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Modernism in Context


This blog will discuss the concept of modernism and how it functions in the discourse of art history. It will do so by using different art criticism examples and examples of the formalists art. It will make use of Clive Bell’s reading, Art (1914), Schiff’s reading; Cubism, in Concepts of modern art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism (1997) and Greenberg’s reading; ‘Modernist painting’, in Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas (1992). The blog will begin by explaining what modernism is, key concepts within in before finally putting it in context with the rest of the world at the time.

The term modernism needs to first be separated from the term modern. Modern means something that is current and new, whereas modernism refers to a specific time period which has already past. Currently we are in a post-modern era. However, as stated by Harrison (1996) “‘modernism’ is the substantive form of the adjective ‘modern’, while the condition it denotes is virtually synonymous with the experience of modernity”.

The concept of art modernism has tended to function in three different ways. The first one is used to distinguish characteristics of western art culture (mid 19century till at least mid 20th century). (Harrison, 1996) The second phase is to distinguish specifically to the modernist traditions to the high art and low art. The aesthetic merit is of importance when the socio-historical meaning is less important.


Concepts of modernism 

Modernism is an historical period, it can be dated to 1910-1939 roughly, if you had to put dates to it. Modernism began when particularly artists began emerging with modernist ideas. Ideas however were born in the 1870’s when some radical critiques on western tradition and western values. It ended because of war, where there had to be a new set of issues in western culture to be addressed. (Western History II, 20113).

Modernism can also be referred to as a state of mind, therefore not restricted to any historical time frame. State of mind=radical rejection of tradition. Modernists want to divorce themselves from the past and free themselves from philosophical, moral and spiritual traditions and of course art traditions. Therefore, the state of mind embraces the NEW, inventive, experimental. Characteristic of modernism is ‘being original’ (cult of the new). Modernism was fairly optimistic as they were excited about the advance of the technological progress. However, after world war, ideologies, culture, religions were breaking down, the idea of the enlightened utopia was shattered. Modernism embraced that fragmentation (cult of fragmentation). (Western History II, 20113).

Modernism was also coined as the self-criticism era. The idea was started with Kant, when he even began critiquing criticism. Once one has criticized all there is to criticize; religion, culture art, everything, people began to purify what they believed. This purification process mean one can self-define what one is. (Greenburg, 1992). According to Harrison, it was a time when sooner or later everything would be brought to ‘the market place’ to have its value established and to become a commodity.

Modernism in terms of art was grounded in the rejection of classical styles. It is in many ways a way of revising or renewing the language and curriculum of art and culture in general. (Harrison, 1996).

How modernism functions in art history

Art movements that fall under ‘modernism’ are; impressionism, post-impressionism, cubism, pop art, Dadaism, fauvism, expressionism and surrealism. What differentiated these painting styles was that they shared flatness and two-dimensionality with no other art practice. The use of photography or the development thereof has largely influenced the way art moved forward as artists no longer had to/wanted to create what the camera can already capture – therefore the more experimental art developed.

Harrison – what an artwork needed

Harrison describes modernism to be a special kind of ‘aesthetic’ form with the integrity of having a social-historical relevance. The aesthetic does not necessarily have to reference the topic of work that it aims to address. Therefore, an artist is a critic whose judgments reflect a specific set of ideas or belies about art and its development. I think this is in contrast to the art created before modernism which made reference to a specific object, such as a portrait of a king. (?)

There were some general guidelines that Harrison identified; firstly, that nothing mattered as much as the aesthetic merit of an artwork, secondly, the criticism the artwork made about the world was important in terms of historical development which also connect other works of the highest merit and thirdly if the aesthetic judgments are in conflict with moral or political commentary, the aesthetic judgment becomes a secondary issue.

How modernism was different

What modernism changed in terms of art was that the focus shifted from the subject to the artist and the method of application. Therefore, the practice or the medium was put into question (Harrison, 1996). There was a continuing pursuit of aesthetics standards that had been set by art previously and those standards were being revised. It was governed by the self-critical procedures addressed by the medium itself. Another significant quality that modernism gained was that it stripped the images to their bare essentials, as seen in Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon (Figure 1). According to Golding (1997) the break of the traditional “perspective was what resulted in ‘simultaneous’ vision- which was the fusion of various views of a figure or object to a single image.”

Figure 1: Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon 

Themes are most obvious in modernist art. E.g. Picasso’s break in forms and having the Demoiselles d’Avignon in African masks and square shapes= breaking tradition and norms. Most notable is the movement away from realistic depictions of human figures. He experimented with a new method, which later was defined as cubism. (Western History II, 20113).

More dramatic example of modernist art is in the works of Marcel Duchamp, 1917, Fountain (Figure 2) the urinal. It radically changed the notion of what art is. He was one of the founders of the movement known as Dada, in America. In some sense Fountain was a declaration of hostility not only to art audiences but also to art itself. The artwork opened up a gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, the gap still exists today. (Western History II, 20113). According to Harrison, modernism blurred the lines between classical, academic and conservative types of art but also the link between those kinds of art and popular and mass culture.

