Election season is the one time every few years when democracy, in its purest possible form, takes place among the people of a country. It is the one time when everyone’s vote has true and equal value, when everyone’s voice can be heard. And this season in a country like Peru is a call for consciousness about a latent social conflict that the wealthiest wish to ignore.
On April 10th Peru had presidential elections. Of the five candidates who dominated the polls, three belonged to democratic parties with similar solid proposals about the best way to continue the high economic growth rate which has steadily been increasing for the last decade. Although these candidates received more than 45% percent of the votes when combined, they egotistically avoided forming a coalition and consequently each candidate did not gather enough votes independently.
Therefore the other candidates, Keiko Fujimori and Ollanta Humala, made it to the second round of elections, which will take place on June 5th. The two contenders’ ideologies seem a threat to the country’s fragile stability. Keiko Fujimori is the daughter of our last dictator, Alberto Fujimori, who under the guise of eradicating terrorism during his presidency from 1990 to 2001, managed to dissolve congress in 1992, violate human rights on several different occasions and reach the highest level of corruption in Peruvian history. He was, however, popular with the lowest economic classes, as he would give away free food and clothing to keep them satisfied. It is feared that Keiko will follow in his footsteps.
On the other hand, Humala possesses a very radical nationalistic ideology and on several occasions has shown admiration for the political practice of Venezuela’s dictator Hugo Chavez. He ran for President in 2006 with a condemnatory attitude towards the Peruvian constitution and lost by a small percentage. His speech is now more moderate, though his intentions seem unchanged. If he is elected it is feared that he will implement Communist measures such as the nationalisation of private companies, which would discourage foreign investment. The question then is why in a country like Peru, where progress and economic growth seem to make the daily headlines, does stability seem to hang by a thread every election season?
Although Peru has a representative democratic system, it is hard to tell if it is really representing the wants and needs of the majority. Despite the fact that it has had a constant economic boost in the last decade – reaching 9.1% last November – this growth is not reflected in all the areas of the country. It has a high poverty rate of around 34.8%, social expenditure is half the average spent by other Latin American countries, and the standard of public services, such as health and education, is poor. With these facts in mind, it is hard to believe we’ve had a relatively stable democracy throughout the last decade.
Economic growth is not synonymous with sustainable development. And although it can contribute to society as a whole, in the long run, if it is not well managed and the benefits are not well distributed, it will only create a greater gap between classes. When such injustice is taking place in a country, it is not surprising that those whose rights and needs are being ignored decide to vote for less traditional parties, whose policies and promises but sound convincing enough to make these excluded citizens feel part of the system.
Peru’s future is uncertain, as none of the two candidates competing for power have reliable records. But if this complex scenario has anything to offer us, let it be this lesson: it is not possible for a country to develop sustainably without involving the whole of its population in the process. It is when individuals are provided with equal opportunities that they can develop themselves fully and moreover, develop as a nation. When the opposite happens, social conflict arises and democracy ends up at stake.
‘A Rainbow Nation’: the famous words used by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe the unity of races and merging of cultures in post-apartheid South Africa after the 1994 election. The V & A strives to represent this rainbow nation in their new exhibition Figures and Fictions: exhibiting a selection of contemporary South African photography, these photographs collectively offer an insight into a South Africa of past and present. Each photographer has addressed their perception of the country through their camera lens. Consequently this individual interpretation brings forth a range of social issues including historical influence, the current political climate and racial acceptance.
Sabelo Mlangeni and Zanele Muholi both highlight the emergence of the gay community within South African society. Photographs from Mlangeni’s series “Country Girls” features in the exhibition portraying gay life in rural areas. The black and white photographs depict some of the ‘girls’ – or cross-dressing men – clothed as Mlangeni discovers them. Their self-assured stances present a change in a previously homophobic country, in which homosexuality was a crime carrying a sentence of up to seven years. Deprivation of gay rights appeared to be a distant memory when it became the fifth country worldwide to legalise same-sex marriages and introduce equal rights for all in adoption and military service, though prejudices against the lesbian and gay community still exist today. Zahele Muholi’s work aims to confront these prejudicial views. Photographs of young gay men in the series Beulahsin, conveys the reality of being gay in modern South Africa as they pose in contemporary, vibrant clothes and pose with the intention of inverting stereotypes.
Johannesburg-based photographer Nontskielelo Veleko certainly seeks to present a new perception of her country with the ‘born free’ generation that has grown up post-Apartheid. Her striking photographs of South Africa’s teenagers set against their urban backgrounds pay tribute to South Africa’s future. But whilst the exhibition definitely exudes a celebratory vibe indicative of modern South Africa free from the constraints of apartheid’s grasp, there are reminders of the struggles that South Africans still face. Deceptive at first, Santu Mofokeng’s series “Chasing Shadows” depicts the tranquillity of a set of caves used as a Christian prayer site and a place of traditional healing. However, this peace is aligned with a portrait of his brother, who is seeking a cure for AIDS. The country is high up in the AIDS pandemic with one in seven people HIV positive, a fact which is one of many underlying problems that subverted general optimism brought about by the after the promise of the 1994 election.
In the elections this month, the African National Congress faced major opposition, with support gaining for the Democratic Alliance for the first time since being elected in 1994. The DA were calling for people not to vote because of race, but because of policy. They are increasingly rallying support due to the massive issues of poverty and unemployment in South Africa. The photographs entitled ‘Woman on the footpath from Boa Vista to Roque Santeiro Market’ by Jo Ratcliffe is one of the most poignant images in the exhibition, exposing a landscape littered with detritus, amongst which are makeshift homes. It is a portrayal that should not be associated with the rule of the African National Congress who promised to revitalise the country after the horrific treatment suffered under apartheid. Yet rumours of a power-hungry and corrupt government pose the question of how far South Africa has really progressed.
