Deborah Posel – Vulnerabilities


Deborah Posel, WISER


This text is from the catalogue to the SpierContemporary 2007 Art Awards finalists’ exhibition, p. 24-27.


Living with insecurity: one of the sociological mantras of our late modern times. Not that the world of the past had ever been predictable, safe or secure; rather, that recent decades have been characterised by a mounting preoccupation with the ubiquity of risk. Several influential social theorists refer to a ‘risk society’, in which the sense of being perpetually at risk pervades the experience and representation of late modernity. As Anthony Giddens (1) put it, we live in times in which ‘thinking in terms of risk (has) become more or less inevitable’ .


There are some obvious resonances of this analysis in our ‘new’ South Africa. Insecurity is our post-apartheid lament, all the more poignant for its contiguity and entanglement with newfound freedoms. Ours are now the insecurities borne of unruly opportunities, rather than the insecurities of the capricious, brutal authoritarianism of the past. And unsurprisingly, the fragility of life and immanence of death – whether at the hands of criminals, drunken drivers, or in the path of the HI virus is a common element in post-apartheid imaginaries.


We live with these insecurities in different ways some angry and defensive, others traumatised and damaged. Many of the art works in this exhibition invoke another way, less garrulously spoken in the narratives of everyday lives. Such works, as I see them, is a rendition of vulnerability as a way of being in the world.


What does it mean to be vulnerable? The word has a range of associations and connotations: being fragile, exposed, assailable, sensitive, at risk of hurt or damage. One of the remarkable features of the works I have selected for a more focused discussion (below) is an unusually lyrical vulnerability, in an eloquent acceptance of things as they are. Theirs is a vulnerability borne neither of helplessness and hopelessness, nor naïveity and sentimentalism. They render ways of inhabiting a complex and unpredictable world that are at peace with the edginess or fragility of things, without the impulse to take defensive cover. Each art work is a declaration of a self or selves exposed – and with that, a declaration of a comfortable un-guardedness. And in each case, skin becomes a metaphor of the vulnerable life of the self. Exteriority is a visualisation of interiority, which is itself part of the message of these works: to be open to the world is to risk exposing an inner life, ‘on the skin’, so to speak.


Januarys, the photograph by Zanele Muholi, is an endearing – and daring image of two black male lovers, their bodies tenderly draped together in a moment of relaxed and ordinary everydayness. There is no muscular affectation, no erotic posturing here. The naked torso of the smaller man is comfortably unglamorous, his bare skin a testimony to a body and self that just is, as it is. Likewise, the relationship between the two men, and their positioning vis a vis the camera, is unthreatened and unharrassed. Here are two men who inhabit their bodies and their relationship with sanguine ease, as if it could be no other way. Yet a public declaration of black homosexuality in as unformulaic and intimate a way as this, in this place and at this time, also has an edge. Whatever the constitutional guarantees of the country’s new democratic dispensation, homophobic violence remains a reality, etched painfully into everyday life in many regions and settings.


Andries Gouws’ two paintings, Feet1 and Feet2, also capture an inextricable mix of solidity and fragility. The images offer close-ups of aging feet parts of the body normally concealed within shoes. There is a poignancy, then, to the nakedness of these feet, exposed to an unusually close scrutiny. And skin, once again, evokes an interior life in this case, the weight of the past. We see skin that has thinned and lost its elasticity, revealing the veins and tendons that a young, vigorous foot would conceal. Having walked through extended lives and weathered the ravages of age, this skin now looks frail and easily damaged. Yet there is also great robustness in these well-worn feet, firmly planted on the ground in the here and how. Theirs is a declaration of existential facticity: they stand in, and stand for, an indubitable present, one that is impossible to dispute or deny. And in so doing, they bring their pasts to bear, as part of their footprint. We are as we have become, over the course of lives that have taken their toll. Here too, then, is a lyrical vulnerability in the capacity to live with the frailty of aging and stand firm nevertheless.


Keep, by Elizabeth Gunter, is a series of drawings of dogs, which I read metaphorically as a reflection on the vulnerability of living beings more generally. Each drawing captures a posture of extraordinary openness, exposing angles and parts of the dogs’ bodies that are difficult to discern when the creatures are upright and walking in command and on guard. These are images of unguarded moments, playful in some cases, alert and expectant in others. They are also drawings of taut, sinewy and therefore, resilient bodies, with a palpable pulse of life. Yet there is a simultaneous sense of inherent frailty, evoked largely through the sense of skin that covers, but doesn’t conceal, the tangle of flesh beneath. The viewer almost sees the bones, tendons, sinews and muscle that lie beneath the skin and that bring the animal to life. The dogs are also extremely lean too lean, in fact, as if to emphasise a precarious relationship to life. Indeed, in all these drawings, the evocation of vigorous life is simultaneously an evocation of its fragility the immanent possibility of a fatal wound, inflicted in the softer, more vulnerable parts of the dogs’ bodies captured in modes of undefensive acceptance.




These works form part of the post-apartheid oeuvre of art that has broken from the telos of struggle and liberation. But they have also gone beyond the confessional moment and its yearning for redemptive healing. In each of these works, there is a gesture towards another version of freedom, a different self-positioning in relation to the weight of the past and the challenging complexities of the present. I am reminded of Njabulo Ndebele’s remarks in his Afterword to At Risk (2), edited by Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall . He writes, apropos the essays in this collection, of their acknowledgement of risk as an expression of freedom, a freedom that is at once more modest and more nuanced than the grander aspirations to liberation during ‘the struggle’. So too, these art works are emblematic of an aspiration to a freedom to be, in a world that promises but doesn’t guarantee it and an acceptance of the ineluctable vulnerability that goes with that.


1. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge, Polity Press, 1991 ) 125 – 126.


2. Njabulo Ndebele, ‘Afterword’, in Liz McGregor and Sarah Nuttall (eds), At Risk: Writings on and over the edge of South Africa (Johannesburg and Cape Town, Jonathan Ball, 2007), 243 246.


Professor Deborah Posel is Director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) at the University of Witwatersrand. She has written extensively on the history of apartheid. More recent work focuses on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the politics of sexuality and death in the midst of HIV/AIDS.


The artist thanks Professor Posel, SpierContemporary, and the Africa Centre for permission to use this text.