Figure 2: Duchamp’s Fountain

Flatness in Modernism

Another quality that modernism held was that it turned to being flat. The flatness was characteristic against the old masters who tried to create optical illusions of space and depth. However, the modernists artists only wanted to where one can look and only travel with the eye, making it a solely visual experience. In the works of George Braque, his work emphasizes how the flatness is telling us that any space made behind he the foreground is the creating of the artist and it is tangible in the real world. (Golding, 1997).

Figure 3: George Braque’s Violin

Cubism (Golding)

Cubism began when Picasso and Georges Braque worked together on a collaboration, after Picasso had finished Demoiselles. In the early stages images were fragmented and analyzed and to a certain extent abstracted. Later the process was reversed – the abstraction was first created and worked up towards the representation. Cubist artists wanted to face the artist with their initial confrontation of having to work on a flat canvas, therefore they relate their work back to the flat canvas. Atmosphere and tone are neglected, forms are drastically simplified and objects in the foreground are given the same value as those at the back. All this for a new sense of space and freedom. The new qualities made a decretive break from the naturalistic forms of previous art movements. It was also referred to as the ‘heroic; period. Both artists were very careful to balance between representation and abstraction which they sought to maintain. They also chose to intentionally avoid all forms of symbolism. (Vast contrast to the Victorian times before them.) They relied heavily on the influences of African art, such as the traditional Negro African face masks.

However, according to Golding (1997), arguably the giant of Cubism is Juan Gris who later joined the movement and made the most influential decisions and ground breaking concepts within it. His work also began with the simultaneous vision and then progressed onto his so called mathematical period where his paintings used geometric instruments to compose his intricate designs. The drawings were significant because they possibly achieved a harmonious composition in a purely abstract from.

Figure 4: Juan Gris’ Portrait of Picasso

Cubisim was inicially not well received and highly misleading by the public, howveer in later years it achieved to gain an even wider audience than before. Cubism was an art of experimentation and had gone a long way to destroy the barriers between abstraction and representation. It had developed and original, anti-naturalistic kind of figuration.

Art criticism/formalist art (5Marks)

To be able to criticize modernist art one first has to understand Bell’s concepts of significant from and aesthetic emotion. Bell (1914) says that all systems of aesthetics are based on personal experience, therefore aesthetic judgments are subjective and matter upon personal taste. He says that for a work of art to be considered as one, it has to possess both these qualities. There are of course many that do not, he therefore doesn’t consider them to be artworks, they are merely works without either ‘significant form’ or ‘aesthetic emotion’. An example of this would be a ‘descriptive painting’ which only has suggestions of emotions that convey information.  He also makes the differentiation between aesthetic emotion and ‘beauty’ describing how beauty is often associated with desire and therefore is not a good word to use aesthetic emotion for. Bell does reference the Italian futurists, explaining how their work uses form to convey information and ideas, i.e. Their artworks lack aesthetic emotion; however, they are not meant to promote aesthetic emotions. Because they lack aesthetic emotion, they works are not considered works of art. He suggests that primitive at has the clearest characteristics of both properties. An artwork that achieves both these qualities has a universal appeal and is eternal.



Throughout understanding what modernism is, it may be important to mention that ALL art movements tried to be so unlike previous art movements and be ‘liberated’ from other art movements. However, each time, this expectation is disappointed and it becomes clear that the same demands are made on the artist and the spectator. (Greenburg, 1992). Therefore, the modernist art movement in many ways failed to do what it had implied to.


Bell, A. 1914. Art. [O]. Available: http://web.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361r13.html

Harrison, C. 1996. Modernism, in Critical terms for Art History, edited by RS Nelson & RSchiff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Golding, J. 1997. Cubism, in Concepts of modern art: from Fauvism to Postmodernism, edited by N Stangos. London: Thames and Hudson:50-78.

Greenberg, C. 1992. ‘Modernist painting’, in Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas, edited by C Harrison & P Wood. Oxford: Blackwell: 754-760.

Western Humanities II. Youtube. [O]. Available:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SozfIGPf58o. Accessed on 1 June 2017.

Image 2:


Thoughts on Modernism


This essay will critically examine the relationship between Euro-American modernism and South African modern art. It will begin by putting the terms modernism and aesthetics into context with the world and each other. The South Africa artist that will be discussed is Walter Battiss who’s art engages with the art forms and aesthetic ideas of Euro-American modernism. The assignment will then address the following issues; contextualising and defining modernity and the aesthetics of modernism with reference to modernist theorists such as Clive Bell, Clement Greenberg and Wilhelm Worringer. The essay will then introduce the artwork of Walter Battiss, African Figures and Whall. Followed by explaining  why the works demonstrate the artists relationship to the Euro-American avant-garde. In conclusion the critical discussion will critically discuss the aesthetic and ideological underpinnings of the works chosen within the context of modernism.

