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UJ Art Historian confronts gender-based violence in the artworks of Diane Victor

In 2016, the South African murder rate of women was 4.8 times the global average according to the World Health Organization (WHO) prompting President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2017, to identify gender-based violence as a ‘National Crisis’ and recently describing violence against girls and women as South Africa’s “second pandemic,” after the coronavirus, and has called on residents to end the culture of silence around gender-based violence.

According to Karen von Veh, a Professor in Art History at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), violence against women has become more than a national crisis. Her research is founded in gender issues and how these are addressed by artists in South Africa through social commentary or activist art. Prof von Veh exemplified a South African artist, Diane Victor, whose work has been distinguished by an uncanny ability to disrupt complacency and affect viewers, when she delivered her professorial inauguration address, A Voice for the Voiceless: Confronting gender-based violence in the artworks of Diane Victor. Prof von Veh’s inaugural address took place in the University’s Ubuntu Chambers, Madibeng Building, Auckland Park Kingsway Campus on Thursday, 23 September 2021.

Prof von Veh outlined some of Victor’s most affective and effective works in raising awareness of gender-based violence in our country.

“One of her strengths lies in the social consciousness raised by her content, which is often drawn from newspaper articles or newscasts, so it’s always current and topical. The violence and traumas that abound in daily life provide the content for her works and these ills are, arguably, most consistently played out in the lives of women in South Africa,” she said.

Prof von Veh pointed out four examples which demonstrate both Victor’s technical mastery of graphic media and her ongoing engagement with the horrific spectra of femicides and violence against women and children. “I consider the way she manages to grapple with the horror of the reality behind each story yet transcends this earthly pain through the subtlety of her medium and technique so that their suffering becomes an evocation of the transience of life, demonstrated in smoke and ash.”

She argued that Victor’s work reminds us of our participation in a world where life is not held sacred and encourages us to be effective participants in creating a better future for South Africa. “By processing her own trauma through her artworks Victor is able to bring her viewers face to face with the erosion of goodness, compassion and morality that underpins the atrocities depicted or alluded to,” said Prof von Veh.

Prof von Veh has curated and co-curated several exhibitions, the biggest being the South African Special Exhibition to the Beijing Biennale in 2015 titled: South African Art in a Time of Democracy. Her recent curation was a solo show for contemporary artist, Jaco van Schalkwyk at the Alliance Francaise in 2019.

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