perched on a large animal bone. The owl, considered to be the wisest of the animal kingdom, represents the African leader; recognized for their role in emancipating people from exploitative colonizing rule. Yet the bone has been eaten bare as the country is left hungry, and one is left to wonder, who was enjoying the last scraps after liberation? Ayanda Mabula provides one explanation for the moments when the “wisest” corrupts. His portraits psychoanalytically dissect the chimera heads of some of the most extremist African politicians (e.g. Robert Mugabe, Eugène Terre’Blanche). As if peering through a window, the interior of their minds reveal nightmarish scenes of torture devices and interspecies fornication that translate the motives of modern day evils to the personal burdens of fears and trauma. For a moment one almost wants to grant them sympathy as Mabula reveals that the paths that have lead them to exploit the human rights of others find their form in the traumatic evils that must have been imposed on them. (Image, top right: Ayanda Mabula, Intelligent Fool, 2010)

The Circus and the Zoo toys with the concept of human dignity as that which distinguishes human beings from other creatures. Allegory in this sense denies individuals their unique human traits, making them to be animal-like as a gesture of oppressing freedom and individual agency. In Mischeck Masamvu’s Behind locked doors does not feel safe anymore (2014), a flock of sheep heard and confine a group of mouthless bodies. Bold colour fields, perhaps of an abstracted landscape or mobs of imagined spectators, reveals a theatre Masavu questions; one where those in power push Others into marginalized fields of disillusionment through constrains that their language imparts: “Once those in power regard our existence as raw material, our lives become relevant as servitude to their tenure. The same speech will be repeated until the walls of resistance are broken down, and their words become fact.”

The works that form The Circus and the Zoo provide the viewer with a multiplicity of perspectives regarding allegorical tensions. While the message within this exhibition cannot be simplified in its aims, what it does reveal is the association we make within ourselves. Within the context of this exhibition, the relation of allegorical figures with symbols of alterity could serve as a medium for self-reflection, as the associations we make do not come from overt explanations from the artists. Instead, it occurs in the mind of the viewer, suggesting that perhaps the connotation between race and animal was made before it was read in the work. These entrenched assumptions make of the viewer the animal where our perceptions uncontrollably morph into the beastly chimeras of our past and present.