Introduction of Modernism

The term ‘modernity’ and the aesthetics of modernism in art has been largely theorized. The theories are relevant to different parts of the world at different times. The definition that will be contextualised is the Euro-American ideals. The movement began in the late 19th century and early on in the 20th. Modernism was shaped by the development of modern industrial societies and rapid growth of cities as well as the reactions to the horror of World War 1. Modernists rejected Enlightenment thinking as well as religious beliefs. Modernism is characterized by a deliberate rejection of styles from the past and emphasizing instead on innovation and experimentation in forms, materials and techniques. The first concept to know is that modernism extended further than simply art and literature, it was what “truly was a live in our culture” (Greenberg 1992: 754). The beginning came along with the artist Kant, who began by criticising the discipline itself. Modernism made clear that, although past masters in art had touched on the same topics that artists were doing then, the old masters had emphasised the wrong or irrelevant information (Greenberg 1992:760).

Discussion on aesthetics

Clive Bell in his article titled “Art”, 1914, speaks about ‘significant form’ which he uses to describe the idea that the form of an artwork or forms within an artwork can be expressive, even if largely or completely divorced from a recognizable reality (Bell 1914). He describes it to be ‘lines and colors combined in a particular way, certain forms and relations of forms, [that] stir our aesthetic emotions’. Worringer, proposes in his book, Abstraction and Empathy that art has nothing to do with the aesthetics of beauty, bur rather the conditions under which the representations of the artwork came about (Worringer 1992:68). He goes on to say that aesthetics have become subjective and therefore beauty has been replaced with life denying ignorance and is all abstract and necessary. Modernist art orientated itself to flatness and became fully focused around being flat (Greenberg 1992:756). The flatness rebelled against the three dimensional illusions that the old masters had tried to create. Bell describes the feeling that arises from an artwork ‘aesthetic emotion’. He describes the feeling as a stirring within the viewer as a quality only good works of art have in common (Bell 1914). Harrison says that nothing about modern art matters so much as it aesthetic merit (Harrison 1996:146). One can conclude from all theorists that modern art was flat, not necessarily beautiful and a rebellion.

Modern artworks as examples

To support the discussion of artworks that are generally accepted as expressions of Euro- American modernist ideals the examples of works that will be used are Kandinsky and Matisse.

Modernist artists become aware of the relation that mankind had to the cosmos, an awareness that extended into the phenomena of the external world (Worringer 1992: 69). For this discussion, the works of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) hold true to this statement. His works such as Composition VIII (figure 1) represents the deep and spiritual emotions of the human capability (TheArtStory 2017). Kandinsky’s background of living a childhood enriched by ethnic and spiritual interactions play out in his paintings. The mature and modernist theme of spirituality and the emphasis of stirring emotions through shapes and colours was very fitting for a modernist artist.


The other famous modernists, Henri Mattiesse (1869-1964), painted the portrait Nancy, as seen in Figure 2. The painting is completely flat and holds a feeling of movement within the colours. Matisse had already met Picasso when he painted this portrait and the African masks/primitivism is highly prevalent.

Figure 2: Henri Matisse, Nancy, oil on canvas.

Introduction of South African Artists

By showing an example of South African artist, Walter Battiss’ work, the discussion will then demonstrate the artists relationship to the Euro-American avant-garde. Battiss’ work was made in 1950

Introduction of Battiss

The South African artwork that will be discussed is Walter Battiss’ African Figures made in 1950 as well as his artwork Whall made in . Battiss (1906-1982) is one of the most influential South African Modernist artists. His training was done in South Africa and completed at the age of 32. Training included archaeology, Sanskrit as well as traditional San rock art.

His painting African Figures (Figure 1) depicts seven African women surrounded by nature, cooking and cleaning. The color scheme is largely blue and green. The expressionistic and flat surfaces influenced by the modernist movement is evident in his painting technique.

Figure 3: Walter Battiss, African Figures 
Figure 4: Walter Battiss, Whall

Paintings relationship to euro avant guard

Many early theorists on African Modernity argue that the origins of the modern movement began with the Western art influences brought to Africa through colonisation (Okeke 2000). In Africa one can refer to many different modernisms specific to the continent’s different countries. Therefore, African modernism cannot be broached merely by invoking European modernism, for it is not simply an African manifestation of twentieth-century European art.

Discussion on the aesthetics and ideologies of the paintings

The chosen Battiss paintings will be critically discussed regarding their aesthetics and ideological underpinnings within the context of modernism. The discussion will focus on women and nature. The female figure in art has  long been associated with nature, the combination of the two implies that women are passive, possessable , available and powerless (Parker and Pollock 1992:116). The ward primitivism is also often associated with females as well as African modernist art (Antliff and Leighton 1996). The figures in  African Figures by Battiss’ contain both female figures as well as a primitive style in which they are painted. Knowing that Battiss is an African artists, practicing in South Africa, he is bound to come across nature as well as more traditional and basic lifestyles. Therefore his choice of portraying the women in a natural scenery is not absurd. However he chooses to depict them as uneducated and natural as possible, implying the same ideologies as the colonialists before him, women, especially African women had no place in the particle and formal world of men. Female figure thought time have mostly been depicted as figures that are unconcerned with mortal things, allowing undisturbed and voyeuristic enjoyment of the female form (Parker and Pollock). The figures in African Figures display the notion of the voyeur looking into the lifestyle of the unoccupied females.

