understand his 30 years of indignation

When an artist is welcomed into the monumental interiors of a structure such as the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa for a retrospective of his work, it suggests the level of recognition he enjoys. The gallery, made from old shipyard silos in Cape Town, South Africa, opened in 2017. It is built to have such a pedigree; a solid foundation for African artists to gain global visibility and scrutiny.

Tracey Rose is a South African multimedia artist whose practice spans performance, film and video installation, sculpture, photography, print and painting. Such a range is head-turning. Most artists stand out for mastering one or two media at most, but not Rose. Equally impressive is her litany of favorite topics: race and deracialization, colorful South African (mixed-race) identity, radical feminism, parenthood, post-apartheid South African politics, outrage and shock. .

The mid-career retrospective occupied the three exhibition floors of the imposing six-story building. No such extensive exhibition of Rose’s work had ever been mounted.

The apartheid hangover

The retrospective’s title, Shooting Down Babylon, puts forth an unambiguous political intent, a continued demystification of bastions of white supremacy, racial oppression and other structures of global inequality. The reference to Babylon, a famous biblical city, speaks volumes. Rose shoots sacred cows. She vehemently denounces the many forms of socio-political ills in the world.

At first glance, one might think that the artist, born in 1974, is a pure and hard political artist, pirated in the dark fabric of the anti-apartheid struggle. But there is an unexpected twist. His rebellion spills over into the usual patriarchal sites of domination; she criticizes the multiple vices of society as a whole, questions, questions, denounces with considerable vomiting of indignation and bile.

The Kiss challenged racial divides in South Africa.
Courtesy of the artist/Dan Gunn Gallery, London

The particular complexities of color (being of mixed ancestry) in South Africa inform much of Rose’s work. But there are also the added hardships of living in the #MeToo era, widespread gender-based violence in South Africa, widespread insecurity, social discontent and deep disillusionment with the post-apartheid dispensation. Rose’s creative restlessness often reflects these social anxieties.

The enormous political backdrop of the anti-apartheid movement provides an illustrious tradition. Beneath its intimidating canopy, actors with various political pens have found a temporary home; the good and evil subspecies co-existed, producing new hybrids and toxins. And, of course, a new generation of rebels.

fun and games

There’s also a funny aspect to Rose’s expressions of outrage. For example, one of his performances, San Pedro V The Wall, takes place on the wall between Palestine and Israel. She appears in pinkish body paint and speckled panties, wielding an electric guitar.

Parading along the wall, she strikes guitar chords oblivious to the melody, lost in a world entirely of her own creation. It’s a surprising piece of agitprop and challenge. She urinates against the wall, baring her buttocks as her final middle finger swipe at a world built through injustice, violence and inequality.

A woman in underwear plays the guitar near a high security wall.  She wears a wig and crown with exaggerated makeup.
San Pedro V The Wall, a video performance.
Courtesy of the artist and Dan Gunn Gallery, London

From the downtown New York art scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, we’ve come to expect shock and outrage from artists. Traces of these stories and developments are evident in Rose’s retrospective.

But his art is not limited to indignation and defiance. Some of her works could even be called pretty, like the bright and striking watercolors she made with her young son in which she embraces the child within herself. Here, it’s all about innocence and quiet rapture coupled with childlike wonder.

His works usually come with an exquisite finish that makes them surprisingly soothing.

Beyond shock art

Born in the coastal city of Durban, Rose was educated in South Africa and the UK and currently works as a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. His art has a powerful and immediate visceral quality, not sanitized by academia. Her first notable act of shock was a student performance titled Shittin’ Bullion for her master’s art class in London where she engaged in an act of public defecation.

In the series Ciao Bella (2001), Rose depicts herself as Venus Baartman, based on the historical figure of Sara Baartman, taken from Cape Town in 1810 and publicly displayed as a human curiosity across Europe. The series is part of Rose’s desire to imagine a world where race is not a social construct. The highlight of the series has to be the creative (re)creation of Jesus Christ’s Biblical Last Supper in which some of Rose’s characters reappear.

An art gallery with a glittery green painted wall and a painting depicting the biblical Last Supper with a naked black woman standing.
An installation view showing the Ciao Bella series.
Dillon Marsh/Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art

The Kiss is a more lyrical affair. It’s not just an interracial kiss in a divided South Africa. This is a photograph of a naked, handsome black man with a beautiful, naked white woman lying on his loins. They look longingly into each other’s eyes, a mixture of nostalgia, melancholy and moving intimacy. A perfect piece of paradise staged in a world torn apart by bigotry and racial hatred.

Here, Rose approaches a seemingly intractable social problem with tenderness and simplicity, and without obvious cynicism. It speaks of a sense of aesthetics that appreciates the virtues of balance and natural harmony in a very abused world.

Inexorably human

Shooting Down Babylon says a lot about a major contemporary South African artist. Rose shares her ongoing creative restlessness, marked by multiple multimedia explorations, a lack of patience and frustrations in the face of a world gone wrong, and pockmarked by social ills and oppression.

Part of her work seeks to reflect and encapsulate these oppressive dynamics, another part celebrates a quest for offbeat beauty and simplicity. Yet another facet praises the fantasy of innocence and the absence of complicated adornment.

And finally, Rose shamelessly proclaims the need for individual freedom and evolution. It is indeed a journey through several states and emotions; rage and repose, blasphemy and sublimity, complexity and simplicity. And through it all, Rose screams out her obvious right to be inexorably human.

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