Rhopography: Banal Objects in the Work of Zwelethu Mthethwa and Andries Gouws
In recent work, two South African artists, Zwelethu Mthethwa, a photographer, and Andries Gouws, a painter, have pared down their subject-matter to a minimum. In this paper I return to separate studies I have done on these two artists and compare their rendering of banal subjects through the prism of Norman Bryson’s essay on “Rhopography” in his remarkable book Looking at the Overlooked.i
Zwelethu Mthethwa is well-known internationally for his great series of portraits of South African people, notably the Interior Portraits of 1995-2000, The Lines of Negotiation images of sugarcane workers of 2003-4, and The Brave Ones, portraits of adolescents in the Shembe – that is, African Christian – Church of 2011. Although his work has often been interpreted in socio-historical terms with the claim that Mthethwa is demanding some sort of political action on behalf of his subjects, his own views, as expressed in many interviews over the years, seem to point to more simple and fundamental issues such as the triumph of the individual over adversity and the correction of perceptions of marginalized people in the world’s image economy.
In all his portraits, Mthethwa is attentive to the material circumstances of his subjects not, as some argue, as signs of deprivation but, on the contrary, as indications that the sitters are able to make something out of nothing and so express their own agency. In the portraits that are taken in shacks, for example, the brilliance of their décor and the obvious cleanness of everything inside them represent a clear refusal of their occupants to be defeated by poverty. In recent projects, Mthethwa has extended this theme in his representations of the living arrangements themselves. The Empty Bed series, for example, depicts the sleeping accommodation in certain informal dwellings, not to point to the poverty of their owners, and still less to imply absence due to sickness or death – the scourge of HIV/AIDS is sometimes mentioned in connection with this series – but rather to allow the sense of comfort they embody to speak for itself. These apparently simple photographs provide an extraordinarily rich sense of lives that are lived. In The End of an Era series of 2011, Mthethwa has also dispensed with the human figure and presented only the details of poor peoples’ living arrangements in hostel quarters. But, unlike Martha Rosler, who removed the human subject from her series on The Bowery in the belief that to photograph Bowery alcoholics would add nothing to what the spectator already knows about them and so showed only the traces of their movement through the suburb, Mthethwa makes these empty spaces speak volumes about the lives they support.
The spatial context of these new photographs has changed from the informal dwellings of the early Interior Portraits and Empty Bed series that bear witness to the domestic pride and creativity of their owners, to migrant labourer hostels whose residents are, by definition, transitory. In these still single-sex hostel rooms – the government plans to refurbish them as family accommodation, hence Mthethwa’s title of The End of an Era – there are no signs of ownership and few indications of domesticity. Yet the tenants of these spaces have come up with extraordinarily inventive ways, for example, to store their clothes, to prepare food, and to maintain the basic necessities of life. Mthethwa has explored these spaces with a sympathetic eye, obviously admiring the creativity of his subjects and determined to share the value they attribute to their sparse and rudimentary possessions.
In fact, there are two kinds of photographs in The End of an Era series, ‘interiors’ and ‘still lives’. Just to invoke these terms to describe Mthethwa’s work relates his project to the history of Western art in which these genres have had a long and illustrious history. The genre of ‘interiors’, for example, has been used to affirm the lifestyle of the owner (very often the artists themselves) in the description of a familiar space filled with familiar objects – furniture, textiles, paintings and ornaments. In Western art, the genre has been used not simply to affirm but also to assert this notion of lifestyle, to proclaim the exceptional value of taste in a mundane world. In Western ‘Interiors’ material possessions, therefore, are not simply objects of value in their own right, they are also vehicles that privilege the aesthetic life and the very act of looking. Mthethwa’s appropriation of the genre for his depiction of hostel spaces demands that the spectator look at these humble, transitory dwellings with the eye of an artist. In responding to the extraordinary qualities of light and texture in these photographs, their controlled compositions and resonant colour, the viewer is being asked to transfer this appreciation from the fact of the photograph to the reality of the migrant labourer’s space. Mthethwa’s project in these ‘interiors,’ therefore, is not simply to record, nor even to affirm the migrant labourers’ lifestyle, but somehow to raise it meaningfully to an unprecedented aesthetic level.
For present purposes, of course, it is the objects in these interior spaces that concern us most. An important distinction between Mthethwa’s ‘interiors’ and the genre in the history of Western art is that the spaces in the End of an Era are dormitory spaces, not actual living spaces; their occupants clearly use them simply to retire from the world, to sleep, and to prepare themselves for the next day of work. The objects represented relate to these functions. On the one hand, there are beds, pillows and blankets, with ashtrays, candles to illuminate night spaces, and an alarm clock to bring an end to the night’s rest. On the other hand, there are various forms of cleansing and grooming equipment– tooth brushes and paste, bars of soap, creams, combs, scrubbing brushes, clothes pegs, and a fragment of mirror. These are modest items, indispensable, one would think, for a rudimentary existence. Yet Mthethwa seems to want to say more about them. Certainly, he notes in the way he frames his scene the obvious poverty of the life that is represented through these objects. But in his considered reproduction of the ordered arrangement of these modest possessions and his clear recognition that most of these objects are used by their owners to prepare themselves for the outside world, Mthethwa is clearly making a statement on the dignity and pride of the lives that are represented through them. In these forms, in other words, Mthethwa indicates what Njabulo Ndebele in The Rediscovery of the Ordinary calls “the unproclaimed heroism of the ordinary person.”ii Moreover, this metonymic statement is enhanced immeasurably by both the balanced, serene manner in which he composes his images and his uncanny ability to translate the meager light of the hostel spaces into the artful medium of a still life painting. In terms of both subject-matter and style, therefore, these interior spaces are effectively transfigured through Mthethwa’s photography.
