Jodi Bieber’s photographic exhibition Quiet lifts the curtain on the veneer of manhood, carbonised as it is by generations of society. It casts such a sense of the sacrosanct, you might be tempted to take off your shoes to see the work.
There’s an astonishing moment in Aisling Walsh’s 2003 film Song For a Raggy Boy in which the words of the great English poets are uttered by the uncouth youngsters of an Irish Reformatory in the 1930s. It brings on goose-bumps and it makes you look at them and at the world in which they are portrayed with a different eye. A kinder one. One that acknowledges that things are often much more nuanced than we are led to believe.
Something similar happens in Jodi Bieber’s exhibition of 35 posed portraits of men. It resonates with a youtube clip that some weeks ago went viral on facebook, engaging with the three most destructive words a boy could be made privy to: “Be A Man.”
Bieber has embarked upon this project with a compelling and developed understanding of how men suffer from stereotypes. It’s a corollary, in a sense, to Real Beauty, a project she embarked upon examining the notion of beauty in women. But Quiet pushes in the face of statistics that recall that South African society is one of the most violent in the world and that its perpetrators are in the majority male.
It’s a primordial thing. Since human beings lived in caves, by virtue of physical size and stamina, the males did the hunting and the women, the gathering. Young testosterone-filled men are conscripted to fight wars conceived of by older power-mongering men. There are millions more reflections of this understanding of the male as the perpetrator. The stereotype is a behemoth in proportion.
But as a cat may look at a king, so might a white female photographer stare this behemoth down. Bieber chooses to raise the curtain and look at the individual behind it. And like with the wizard of Oz, the great and terrifying becomes someone quite ordinary. The men – from across socio-economic, cultural, geographic spectra of this country – pose in their underwear. In their homes. Some confront the camera directly, but not all. Some are at the peak of their virility, others inhabit bodies which are ageing. Each has described himself in a few words; while some try and slap in a marketing punt, most speak in a pared down poetic to describe themselves.
“The Devil,” offers multi-tattooed photographer Pep Toni Bonet Mulet, as a description of himself. “I am one in a million,” says choreographer Fana Tshabalala, a sentiment echoed by Eduardo Farinha “I’m the one and only…” There’s an essay in each of these compelling images, but not only one that is about words and images.
Bieber paints these portraits with the light and her reach for the soul of her sitters. Art critic Matthew Krouse sits on the edge of his bed, a pile of Yiddish literature on the pedestal. There’s a scar down the abdomen of financial advisor Gerald Sadleir. Justin Badenhorst sits in the shower. A ceramic cat is Leon Fester’s companion. A photograph of a pregnant woman is juxtaposed with Rohan Dickson’s round-backed body on his bed.
There’s also a ‘noisy corner’, which features three monitors bearing footage of sport, war, power, and a playlist of 11 songs behind headphones that embrace the stereotypes of victor, hero, crook. But you don’t have to go there, and it is not allowed to break the silence in the space.
In the potency stakes, this exhibition’s biggest drawcard is the interface between the work and the gallery’s atmosphere. It’s like a sacred space; if you anticipate being erotically titillated by these photographs, you might be disappointed: You might find titillation in a far deeper place, however: seeing male humanity hidden beneath a generations-old mask.
For a photographer like Bieber who teeters between the media and the gallery, and doesn’t flinch at the most uncomfortable of issues, the exhibition promises international legs, not only as a publication but also as cipher to unpick hard and fast rules of society.
- Quiet by Jodi Bieber is on show at the Goodman Gallery in Parkwood, Johannesburg, until April 26. 011-788-1113.
Robyn Sassen has been an arts critic since 1998. She writes for several online and print publications including the Sunday Times, the SA Jewish Report, the Mail & Guardian, and artslink.co.za.