Although, Battiss had an advantage of not being stereotyped as a black African artist during the time, as these qualities lended the audience to assume certain primitivism and erotic associations, Battiss continued to make more African inspired art.


In conclusion, this essay has managed to critically examine the relationship between Euro-American modernism and South African modern art. Modern art is defined by the characteristic of rejecting the traditions of the past and creativity and innovation for new techniques to make art. The South Africa artist, Walter Battiss who’s art engages with the art forms and aesthetic ideas of Euro-American modernism. The assignment will then address the following issues;  Contextualise and define modernity and the aesthetics of modernism with reference to modernist theorists such as Clive Bell, Clement Greenberg and Wilhelm Worringer. The essay will then introduce the artwork of Walter Battiss, African Figures and Whall. The essay will explain why the works demonstrate the artists relationship to the Euro-American avant-garde. In conclusion the critical discussion will critically discuss the aesthetic and ideological underpinnings of the works chosen within the context of modernism.



Sources Consulted

Antliff, M & Leighten, P. 1996. Primitive, in Critical terms for Art History, edited by RS Nelson & R Schiff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.King, A. 2013. Exotic fruit. Apollo December:72-77.

Bell, A. 1914. Art. [O]. Available: http://web.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/361r13.html Barnard, M. 2001. Approaches to understanding visual culture. New York: Palgrave.

Blogspot, 2011. [O]. Available: https://freelybornthoughts.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/9dd5c-12003_madame_nancy_matisse_dpw.jpg. Huston.

Fried Contempary Gallery, 2012. [O]. Available: http://friedcontemporary.com. Hatfield.

Greenberg, C. 1992 [1965]. ‘Modernist painting’, in Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas, edited by C Harrison & P Wood. Oxford: Blackwell: 754-760.

Harrison, C. 1996. Modernism, in Critical terms for Art History, edited by RS Nelson & R Schiff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Harrison, C & Wood, P (eds). 1992. Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas. Oxford: Blackwell. (A critical reference book that addresses virtually every aspect of modernism.)

Okeke, C. 2000. The Short Century : Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945-1994, Prestel Verlag, Munich

Parker, R & Pollock, G. 1981. Painted ladies, in Old mistresses: women, art and ideology.

“Wassily Kandinsky Artist Overview and Analysis”. [Online]. 2017. TheArtStory.org

Content compiled and written by Eve Griffin. Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors. Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-kandinsky-wassily.htm

[Accessed 25 Mar 2017]

Worringer, W. 1992 [1910]. ‘Abstraction and empathy’, in Art in theory 1900-2000. An anthology of changing ideas, edited by C Harrison & P Wood. Oxford: Blackwell: 68- 72.

What motivated Feminism in Art?

As said in Parker and Pollock’s reading, Painted Ladies, to be a great art master one had to be male as only males were given the necessary ‘tools’ of becoming one. Namely the academic skills as well as the power to have access. This essay aims to critique the ideological construct of Modern Art. It will make reference to the artwork Self portrait, 1906 by  Paula Modersohn-Becker,  as the artist attempts to redefine the female figure.

Modern Art has ideologies that were born long before ‘Modern Art’ was defined. During the Renaissance up until the nineteenth century, an artists success was defined by their skills in representing the human figure. Artists were taught to stay the female body. However women were not denied this privilege. The male access to the female body is form of power and control. Therefore males during this time had the ‘tools’ of being well trained as artists as well as having power and control over the female body and therefore were permitted to become great ‘masters’.

In Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Self Portrait of 1906, the artist tries to redefine the female figure. Previously the female figure had been one that males have access to, one that is ‘passive, available (…) frankly desirable and over sexualised'(Parker and Pollock). Although the title suggests that the painting is a portrait of the artist, she has failed to make it one the does not subject her as a woman. Due to the parallel that is established between woman and nature, the image is a depiction of a self possessed individual.

What also critiques against Modersohn-Becker’s self portrait is that she used Gauguin’s paintings as reference. Gaugin has a long history of being a man who used women as objects in his paintings and very much asserted his male and dominant power upon them, in real life and very blatantly in his paintings.

In conclusion, Paula Modersohn-Becker in her self portrait has tried to address the issue of the female body within Modern Art, saying that it needs to become one rid of passiveness and desire only. She has managed to question the patriarchal society and ideologies around being a female artist and what it means the be one. However in her artwork she has failed to achieve her aim.


Parker, R & Pollock, G. 1981. Painted ladies, in Old mistresses: women, art and ideology.London: Routlege & Kegan Paul:114-133 [Chapter 4].