Within The End of an Era series, there is another group of photographs that relates even more closely to the historical genre of still life. In the communal spaces of the hostels, where there is apparently a rudimentary power supply, Mthethwa came across an array of improvised heating and lighting appliances devised by the migrants to exploit it [Figure 1]. These instruments, put together from sundry sources and certainly not compliant with any municipal safety standards, speak clearly to their makers’ poverty as much as to their ingenuity and their will to survive. Mththethwa, it would seem, wants his viewers to appreciate all these qualities, but also, through loving attention to their textures and their overall tonality against the grim concrete floor of the hostel, to recognize a certain beauty in these forms that effectively raises them to a metaphorical level. As the poet Stephen Watson writes of similar crude instruments in farm labourers’ huts in the Cedarberg in a diary entry for 12th May 1996, these are implements “with which a human being might colonise the non-human, creating an island, an oasis of self-sufficiency in a realm otherwise hostile or indifferent”.iii
In his marvelous book, Looking at the Overlooked, Norman Bryson uses similar vocabulary to describe the appearance of banal objects in Western still life painting. His chapter “Rhopography,” which deals with objects seemingly too trivial to warrant attention in daily life and in art, is particularly useful in understanding the full significance of Mthethwa’s images. Thus Bryson writes that Juan Sanchez Cotan’s kitchen still lifes – in which the seventeenth-century Spanish monk might present as little as a couple of vegetables on a plain kitchen shelf – can be seen from one point of view as an ennoblement of the commonplace, but from another as a pointed assault on what the world normally considers important. Significantly, this attack, according to Bryson, is directed at both the arbitrary scale of values attached to material things and the adjustments of the human eye in accordance with this scale. Bryson writes that “Cotan’s paintings aim to persuade vision to shed its worldly education – both the eye’s enslavement to the world’s ideas of what is worthy of attention, and the eye’s sloth, the blurs and entropies of vision that screen out everything in creation except what the world presents as spectacular.” Because of this, Bryson continues, “sight is taken back to a vernal stage before it learned how to scotomise the visual field, how to screen out the unimportant and not see, but scan.”iv Bryson notes that Cotan’s method in this project was the development of the style of hyperreality that prevents the viewer from simply ignoring or overlooking his humble subject-matter. In the hands of a master, perhaps, photography can achieve a similar effect today. The leveling of vision in Cotan obviously stems from a profoundly Christian sense of humility, but there is a democratic element within it that would surely appeal to Mthethwa. Certainly, the lives that are made noteworthy in his End of an Era series are the lives of working people on the very margins of society.
There is a second point in Bryson’s exploration of rhopography that might also help in understanding Mthethwa’s series, which is the idea that certain still life objects, notably ceramics, proclaim both their handmade quality and their habitual function and so encourage a tactile appreciation, not just in an appeal to the sense of touch but in the stronger idea that use of such objects is deeply familiar. This tactility in turn demands a proximal space that is measured more by gesture than by perspective. Bryson’s example in this regard is Francisco de Zurburan, but one could easily add Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. Both these artists celebrate the beauty of simple domestic objects and through that, the familiar feel and taste of well-loved forms, and through that again, the simple, domestic values they seem to embody. Mthethwa’s still life forms also are manifestly hand-made, albeit in a new, unexpected way; and their functions are self-evident, if somewhat precarious. In the same way that the outline of a hand in a prehistoric rock painting speaks powerfully through the millennia of a shared humanity, this inescapable purpose of providing the basic human needs for light and heat establishes common ground with the viewer of these extraordinary still life objects.
As paintings, the still lifes of Andries Gouws connect rather more strongly to Bryson’s comments on the significance of style than do Mthethwa’s photographs. For example, the quality of hyperreality that Bryson claims prevents the viewer of Cotan’s paintings from disregarding his presentation of banal objects can at best be only approximated in the medium of photography. Hyperreality is an invented dimension constructed in the studio rather than discovered in the everyday world. Andries Gouws has long studied the work of painters, including Cotan, Zurburan and Chardin, and — especially– Johannes Vermeer, who, for differing reasons, have wanted to enrich their viewers’ apprehension of the material world. In fact, Gouws seems to have learned from these masters how to perceive the world and its objects as “alternatively numinous and banal”, the banal lying, as he puts it, “on this side of meaning, and the numinous in the beyond of meaning.” Like his mentors, his painter’s vocabulary comprises light and the illusion of three-dimensional form. However, this is not a rational, Florentine light that is used simply to define the substance of things, but a light that in caressing forms and filling space effectively enhances perception and raises it to another level. For Gouws, painting is a contemplative act, and he wants his viewers to join in the experience, to slow down their eye in apprehending the work, as his own eye was slowed down in the lengthy process of making it. He wants his viewers to become absorbed in the illusion and for this absorption to translate to a state of meditation so that objects, when focused upon, take on a heightened sense of reality and become, in effect, transfigured.
