Unbearable whiteness of being

NON-BINARY SOUTH AFRICAN performance artist Dean Hutton has stood on the outside looking in, for most of their life. While this may be a horribly lonely position for a child, it is one of supreme potency for an artist at the summit of their personal, political and artistic power. Plan B is a book spawned by Hutton’s masters dissertation, but it is a lot more than an academic tract translated into marketability.

A documented trajectory of the manifestation of Hutton’s alter-egos, Goldendean and #FuckWhitePeople – one in which Hutton presented themselves painted gold with a hand-bell attached to their groin, and the other in which Hutton wore a custom-designed suit of clothing bearing the triggering legend – the work is a rich compilation of the growth patterns of an art gesture. It documents how Hutton’s performance personae developed from curious experiments to gestures of uncontrollable hypervisibility. It’s a candid and sensitive testament to the wisdom of South Africa’s judiciary and a reflection on what it means to inhabit a white body in a world where cruelty in white hands is committed all the time. Often gratuitously.

Above all, this is a book which should be, with alacrity, on the bookshelves of anyone claiming to know and respect issues revolving around sexuality and performance art in this world where hate still reigns supreme, albeit in many closets. And once you have gotten used to the unusual layout of the text and its idiosyncrasies, the prose sings with a kind of holy fire.

Hutton, who studied journalism at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, and developed into a very  well-respected photojournalist, writes with great thoughtfulness and depth about the morally messy role of the photographer in a situation of immense confrontational violence. They write about what it means to be the pictures editor of a newspaper, in such a context. In repurposing themselves, body and soul, from behind the photographic lens to candidly in your face, Hutton articulates many difficult values. These are values which are about broken bodies and humiliation, about bodies that don’t fit and what flows through the currents of self esteem as one makes peace with one’s image, in the face of haters. Hutton’s work evokes that of artists of the unique ilk of Steven Cohen, Elu and Albert Silindokuhle Ibokwe Khoza.

The text’s ‘holy sense of fire’ is a little precious in some respects, however, and while Hutton is consistent in their use of the third person pronoun to describe themselves, they allow this to bleed into selected nouns. The term ‘womxn’ is one of these, used by transgender and LGBTQIA+ activists, but Hutton also converts manifesto to ‘mxnifesto’, but not performance to ‘performxnce’, however. This play on language is important, but could compromise the work’s readability, and a reader not convinced by the politically correct linguistic fashions of the time might be put off by this.

In addition, the student uprisings at universities nationally in 2015-6 was the incubator for Hutton’s “Fuck White People” alter-ego. While they describe the concatenation of students and the persona they had created dressed in this black and white suit, the complexities of the uprisings are not given balance in their focus. The ‘whys’ are not answered. Even in a referential footnote. This is a pity because it was not only an important time for Hutton’s oeuvre, but also a landmark series of protests for South African universities, and this extra bit of context would have lent Hutton’s book a broader credibility for readers.

Having said that, there are many astonishingly fine and triggering photographs in this book. Ones that deal with the personae in different contexts and ones that give platform to documents which were generated by these characters. Arguably the heart of this book is the document written by Chief Justice DM Thulare in 2017, which overturned the court cases accusing Hutton of hate speech. The reproduction of the Equality Court judgement, alone, necessitates that this book be printed on a large format. The fact that it isn’t – making the text really small – indeed, the fact that it was published by a German publishing house with a satellite presence in Johannesburg, is an indictment on this country’s university presses. This was a mystery that also surrounded Sylvia Glasser’s significant work, Tranceformations and Transformations. Hutton is an immensely important character in the artworld, and this book should be instituted as mandatory reading in the disciplines of art making – and simply that of being in the world.

  • Plan B: A Gathering of Strangers (or) this is not working is by Goldendean. Edited by Katharina Fink and Nadine Siegert, it is designed by Goldendean and mind the gap! design, and published by iwalewa books in Johannesburg and Bayreuth, Germany (2018).

3 replies »

  1. So this book was published two years ago? Does this mean it is no longer available? Where did Hutton do their masters dissertation? Thanks for writing about this.

    • It should still be available. I got my copy this year and it is still marketed on the publication’s website. Hutton’s masters is through UCT: thanks — I will add this to the story.

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