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OBJECT : SUBJECT (article first published : 2000-08-31)

object : subject is the title of an exhibition of new works by Mark Hipper.

In his latest work Mark Hipper has embarked on a new venture - sculpting - and focused on the question or process of objectification. A series of body masks carved out of yellowwood and jacaranda make reference to those made by the Makonde of Mozambique and worn by dancers who perform instructional dances for recent initiates.

Makonde men wear feminine masks, subtly mocking the women of the tribe but at the same time communicating the mores and roles expected from the initiates entering the society as responsible adults.

Hipper has recast the masks as male. If men have traditionally been privileged to know and to have the phallus - and to objectify women - the roles are reversed here. Now any woman or girl can wear or have the mask, can try on and assume the attributes, the body of the other sex. If the phallus has been the privileged signifier, having it in the form of a body mask means having the power to turn the traditional power structures against themselves, to subtly mock the phallic maleís conceits.

The suggestion is that men should learn the responsibility of their own sex. It is not sexual prowess or other attributes traditionally associated with representations of the male sex which are celebrated but an object that has been made more complex and more vulnerable. Drawing on an African archetype, the masks are rendered from within a European aesthetic tradition - in terms of form and naturalism.

Exhibited with these masks are a series of black-on-black drawings of faces of young Xhosa youths. These faces are those of the future protagonists and how might they wear or carry their new attributes or responsibilities? The artist is reminding us that perhaps these portraits are also masks - objects of our objectifying gaze, in the way that ethnography objectifies its subject.

Viewed together with the drawings of faces simultaneously represented and occluded, Hipperís phallic body masks reveal and empty out the privileged signifier. To quote Walter Benjamin: " Someone is sure to be found, who needs this space without itís being filled."




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