BACK TO ‘CIRCUMCISED’
Time Out, New York
March 20-27, 2003
Don’t let the ostensible subject of the exhibition- the ritual removal of the foreskin as practiced by tribes in South Africa- keep you away from this excellent exploration of the politics and pitfalls of postcolonial South African art and documentary photography. In the U.S., circumcision is routinely performed at birth and infrequently challenged as sexual cruelty. In South Africa, where tribes still perform circumcision on adolescents as part of their initiation into manhood, the practice lies at the heart of the nation’s struggle between traditionalism and modernity – a conflict all the more contentious in the era following apartheid.Instead of merely going for shock value, this show brings together a group of works, many of which have set off cultural controversies within South Africa, Axis has transported the art as well as the debates, described here in various texts contained in binders (ask for them at the reception desk). On view, for example, is Steve Hilton-Barber’s 1990 photo-essay on the North Sotho tribe, a series that provoked outcry (and death threats) by the black community over a white photo-journalist’s “violation” of the privacy of these secret rituals. In contrast, Brent Stirton, another white photojournalist, skirted controversy through self-censorship, reaching an agreement with the Xhosa king, who allowed him to photograph that tribe’s circumcision rituals as long as he did not explicitly present the penis in his documentation.
The fine artists in this show are not as discreet. Peet Pienaar, an Afrikaner, arranged for his own circumcision (the foreskin is on view in a jar), a work that resulted in his expulsion from a 2000 Cape Town exhibition on masculine identity. Thembinkosi Goniwe, a black artist who participated in the protest against Pienaar, is represented here by his visual response to the former’s project, Communication: XYZ, large-scale digital stills drenched in flamboyant color from a film of a performance based on Xhosa rituals. Less provocative, but far more moving, are Colbert Mashile’s idiosyncratic watercolors, whose quasi-representational vocabulary evokes the late work of Philip Guston. In an exploration of his own adolescent experience of ritual circumcision, Mashile offers hope that art can heal old wounds, both personal and political.
http://www.artthrob.co.za (July, 2000)
‘Cultural apartheid? Circumcision proposal provokes questions’
Questions of artistic freedom, cultural traditions, sterile conditions, and the problems of sponsorship have arisen from a proposal by performance artist Peet Pienaar to publicly undergo circumcision in a cubicle in an art gallery as his piece for an eight-man show entitled ‘Men and Masculinity’ planned for October. The gallery is the AVA in Cape Town, and Pienaar has proposed that a black medical doctor carry out the delicate operation. The British curator is Jeremy Mulvey, who has previously organised shows on the same theme in London and Barcelona, and has invited four British artists and four South African to take part.Under the headline ‘Artist cut up over gallery’s refusal to host circumcision’, the Sunday Times on July 9 suggested that Pienaar, a ‘white Afrikaans artist’ was embroiled in a row with two of his fellow artists on the show, Thembinkosi Goniwe and Zwelethu Mthethwa, saying that the two believed Pienaar’s ‘work’ was disrespectful towards black culture. The story inferred that the black artists were censoring the proposal.
Responding to the story in the Times, Goniwe denied that he had ‘objected’ to Pienaar’s proposal. ‘When I read the proposal, it was very interesting to me since my own work for the show deals with male circumcision’, said Goniwe today. ‘I never wanted Peet out of the show. I never said that Peet couldn’t do this, it’s just I had some questions or rather concerns about Peet’s idea. This is what I said to the news reporter Bonny Schoonakker. I told him I would have to meet with Peet first to discuss these concerns before responding. Instead, abusing his journalist position because of ‘this good story’ as he said to me, Schoonakker reduced the issue to ‘racial censorship’ in his article.’
Pienaar’s original proposal read in part: ‘My idea for the exhibition is to get a medical doctor to circumcise me live in the gallery. The whole event would be broadcast live on the Internet , members of the public would be charged to access the site. After the performance, my foreskin would be auctioned live via the Website. For the remainder of the show I would like to show daily pictures documenting the healing of the penis which would also be displayed.
‘Concept: In African tradition you are not a man unless you are circumcised, it is also a token of initiation as a man into society. The tradition is highlighted in the Xhosa culture where “manhood” or “initiation” rituals include circumcision, a practise which has become increasingly controversial in South African society, due to the deaths and infections which often accompany the ritual.
