Approximation to Power: White Women in Contemporary South African Art

The title of this essay is Approximation to Power: White Women in South African Contemporary Art. This essay serves as a response to the topic posed by the History of Art course which was to explore the politics of contemporary art in South Africa, by using the texts of our choice by the authors Julius Nyerere, Leopold Senghor, Malcolm X and Steve Biko”. It will look into how various social hegemonic oppressions intersect and overlap in the contexts of Visual Art, Art History, and general power institutions in South Africa. It will also explore the misrepresentations of black (female) bodies by white educated women in the art context. We will also explore how the decolonized curriculum and teaching structure form the backbone for transformation. This happens through an exploration of the existing powers structures, the people who benefit from them, how professors play a role in the culminating of knowledge that is feasible and how to create a new knowledge system that interrogates, challenges and dismantles the current systems which are a consequence of colonialism.


Throughout the centuries, white heterosexual men have predominately dominated the art world and were highly regarded for their contributions to art. This has helped shape how we interpret art today. Artists such Paul Cézanne, Èdouard Manet and Georges Seurat (all white male artists) were known for their impressionist styles which consisted of using techniques such as pointillism and other means of capturing light. Black South African artists were influenced by these Western definitions and labels. This is evident in the work that they produced through the depiction of typically “black narratives” which consisted of township life. “The term, township art is an example of the patronizing labelling system in academia” (Chinzima, 1999). Through this depiction, the audience that consumed this type of work was predominately white. This was a result of how telling white domination in the art industry is overwhelming, especially the dominance of white females. This was a result of the call for transformation which was to redress gender and racial inequality, particularly in higher power intuitions (Khan, 2006).


To further explore this claim, Kaolin Thompson, a former University of Witwatersrand student, was heavily criticized for her Martienssen prize winning sculpture titled Useful Objects in 1996. It was a ceramic ashtray resembling a black woman’s vagina with a half-smoked cigarette lying in the middle (Schmahmann, 1999). Thompson had stated that she did not intend for her work to be specific to a race but wanted to address the objectification of women in society. Baleka Kgosistsile, former National Assembly deputy speaker, voiced her request to remove the image of Thompson’s work from the public eye. Kgosistsile reasoned her request by addressing that the stories and histories of black women are contrasted by those of white women, therefore, it is crucial to identify specificity when dealing with certain issues to prevent ignorant portrayals of others (Anonymous, 1996).


The topic of white women speaking about African discourses has always been fickle such that their view is narrowed, no matter how experienced they are in that particular field. When thinking about collecting items and placing them outside of their normal contexts, it is easy to misrepresent and omit crucial information concerning those items. It is difficult for white women to position themselves in situations where they can even begin to comprehend the work. They engage with these items with a preconceived notion of understanding and interpretation. They place Western narratives and labels upon them, therefore, feeding into the stereotypes created through power institutions.  By assigning objects to single stories which are linked to power structures, this changes the narratives of these objects and creates a definitive story for these objects. These single stories are problematic such that they rob objects of their cultural significance by removing them from their ancestral ground to be placed in areas to be viewed very perversely. It most importantly places emphasis on the differences between the peoples who engage with it, further subjecting it to the gaze (Adichie, 2009).


As an annex, Candice Breitz, a white female artist, had re-photographed photo montages in 1996 titled the Rainbow series in which she had merged fragmented imagery of white and black women. Her intention was to tackle the idea of women being represented as pornographic or sexual objects in the media for their values as humans are being removed or disregarded for the male gaze. She had received criticism for her manner of cutting the female body, stating that the white body was cut out quite differently from the black body which was mostly limbs as opposed to the almost full forms of the white bodies (Engseltezin, 2012)


The title could be derived from the notion of the rainbow nation post-1994 in which there was a ‘false’ unity of the people living in South Africa. She had used images of black women from a specific context and cultural background with which nudity is part of cultural practice. Whereas the images of the white women are considered taboo and inappropriate practice due to them being collected from the objectification from the male gaze. There is an obvious complexity battle within the representations of the female body. In this particular situation, these two narratives are mutually exclusive to a certain point, therefore, the merging of these two representations results in an erasure of the individual – specifically the black female body. This further perpetuates the mistreatment and misrepresentations of the black body by white female academics.


Professor J.D. Jansen states that transformation becomes stagnant and to a certain extent redundant if the progress under said transformation, is not monitored. It is easy to change policies and propose strategic plans, vision statements and such, but are worthless if they do not measure the depth, quality, and sustainability of transformation. Given the fixation of the approach through measuring intelligence through aptitude rather than growth, and by trying to increase numbers of marginalized peoples in predominantly white spaces, such as a university campus and expecting them to respond to the curriculum in the same way as those who have previously benefitted from this system, is not the way to move forward.

By looking at the study of critical incidents, we better understand transformation. How an institution responds and reacts to a critical incident speaks volumes about the manner and extent of transformation than any document or measured output. This response tells how far the university has moved towards the direction of transformation (Jansen, 2008).


This goes for the extended branches of an institution. The different ideologies and set structures which are so-called ‘progressive’ are then called into question. In the case of the History of Art department at the University of Witwatersrand, where there was an active engagement between the lecturers and the students in trying to create a curriculum which would benefit all its participants through the valuing of personal knowledge and experience and equating it to academic knowledge. This ‘new’ system seemed progressive enough until it seemed as though it was taken too far. When students actively wanted to be involved in the curating of a curriculum which they would partake in, there seemed to be hesitance and reluctance concerning the power figures involved. It is important to understand that decolonization does not begin and end in radical protest, but through the dismantling and actively engaging in new ways of learning and acquiring knowledge.


