A brief study in white suburban fears: Diane Victor’s ‘One Pound of Flesh’

Diane Victor’s ‘One Pound of Flesh’ reads like a treatise on white suburban fears. It is, paradoxically, a celebration of her new life after she recently underwent a life-saving surgery for Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD). In this new body of work she deploys her body, her disease, as a site to explore notions of whiteness, white privilege and survival.

The title of her exhibition is a reference to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and the question imposed to us is: how far will one go for one pound of flesh? The question, of course, is a play on literal and figurative assumptions. It’s a non-metaphor metaphor and it has to do with South African society as much as it speaks directly to her own surgery. The title is a curious choice for Shakespeare’s Venice is soaked with bigotry – racism and sexism. It is, in a sense, a metonym for modern day South Africa.

Take, for instance, People in Glass Houses an installation of a typical suburban window – which is shattered, slightly and suspended in the space. Rendered in smoke stains on the glass, the two main window frames depict a white family gazing out. Perhaps, the family is looking out at the viewer, or, one hopes, onto the society around them, at their plunder and the guilt that comes with it. This, I must say, would be an optimistic reading of the guilt plaguing white suburbia. A more intuitive reading suggests that this family is most likely feeling under threat by the vermin of blackness which has encroached, since democracy, the halcyon whiteness, their ease with the sins of their past and present. This could easily be the window through which Penny Sparrow watched the New Year’s Durban beach goers. And, as such, one could be one of the figures looking out or the imaginary figures being gazed at. The shattered segment of the piece, one suspects, speaks of the fragility of white self-delusions of superiority.

In the piece titled The parable of the selfie and the self-perpetuating problem Victor explores the self-obsession of white privilege via a not so subtle reference to Pieter Bruegel’s painting The blind leading the blind. In composition both works are in perfect harmony, one depicting a more idyllic, sedentary setting while Diane’s is perfectly situated in the modern, contemporary moment. The only fault one finds is associating self-obsession with women (even white women) whereas, if we were to be honest, it is the white male, more than anyone, who has his eyes firmly transfixed on his navel. That said, the work attempts to make sense of how out of touch white South Africa is about the world that is changing around it, about the effects of its historic plunder of South Africa, about its negation of its own complicity in the violent mess that it has left in its wake.

Lastly, one finds Shadow Boxer – the piece that pulls together all the myriad explorations of the exhibition into a single image. In it, a woman – one suspects it’s Diane – fights her own shadow. Her boxing gloves resemble bean shaped kidneys. There’s a hint of mauve or redness. Her shadow is dark and menacing. Her withered kidneys taking on the likeliness of weathered gloves. She is tired, spent, yet still focused and fighting. Her skeleton protrudes between her legs. Her own skeleton, fortifies her and haunts her. She is fighting herself, the gloves old and worn but she still fights, for she is fighting for her very survival. She is fighting to protect herself from the imagined outsider which is signified by her own shadow. She is white and threatened by a ‘swart gevaar’ that is only a figment of her imagination. But she still fights.

The piece reminds me of something I read elsewhere, which I will try paraphrase here: those who have had a lot of privilege when asked to share, feel as though they are being oppressed. This thought sticks out when one takes in the image. If one were to take a casual glance at all the bigotry spewed on news sites, at the recent #ZumaMustFall campaign and the subsequent billboard, or the tone of political conversations amongst white South Africa, one could swear that democracy and the ANC government have stripped them of the illegal privileges they enjoyed during apartheid. Which is, of course, not anywhere near the truth by any stretch of the imagination. What one sees is only crocodile tears, a faux fight for survival, in a country that has proven itself to be anti-black over time and which, by all account, caters to the perverse whims of those who consider themselves white – with all the delusions of superiority that accompanies such identification – and has left the majority of black South Africans as the threat one imagines outside, when one looks through the windows of the glass house. And it is here, in this final analysis, that ‘One Pound of Flesh’ speaks directly to the blood that continues to be spilled so as to assuage white fears and to keep white privilege intact.

However, Victor conceives of whiteness as something similar to her diseases, as something toxic and self-harming. In Shadow Boxing it is rendered in perfect metaphor in the oversized old pair of gloves (bean shaped like kidneys, Diane’s failing kidneys one presumes), tinged with blood and rotting from within with sickness; the gloves effectual in neither attack nor defence.

**Originally appeared in Art Throb.

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