Cover image – Zinaida Serebriakova’s Nude. Available from: http://www.webetc.info/art/Art-Folders/Russia/Serebriakova/serebriakova-nude.jpg

Oil Paint rough and textured in the new exhibit at Everard Read

Philippe Uzac and Deon Venter’s works strikes out to the viewer here in the Everard Read Gallery in Rosebank. Venter’s work pushes the viewer to stand back and see the paintings in perspective as most of them are over three meters large. While the bold colours of Uzac’s works draw the viewer into a different mood in each bold colour. While both artists attract one with their fantastic use in textures.

Title of Deon Venter’s  exhibition There is no Path/The Path is Made by Walking is printed in in large letters as one enters the room. Immediately one is lulled into the nude colours of his paintings and the abstractions of his use in texture.

Born in 1956, the South African artist Deon Venter now lives in Canada and exhibits around the world. His artistic career began after he graduated with a Fine Arts Diploma Hon from the Port Elizabeth School of Art and Design in South Africa.

His style is characterised by the bare grids that lie between the thick layers of oil paint. His larger than life paintings push the viewer to the opposite wall to be able to see the images, yet simultaneously pull them closer to view the details of the oil textures and grids of each painting.

His exhibition points out the detail of skin tones in his many nudes referencing the painting of Edouard Manet’s “Olympia” as he too named his paintings ‘Olympia’. His paintings come into being from highly charged historical events primarily the turing point of having painted Olympia in 1880. Venter explores the event seven of his eleven paintings while the other painting are a mashup of faces and landscapes.

However, the exhibition feels tiering and repetitive. Each painting is in a similar colour scheme and feeling as the one next to it. One is not drawn into every painting, it is as though Venter had to explore Manet’s Olympia in as many different canvases, not necessarily angles or situations as possible.

Deon Venter’s Olympia 4 (2016), on display at Everard Read Gallery’s ‘There is no Path/The Path is made by Walking’ exhibit

When walking into Philippe Uzac’s solo exhibition, ‘Laub’ a feeling of fun and stronger emotions occurs to the viewer as the paintings are bold and speak loudly. Each painting is almost a solid colour. The contrast between Uzac and Venter’s work is worlds apart in terms of atmosphere and intellectual feel.

Laub consists of eight large wooden panels each reveals the scratched away layers of oil paint, wax and chemicals. On first glance the paintings looks simple and easy to comprehend, yet on further inspection the detail of each one draws the viewer in so see how each layer has been worked on and scratched away. The collection of work give a feeling of warm and peaceful emotions, the longer one views them the more the feeling of nostalgia is felt.

It is clear that the artist has been inspired by the flat works of colour from Mark Rothko and Kasimir Malevich. Although each painting has a character of layers the overall canvas is set in one single colour. The process of Uzac’s paintings are visible as each layer of paint is pealed away to expose the underneath surfaces. His works are inspired by the textures around his studio in downtown Johannesburg. One can almost feel the old cement floors waxed patiently and unremittingly over the years, rusting industrial equipment abandoned in a forlorn wasteland or walls of old buildings stained and patched with layers of paper board teared off and hanging in the wind which inspired him.

Laub 16 faces the viewer as one enters into the room, it immediately draws one into a warm and comfortable space. The orange hues overlapping the greens and blues are finely woven with the odd harsher and larger scratch markings.  The exhibition of the work is done in such a seamless manner that one can almost overlook the details of the scratching, etching and rubbing of the paint.

Philippe Uzac’s Laub 16 (2016), on display at Everard Read Gallery ‘Laub’ exhibit

When exiting the main two exhibit rooms the gallery still holds many other artworks from previous exhibitions. For the regular visitors to the gallery one will reencounter many works, however each work is enchanting enough to capture ones attention again. The works include those of Walter Battis, Wane Barker and Guy du Toit amongst about 40 others.

Love for Speed…in Art

A Milanese poet, by the name of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was on a quest to portray the beauty of machinery and the modern age. Marinetti considered himself to be the most modern man in his country and at the time was considered to be a genius of publicity, by using every outlet of publicity to spread his ideas on Futurism.

Figure 1: Filippo Tommaso Marinetti

For the Futurist art before theirs was to be abandoned and rejected as there needed to be space for the new art. Machinery for them was considered power and a freedom from their historical restraints in Italy. Futurists believed that the world was enriched by a new beauty – the beauty of speed, as said in their first manifesto. The artists were also highly influenced by the photos of Etienne Jeune Mariee, who managed to capture movement in a photograph, by presenting the sequences of movement next to each other.

Figure 2: Etienne Jeune Mariee’s chronophotographie. 

Boccioni was considered to be the most gifted of the 20th century Italian Futurists artists (Hughes 1980). Born in Italy in 1882 the artist joined Marinetti. His death was caused by the very thing he praised so much, war, in 1916. One of his famous paintings The City Rises challenges the ideas of machinery, space and movement. The human and animal figures are blurred suggesting them to be primitive and feeble, while the building structures are secure and strong, implying that they have more structure and reliability than the creatures.

