Cape Town - Italian photographer Giovanna Del Sarto and concept writer Antonia Michaela Porter's contemporary art exhibition which confronts hegemonic ideas of masculinity has kicked off to great acclaim in Cape Town.
The exhibition entitled Still Figuring Out What it Means to be a Man, runs at the Iziko Slave Lodge until September 2, and is sponsored by the Italian Consulate of Italy in Cape Town, among others. The project creates awareness around the overwhelming array of gender-based violence in South Africa which has given rise to the controversial hashtag #menaretrash which gained ground during 2017, and the idea of a possible "crisis in masculinity" which began to emerge into mainstream consciousness, with wider South African society beginning to question if this is indeed the case, and if so, what does this crisis mean; why is it happening; and who is it happening to?
But rather than seeking to address directly the question of whether or not there is a crisis in masculinity in South Africa, Still Figuring Out What it Means to be a Man instead gently explores the experiences of young, middle-class, metropolitan South African men, and how such men see themselves today. Taking an empathetic view of individual men, but a critical one of patriarchy, the exhibition considers various aspects of manhood and masculinity in contemporary South Africa through a nuanced lens.
Still Figuring Out What it Means to be a Man is a multimedia project that uses Del Sarto's documentary photographs to profile the men, as well as audio stories for each man. Directed by Porter, the project also showcases objects and sounds that are precious to the men. There is also an interactive piece which invites audience reflections on the exhibition and their own gender journeys.
Del Sarto, who specialises in documentary photography, and Porter, an interdisciplinary practitioner who works on social justice issues using different mediums and approaches, answered some questions:
- What made you take on this project about the experiences of South African men?
What prompted our motivation for this project was a combination of several things. Firstly, when we began this project in 2013 there had been several cases of gender-based violence in South Africa that had received a lot of domestic and international attention, such as the rape and murder of 17-year old Anene Booysen, and the murder of Reeva Steenkamp by Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius in 2013, among other cases - illustrating the iceberg of violence against women and sexual and gender minorities in the country. We had to pause the project for a few years due to other work but this theme re-emerged strongly again as a matter of domestic and international focus in 2017 with the murder of 23-year-old Karabo Mokoena by her boyfriend, among other cases, and prompted a growing focus on masculinity from a range of quarters across South Africa over the past year.
- What is the message that you hope to convey through the project?
The message we want to convey is the importance of celebrating and encouraging the humanity of men beyond the boxes and constraints of mainstream masculinity, for a better and more equal world for all. We want to convey that patriarchy is highly oppressive to men as well to as women and all genders - although we mostly don't realise it. We want the project to stimulate reflections among all who come to see it: for visitors to develop a more nuanced sense of what manhood and masculinity is; a sense of the humanity and vulnerability of men, and of the fluidity of gender generally. We would like men who come to see the exhibition to reflect on their own masculinity and ways of being men; questioning the norms they may strive to meet, and being more accepting of their own vulnerabilities. We would also like to promote a greater awareness of how colonialism/apartheid has hurt men and women of colour. We want to promote empathy between the genders: we also hope that women who come to see the exhibition – including those who may have had negative experiences in relation to men - will develop increased empathy for men based on the audio stories they hear, as well as recognising the ways in which women also may also uphold patriarchal practices, consciously and unconsciously.
- How did you pick the men for the project? What made them ideal for the project?
The project unfolded in a very organic way: most of the men in the project were already friends of ours. We then met a couple of others when we had already begun the project, who also seemed to be excellent men to profile and were keen to be involved. The main basis for selection were men who "tick the box" of successful men or mainstream masculinity in the eyes of society: young middle-class ambitious professionals from diverse cultures and ethnic backgrounds "making it" in different fields, and yet who each possess unique qualities within them that fall outside of the traits often associated with masculinity or manhood. For example, one of the men, JP, used to be a conflict journalist and worked for twelve years documenting war in many of Africa's most intense conflict zones. Never quite reaching the status of manhood according to the criteria set by his father's generation, he worked harder and harder to come home with more and more brutal images of violence to demonstrate his toughness and therefore his manhood, until he had an insight that his battle to be seen as a man was based on taking advantage of people's horror and downfall. Realising that "real manhood" meant coming home and taking care of his child, he left the media industry altogether, and moved to South Africa's rural Northern Cape province with his wife and baby daughter, where he now farms for a living. Another man reflects on his sadness over how patriarchy and the behaviours it promotes make it very hard for women and men to connect in platonic ways, and the losses of human connection that all genders experiences as a result.
Essentially, we wanted to shine a light on men who form part of a demographic that society most seeks to please - men with a degree of social and economic power within South African society - and subtly and gently explore their experiences and stories with the goal of presenting a more nuanced, human portrait of these men: to showcase positive traits within them that need to be promoted among men, such as fully-engaged fatherhood, non-violence towards women, self-reflection, capacity to reflect deeply on their sexuality and sexual conditioning. We also wanted to showcase the costs and pressures that patriarchy places on men, to indicate how violent and painful the oppressive system of patriarchy is to all humans: men, as well as women and all gender identities, especially because the costs of patriarchy on men are rarely recognised, spoken of, or made visible anywhere in the world. This is the case especially for men who have some measure of power, who often do not unpack their privilege or explore the ways that patriarchy ostensibly benefits them, but also hurts them, women, and all genders. An underlying guiding question was to explore through the mens' stories and experiences this idea of a "crisis in masculinity", although this was more of an implicit shadowy theme than an outright question that we were seeking to provide a direct answer to.
- How do their stories compare to the experiences of similar men in first world countries, especially men in Italy?
Although the manifestations of patriarchy in the lives of South African men are not identical to its manifestations in Italy or the first world - the pressures on men to be the main providers may be even more intense in South Africa than in Italy, and the rates of domestic violence may be higher in South Africa as a consequence of apartheid (although domestic violence is also a major problem in first world countries, it is just acknowledged less, and invisibilised) - men's experiences and stories worldwide share many of the same features, because patriarchy still affects every society in the world. In first world countries, including Italy, patriarchal oppression is more subtle in some ways, but it is arguably also more insidious than in South Africa – which makes it an even harder battle to fight. Issues like the pressures for material success such as having a nice car, emotional repression such as "men don’t cry" and the pressure not to be too emotionally expressive outside of expression of anger, and traits like the objectification and sexualisation of women, are features of mainstream masculinity in Italy and worldwide. For me, says Del Sarto, growing up in Massa with two brothers, I had to face the unequal power dynamics of patriarchy within my own family. As a child I always wanted to be a boy because I wanted the freedom that my brothers had.
- Has the project previously been exhibited ? How was it received?
This is the first time that Still Figuring Out What it Means to be a Man has been exhibited. So far it has been received extremely well. There have been three radio interviews about the project, including one on national radio, and we have already heard that the project will be covered in local and, most likely, national newspapers. Because the project is nuanced - positively showcasing the individual men and their unique qualities as opposed to a blaming or shaming men - it has been so far well-received by all genders. The men themselves have shared that they are very happy to be in it, and to participate as agents of change in their country.
- Is the project only being shown in Cape Town? Are there plans to take it elsewhere?
- We would like to see this particular project in different places elsewhere in South Africa, as well as internationally. As we mentioned, this project might be based in South Africa, but men in every country of the world are still figuring out what it means to be a man.