cocooned

[Tracey] Rose's attempt to unravel 25 crocheted doilies -- some given to her by her grandmother, others made by women in a colored community outside Oudtshoorn -- and wind the threads around a police monument of an officer and his dog in the town's main road was halted when she was surrounded by several officers demanding that she cease work. Finally, one of the officers cut the doily threads with a knife.

For Rose the physical act of unraveling constituted a laying open of the past, making visible those events and those race groups previously oppressed under apartheid, and yet still glaringly absent from the festival. Yet her intentions and the nuances of the piece were lost on the visibly threatened Oudtshoorn police, who dismissed the performance as "an embarrassment" tarnishing their image and demanded that she leave33.


Tracey Rose, Unravel(led), performance, doilies, police 1998.
I'd like to conclude my examples of iconoclasm resisting censorship by narrating an unfinished performance by Tracey Rose, at the Little Karoo National Arts Festival in April, 1998. The festival took place in Oudtshoorn, a small predominantly Afrikaans South African town, one of the earliest places where the racially exclusionist landscape of Apartheid was laid out. Each designated "race" group was given its own residential area, and no one who was not white was allowed to live in town. Things have changed somewhat since the elections of 1994, but it is still a very conservative place. The town, and its environs in the Karoo, is to this day one of the last hold-outs of an anachronistic white separatist mentality. In 1997 Miriam Makeba was pelted with beer cans by rowdies at a concert there, and a sculpture by Willie Bester was urinated upon by a local gentleman. This despite the fact that a very large section of the population is "colored" under the old Apartheid definitions. Colored, and Afrikaans-speaking. Rose, whose art often addresses issues of color and identity, and who would have been classified as "colored" herself under the old regime, made a point of confronting the tensions in this small town and the contradictions of the Afrikaner festival (which was hardly 'national' in its content).

Why doilies? I asked. "In Afrikaans naai means 'stitch', but it also means 'sex,'" Rose was adamant about this point:

Where I grew up all the women are shut up in this thing, in a women's knitting circle, from age sixteen and up. . . . doilies were like a trophy of fucking female worth. They were female damage control. Doilies reek of oppression. They represented so much oppressed pussy. Bottle it up. You don't want to speak, and even if you do, the gross incapacity to speak is tied up in these little knots. Your busying hands shut you up in the box of self-censorship.In unknotting the doilies and stringing them around the police monument, Rose saw her performance not as destruction (of the doilies or the police image) but as re-creation, as re-formation of something already created: the tension between colored women and white men in South Africa, especially in small Dorpies (towns) like Oudtshoorn.You need to understand the relationship of the colored female to that town, within the general misogyny of male/female relationships in South Africa -- especially in this small separatist town where a sizable number of the population are "colored Afrikaans." The role/stereotype of the colored female in South Africa is summed up in the joke: "all the men who come through want to pass through the colored girls here". Not black nor white nor indian, her [colored] body stands for a sex act. Because of this, their bodies were controlled or displaced34.
The image of a "colored" person brings to mind a sex act, and an image of miscegenation, which was the biggest contradiction for race purists. How could there even be such a thing as a colored or black Afrikaner? According to Rose, if you were colored it was as if you were the product of some kind of "illicit sex". It appears that "Everyone has been fucking and raping to make you." When of course everyone is the product of some sexual encounter &emdash; but that is not the point. The point is that being labeled "colored" one was (and is?) being labeled semi-criminal, a bastard, but also exotic, sexy, desirable. It is this double sense &emdash; of being made in the image of a sex object, but also repressed, contained, kept in ones place by Apartheid and the general misogyny of South African society, and more so the self-contained fear within those black women subjected to the rule of white men &emdash; that Rose refers to in her remarks on doilies and women's self-silencing. The doilies sublimate repression.

"I didn't choose this body but am expected to represent it," claims Rose. If asked, she will represent it in a manner which differs from what is expected. Wrapping a monument to police in doilies was meant to be a contradiction of the publicly imposed terms of colored identity &emdash; but it was meant to be a revelation too, an unraveling of that which lay behind the public image. For Rose, the gesture was a "romantic" one. She saw the police statue as kitschy, but also very sexy: "It was big, and intimidating, but also sensitive looking with the german shepherd (which reminded her of her own knock-kneed german shepherd) &emdash; it was incredibly sexy." It epitomized the position of white men in authority in the old South Africa. The previous day Abrie Fourie's camera caught the artist posing like a pin-up girl on the monument, practicing for the following day's performance, her hand resting provocatively on the cop's belt and her leg dangling over the side of the german shepherd. At the actual performance Rose would wear a provocative see-through white gown, and nothing under.

