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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

THE RITES OF DESIRE (article first published : 2007-08-6)

An exhibition by Pietermaritzburg artist Sita Moyo titled Show Me His is currently running at artSPACE durban until August 18. The exhibition was opened by Matthew Partridge, a visual arts honours student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. This is the text of his speech:

“Sita Moyo’s art is at times unnerving to look at, even disquieting, challenging the viewer and creating a certain amount of discomfort.

Where does this uneasiness stem from? Is it from our relationship to masculine nudity that, in our patriarchal society and indeed our patriarchally governed world, has become so used to the female form that the male nude can conjure such a reaction? Or does it emerge from the sheer act of looking itself that renders the object of the gaze vulnerable?

I would suggest that it is a combination of these two factors. The female body has, in the present, become a visual commodity. Sex sells. And when the power of consumption is governed by such a phallocentric order, it is inevitable that the female form would find itself infused into the popular psyche, becoming the virtual currency of representation.

The film theorist Jonathan Schroeder has suggested that; ‘to gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze’.

In Moyo’s art we can see this mechanism working on a dualistic level, for whilst the viewer has the power to stare at the forms, on occasions in her two larger paintings for example the forms stare back. We are looking at the subject looking back at us. This staring back, however, is compromised by the fact that the subjects are rendered vulnerable through their nudity. A vulnerability because the returned gaze is imbued with a self consciousness. The forms are modest in their postures. The eyes stare quietly back, not challenging but inviting one to interrogate the surfaces of their skin, sensually marvelling at Moyo’s sensitive rendering of their exposed figures.

In her artist's statement, Moyo quotes Laura Mulvey who wrote ‘According to the principles of the ruling ideology and the physical structures that hold it up, the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification’. I would suggest that Moyo has transcended this sentiment. By carefully articulating the nude masculine form, Moyo has developed an erotic dialogue in the figures that allows her to represent her own personal gaze of desire.

Her series of four smaller paintings entitled ‘moments of abandon’ offer a far more personal impression of Moyo’s relationship to the form. In what she terms the ‘post coital moment’ the figures indicate a far more self-enclosed awareness in their nudity. The figure lying in the foetal position stares into the distance, encapsulated in a world of his own, seemingly unaware of the gaze of the artist and subsequent viewer. His is a vulnerability of being looked at, closing his back to the gaze he is rendered only by the light that plays off the surface of his skin.

The other three figures show a decidedly absent awareness of being represented issuing a contemplative tone that gives their bodies a rawness of physical expression. The brushwork of the last of these three forms is somewhat more expressive adding to the sense of abandon they portray.

Moyo’s photographs are slightly more ambiguous in their representational strategy. Seemingly objectifying the masculine member, one is at times, not in fact entirely certain of where on the body the images are located. The titles of such works, notably peek-a-boo and it likes to be stroked, for example, give a playfulness to the images that allows Moyo to engage in a subjective interpretation. The phallus, rather than being the traditional symbol of power, is now made visible through Moyo’s feminine gaze. In its flaccid state, the penis’ presence is dictated by the charge of Moyo’s production.

For me, a particularly striking work in this series is a shot of her husband’s inner thigh titled So much to explore. When looking at this oblique image one can see the very textures of the skin giving it a typography of its own that is unique. Its seems fitting therefore to end with a quote by Susan Sontag taken from her seminal text On photography which reads; Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention…The act of photography is more than passive observing. Like sexual voyeurism, it is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging what is going on to keep on happening’. - Matthew Partridge




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