Particularly thought-provoking are Mikhael Subotzky’s photographs entitled “Security” because of their focus on the men that the white middle classes employ for the protection of their property. A moving photograph shows an all-white street party in a beautiful suburban area, whilst the black security guard is positioned near the edge of the photo. It creates an uncomfortable depiction that is too reminiscent of past segregation, although at the same time it poses the idea of whether it would generate the same reaction if the security guard was white. It questions whether this previous history has formed deep scars that will always remain.
Pieter Hugo’s photograph, too, questions the concept of race, though it implies racial cohesion rather than conflict, as a white middle-aged couple nestle the black infant boy between them. Initially it is disturbing, yet on closer viewing it confronts our misconceptions of South Africa as details such as the man’s prosthetic leg, the couple’s dishevelled clothing and furniture insinuates their poor financial state, in contrast with the neatly-dressed black boy placed between them. This entering image immediately dispels the presumed knowledge viewers may have of South Africa and establishes the notion of the exhibited photography exposing a complicated nation.
Whilst South African citizens appear to be voting for change rather than race, this long surviving issue still exists. Government spokesman Jimmy Manyi came under attack for his televised comment that “there’s an oversupply of coloureds in the Western Cape”, representing the reality that racism still exists in South Africa and confirming the racial tensions between blacks, coloureds and whites. The issue of land distribution is a continuing dilemma, with the government planning to reassign 30% of farmland to black South Africans by 2014. Many young successful white people have left the country fearing for their safety as crime rates soar. Infuriation develops as the majority of the unemployed are black people, although the overturning of apartheid has seen an escalation in prosperous black middle-class South Africans. The exhibition highlights the vast improvements South Africa has made, but also the reality that enormous progression is still required. It will be a long time before apartheid truly becomes a distant memory.
When Monet sat down to paint ‘La Promenade d’Argenteuil’ in the 1870s, I wonder if he knew that over a hundred years later the debate surrounding those smoking chimneys, that he sought to adopt into his new depiction of the landscape, would still exist. It was Thomas Hardy who stood firmly on the other side of the channel fighting for his beloved countryside, lamenting the ‘growing gloom’ of the expanding, smoke-chugging industrial areas. Was this the beginning of environmentalism?
The reason why it probably sounds absurd is because ‘environmentalism’ is so modern. It is one of the many contemporary terms that we have coined in order to identify a problem. We seem more content if we can associate a name with an issue. However what is environmentalism? More importantly, in the case of this article, what does environmentalism mean in terms of art? In contemporary artwork many artists are choosing to focus on reusing materials around them. Des Hughes recently embraced an inexpensive recyclable element seen more frequently in artwork, and created one of his sculptures simply from stickers. For others it’s preserving the environment through the acknowledgement of its influence in their work. Sculptor Barbara Hepworth is notorious for creating beautiful curved pieces based on organic forms.
David Smith’s sculptures are almost in opposition to Hepworth’s, as his welded steel sculptures portray a link with industry and technology. Yet it is when they are displayed outdoors that they truly become an impressive installation. Having run out of room for his work in his Bolton Landing studio he began poignantly placing it in the surrounding fields. The contrast between the metallic sculptures and the beautiful landscape is, I personally think, remarkable.
Whether or not it is deliberate, artists create awareness for nature through their work. We appreciate Smith’s sculptures in a gallery, but they have more of an effect outside, which immediately makes us become more aware of surrounding nature.
However, this new term ‘environmentalist’ brings this new “type” of art, one whose message is more deliberate. Artist, Andy Goldsworthy, is an environmentalist and demonstrates this through his art by combining natural materials such as twigs, stones, leaves, reeds and snow to create his work. His work is recorded through photography when it is at the peak of its life span, because it then becomes part of a cycle of death and decay. This is an integral part of Goldsworthy’s work and is a reminder of nature’s vulnerability along with its constant presence and power.
‘Environmentalism’ in terms of preserving and celebrating nature has always been present. Monet could be found painting al fresco in the French countryside during the Nineteenth Century in all seasons. Similarly in the present day, if you are to walk the Yorkshire Moors you may be equally as likely to stumble across David Hockney. It is through this intimacy between the artist and the landscape that the importance of nature becomes apparent. The artist’s intent to paint landscapes outside, rather than from a collection of photographs or sketches made previously, encompasses the natural beauty and true form of escape for the viewer.
Recently the Royal Academy of Arts held an exhibition on the Glasgow Boys, a group of young artists, who in the late Nineteenth Century produced revolutionary artwork by moving away from the dark, depressing, staged paintings that were coming out of the Victorian studios at the time. Instead they formed a more realistic portrayal of country life and the landscape by working outdoors and recreating the vivid colours and light of nature around them. The queues for the exhibition proved that their work was as popular in the present day as it had been in the past.
The question has to be posed as to why interest in artwork on our natural environment is timeless. Surely it is more than an imaginary escape for people from urban areas like Monet’s paintings of frolicking tourists suggest? Famous sculptor Antony Gormley wrote in his essay entitled ‘Art in the Time of Global Warming’ that ‘it is through art that we communicate what it feels like to be alive.’ Without nature the human race would not survive, therefore not only are we celebrating it through art but it is also our natural instinct to protect it. “Environmentalism” may be a new term, but it also signifies a change in belief in our society, one in which, as always, art and artists are implicated.