videoanimation | Joseph Coetzee’s Self-Reflexive Film Critiques Institutional Culture in Contemporary South Africa
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Joseph Coetzee’s Self-Reflexive Film Critiques Institutional Culture in Contemporary South Africa


13 Jan Joseph Coetzee’s Self-Reflexive Film Critiques Institutional Culture in Contemporary South Africa

2015 was a year of much learning and unlearning in South Africa. In the realm of the arts, we saw many individuals focussing their mediums on recent conversations of power, inequality, and the place of the all-pervasive white supremacist heteronormative capitalist patriarchy – much of it carried out by straight white artists themselves. Rarely though, was this art self-reflexive, which is what makes filmmaker and digital artist Joseph Coetzee’s work stand out.

Introspective, but not narcissistic, self-reflexive, but not self-deprecating, Joseph’s work critiques capitalism, consumerism, sexism, racism, and other ills present in contemporary South Africa, through the view-point of a straight white male growing up in a world he has become increasingly disillusioned with.

Making use of repurposed apartheid propaganda films, multimedia collage work, performance art, interviews, and a number of other artistic mediums, Joseph’s film, The Red Death/Boetie is Verloreprovides a much needed critique into institutional culture through the lens of the small Eastern Cape city in which he grew up.

“I am all that is evil in the world. I embody patriarchy. I embody racism. I embody sexism. I embody homophobia. Only in that I have absorbed these concepts from what is presented to me in movies, advertising, music videos, popular music, my banter with the boys, smiling at a girl that I like, smiling at everyone that I find attractive. Consume. Attempt to consume. Thinking about sex all the time. This world has made me a monster. I want to unravel it” he declares in his film. Watch it below and read our interview with the artist.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your history as an artist.

I am interested in the way identity is constructed in relation to mythologies associated with the ownership of land. Growing up under white supremacist hetero-normative capitalist patriarchy I have been socialised as a white man in a manner that has been violent on me and has caused me to perpetuate violence against other people. Deconstructing these mythologies forms some of the core focus of my work.

When did you first realise that film was for you and what do you enjoy about the medium?

I like the idea of a cinema rather than a gallery for viewing a body of work; a space where an audience sits in silence and becomes part of the film. Watching a film, you share the construction of a dream space. I like the idea of using visual narratives to communicate ideas through moods and feelings. I also liked the idea of having an idea condensed into one film which could be circulated and viewed as opposed to being restricted to the walls of a gallery.

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Your film The Red Death/Boetie is Verlore draws attention to consumer culture as well as institutionalised, ritualistic sexism and racism, amongst other things. Can you tell us a bit more about the film and the process of putting it together?

With this work I intended to capture what I saw as continuity in the re- construction of violent patriarchal white supremacist masculinities. I wanted to make something which drew links between this construction of identity in relation to colonial power dynamics which at their core are centred on maintaining the privilege of white men and the ownership of land. The film is put together as a collage, centred on the character Boetie (Brother). Boetie was the main character in an apartheid propaganda film entitled Boetie gaan border toe! (1984). He is an archetype for the type of masculinity the apartheid state wanted white men to emulate. He is rich, a womaniser and when it comes down to it, a good soldier. He is measured in relation to his material possessions and his ability to sleep with many women. I found that this archetype is one that I have grown up around, from the toys I played with to the characters represented throughout advertising and popular culture. Further institutions such as the boys school and the university I attended all have cultural traditions where the implied student is measured alongside colonial constructions of white masculinity. With this work I have taken this character Boetie and placed him in relation to a number of windows into contemporary South Africa. This is intended to show how these ideas continue to be reconstructed. I have referenced the ideas of documentary and magic realism through a combination of repurposed footage, interviews with various individuals and more dream-like imagery.

How did you end up repurposing footage from an old apartheid propaganda film?

My father was in the SADF during the 1980s and I have grown up around his PTSD. On the other hand I had encountered the apartheid government’s fantasy representation of the “border war” conflict in the propaganda film called Boetie gaan border toe! I found the archetypal character of Boetie and the materialism that is glorified in the film scarily similar to on-going representations in Hollywood propaganda and advertising and therefore wished to bring this character into the present to illustrate the continuity of these ideas.


You also create multimedia collages. What’s the benefit of collage work of this nature in speaking to the everyday societal evils you critique in your work?