Figure 3: Umberto Boccioni ‘The City Rises‘ 1910. 


Hughes, R. 1980. The Shock of the New – Ep 1 – The Mechanical Paradise. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3ne7Udaetg

Figure 1: Available from: https://media1.britannica.com/eb-media/58/68658-004-D896DE11.jpg

Figure 2: Available from https://perezartsplastiques.files.wordpress.com/2011/09/14.jpg

Figure 3: Available from: https://www.moma.org/collection_images/resized/355/w500h420/CRI_151355.jpg

Die Antwoord: Challenging White Afrikaans Identies


Die Antwoord, a South African rap-rave band that started in 2007 (and ends next year, with their album ‘Mount Ninji and da Nice Time Kid’) has a way of suggesting new white identities in South Africa through challenging the old discourses.

Figure 1: Ninja performing in South America 2015. At the back DJ Hi-Tech is visible wearing his infamous mask. 

White South Africans are tired about feeling guilty  about Apartheid and continuing material legacies. Through this tiredness emerges a need to recreate by overlapping, alongside and depending upon the young, Afrikaans, South African narratives and stereotypes to evolve into a new white South African culture. But artists such as Die Antwoord have used music to change their identity as music is a powerful tool to blur the lines of race, class and social constructs.

Figure 2: Jo-Landi challenging the ‘black and white’ stereotype in Die Antwoord’s video ‘Fatty Boom Boom‘. 

The transgression into democracy in 1994 implied defeat and failure for many Afrikaans with that many Afrikaans lost their right to state protection and were brought into poverty. These white people are now referred to as ‘trailer trash’ which is marginalised by race and class.

‘Trailer trash’ (seen predominantly in their video ‘I fink u freaky‘ as well as ‘Zef’ is what the Afrikaans rap (eg. Die Antwoord and Jack Parrow) industry has now made credible as well as being highly influenced by photographer Rodger Ballen. (The new) Zef is a way of breaking against the old afrikaans tradition and styles to make the common a glamorous experience.

Figure 3: Die Antwoord in their music video ‘I fink u freaky’. 

The idea is to create a platform for white identities to be negotiated. The negotiation is made easier by the fact that Die Antwoord’s characters are fictional, both are intended as personas to make new ethics. In their first viral video “Enter the Ninja” Ninja introduces himself and Yo-Landi Vi$$er as two personas that embody “zefness”. The characters and the zef style transverse the lines between racial and social boarders. Ninja is often associated with Cape Flat gangsters because of his tattoos while Yo-Landi is has her faux innocence and seductiveness blended with aggression, crudeness and her fascination with rats. The combination is fascinating and allows the viewer to identify something of themselves within them. Zefness is often associated with the pleasure, performing youth identities, and experimenting with sexuality that comes with music festivals. Music is a way of spreading ideas on a contemporary South Africa to young people.

Figure 4: Die Antwoord perming. Jo-Landi is wearing a dress with patterns inspired by Rodger Ballen, Ninja is wearing overalls inspired by the prison attire. 

To conclude, Die Antwoord  has created their own identity of being white and Afrikaans in South Africa post apartheid. Their personas have created a platform where these new identities are negotiated and explored. While the platform of music is utilised to spread the message to young South Africans. The message of the new identity is to create a space where Afrikaans people do not need to feel apartheid guilt and can become africans.

Sources Consulted 

Antwoord, Die. ‘‘Enter The Ninja (Official).’’ YouTube video (5:24). Posted by ‘‘stewartridgway,’’ January 14, 2010, http://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=wc3f4xU_FfQ (accessed October 15, 2016).

Antwoord, Die. ‘‘Zef Side (Official).’’ YouTube video (2:25). Posted by ‘‘stewartridgway,’’ January  14, 2010, http://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=Q77YBmtd2Rw&feature=player_ embedded (accessed October 16, 2016).

Antwoord, Die. ‘‘Rich Bitch,’’ from $0$, Interscope Records, 2009.

Antwoord, Die. ‘‘I Fink U Freeky (I Fink You Freeky),’’ from Ten$ion, 2012, ZEF Recordz. Video

directed by Roger Ballen, director of photography Melle Van Essen, and edited by Jannie Hondekom, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Uee_mcxvrw (accessed October 20, 2016).

Exclaim, 2016. Die Antwoord: the complete interview. [O] Available: http://exclaim.ca/music/article/

die_antwoord_the_complete_interview full_transcript_reveals_ninja_explicitly_declaring_the_end_of_the_band. Accessed on 25 October 2016.

Jardin, Xeni. Interview with Die Antwoord, Coachella festival (2010). Die Antwoord website, http:// dieantwoord.com/tension.html#videoz (accessed October 20, 2016).

Kruger, A, 2012. Part II: Zef/Poor White Kitsch Chique: Die Antwoord’s Comedy of Degradation. The Journal of South African and American Studies, 13:3-4. 

Marx, H and Milton, V, 2011. Bastardised whiteness: ‘zef’-culture, Die Antwoord and the reconfiguration of contemporary Afrikaans identities narrative? University of South Africa.

