Thozama and Rose: Christiane Lange in conversation with Tanya Poole
Krefeld, October 2nd, 2015
Galerie m Bochum, Germany, features a solo exhibition of Tanya Poole, a contemporary artist based in South Africa. This is the first time her multimedia and conceptual work has been showcased on a grand scale in Europe. The large scale ink drawings and video installation of her recently created Thozama and Rose series depict two karate exponents and friends competing with each other in one of the many South African karate clubs.
CL: The exhibition focuses on the story of two South African women: Rose and Thozama. Could you tell me the story of these two?
TP: I teach at the dojo (a place to train in Karate) and these two women came in together to enroll in karate for the first time ever. Rose wanted the exercise. Thozama had been through some trauma and had decided to take on karate as a self-defense. Rose is a middle-class white South-African, about 38, she is a Doctor of Science at Rhodes University. Thozama is locally from the Eastern Cape, about 28, quite religious.
I saw that they had a friendship but I didn’t know the relationship between them. Later I found out that Rose employs Thozama to be the nanny to the children - which is a very typical South African relationship you find. And yet they came to the dojo together. They were starting to become very physical and very aggressive and very intimate all at the same time. I became fascinated.
CL: It’s not the first time that karate shows up in your work and the idea of fighting women. What is your personal experience with Karate?
TP: I was very intrigued at the start with the notion of violence and aggression, with the notion of conflict within oneself. Because every interaction in karate is also an interaction with the self. I realized that it was just a physical embodiment of dissonance. Cognitive dissonance. It was a way for me to start playing that stuff out.
CL: You rarely see violence in women.
TP: Exactly. In one of the first paintings I did of a woman fighter, the ink suggested that she had a black eye. I realized with shock that it was the only image of a woman with a black eye that I had ever seen which didn’t infer domestic abuse. That was enough to pique my interest. It’s an idea of subversion or the unexpected. The active fighting is both violent and intimate at the same time.
Motherhood is another unexpected place for violence and intimacy. The notion of motherhood as well I found terrifically interesting in the sense that Rose is the mother and that Thozama is the mother’s substitute. That has a very, very long history in South Africa that shocked me when I came to South Africa at the age of ten.
CL: The dojo is an interesting place, especially in South Africa, because the limits of color, gender and social background are less relevant. Borders and structures are seemingly opened up. Is there a political impact in your work?
TP:I see the dojo as a closed bubble that sits in a larger societal structure. This closed bubble has got its own set of rules and etiquette, which is imported from Okinawa. It has its own very strict hierarchy, but it is still a subversion of the outside South African post-Apartheid society. I felt that if I used that as a lens and shift that lens to the outside society that one can see that its hierarchies are man-made. At the moment one understands the manufactured quality of a system, one can shift it and change it. Politically that is my angle there in the dojo.
CL: Why did you choose do this work with ink?
TP: I find watching Thozama and Rose quite emotional. One of the things you have to learn in the whole process of training towards black - belt is to control your emotions. That is what makes you a good fighter - once you start being able to control your anger, your aggression or your fear. But at the same time Karate is also full of unexpected moments. You can’t anticipate what is going to happen in a fight. Both are similar to working with ink: you have both control and lack of control. And the way the ink restrains any heat of the fight or of the emotion. It pushes it back, holds it and constrains it.
CL: You set up an oppositional binary: A black woman, a white woman, one slightly younger, one slightly older, two fighters fighting each other. It looks like a binary on the surface.
TP: That is how I want the viewer to initially experience it. But as you walk through the video installation of Thozama and Rose one can see all the gradients and shifts between those two binaries. And the ink does that as well. On the surface you see these two women, but the ink establishes a kind of commonality as well.
Christiane Lange is an art historian and collector, based in Germany.