While, in traditional culture, circumcision would be performed in a group ritual for young adults, in white culture it is an embarrassing thing to get circumcised when you are an adult and it is an operation that would normally be private and confidential. Thus, by showing the performance live on the Net, in front of an audience, I am highlighting the strange tension that exists in this country between tradition (traditional concepts of masculinity) and technology (new concepts of masculinity). By auctioning the foreskin I am exploring how new concepts of masculinity are built around money and capital worth as opposed to the tradition and physical.’
Goniwe said today, ‘I would never censor an artist from doing what s/he wants to do. But having said that, an artist must take responsibility for his/her work, thus I will question the artist’s work/idea if necessity invites me to do so. Pienaar says, ‘In African tradition you are not a man unless you are circumcised,’ but which African tradition is he talking about? The west Africa, east Africa, southern Africa? It’s not true for every part of the continent. This in part illustrates the danger of being less informed, and yet buying into the established danger of colonial left-overs. Thus I am inclined to ask when is the re-colonising and the reframing of ‘the other’, as well as the exploitation of ‘the other’s culture’ going to come to an end?’
‘I should also ask, if one is practising circumcision as part of the Xhosa ritual, and in the name of “art” reduces the ritual to a commodity by offering the foreskin for sale on the net, what does this say to those the ritual originate and who sensitively hold dear and are emotional about the ritual? Isn’t this going to be offensive to some extent, inviting questions abuse, violation, and forth? These were the kind of concerns I was interested to raise with Pienaar.’
The AVA Gallery had its own anxieties about the piece – performing an operation such as a circumcision in the non-sterile and very public gallery could well be not only a health risk but be frowned upon by Metropolitan Life, sponsors of the space.
From London, curator Jeremy Mulvey commented, ‘a strength of the piece for us seems to be offered as a charged and confrontational metaphor for the continued tensions between black and white culture, particularly amongst men, beyond apartheid.’ At the same time, Mulvey raises questions about possible readings of the piece, and feels it imperative that the South African co-ordinator, Jill Trappler and Gallery director Estelle Jacobs are involved in a decision about the final form of the piece.
A compromise is in the air. Zwelethu Mthethwa is out of town, but Pienaar and Goniwe met on Friday with the fourth artist involved, Andrew Porter, and it now seems likely that Pienaar will have the circumcision performed elsewhere, possibly a week before the show, and his actual piece on the show will be a video presentation, a computer with an internet link, and maybe, Orlan-style, some work which might include, as Mulvey puts it ‘a suitably contained foreskin’.
‘Is it cultural apartheid or what one makes? Question on representation’
ArtThrob, July 11, 2000
by Thembinkosi Goniwe
I would like to respond to the article titled ‘Artist cut up over gallery’s refusal to host circumcision’, Sunday Times July 9, 2000 by Bonny Schoonakker (see July http://www.artthrob.co.za). What bothers me is when a journalist who is foreign or not critically orientated to certain discourse – in this case visual arts and its politics – sticks his nose, intruding under the rhetorical journalistic licence of covering “a good story”. Of course, a journalist has a right to cover any story, but it is also critical to know that writing about visual arts and its politics is not only about covering any “good story”. It is embarking on a complex critical practice demanding comprehensive understanding in order to illuminate the intricate issues involved. A lack of knowledge is very dangerous. In its worse impact, it corrupts the possibilities to improve critical debates on issues, of disputes, or contentious problems prevailing in contemporary South Africa. This is the case, especially when undertaken from one’s racial perspective and preoccupation.My ‘concerns’ towards Pienaar’s work – which was the case with Andrew Porter and Zwelethu Mthethwa, although in a different light – were premised on extending the debate Pienaar’s work initiated. As written in his proposal, my interest was the binary opposition: black medical doctor and white practising artist; traditional (ritual) and (modern) technology. Centrally, to my interest were concerns to understand why Pienaar’s work finds it ‘easy’ to make reference to “Xhosa culture”: what does he know about Xhosa circumcision ritual of manhood? Why not a Jewish or Muslim culture as a reference?