News24, 2011. ‘‘Interview with Die Antwoord,’’ http://www.news24.com/Multimedia/

Entertainment/Interview-with-Die-Antwoord-20110916 (accessed October 20, 2016).

O’Toole, 2012. Part I: Die Antwoord’s State of Exception. The Journal of South African and American Studies, 13:3-4.

Scott, C. 2012. Die Antwoord and a delegitimised South African whiteness: a potential counter-narrative. Unisa. Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture, 17:6.

Van de Watt, L, 2012. Part III: Ask no questions, hear no lies: Staying on Die Antwoord’s surface. The Journal of South African and American Studies, 13:3-4.

Zef-is-as-die-antwoord-does/. Antwoord, Die. ‘‘Enter the Ninja.’’ http://dieantwoord.com/ tension.html#videoz (accessed October 20, 2016).

Cover image: http://www.rogerballen.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Shack-scene-2012.jpg

Figure 1: http://youredm.youredm1.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/die-antwoord.jpg?x98500

Figure 3: http://static1.squarespace.com/static/54b931c9e4b07e9224fabda9/54b935a8e4b0876afab116d4/5509d938e4b0e179c5ba37b4/1428333136159/?format=1000w

Figure 4: http://www.billboard.com/files/media/die-antwoord-performance-2015-billboard-1548.jpg

Subtle, Feel-good, Feminist video Artists


This essay will explore two artists who work within the medium of video. The artists being researched are Swiss Pipilotti Rist and Congolese Michele Magema. The research will include a brief history of the artists careers, an overview of the creative landscapes of which they belong as well as their processes. The essay will reference to stills taken from the videos to portray an overview of the works in progress. For Rist’s video this essay will explore her artwork Ever is Over All, 1997 and Magema’s Interiority Fresco IV. The Kiss of Narcissie (e). 


History of Career – Rist 

Pipilotti Rist was born in 1962 in Grabs, Switzerland. She studied graphic design, illustration and photography at the Institute of Applied Arts in Vienna, as well as audiovisual communications and video at the School of Design in Basel. Rest began working as a graphic designer in Switzerland. She then gained a following in the mid-1980s as a member of the experimental post-punk pop group Les Reines Prochaines, for which she made some of her earliest video works. She now teaches at the University of California and Los Angeles.

She has had solo exhibitions in Spain, Denmark, New York, Geneva, Switzerland, Chicago amongst many other countries. Her group exhibitions include being in the Guggenheim Museum SoHo, New York, Venice, Spain and many other counties and Art Museums too. Rest currently lives in Los Angeles, America and Zurich, Switzerland.(Electronic Arts Intermix )

History of Career – Magema 

Magema was born 1977, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Magema’s work exists within a matter space of a frontier of France and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her parents provided her with the authorization to interrogate her own history and that of a nation, her place of birth, as well as the continent of Africa at large. In 1984 she immigrated to Paris and currently still resides there. In 2002 she received her BA in fine arts from l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Arts de Clergy (Signs).

She has been a resident artist at Cité Internationale des Arts and has exhibited her work in the Global Feminisms Exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum and at the Hirshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. She has also participated in the Africa Remix exhibition.

Creative landscape – Rist 

Rest has created a series of videos that are music-based, however they subvert the form of the music video to explore the female voice and body in pop cultural representations. The videos merge rock music and performance with electronic manipulation.

Pipilotti Rist explores the themes of female sexuality and media culture through playful and provocative fantasies in the everyday. She pinpoints popular cultures investment of desire within the everyday. Her main theme, fantasy is seen through a dream-like scene and then always brought to reality by ironic humour. Her work has impact and ambiguity because of her use of voyeuristic pleasure and the reminder of the real world.

Figure 1: Still from Rist’s Ever is Over All. The flower the girl holds easily replicates the shape of a knobkerry/weapon (The Art Desk).

In her artwork, Ever is Over All the video envelops the viewers in two slow-motion projections on adjacent walls. In one a roving camera focuses on red flowers in a field of lush vegetation (MoMa). One the left projection, a woman in a blue dress and ruby slippers strolls down a car-lined street. The fluidity of both scenes is disrupted when the woman violently smashes a row of car windshields with the long-stemmed flower she carries. As the vandal gains momentum with each gleeful strike of her wand, a police officer approaches and smiles in approval, introducing comic tension into this scene.

In the video Rist positively describes negative aspects about femininity. The video has since been appropriated by Beyonce in her lated album Lemonade.The flower reveals the overall shape of the phallic, therefore the ideology of the flower combines femininity and flower-power into an overall feel good video.

Figure 2: Still from Rist’s Ever is Over All. The police gives an encouraging smile and acneoweldgement and walks on, instead of arresting the vandaliser(Fact).

In the video Rist positively describes negative aspects about femininity. The video has since been appropriated by Beyonce in her lated album Lemonade.The flower reveals the overall shape of the phallic, therefore the ideology of the flower combines femininity and flower-power into an overall feel good video.

