Barbie Bartmann: Homecoming Queen [review]

POSTED ON: December 1, 2020 IN Mario Pissarra, On Artists, Reviews & Reports, Word View

Note: This review was originally published online in 2005.

English critic Mathew Collings says that art today is little more than a sound-bite, and he can’t recall when last he was seriously ‘challenged’ by an artist’s work. Ward’s latest exhibition, a series of Barbie dolls modeled on Sarah Bartmann, which are (mostly) dressed individually and displayed for sale on a glass shelf, tests Collings’ ideas. One could quickly construct not one but several soundbites: the displacement of a Eurocentric ideal by an Afro-centric one; the transformation of Sarah Bartmann into a symbol, an icon, and consequently a commodity; an iconoclastic, ‘lite’treatment of a serious subject… Viewed as sound-bite art one can imagine offence being taken at this latest objectification of an already objectified, tragic figure, and Ward may be treading on dangerous grounds here. But Ward is a challenging artist: he makes art using the most unlikely of materials (‘painting’ with cement, for example); and over the last year alone his work could be mistaken as that of at least three different artists. Not least Ward is concerned with critical issues such as globalization, history, culture and identity; and refuses to make, as he puts it, “sanitized narratives.”

Ward interprets Bartmann as both victim and agent, and links these ideas to contemporary South African identities. The result is provocative: you are required to make the leap between a historical figure and a metaphor of displacement and repatriation, as well as of fragmentation and unity; and individual Barbies raise different questions. ContemporaryArtist, who is naked, raises the distinctions between Bartmann’s display as an exotic, sexualized object in colonial Europe and representations of the body by contemporary female artists. Examples such as Gay Barbie have little obvious relationship to their title, suggesting the importance of naming in conferring identities. Some Barbies highlight multiple, dynamic identities: a picketing figure refers to the crisis in the textile industry (Miss Spring Queen 2004). Then there are Barbies that seem to defy stereotypes but are actually spot on, such as NGO Barbie who reminds me of dolly comrades that do really exist. The invite, an image of Sandy Bay Barbie photographed on the beach suggests that contexts impact on identities. Clearly there is more going on here than can be done justice in 375 words, never mind a sound-bite.

* A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Art South Africa , 2005


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