Faith by DECOY
From a conversation with John Peffer, December 2015
MV The idea of the perfume began to develop when I participated in an exhibition curated by Penny Siopis, called Purity and Danger, that explored taboos. Around the time of this piece I was going through some emotional struggles, as we all have from time to time, and I went around to various soothsayers and traditional healers saying, ‘This is my situation. What would you prescribe?’ Since it became my project, of course I would exaggerate a bit, saying ‘I am struggling with this condition, this situation … what can you prescribe to heal me, to make me better?’They would take me through this process of asking me certain questions, and they would give me healing potions or combinations of plant and animal materials, saying ‘take this in the morning’, or ‘grind these things together’, or they would do it for me and say, ‘have this with tea …’ . The whole idea of fixing something that is wrong was very interesting to me. How do I move from a place that is wrong? Also, in the sense of the colonial – how do you fix that, through what kind of process? Through indigenous means? From what position do you come at it? Remember that the name of the perfume was ‘Faith’. Along with the idea that we all have faith in something, whether it be magic, or a healing process, or a higher power; or as a consumer of commercial products. But also, at the juncture of a national transition, do we have faith in the process, do we trust ourselves and each other? Faith, as you know, can also be betrayed.
JP Were these all African healers that you consulted?
MV Yes, all sangomas and izinyanga trained in their different local traditions. Coming from the experience of the billboard, and having been roasted for that, I was feeling so diseased, like I had done so much wrong. So I brought this problem to some of these healers, telling them the story, and of course they would look at me disapprovingly, like, ‘how do we fix this problem?’ I used this experience as a small engine to try and balance myself after that disillusionment that left me wondering whether I could still trust my own practice. Eventually I collected things like herbs and animal parts: from skunks, and snakes, and meerkats, and made a library of smells by making tinctures, steeping these in alcohol for months. The alcohol draws from the object its complete essence. Later you discard the bits of tail or skin and the odour adheres in the liquid. A friend and I did all kinds of tests and ended up making this blue perfume. Throughout this process I was very conscious to use materials that were only African – from the whole of the continent. We ended up making something that was not that bad. It was a whole process! Designing the bottle and packaging, and even finding somebody to pay for it! I had no money …
JP So you hustled your way to sponsorship?
MV Completely. People were so supportive. All the energy that goes into doing something like that is incredible. That is why I say to my students today, you must really invest everything you have if you want
to make things happen for yourself. I undertook a whole advertising campaign, I got sponsorship to cover an entire double-decker city bus, and was even featured on the pages of Elle magazine.
JP All to advertise a product that in commercial terms did not actually exist! And the poster on the city buses? There were snakes …
MV I had a little blue dress, and all these snakes … they were everywhere! At the shoot, the herpetologists brought choices. There were adders, with those square jaws, and I could not deal with them. They also had king snakes, and they were kind of sweet, although I was still terrified. My hair was done up in little twirled buns all over my head. For part of the shoot I had a wig on over that. Snakes prefer dark places, so they would go between my legs, under the dress, and they would wiggle in between my wig and my head and twist themselves around the little knots of my hair underneath the wig. So you have a shot of me, but you also have two handlers standing outside the shot who would occasionally have to pull … and the snakes would tighten their grip like, ‘No. I am happy here’. Crazy.
JP You make this perfume, you do this interactive thing with the healers, you design the bottle, the lettering, you connive sponsorship and a billboard for a bus, and you build a whole Woolworths- type beauty counter with blue neon signage, and bottles and tester strips and a mural to go with it. It is a complete world, a gesamtkunstwerk! What happened to the bottles of perfume?
MV They were stolen out of the display, by the dozens. But I have quite a few left, numbered as one would an edition.
JP There were lots of problems with security staff for that biennale, I remember. Many things went missing. Amusing, I suppose, to imagine people going around on the weekend wearing stolen perfume made from poisons. I should have stolen one too! In that way the art gets dispersed …
MV I quite liked that, too, though these people may have been horrified to know what the potion was made of. The idea of acquiring something furtively also relates to how artists must sometimes appropriate images or ideas and form this into something significant, something that communicates new truths.
JP Again, the subterfuge! The ‘brand’ of the perfume, I now recall, was Decoy. Faith, by Decoy. I’d like to conclude by underscoring some things that we have been discussing that I see as a basis in much of your work up to the present. There is this element of teasing the audience, of presenting one thing that leads the viewer to think of another. Related to this as its strategy, and starting with those early explorations, is your thinking through the significance of the very materials that embody the images that we otherwise take for granted in our lives. It is an avant-garde sensibility to ask the audience to consider the ‘thingness’ of the thing, the
‘what it is made out of’aspect, as a form of critical inquiry that may have social or political implications.
Faith by DECOY
An edition of 300 bottles of specially designed perfume, promotional stand and advertising campaign.
John Peffer is Associate Professor of art history at Ramapo College in New Jersey, and author of Art and the End of Apartheid (Minnesota 2009).