Circumcised, Circumscribed


Axis Gallery, New York
January 11 – March 29, 2003

Thembinkosi Goniwe, Steve Hilton-Barber, Colbert Mashile, Peet Pienaar, Mgcineni “Pro” Sobopha, Brent Stirton

Circumcision circumscribes male cultural identity in many societies. In others, including the United States, it is merely a routine performed on male infants for supposed health benefits, now long disproved.

Increasingly, circumcision and all non-consenting genital mutilation is contested as cruelty, because it reduces sexual pleasure. This sacrifice of pleasure in favor of procreative sex was the moral basis for circumcision in many societies.

In South Africa, dozens of young men die each year from botched circumcisions. Many others suffer amputation or deformity. Yet traditional initiation rituals, which also teach core moral values alongside circumcision and other physical hardships, remain the key to manhood in some local societies.

In South Africa, circumcision provokes battles over traditionalism and modernity, and about race and representation. This exhibition features works that have charged the discourse about masculinity, and it includes some related documentation.

Steven Hilton-Barber’s documentary photographs of North Sotho circumcision ceremonies were censured by black viewers for violating ritual secrecy and exploiting black culture. Hilton-Barber was compelled to publish a defense of his position; see articleBrent Stirton recently photographed a circumcision gathering held at the court of the Xhosa king. The king’s express condition for Stirton’s access to this ceremony was that he not publicly show the penis in his images. Accordingly, Stirton is honor-bound to employ self-censorship in exhibiting these pictures.

Peet Pienaar and Thembinkosi Goniwe were both invited to participate in a Cape Town exhibition on male identity, curated by Jeremy Mulvey of the London-based Male Identity Group. Peet Pienaar’s exhibition proposal, to undergo circumcision and auction his foreskin on eBay, provoked charges of exploitation and racism from Thembinkosi Goniwe, whose own proposed works were performance stills from a reenacted Xhosa circumcision (exhibited here). Pienaar was expelled from the exhibition, but forged ahead anyway. He regarded his performance as including his censorship and the ensuing debate, conducted in public and in the media (see articles).

Pro Sobopha (who reviewed the controversial exhibition) brands images of circumcisions and mutilations into the type of blankets used by Xhosa initiates.

Colbert Mashile describes all of his art as an ongoing attempt to come to terms with his experiences while undergoing circumcision rituals at the age of ten. His traumas parallel those of numerous other South African men.