Michel Foucault suggested that the word ‘monster’ refers back to the Latin, monstrare, to put on show as a spectacle, and not as an object. The idea of creating something illegitimate, which doesn’t belong or fit in, is central to the monster myth. Like folk tales and children’s stories, they are moralistic, suggesting a way of posing issues of beauty, evil, power and good. Perhaps the con- fusion of dialectic categories is the greatest heresy, combining fur with feathers, tame with wild, edible and inedible. They become significations of our worst nightmare, but also points us to what a sense of freedom might be. Chimera, the title of Vári’s video installation, refers in Greek mythology (Khimaira) to the fire breathing she-monster represented as a composite of a lion’s head, goat’s body and dragon’s tail. The mythologies and legends of ancient and modern cultures teem with an enormous variety of monsters and imaginary beasts, many of which can be found at the gates of Hades. A great number of these are composites of different existing animals that emerge from various cultures, from Babylonian winged bulls and leopards, to Hindu winged elephants and Western Chimera, who according to legend was slain by Bellerophon, mounted on the winged horse Pegasus. The English poet Milton has described the chimera of an author as a vain, foolish, incongruous fancy or creature of the imagination.
In addressing her own history Minnette Vári works here within the confines of the Voortrekker Monument, inaugurated in 1949 as a monument to Afrikaner Nationalism and built to describe the significance and meaning of the Great Trek to its descendants. A covenant was established that gave birth to the Afrikaner nation who left the Cape Colony between 1835 and 1854. Depicted in a marble frieze of 27 bas-relief panels is the everyday perseverance, heroism, illness, death, conquests and trials of the Voortrekkers. The frieze of 92 meters long is housed in the Hall of Heroes. From the pristine glow of the Quercetta Italian marble emerges the incarnation of Chimera where Vári has captured on video the entire frieze of Voortrekker figures, reanimated with additional footage, producing a procession of monochrome ivory amalgams of human and animal aberrations floating in a dream-like moment. The Chimeras interact with each other, echoing a strange freakish version of historical events frozen in time and ideology.
Jean-Francois Bayart has described South Africa as being “precisely and fully in the process of inventing illusions to the conceivable since there is no agreed upon reality, as yet, to which a single discourse can be referred”(1). For Njabulo Ndebele, the history of South Africa and particularly Apartheid is described as follows: “If today they sound like imaginary events [it is] because, as we shall recall, the horror of day-to-day life under apartheid often outdid the efforts of the imagination to reduce it to metaphor”(2). That is the danger, that apartheid is just a story, a memory, an illusion. The chimera of political ideology is represented by a lion’s head: an embodiment of the disastrous reign of a tyrannous and perverted ruler who dominated reality to the extent that reality surpassed our wildest imaginings. The proper- ties of the she-goat are revealed in the sexual aspect of the Chimera and the serpent’s tail represents the corruption of the spirit through pride and vainglory where the ideals of nationalist separation inevitably led to failure.
Chimera has been conceived in addressing the complex contradictions that exist in post apartheid South Africa, by drawing an analogy between a past that is monstrous and the monsters of ancient mythology. Cultures dominate one another, history is written, stories are told and heroes are born. From the Voortrekker Monument we discover the cold, one-sided historical account that is anointed as history and in effect then, truth. Minnette Vári chronicles the evidence of a perverted narrative of denial and forgetting. She brings into question the way that histories are written, represented and commemorated. Her Chimeras, like that of the Voortrekker Monument figures, are etched in time, perpetually for all eternity. Vári’s Chimera excavates the allegorical tradition of European art and mythology. It is a language predicated on disrupting the illusion of the exotic, grotesque and unfamiliar. Ranging from the cabinet de curiosités to the display of Saartjie Baartman, mankind’s fascination with nature, culture and history has led to inconceivable deviations with regards to race, genetics and extreme creations. Chimera plays some of these deviations against one another and what emerges, is a poignant but elusive narrative that resonates between the broadly historical and the intimately personal.
1 Jean-Francois Bayart, ‘The State in Africa, The Politics of the Belly’, Longman, London, 1993.
2 Sarah Nuttall and Carli Coetzee, Negotiating the Past, ‘Memory, metaphor and the triumph of narrative’, Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1998
– Clive Kellner, Johannesburg-based independent curator, September 2001
The above is the original version, now known as the “white edition”, as the idea was to keep the tonality true to the marble reliefs. Subsequently, due to logistical demands, Vári decided to issue a “black edition” to allow the work to be shown in a variety of venues. The two editions each have their own particular ambiance and characteristics.
4-channel video installation
Video 3′ 00″, Stereo audio 5′ 00″, looped.