The performance was an effort to make peace with the fractured past of the country. To put desire back on the table and to bring love back into the picture. To have a little sexy fun with a boorish image from the past. To open up the repressive loops of the doilies, and wrap them lovingly around a public image of the oppressor (but also the mate), covering it, and enfolding it. But the gesture fell incomplete. "I felt frustrated afterward," Rose said, "It felt like the beginning of the middle."

The performance began with a gathering of artists and friends, in town for the festival, at the police monument. Rose calls these spectators her "cocoon" and claims she would not have been able to go through with the performance if it wasn't for the protective white, art world bubble that surrounded her.

The monument was backed by a semi-circular wall upon which plaques, depicting the duties of the police, were affixed. One of the plaques had been taken down after the 1994 elections, the one illustrating "fighting communism". A stain was left in its place, marking the edges of the missing bronze. In the place of this plaque, Rose affixed museum labels with the names of women who made the doilies she would unravel. From the moment she stepped up on the sculpture the local police were there, unnerved by what was going on. In under ten minutes it was over.

The police said in Afrikaans, very politely to get off the statue: 'Hey, hey lady. Please, would you . . . ' I said back to them, in Afrikaans: 'I'm sorry I don't understand Afrikaans' then they were forced to speak in broken English, 'Can you climb off?' 'But I'm not finished yet.'
One of the policemen started sobbing, begging her to get off. Another said, "Don't insult us." The artist Willem Boshoff, who was standing in the crowd (and was also exhibiting at the festival), told the offended officer, in the purest Afrikaans: "But these are doilies, they are made with love. How could they be an insult?" The policeman replied, aggressively "Ja. But how would you like it if I put one on your head!" Then Boshoff took one of the doilies from the stack in his arms, placed it on his head, and just stood there. Another policeman, one with blond hair, was visibly angered, placed his hand on the base of the statue, opened a pen knife, then climbed up and began cutting the strings as Tracey laced them around the figure of the man and his dog. Eventually the captain came out, smiling, and told Rose "You'll have to come down now or I'll have to arrest you. You are upsetting the guys." At which point the performance was ended and the group of artists departed. The captain waved them off, saying, "send me a picture.35"

For Rose the whole event transacted (and inverted) the very sexualized competition between men and women, between white men and colored women, and between the police and the rest in South African society. Who protects, and who serves whom? For her it was refreshing to see male sensitivity from these supposedly hardened men. What was so unsettling for these white police about the brief performance? Was it their fear of the black peril, now that the Africans had taken over the country were they planning to invade this small town too? I don't think that was it. The group around the performance was composed of rag-tag looking white artists, and the police themselves. Where was the swart gevaar in one lone colored woman climbing on a statue? The answer lies in what Tracey Rose identified as the structured sexual competitiveness between white men and colored women in South Africa, where the men protect (and keep down) and the women serve and keep quiet. Her performance both revealed that hidden order of things, pointed to the ways in which the small town monument bolstered those gendered relations, and it also inverted them temporarily. By dressing sexy and actively embracing the kitsch statue with her kitsch doilies, Rose took the passive sexuality of the colored woman and made it active, and she took the dominating image of the white masculine oppressor and "protector" and wrapped it in love. Her goal was, in a sense, to make a giant doily out of the police statue. In doing so perhaps she also meant to wrap the big white phallus of a sculpture in a giant womb woven by the colored community. A strange act of reconciliation.

But a failed one. She claims the curator of the show, who was helping with the performance, at one point got really nervous. His break in confidence brought down hers. The cocoon of white artists she relied on for protection had broken down, so the cocoon of reconciliation she was trying to wrap around the police monument also fell apart. For a moment, though, she had unsettled that small town image of the ideal way of life. I couldn't help wondering, when Tracey Rose explained the whole thing to me, if perhaps her performance and its frustrated "ending at the middle" was not an apt metaphor for the state of South Africa at the moment?


33 Lauren Shantall "Feathers Fly at Feast" Mail and Guardian April 9, 1998.
34 Unless otherwise noted, all quotes by Rose are from an interview with the author, 1/8/03.
35 The event was reconstructed for me by Tracey Rose and Abrie Fourie, with the help of photographs and a diagram of the scene drawn by Rose.

censorship and iconoclasm -- unsettling monuments

John Peffer
2003, used with the permission of the author


introduction
going commando
image breaking: wayne barker's pierneefs, 1989
cocooned
conclusion