Transgressive Christian iconography in post-apartheid South African art

Von Veh, Karen (2011) Transgressive Christian iconography in post-apartheid South African art. PhD thesis, Rhodes University.

VON VEH-v.1-v.2 illustrations-do not have copyright-PhD-TR12-103.pdf



In this study I propose that transgressive interpretations of Christian iconography provide a valuable strategy for contemporary artists to engage with perceived social inequalities in postapartheid South Africa. Working in light of Michel Foucault’s idea of an “ontology of the present”, I investigate the ways in which religious iconography has been implicated in the regulation of society. Parodic reworking of Christian imagery in the selected examples is investigated as a strategy to expose these controls and offer a critique of mechanisms which produce normative ‘truths’. I also consider how such imagery has been received and the factors accounting for that reception. The study is contextualized by a brief, literary based, historical overview of Christian religious imagery to explain the strength of feeling evinced by religious images. This includes a review of the conflation of religion and state control of the masses, an analysis of the sovereign controls and disciplinary powers that they wield, and an explication of their illustration in religious iconography. I also identify reasons why such imagery may have seemed compelling to artists working in a post-apartheid context. By locating recent works in terms of those made elsewhere or South African examples prior to the period that is my focus, the works discussed are explored in terms of broader orientations in post-apartheid South African art. Artworks that respond to specific Christian iconography are discussed, including Adam and Eve, The Virgin Mary, Christ, and various saints and sinners. The selected artists whose works form the focus of this study are Diane Victor, Christine Dixie, Majak Bredell, Tracey Rose, Wim Botha, Conrad Botes, Johannes Phokela and Lawrence Lemaoana. Through transgressive depictions of Christian icons these artists address current inequalities in society. The content of their works analysed here includes (among others): the construction of both female and male identities; sexual roles, social roles, and racial identity; the social expectations of contemporary motherhood; repressive role models; Afrikaner heritage; political and social change and its effects; colonial power; sacrifice; murder, rape, and violence in South Africa; abuses of power by role models and politicians; rugby; heroism; and patricide. Christian iconography is a useful communicative tool because it has permeated many cultures over centuries, and the meanings it carries are thus accessible to large numbers of people. Religious imagery is often held sacred or is regarded with a degree of reverence, thus ensuring an emotive response when iconoclasm or transgression of any sort is identified. This study argues that by parodying sacred imagery these artists are able to disturb complacent viewing and encourage viewers to engage critically with some of its underlying implications.

Item Type:Thesis (PhD)
Uncontrolled Keywords:Art, South Africa, Christian symbolism, Apartheid, Parody, Iconography
Subjects:N Fine Arts > N Visual arts (General) For photography, see TR
Divisions:Faculty > Faculty of Humanities > Fine Art
Supervisors:Schmahmann, Brenda
ID Code:2999
Deposited By: Ms Chantel Clack
Deposited On:19 Jun 2012 12:14
Last Modified:19 Jun 2012 12:14
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