What concerns me is the appropriation of the Xhosa circumcision ritual, reduced to commodity by taking the ritual out of its proper cultural context. What message is sent to those ritual ‘originates’ [sic] who are sensitively emotional and who hold dear to it, when a white Afrikaans artist – a beneficiary of apartheid – not only raises questions under the problematic term “art” by auctioning his foreskin on the net but also exploits it for financial gain? In the meeting between myself, Pienaar and Porter on the 7 July, Pienaar boldly said “I want to make lots of money about this work, because a person will have to pay at least $I to access the website world-wide in the auctioning of the foreskin – imagine how much I will make?” Then, what does this tell us about Alby [sic] Sachs’ concern: “We live in such a terribly competitive society, and the money factor plays a big role. The temptation for sensation is a real one that corrupts artists – it brings you attention and sells work and to me it’s one of the terrible corruptors of contemporary society.”
Another concern was the subjugation of the black race to further a white Afrikaans artist’s interest. Pienaar anticipates using a black woman medical doctor, and I argue that he draws her into an art territory, a foreign discourse to her professional practice. Thus, she would be engaged not only to provide medical expertise, but also to be tested: to prove herself and represent other black doctors to gain the “trust” of white men. As Pienaar explains: “My use of a black medical doctor explores the poor trust us white South Africans have when it comes to professional help like medical, law etc… For men, this issue is specially huge, specially because it is the penis which is being treated…” Why and for how long will black professionals have to prove their ability or trust to the white race?
Apparently not only her skin colour seems significant in Pienaar’s work, but I also argue that the fear of white man towards black man is brought into question. Whether, it is deliberated or not, but I couldn’t divorce my understanding from the fact that, historically white men have never had any respect for black women who to date she is [sic] the greatest victim of a white man’s system, positioned at the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. Madhubuti writes that “White men do not fear Black women. The white man’s relation to Black women traditionally has been one of use, sexually and otherwise… White men do fear Black men. This fear may not be spoken and obvious to many Black people, but if one understands the history of white male/Black male relationships, it is evident that it is a history of war [power and control].”
Traditionally in Xhosa culture females do not circumcise the male, therefore what is Pienaar to say: advocating or establishing? This brings me to the question of power relations: on whose interests, intent and terms is her role defined and controlled? Who is under whose spell? The collaboration of the black medical doctor could be reduced to labour, although based on her medical profession. The contrast of black and white seems to operate on that level where the white has the idea and black provide the labour service? White is the thinker and black the labourer, and thus I see the black medical doctor as the “consumable Other who, [is] stripped of authority and … opened to the penetrative dominatory advances of ” a white Afrikaans artist.
The exercise of power by a white Afrikaans artist can be argued to rest on the fact that he is able to choose whatever and whoever would enable him to realise his artistic intent at whatever and [at] whoever’s expense. This is the “power, the ability to possess unquestionably, to exercise uncontested authority and manipulate at will” under the misgiving rhetoric: ‘the freedom of artistic expression’.
Whatever controversy Pienaar’s work provokes, I do not censor his work, but argue that it should not be divorced from the politics of representation, reframing or appropriation of the “other”, and culture of the “other”. Thus, a critical inquiry should not be reduced to ‘racial censorship” or framed in problematic wording such as ‘cultural apartheid’. It is not a taboo that in South Africa the politics of power relations and privilege based on economy and knowledge are still vested in the white race who will defend their position (see Grey Areas (1999) edited by Brenda Atkinson and Candice Breitz). Therefore, it is not by default that we now know that an emotional response from white art practitioners will mask the reality of the subordinate group when it comes to questioning those with power, privilege, access to education, resources and continuing control of institutions. If space allowed, much could be said!!!
“Circumcision debate important for local art discourse.”
Die Burger, July 31 2000
by Cobus van Bosch
Translation by Gary van Wyk
The panel discussion in front of an enthusiastic audience last Thursday at the Michaelis School of Art about the subject “The politics of art, race and censorship” yielded the same old statements and rhetoric, but it also raised a few fascinating and contemporary issues within current art discourse.The debate flowed from the decision to exclude artist Peet Pienaar from an exhibition to be held in October this year in Cape Town, because a fellow artist on the show, Zwelethu Mthethwa, threatened to withdraw if Peet Pienaar was permitted to exhibit his documentation of his circumcision on the show.