Through the years of studying the fine art degree, we have come to learn that politics is something that occurs throughout lived experiences; it is difficult to be apolitical. Art can be derived from personal experiences such that the political is personal and the personal is political. “I believe, instead, that politics touches every part of our lived experiences, regardless of the country in which we live, and so we can’t help but make political statements via the things we choose to explore (or not explore) in our art.” (Pipe, 2017) In choosing to create work that does not speak to a political issue, renders the artwork political.


The patriarchal Apartheid system had been replaced with a warped system that prioritized redressing gender equality. Win for feminism perhaps, but in a country with more than 90% of its population being people of colour, this was less than even half a win for transformation.” (Botha, 2015) Artworks or artefacts made by South African women, such as beadwork, for example, which are founded by, and influence black everyday life and lived experiences – a woman’s advancement into marriage or a girl into womanhood – through this, the work becomes political. There is a misrepresentation of these objects, based on how there is no recorded data on the artists.


In a country where the Wits Art Museum (WAM) houses most of the “African Art” collection, 5477 out of the 11000 objects come from the Standard Bank African Art Collection (SBAAC) as indicated by Julia Charlton in Activate/Captivate: Collections re-engagement at Wits Art Museum. This speaks volumes to a number of black creatives, particularly black women, like Esther Mahlangu and Nesta Nala, who make artworks that are now housed in the WAM collection storeroom (2015). These artworks are being headed, written, curated, labeled, critiqued and controlled by white women. Why are black women not in charge of the aforementioned roles? In Intellectuals and Power, Michel Foucault speaks about how the masses know how to articulate themselves and therefore intellectuals now realize that they are no longer needed to gain knowledge because the former knows far better how to express themselves (Foucault, 1972).

Structures such as artworks, texts, institutions and art schools systematically gate keep and debar intersectionality. South African contemporary art upholds white hegemony. Post-Apartheid South Africa is an example of how we are still participating in an attempt at transformation – whether that attempt is successful or not, is subjective. As black artists, although the attempt to move away from the appeal of the white gaze and keeping our politics away from white cubic spaces such as the gallery space is often one that is in vain; it is still white women who possess the power to control how these works move and how they are engaged with. An example of this systemic power could be how Africans can render themselves expressionless when it comes to writing or speaking about themselves, and their histories. Africans are removed, intellectually, from their geographical habitats, their arts, crafts, objects and learn about them through white-western anthropologists, archaeologists, and curators who actively use and extract from Africa as a knowledge base (Khan, 2007). This is why a Black African scholar cannot write about African beadwork, basketry, African figures without referencing Prof. Emeritus Anitra Nettleton, who as a white woman, cannot even speak an African language which is important to the work she is known for.


Looking at the kinds of women in power positions in art institutions, we need to explore the demographics and identities of these women. This was successful in addressing the gender inequalities, but does it address racial inequalities? The answer is no.


According to the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) in 2011; “… the breakdown of male and female business owners, 47% to 53%, is relatively gender-equal until you look at their employees. In senior and middle management, a dramatic 43% are white women and 16% black women – the smallest segment – making a total 59% women.

In terms of racial transformation, the 60% of employees of colour sounds positive. But the overwhelming majority – 77% – of these are technical ancillary and volunteer positions. On a management level, there are only 34% people of colour. In terms of overall employment, white men are the most marginalized at 15%…” (Botha, 2015).


In the majority of previously white South African universities, the staff is almost entirely white. “However, being white does not necessarily mean being anti-transformation the same way, being black is not synonymous with transformation.” (Maserumule, 2015)


Transformation, in its most important phase, begins in the lecture hall. According to Achille Mbembe’s Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive (2016) text, he claims that the consensus is that part of what is wrong with our institutions of higher learning is that they are ‘Westernized’. It is important when forming a new knowledge and curriculum that we do not only think about the present but also how it can be sustained. This will inform the way people think and the way people speak and engage in various languages and contexts.


How do we then go about transforming the curriculum in higher education today? According to Harry Garuba’s article in the Mail and Guardian in April of 2015, he stated that the first step to creating a new curriculum is to recognize the cultural and scientific production – the knowledge – of previously marginalized people such that the new government of 1994 was supposed to fix these irregularities in universities as well. This can be done in two ways:

  1. “In your own discipline, you may, first, want to adopt a content-driven additive approach and expand the curriculum already in place. Or you may want to adopt the different approach of thinking about how the object of study itself is constituted, what tools are used to study it and what concepts are used to frame it. This is because analytical tools and concepts may marginalize some students and privilege others.
  2. Contrapuntal analysis (a musical term that has to do with two melodic lines played simultaneously) takes into account the perspectives of both the colonized and the colonizer, the interwoven histories – without necessarily syncing them to the other while erasing the other.” (Garuba, 2015)


The texts prescribed were not included, based on how this alternative project came about. There was an active decision not to use those texts because we felt as though they were limiting. Given the context of this paper, it was an uninformed decision on the lecturer’s part because these writers were black men who were at the forefront of Black Consciousness. Although we do agree with some of the ideas that they explore, they were somewhat problematic for they were not inclusive of black women and that is the standpoint of which we formed the basis of this essay, therefore;


In conclusion, it is important to note that in the process of trying to create our own narratives, definitions and modes of understanding, there will always be barriers because as long as there are existing power structures that are put in place to benefit a certain kind of person and silence another, there needs to be effective dismantling of these power structures by those who hold the power. To quote Emma Bedford, “Where are the black women who are producing works about their position, their location in history and society, and their particular perspectives?” (Bedford, 1999)


To answer Bedford’s question, the attempts that we have made throughout this course and in our personal practices are small steps to dealing with these oppressive systems, understanding them and reclaiming them to make them work for us.






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