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When Sex trumps Art

Themba Siwela's Temptations on Madala's Pension

Never has the content of an art exhibition been more explicit in every sense of the word than the Stevenson Gallery’s new Sex show. Curated by Lerato Bereng this exhibition not only is centred on sex as its title implies but the explicit depiction of it. There is a veritable porn smorgasbord on exhibition with footage of men on men, women on women and a big heterosexual orgy. At times you feel like you have accidentally wandered into some sort of “Adult World” outlet. This is particularly the case with the dark booth built around the screen where you can view gay men shagging. In front of the screen are mattresses to lie on and condoms and lube are on offer, encouraging visitors to get in on the pleasure. On the opening night this area was the set for a performance by a collective dubbed FAKA, who apparently performed sex acts you could expect to see in a gay-men’s club.

Unfortunately I missed the opening night, which was a great pity: live sex in a gallery – this must be a first for the local art scene. This exhibition is all about shattering taboos, which is achieved by not only placing pornography in a gallery but by presenting it in a ‘public’ space (how public is a commercial gallery?). Even more daring is the way in which it is shown alongside art-art, works depicting or referencing sex made by the gallery’s stable and a few other artists such as the ever popular Lady Skollie and Artu Peatoo – the pseudonym under which the husband and wife duo Robyn and Richard Penn make their collaborative art. Showing art-art alongside porn doesn’t exactly elevate it (porn) to art, but there is a bit of blurring or challenging of the pornography term, when you view this kind of material being made by an artist – such as Zanele Muholi’s Being Scene (2012), a video depicting two women getting hot and heavy. This work fits in with her documentary mode and is a natural extension of her art/activism - her depiction of black lesbians in intimate settings and activities. One of our previous Minister's of Arts and Culture once referred to Muholi's art as porn. Does placing it alongside actual porn challenge or support this view?

Viewing all this material is undeniably titillating. You move from one work to another with a sense of curiosity and excitement. It offers something that stimulates the body, rather than the mind, though the art setting demands you to ‘think’ about the material rather than respond to it physically. In this way it invites a different form of viewing, or at least challenges how you view art, makes you more aware of your voyeurism and the possible participatory role you could play. The exhibition probably doesn't do more than this; there are no big questions here this is just sex, sex and more sex and representations thereof - artists appear to opt for metaphors of the act or genital parts (Lady Skollie relies on bananas to represent penises) rather than reproduce it, which in a way doesn't stand up to the real sex acts presented. The art pales to the porn.

For many the relevance of this show is simple: by placing homosexual sex and sex of any kind in a 'public' space helps challenge entrenched prejudice and the way in which we have all entered this weird pact where we do not publicly acknowledge that we are not sexual beings. It is significant too that all the sex acts are also between black people, situating a discourse on black sexuality in the open in ways that has not been done before.

The Stevenson gallery's extensive management team have hubristically attempted to position their galleries as ‘museums’, snobbishly trying to place the brand (they are a brand) above the crudeness of their ruthless commercialism. This show presents a genuine gesture in the museum direction. It is viewer centric with a social thrust. However, the art-art is not so great, barring Sabelo Mlangeni’s very quiet series depicting spaces where illicit sex acts have taken place in public. The exhibition does not quite succeed as a ‘museum’ show - the theme is probably too broad and vaguely tackled, the display too small, mostly includes the stable's artists works and could be supported by more material and texts to frame it. It is a pity there isn’t space for Bereng in a public institution where she could really spread her curatorial wings. But then it is hard to imagine porn and sex taking place in a local public institution. - an edited version of this story was first published in The Times

Sex shows at Stevenson Gallery in Joburg until June 3.


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