Figure 3: Still from Rist’s Ever is Over All.  This still shows a better view of the phalic shapes within the flowers (Art Orbit).

Creative landscape – Magema

Michèle Magema draws from her experience as a child exiled from her homeland. Today, as she develops her art, Magema examines the history of her people and Congo. Slavery, genocide and internal wars are also a major focus in her work. She explores the themes of her feminine identity displaced through time, memory, and history, reflects an image of a woman with a new identity – one that is totally detached from exoticism. In her video, the text refers to the the myth of Narcissus and Echo a tale of unrequited love and eternal punishment. ‘We shall seek to ascertain the directions of this dual narcissism and the motivations that inspire it’. (Fanon, English translation, 1967: 9-10).

Figure 4: Still from Interiority Fresco IV. The Kiss of Narcisse(e). Magema is seen on a split screen observing white (colonial) faces on the walls of Paris(Vemo).
Figure 5: Still from  Interiority Fresco IV. The Kiss of Narcisse(e). Magema is seen on a split screen with a mask over her face and on the other screen walking way into the tunnel she came from.
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Figure 6: Still from Interiority Fresco IV. The Kiss of Narcisse(e). Magema is seen on a split screen kissing the face of the white (colonial) masks in Paris.

 Creative Process – Rist 

Rest says she enjoys video as she works with other professions, such as editors and filming crew to make the artwork, she also enjoys filming and making videos just by herself too. However, usually there are eight people involved in the video.  She says that there is an experimental element to each work and she enjoys being able to use each of the equipment by herself too, so that there is an element of herself in each process of the artwork too.

The audio in Rist’s work is often a simple soundtrack of music. She is also a member in a band, Les Reines Prochaines and can therefore create her own music.

Creative Process – Magema 

Magema makes use of the split screen in many of her videos. As the material of her works are always simple. She uses historical facts that she interprets through the prediction of scenes. Through these frontal images she exposes her body to use it as a metaphor for the relationship between the human being and the world at large. Her work sets up a direct relationship that centered on the world the field of society and politics.

Magema enjoys working on her artworks alone. Often she is the only character in each video and the videos are usually static, meaning that she can leave the camera on a tripod.

The audio in Magma’s video is of classical piano.


This essay has successfully explored the two artists, Pipilotti Rist and Michele Magema. Each artist has given a brief history of their career, Rist was born in Switzerland and currently works there and in Los Angeles, while Magema was born in Congo and now works and lives in Paris. Both artists have studied art and art currently still making works that exhibit all around the world. Both Rist and Magema are interested in the themes of femininity. While Rist explores a fun and humorous side to her videos, Magema has slow and simple shots of repetitive movements. Their processes differ, Rist enjoys working with a crew, while Magema works on all her artworks alone.

4. Reference list

African Digital Art, 2016. The Video Art of Michele Magema. [Online]. Available from – http://africandigitalart.com/2016/01/the-video-artwork-of-michele-magema/. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].
Art Rador, 2014. 10 African Video Artists to know Now. [Online] Available from – http://artradarjournal.com/2014/03/01/10-african-video-artists-to-know-now/. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].
Electronic Arts Intermix ,2016, Pippilotti Rust,  535 West 22nd Street, 5th Flr New York, NY 10011, Available from – http://www.eai.org/artistBio.htm?id=8817 %5BAccessed on 16 August 2016]
MoMa, 2016. Pipilotti Rist Ever is Over All, 1997. [Online] Available from – http://www.moma.org/collection/works/81191. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].
Signs, 2005. Michele Magema – Goodbye Rosa. [Online] Available from – http://signsjournal.org/michele-magema-goodbye-rosa-2005-2005/. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].
Youtube, 2016. Hold up – Beyonce vs Pipilotti Rist. [Online] Available from – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7z3X-zs1vu0. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].
Youtube, 2011. Pipilotti Rist on her working methods. [Online] Available from – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=br1C5ONEt_c. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].
Figure 1: The Art Desk, 2011. Pipilotti Rist, The Eyeball Massage, Hayward Gallery. [Online] Available from – http://www.theartsdesk.com/visual-arts/pipilotti-rist-eyeball-massage-hayward-gallery. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].
Figure 2: Fact, 2016. Ever is Over All. [Online] Available from – http://www.fact.co.uk/projects/pipilotti-rist/ever-is-over-all.aspx. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].


Figure 3: Art Orbit, 2012. Pipilotti Rist; Overrated underpants? [Online] Available from – https://artorbit.wordpress.com/2012/01/09/pipilotti-rist/. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].

Figure 4: Vemo, 2012. Michele Magema. [Online] Available from – https://vimeo.com/magema. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].

Figure 5: Galeri Seroleon, 2015. Michele Magema. [Online] Available from – http://galeriasaroleon.com/artista/michèle-magema. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].

Figure 6: Vemo, 2012. Michele Magema. [Online] Available from – https://vimeo.com/magema. [Accessed on 16 August 2016].