We are bombarded by repetitive imagery, from the street, to our televisions and social media platforms in our private spaces which constantly aim at influencing our ideas and selling us things. In this context I have found collage an interesting format to ask questions visually through playing with repetition and gif making.

Throughout The Red Death/Boetie is Verlore, there are strong elements of self-reflexivity from you as the artist. What’s the intention of that?

In attempting to make something which critiques white supremacist hetero-normative patriarchy I did not want to speak from a self-righteous position. I acknowledge that I myself am very much a product of this socialisation and thus wished to make my position clear and show my complicity in order to clearly express my critique.

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You’ve played around with graffiti writing, music production, and painting in the past—all of which come through in parts of your film. How strong an influence have these elements had on your work?

I have worked with and been highly influenced by artists from different disciplines and here I must make special mention of Daniel Nel’s paintings and design work as well as Caydon Van Eck’s music production under the name B00n. I have been lucky enough to share some years in Grahamstown working with these two and they have both been influences on my work.


Large sections of your film speak directly to the institutional culture at the university currently known as Rhodes through interviews with students over the duration of one of its sporting/drinking events which ran simultaneously to the third anniversary of the Marikana Massacre. Can you unpack this a bit more for us?

The university currently known as Rhodes is a historically white institution in South Africa. This means that there are certain policies and cultural traditions which reflect this and that the imagined student of the institution is still a bourgeoisie white student. One such tradition which sticks out for me is that students wear personalised purple overalls in order to drink and party. When new students arrive at the institution they are encouraged to purchase a pair of white overalls from the university in order to personalise and be worn to a series of annual events which are primarily focussed on the conspicuous consumption of alcohol. The Economic Freedom Fighters wear overalls in order to align themselves with the working class, whilst at the university currently known as Rhodes these are worn as a party symbol. On the third anniversary of the Marikana Massacre this year, Rhodes hosted the intervarsity sporting tournament– one such event where the wearing of overalls is encouraged. At no point did the university release a statement in acknowledgement or remembrance of the massacre. Rhodes is advertised as an institution where “leaders learn”. The wearing of overalls to party by the countries next “leaders”, removes any symbolic resonance with those who wear overalls for day to day labour. By turning the overalls into a symbol of self-indulgence and over consumption, the working class are dehumanised into objects whose labour the “leaders” are entitled to benefit from without second thought.

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You grew up in Grahamstown. How much of the city has influenced your art and your view of institutions such as the university currently known as Rhodes?

Grahamstown is a colonial microcosm of global capitalism. The town is in a valley which is divided down the middle. A small privileged elite live on the one side with access to learning institutions, museums and shops whilst the majority of the town live in the township on the other side. The town is continually advertised as an authentic British village and the settler mythology which has been erected through the many institutions and monuments, continues to naturalise the privilege of a white settler minority whilst delegitimising the position of the original inhabitants – the amaXhosa who make up the majority of the population. Graham was responsible for the brutal murder and rape of many people during the British colonial expansion into the area, yet when the question of a name change has been brought up many white people have repeatedly fought to maintain the name and its symbolic value. Growing up and making sense of such a context has been the root of a lot of the work I have made.

You’re forming part of a growing number of digital artists occupying the realm of the online world. What are your thoughts on digital art in South Africa? Is it the way forward?

I think that there are increasingly blurred lines between what makes something art. The merging of disciplines and an emphasis on the ideas behind an art work rather than its visual qualities is a positive direction for art to be moving. As more people occupy virtual spaces, it provides an exciting opportunity to display art to people where they can both interact with and respond to it without having to physically attend an exhibition somewhere. It also means new things for the ownership of art where images and videos can be downloaded and easily shared. In this way these virtual spaces allow space for more and more people to engage in the sharing of ideas through art. You see this with the way people use memes to communicate for example. Why should these not be regarded as art?

You’ve just finished up your Masters in Fine Art. What now?

I am looking for a way to continue making work and so am applying for various residencies, but I am open to finding work in other areas. I would like to lecture in art history and visual culture one day. For now though I am looking to relocate to Johannesburg, Cape town or Durban.

Red death 1Red death 3Red death 5FireShot Capture 3 - overalls - http___newhive.com_mask_overalls

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