The panel consisted of Pienaar, artists Thembinkosi Goniwe and Mgcineni Sobopha, artist and critic Sue Williamson, Estelle Jacobs, director of the Association of Visual Arts Gallery, and artist Malcolm Payne who chaired.
Pienaar said that his circumcision project should be construed in the widest possible context, and that he does not specifically want to comment on the Xhosa circumcision ritual. Through the project, he wants to highlight a variety of changing concepts about manhood. For Goniwe, who will also show in the exhibition in October, the chief problem with Pienaar’s ideas is that black identity and culture are being appropriated. “When are white artists going to make art about being white, and about their own identity?” he asked. He mentioned that Pienaar specifically referred to the Xhosa ritual in his presentation and that this could offend those for whom the ritual has meaning.
That a black medical doctor will be used to perform the operation is, according to Goniwe, exploitation of a black person, and he further accused Pienaar of exploiting the whole issue financially by asking people to pay to view the documentation on the internet. Williamson spoke about “cultural apartheid” and the dangers of censorship. She referred to an exhibition she staged years ago about District Six and how she was criticized for being a privileged person making art about issues of which she had too little personal experience and was not victim.
She added that artists must be able to feel free, irrespective of their skin color, to make art about anything they want. But artists must realize that they cannot ignore the feelings of others and must be responsible in this regard. Williamson also was disappointed at the end of the discussion that no progress was made in the dialog between the different interest groups.
An interesting remark from the audience was that a huge fuss is being made about something that hasn’t happened yet. He was completely correct, and wrong. Pienaar’s work is essentially conceptual and came into existence the moment it was formulated and communicated. The operation is just the documentation.
Although few new insights came to the fore, the discussion was a critical public discussion about the nature and merits and nature of an exhibition itself, as well as its meaning and implication within the broader cultural discourse of defining identity, gender, colonialism, and the issue of “the other”.
Against this background, it may seem unimportant that Pienaar actually put his concepts into practice, but from another viewpoint it is necessary that it does occur, as now planned for October at the Bell-Roberts Gallery in Cape Town. Because we would hardly have had an art history if artists were continually prevented from creating transgressive and challenging art.
Irrespective of the form Pienaar’s project eventually takes, he will have to take responsibility for it. And the chances are good that the surrounding debate will become more important than the work itself.
Work ‘is not Xhosa ritual’
Die Burger, 9 August, 2000
by Peet Pienaar
Translation by Gary van Wyk
“My reference to an ‘African ritual’ is to more than just Xhosa ritual (there are other peoples in Africa besides the Xhosa, and the Xhosa don’t own circumcision as such). The work bespeaks far more than a narrowly defined racial interpretation of masculinity: the place of the Afrikaner man in South Africa, financial aspects, power, the body as an artwork and the sale of it, the role of the woman, and surely as many other questions as there are people. .
“I don’t think a black woman with a scalpel in one hand and my penis in her other hand is in a position of servitude, rather in a position of power. The financial aspect is part of my work because men are pressurized to demonstrate their manhood by being financially succesful. .
“Goniwe’s propositions on what white people should make art about are nothing more than cultural apartheid. Every artist has the right to make art about whatever he or she wants. .
“I don’t expect Goniwe to like my work, but I am not prepared to surrender to the say-nothing, dead art discourse that surrounds us today. I am tired of hearing that I can’t be part of exhibitions because of my skin color, language, or sexuality. And I am not prepared to be held back by artists who are not prepared to participate on an equal playing field. Apartheid, as you knew it, Goniwe, is gone (as you surely realise as a teacher at one of the best-known art schools in the country).
“Don’t be trapped in a protected argument about power relationships, and the economy and knowledge of the white race. It’s actually black artists who are putting the zeroes behind their artworks in this country, and black artists who are taken on world tours, and they who can afford new BMWs.”
“Bad blood flows over cutting-edge display”
Sunday Times, October 16, 2000
by Bonny Schoonakker
A spat has broken out between two trendy art galleries, the one accusing the other of racism and censorship for banning an artist’s account of his circumcision.
