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The image is a desperate recourse against the silence that invades us, every time we try to express the terrible experience of what surrounds us and of ourselves.
--Octavio Paz, El Arco y la Lira
Contemporary art of South Africa is connected to the past. It has many forms and colors and refers to different artistic traditions. This diversity is a sign of great creative potential, but it also shows that it has not yet been decided how the different traditions will form the images of the past. The aim of this article is to draw attention to the narrative function of the human figure in the contemporary art of South Africa and its struggle with the past, by analyzing how in their work three contemporary artists shape the past: Willie Bester, Andries Botha, and Jackson Hlungwane. The forms they use and the compositions they make can be understood as visual narrative structures that find their parallel in the narrative structures discussed in Negotiating the Past: The Making of Memory in South Africa, edited by Sarah Nuttall and Carli Coetzee. In that work, narrativity is analyzed for its function in the process of historiography and different views are given on which form of narrativity should be used to handle the past in a correct way. Like every book that is written, each painting tells a story. In this article I will demonstrate some aspects of how these three artists use a different narrative structure to tell their story. Of the many elements involved in the analysis of a painting, the representation of the human being is central. The image of the human being, although abstract or even visually absent in form, is generally a key element in the structure of an artwork. Both in literature and the visual arts, the human figure is an element with high narrative potential, and it plays a key role in creating a link between the artwork and the viewer, and hence in the construction of meaning. To explain how representation in these South African works functions, attention will be given to the cultural construction of identity and its representation--an issue that has been raised in contemporary portrait theory.
In Negotiating the Past, the process of historiography is linked to recent developments in contemporary literature and to the way stories of the past are told. The central point of reference of these developments is the activities of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC), activities that consisted of interviewing people who played a major role during the apartheid period and making their testimonies public. As written in the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act of 1995, one of the aims of the TRC was
to provide for the investigation and the establishment of as complete a picture as possible of the nature, causes and extent of gross violations of human rights committed during the period from 1 March 1960 to the cut-off date contemplated in the Constitution, within or outside the Republic, emanating from the conflicts of the past, and the fate or whereabouts of the victims of such violations; the granting of amnesty to persons who make full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to acts associated with a political objective committed in the course of the conflicts of the past during the said period. [...](1)
Completing "a picture" of this recent past means integrating the experiences of different people and making them part of the communal history. The activities of the committee opened, especially in the academic sphere, a discussion on the working of personal and communal memory in the writing of history, since narrativity, being closely linked to memory, always contains a fictive element. This fictive element is often seen as a threat to history, but as history depends on narrativity and representation, this fiction is unavoidable. Integrating subjectivity in this process of historiography is a positive action. It opens history to the voices of all, and proves that history is not a question of facts alone, but in its essence always a form of narrativity, of story, created by the process of telling. The TRC even went so far as to consider personal statements as evidence in the granting of amnesty, something that was decided by a second committee. Making public the stories that were told to the TRC by government officials, ANC members, or others meant that even if justice could never undo all the crimes that were committed during the apartheid period, at least everyone was given the right to know what had happened. And everyone had the right to speak up. Bringing new facts of the past into the open through personal and individual testimonies meant that more stories would be told and a healing process could begin. Using narrativity in this individual and very subjective form as a healing instrument was an attempt to deconstruct the lines of power and decision making that had led to the institutionalizing of apartheid.
In Negotiating the Past, a parallel is drawn between the TRC activities and literature that shares the use of narrativity with historiography to tell different stories. Like the TRC stories, postapartheid literature in South Africa looks back to and refers to past events. Depending on where one stands now, the past is perceived in a certain way and that way determines the form of narrativity that is used. For example, Negotiating the Past explains how the confessional mode of writing became very popular in autobiographical writing in South Africa, along with autobiographic forms in which the author distances "the actual self" from the unacceptable "political self" of the past. In that study, little attention is given to visual narrativity, except for one article on the work of William Kentridge. The fictive character of the visual arts makes it possible to make mutually present things that are separated in time. They can create visual metaphors that make people think about what separates and what unites those things. As such, they support one of the aims of the TRC: "the need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization." They can also give a visual account of what has happened, and thus serve as a historical document.
That argument is supported by Njabulo Ndebele, who in his chapter in Negotiating the Past argues for a South African realist mode of fiction, one that describes in many details and facts what actually happened. This realism would stand closer to the mass experience than to the use of metaphors and abstract referents. Ndebele defends a realistic reconstruction of the past, based on historical facts and attempting to limit the fictive element of narrativity. A different view, …