BY Okwui Enwezor in Reviews | 11 NOV 96
Featured in
Issue 31

Antoinette Murdoch

BY Okwui Enwezor in Reviews | 11 NOV 96

In her first solo exhibition, Antoinette Murdoch, 'a young Afrikaans Christian female contemporary artist', who did a stint as a religious student, works from a position that seeks to unsettle the reductive positions of classical feminist ideologies of gender and stereotype. By insisting that her 'main motivation for making art is based on the fact that I am a committed Christian' and not on any kind of camaraderie with sisterhood, Murdoch makes a bold attempt to redefine her position within the Johannesburg art world. Whether one is meant to take the artist's position literally or treat it as a kind of subterfuge to disarm overdetermined feminist readings poses an intriguing question. Nonetheless, Murdoch, in her astute and sophisticated installations and beautifully realised pieces, manages simultaneously to reveal exactly what feminism and Nationalism smell like when brought together. By titling her exhibition 'Trane Trekkers' (trane means 'tears' in Afrikaans and the politically chargedterm trekker recalls the Voortrekkers) she crosses the threshold of feminine aporia to a provocative nationalist peculiarity. The 'great trek', part of Afrikaaner legend, details the history of the march from the Cape coast across the Vaal River which the Afrikaans undertook more than a century ago to establish a place for themselves within South Africa, and which they commemorate today as a mark of their resilience and determination to survive.

This attempt to forge a national identity based on the ideals of race, shared language, and familial bonding, seen in the shadow of the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, sheds light on the manner in which all identities are established, fought over and inscribed as the desire of a majority, even when they remain largely a minority prerogative. Important in this context is how Afrikaans identity was not recognised by a majority African population who saw it as essentially exclusionary and racist. What one experiences from Murdoch's complex and thoughtful explorations, then, are feminism and nationalism's consecration, domestication and acculturation as numinous fetishistic fantasies. Read strictly on the strength of her work's play with many worn-out feminist codes (labour, domesticity, child rearing etc.) the exhibition approaches the dangerous territory of social kitsch. But read on its awareness that there is no single, strict position around which feminism is organised, her insistence on the religiosity of her purpose certainly provides delicious food for thought.

Unlike Charles Ledray's perversely redressed feminine/queer conflations, Murdoch's art is a work of seduction and renunciation. It reeks of glamour and sadness, lack and plenitude; though I would not go as far as imputing a reading of jouissance into it as the press release attempted. Is it because the artist has not heeded the lessons handed down by the generation of feminist artists from Judy Chicago to Lynda Benglis to Barbara Kruger et al? Or is it because of the quaint, lavender-soaked Victoriana so monumentalised by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own which her works recall? And what is it exactly that women are supposed to do in those rooms? What roles do they perform? For whose comfort and pleasure? Approached from some of these angles, Murdoch's assemblages of blinding white wedding dresses hung in rows, baptismal gowns, rolled up handkerchiefs (for wiping away tears and the sweat of labour?), garters, hats, bras, leggings, mini skirts, etc. all obsessively and laboriously stitched, woven, folded and pressed together from tissue paper, nylon and gossamer represent archly executed critiques of feminine confinement, stereotypes and the voracious masculinity that feeds on those roles.

Her formal language persistently pays obeisance to its methods. Aside from her concerns with the feminine (rather than feminist) Murdoch's linking of the much despised Afrikaans language (at least within the context of the resistance to Apartheid hegemony) with the social and political processes of renegotiating her identity in the 'New South Africa', reiterates the role that intransigent, male-dominated nationalist assumptions played at robbing South African citizens of their sense of belonging; their claim to a national identity. The invocation of nationalism here, might seem a loose one. However, if one considers the caustic defiance of a work like the Voortrekker's Dress (1996) as a metonym for a lost Afrikaans feminine honour, the reading might not then be that far-fetched. What is really remarkable about most of the work assembled here is not its mythologisation and reification of all kinds of symbols of feminine identity, but how very little cant accompanies the artist's gesture. Perhaps some of the objects (the white wedding dresses; a bag overflowing with handmade pink tissue paper roses; and the skeletal frame of a baby's dress pressed into the wall) and the way the absent bodies of women are invoked through the inscription of ritualistic violence, expurgation and piety, seem a bit sentimental at times.

However, if one gets the idea that Murdoch's narratives are of woman as tortured victim consumed with repeated weeping and sacrifices (as implied by a small installation of a row of rolled-up handkerchiefs), then she also resorts to a kind of 80s bad girl transgressive attitude in which women are capable of a little naughtiness and fetishistic indulgence. Her nylon jumpsuit and the woven gossamer and nylon apparel embody a kind of tentative, low grade Sadean Mise-en-abîme. I only wish that she could have explored this domain a bit more boldly, without letting all the hangups of her religious faith get in the way of a little fun.