n De Arte - Challenging portrait conventions : 'types', masks and the series in South African portraiture : research

Volume 51, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 0004-3389
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Historically, portraiture was perceived to faithfully portray the unique essence of the sitter, through the process of mimesis. This mimetic portrayal was also essential to the racial classification of South Africans under apartheid, when a tetrad of race was promulgated in the Population Registration Act of 1950 (Breckenridge 2014b:226). This article investigates the questioning of racial taxonomy in contemporary South African portraits. It argues that the notion of individual essence is questioned through rhetorical devices such as 'types', masks and the portrait series. Racial categories are questioned through 'types' in portraits by Keith Dietrich, Pieter Hugo, Anthea Pokroy and Frikkie Eksteen. Kendell Geers and Richardt Strydom employ the mask to efface individual essence, while foregrounding socio-political issues. The notion of the portrait series is discussed in relation to portraits by Marlene Dumas which, contrary to portraiture's aim, highlights the collective over the individual. This article argues that the representation of the subject through 'types', masks and the portrait series challenges the totalitarian impetus to arrest the sitter's essence in the portrait. The discussion commences with the exploration of the mimetic portrayal of the individual in the portrait, which became a bureaucratic tool of racial classification.

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