In 2009, clad with a bushy beard and khaki costumes complete with a farm boy demeanor, South African painter Johann Louw is a poster boy for modern voortrekker. Accordingly, his paintings textually locate him as counter-feminist and settler fantasist of sorts.
His feminist non-credentials are betrayed by his treatment of female figures in his work. Louw’s handling of landscapes betrays a settler’s fantasy of an empty un-peopled land available for capture and definition.
Louw favours a dark palette, restricting his colours to the dim tones and grays. This method is, however, more concerned with the want for color and definition than it is with death or loss of colour.
His painterly technique echo the fact of decomposition and rot and his motifs are competently addressed and surrendered to this truth of all existence. These themes of want and emptiness are present throughout his discourse, though more the former than the later.
Louw totally denudes his female figures and imbues them with an aura of shame and the opposite of assertiveness. On the other hand, though his male figures might fall short of returning a confident gaze they are partially and in some occasions fully clothed in “work clothing the only clothing there is”. Hence the voortrekker patriarchal idea of the male as the essential worker is toughened here.
Cast into a gloomy picture plain, these figures fail to return a gaze as if burdened by some public secrete or shame. Louw’s subjects are victimized by his gaze and that of his exhibition audiences.
Arts writer Andries Gouws testifies that, “the human beings in [Louw’s] paintings are unrelated to the landscapes or spaces in which they are”, or have been flung. They are also “unrelated to each other”. Disconnected from the land, the figures become vulnerable dispossessed objects susceptible to whatever definition and situation is visited upon them by the artists’ whim and other mechanisms. Louw’s fantasy is exactly that of a colonising settler. The landscapes are dark and menaced by emptiness, thus available for settlement, definition and exploitation.
This is, for instance, different to William Kenbridge’s discursive treatment of his landscapes in the animated film Felix in Exile (1994). Kentridge’s work as Staci Boris observed “poses questions of how landscape is constructed and represented and whose stories it ultimately tells”. Even if these stories might not be told their existence is acknowledged. Louw’s work denies the inherent stories the land might yearn to tell. Perhaps because any acknowledgement of these stories would mean the land is not available for settlement.
According to Gouws, the “women are [just] naked, without being being seductive”. I want to offer that Louw has even denied them their very right to sexuality; this after excluding them from the semiotics of work and industry. Though Gouws reads that sex is present here , “but simply as a possibility of rape, coupling, or possession, [and] not that of pleasure or love”, I want to further offer that Gouws’ reading is possible precisely because of Louw’s conception of feminine sexuality as “essentially victim”.
So the feminine figures and the desolate landscapes are objectified into a patriarchal settler need for victims and prey. They are surrendered and subjected as flock for him to marshal towards meaningfulness and presence,at least in his art.!!
Written by: Percy Mabandu