Suzette Bell-Roberts, of the Bell-Roberts Contemporary Art gallery, in Loop Street, Cape Town, this week slammed the AVA gallery for kowtowing to its patron and chief sponsor, the Metropolitan assurance group.
“We feel we cannot impose censorship on an artist whose work is of a sufficiently high standard,” said Bell-Roberts, who on Wednesday will host performance artist Peet Pienaar’s exhibition of a video documenting his surgical procedure.
The operation itself will be carried out tomorrow , on a day chosen to upstage the opening that evening of “Ubudoda: Images of Masculinity”, at the AVA gallery in Church Street, a few blocks away . The foreskin will then be placed in a jar of formaldehyde, put on display at the Bell-Roberts gallery, and offered for sale.
Pienaar’s “concept” had first been thought up for the AVA in February after he and three other artists were invited to submit a proposal. Following protests from two of the black artists invited to submit proposals – Thembinkosi Goniwe and Zwelethu Mthethwa – Pienaar’s work was withdrawn in May, with the AVA’s director, Estelle Jacobs, also citing concerns about offending Metropolitan.
Goniwe and Mthethwa felt that Pienaar had belittled the circumcision rituals of the Xhosa nation.
This week, Jacobs rejected Bell-Roberts’s accusations that she was practising censorship. She also questioned the project’s originality. “Thirty years ago an artist castrated himself in Germany and there was an American artist who once beheaded himself – who cares about this s**t?”
“Snipping flesh for art’s sake: Local artists are looking to surgery as a means of creation”
Mail & Guardian, 20 Oct 2000
It is tempting to use the cliché “cutting edge”, but surgery as art is at least a decade old. French artist Orlan is its most famous proponent, having undergone 10 cosmetic operations in her expression of carnal art.In her latest she has created “the largest nose technically possible and ethically acceptable”, thumbing her now prodigious proboscis at the millions of women who have had theirs altered in attempts to conform to conventional ideas of beauty.
Calling cosmetic surgery art is not far- fetched. A person conceptualises the image they want and then has it constructed to their specifications, projecting a message to the world. Two artists currently showing in Cape Town have taken surgery as the basis of art works, both of them using the medium of flesh and scalpel to examine issues of gender.
Peet Pienaar plays with his sense of self in I Want to Tell You Something…. Not unusual for Pienaar, but this time he cuts closer to the bone.
At the time of writing, Pienaar is languishing in bed, nursing his snipped willy. He has had himself circumcised and if all has gone well, you’ll be able to see the video at the Brendon Bell Roberts Fine Art Gallery.
Pienaar’s original proposal stirred a lot of controversy. He was invited to join ‘Ubudoda’, an exhibition examining masculinity currently showing at the Association for Visual Arts. Pienaar proposed going through a masculine “rite of passage”, a circumcision, like that undergone by Xhosa males. He wanted the operation done in the gallery by a black woman doctor while people around the world logged on to a live webcast for $1 a pop. He planned to auction his foreskin on the Internet.
Fellow exhibitor Thembinkosi Goniwe was horrified by Pienaar’s appropriation of a cultural ritual that is not his own, especially since he aimed to turn it into a commercial spectacle. Goniwe also questioned Pienaar’s use of a black doctor, accusing him of power-mongering. Pienaar responded: “The doctor would have my dick in one hand and a scalpel in the other. I think I would be the vulnerable one.” After a public debate between the artists, Pienaar was excluded from the show.
“When people look at this exhibition 20 years from now,” Pienaar tells me, “they’re not going to see the same debate. They’re going to see this as a time when white male Afrikaners were feeling oppressed by their identity. “Most Afrikaners aren’t circumcised – it’s a Jewish, Muslim or Xhosa thing – and this is a symbol of me broadening my identity.”…
“Cut to the quick: Body Language”
Mail & Guardian, 27 Oct 2000
Shaun de Waal
Cape Town artist Peet Pienaar’s work I Want to Tell You Something …, in which he had himself circumcised on camera (reported in this paper last week) raises debate about taboo issues.The first is that of cultural traditions. Fellow artist Thembinkosi Goniwe objected to Pienaar’s original plan to go under the knife as his contribution to a group show examining masculinity. He said Pienaar was appropriating a ritual not part of his culture.