While still deeply respectful of his art historical mentors, Gouws has gradually tried to free himself of their influence, believing that while artistic precedent may undoubtedly enrich one’s perception, it will inevitably also stand in the way of original apprehension. To achieve what Bryson calls the “vernal state of vision”, before it is reduced to short-hand and compromise, Gouws has found it necessary to abandon both the conventions of established genres like still life and interiors, and reject any subject that is “too loaded with intrinsic interest, utility or attractiveness” [Figure 2].Paradoxically, his “dream of cultivating awareness of all things indiscriminately” has obliged him to reject any form with extraneous meaning, whether art historical precedent, literary association or rhetorical reference. In searching for apparently meaningless objects on which he can uninterruptedly fix his gaze, Gouws, like Mthethwa, has discovered rhopography, “those things,” in Bryson’s definition, “that lack importance, the unassuming material base of life that ‘importance’ constantly overlooks”. Bryson’s point in defining the subject-matter that Gouws has gradually worked his way towards is that rhopography in this sense, is not only different from significant literary subjects of one kind or another, but actually constitutes a challenge to them.
Andries Gouws’ recent paintings of objects, therefore, represent a radical kenosis, a purging or emptying out of all worldly concerns. While clearly appreciating the formal achievements of Cotan or Zurburan, he would completely reject their Christian moralizing. Similarly, while responding so positively throughout his career to the celebration of the material world by Vermeer and Chardin, he would part company with the one’s equal attention to both opulence and plainness that somehow confirms the contemporary social order, and the other’s unmistakable bourgeois morality. More to the point of this paper, Gouws’ exclusive attention to the material form of his chosen subject-matter separates his project from that of Zwelethu Mthethwa, who uses similar banal objects expressly to underline the humanity of their makers. Gouws’ project in voiding his work of such overt purpose is to focus “attention on the suchness of things,” to achieve through prolonged contemplation of simple things a state of meditation. There is in this process the development of an unjudgemental way of seeing, an attempt, in Bryson’s words, “to persuade vision to shed its worldly education”.v But for Gouws, the eye is retrained not for didactic purposes, as it is with the other artists, but as an end in itself or, more properly, as a means for viewers to transcend their individual boundaries and engage with a larger world.
On reflection, of course, one might think that it is not really possible for there to be a meaningless art, for an art to be only about seeing without either content or direction. There must be some purpose, some psychology in the will ever to reduce one’s subject-matter, to seek only the “things that lack importance,” the trivial, the banal. We have seen thatMthethwa in his recent work seeks out banal forms as material evidence of our common humanity. But there is something insistent in Gouws’s choice of desolate interiors and uninteresting objects that, in going beyond the banishment of plenitude and beauty, both refuses any positive reading and suggests a state of withdrawal from the pleasures of the world. For Cotan, monastic withdrawal was relieved by the optimism of his Christian pedagogy. But Gouws sees his work as “a way of coming to terms with, and even celebrating a world not answering to human desires.” In this way, Gouws appears to conflate the idea of meditative self-denial with the apprehension of the ruins of human culture in a sort of existential wasteland. In strong contrast to the optimistic expression of Zwelethu Mthethwa’s End of an Era series, therefore, the view of the human condition in Andries Gouws recent Interiors and still lifes is a bleak, Samuel Beckett-like state of isolation and resignation.
Figure 1: Zwelethu Mthethwa, Untitled (from The End of an Era), 2011, Chromogenic Print, 81.3 x 104.1cms.
Figure 2: Andries Gouws, Basin – Poplar Grove, Colesberg, 2000, oil on board, 15.0 x 21.5cms, Private Collection Utrecht, Netherlands.
i Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, London: Reaktion Books, 1990. See also Michael Godby, ‘Documentary Portraiture: Zwelethu Mthethwa’s Invention of a new Photographic Genre’ 11-19 in Zwelethu Mthethwa: New Works, Cape Town: IArt Gallery, 2011; and Michael Godby, “Stains upon Silence: Reflections on two series of Work by Andries Gouws’ 8-14 in Andries Gouws: Pedestrian Pantings, Durban: Hardpressd, 2011.
ii Njabulo Ndebele, ‘The Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Some new Writings in South Africa’ (1984) 37-57 in The Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Essays on South African Literature and Culture, Johannesburg: Congress of South African Writers, 1991.
iii Stephen Watson, A Writer’s Diary, Cape Town: Quellerie, 1997, 77.
iv Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked, 64 and 65
v Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked, 64.