This conception of cultural tradition reinforces exclusive ethnic and/or religious identification. To pretend that such traditions are unchangeable is oppressive; it is to present identity in an essentialist way that would make perfect sense to the architects of apartheid. Would Goniwe defend “traditions” such as the subordination of women? Would he object to the way Africans have “appropriated” European cultural forms such as soccer?
These things are man-made, not God-given. They are, in fact, in a state of constant adaptation, and people within such traditions are seeking to broaden them. For instance, in 1996, white and Indian girls were invited to participate in the Zulu reed dance, a ritual that constructs femininity (and marriageability) in a way analogous to that in which circumcision constructs masculinity in, say, Xhosa culture.
The second issue around which Pienaar’s work should generate argument is circumcision itself. This is a particularly sensitive area, one frequently defended by the invocation of tradition. Yet the rationale of traditional and religious practice itself often segues into other, secular defences, exposing the paucity of convincing reasons from within the tradition itself.
Witness the way in which circumcision has been rationalised in Jewish culture. The original covenant with Jehovah, who tells Abraham in Genesis 17 that this penile snip is how he shall define his descendants as chosen by God, is later explained and defended in all sorts of other ways in rabbinical literature. Perhaps the need to do this is driven by the lack of any real biblical sense of why Jehovah should choose this particular, rather bizarre way of marking his chosen people. In any case, circumcision is not peculiar to Judaism; it is practised by Muslims, for instance, despite the lack of any mention of circumcision in the Koran. Its anthropological origins are mysterious, though it may have something to do with the Hebrew “captivity” in ancient Egypt, which provides the oldest known example of the practice.
In the 12th century, the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides argued that circumcision was intended to “bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question … The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision.” Yet his follower Isaac ben Yedaiah confused matters, seeing circumcision as a way to increase male sexual pleasure and speed up the sex act: the circumcised man, he writes, “will find himself performing his task quickly, emitting his seed as soon as he inserts the crown”, thus discouraging too much female interest in sex – and we all know how fatal it is to get women into a lustful state. Free feminine sexuality is even more threatening to the social fabric than the retention of foreskins.
The absurdity of such arguments is highlighted by the masturbation scare of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which encouraged routine circumcision in the United States (still performed on about 80% to 90% of male children there). In 1903 Dr Mary R Melenby wrote that masturbation “lays the foundation for consumption, paralysis and heart disease. It weakens the memory, makes a boy careless, negligent and listless. It even makes many lose their minds; others, when grown, commit suicide.”
Circumcision was proffered as the ideal remedy. The leading health freak and inventor of cornflakes, John Harvey Kellogg, argued that “a remedy for masturbation which is almost always successful in small boys is circumcision. The operation should be performed by a surgeon without administering an anaesthetic, as the brief pain attending the operation will have a salutary effect upon the mind, especially if it be connected with the idea of punishment. In females, the author has found the application of pure carbolic acid to the clitoris an excellent means of allaying the abnormal excitement.”
It is not a long way from this to female “circumcision” – that is, genital mutilation. Still practised in many parts of Africa, including Egypt, it is seen as a way to control woman. Few Western commentators defend it, yet there is no consensus about the mutilation of male children in the West.
As medical arguments around hygiene and disease control offer conflicting evidence, such practices are still defended in the name of tradition. For instance, circumcision is seen as an essential part of Jewish identity, just as it is often seen as crucial to certain African identities. But cultural traditions, to have any meaning, must be espoused and renewed by their practitioners within a changing social context.
An example for the interrogation of tradition in Africa is the way Jewish circumcision is being questioned today: some argue it is inconsistent with the Torah’s prohibitions on bodily marking or scarring. And it was questioned during the Hellenistic period (fourth century BC onward) and in the German reform movement of the 1840s. In any case, the transition from partial (milah ) to full (periah) circumcision took place in the Hellenistic era, driven by rabbis trying to counter the deracination of diasporic Jews. Yet, as one writer put it in the Jewish Spectator: “The biggest threat to Jewish survival is assimilation. There is no evidence that circumcision prevents or slows it.”
In the same way, and particularly in a country like South Africa – still caught between modernity and the demands of ethnic identity – the debate around such cultural traditions should be opened.