Real boys don't sew. They like to fight but never cry. They want fast cars, and one day they'll want fast women too. Boyhood is perhaps not so strange a place to start when viewing these embroideries, considering that Le Riche (b. 1986) and I – and many of our peers, I'm sure – discovered the iconic South African soft-porn magazine Scope (1966-1996) in our formative years. Being the youngest and therefore least likely to face any real consequences (the belt), my brother and cousins often insisted that I spirit away my grandfather's copies from their hiding place, returning them to safety once our curiosity had been sated. However, for me (in what I now recognise as a thoroughly camp sensibility) these magazines held no prurient interest: like paper dolls, the women they featured suggested to me in their nakedness not a means to an end but an invitation to play dress-up, a desire met with suspicion by my co-conspirators. In the present, Le Riche (once a queer kid too) has perfected this game, recognised the irony that evaded me in those bygone days, and turned it subversive and political.
The slippage between pleasure and misogyny in most pornography aimed at straight men is salient in the cartoonish language often used to isolate, name, and evaluate individual female body parts according to their shape, size, and beauty or ugliness. Yet, the hypervisibility that pornography trades on is deferred in Le Riche's practice. Perhaps, for the artist, there is no better way to frustrate the male gaze than to deny it an unobscured view of women's bodies, pixelated here to the point of near abstraction. Put differently: there appears to be an ethics of care at work in the defamiliarised Scope covers and centre folds that form part of this exhibition. Here, images from the magazine have undergone a process that more than exceeds, to use an elaborate euphemism, the fleeting pulse of satisfaction that they were originally intended for. First digitised, then converted into grid-like patterns informed by hues in the source material, and finally assembled – stitch by stitch – into beautiful cyphers, they demand more considered or affectionate (what some would call erotic, and precisely not pornographic) ways of looking.
Le Riche's politics emerges as much from the materiality of his embroideries as from their subject matter. Feminist and queer artists have long recognised the radical potential of foregrounding craft – historically dismissed as amateurish 'women's work' and excluded from the macho domains of sculpture and oil painting– in their practices. Needlework, especially, allowed modern women artists to thumb their noses at patriarchal art institutions by rejecting competencies they were already perceived to lack. A common strategy amongst contemporary women artists working with textiles is to reject the innocuous prettiness (and domestic functions) traditionally associated with the medium, producing self-representations that revel in sex, pleasure, and excess to transgress the limits of ostensibly 'proper' feminine conduct. Le Riche, too, refuses to toe the gender line: he is a boy who –amongst other things – sews, knits, and crochets. Certainly, any comprehensive survey of the artist's career over the last decade reveals a consistent attempt to negotiate and undermine, often with needle and thread, the modes of masculinity and sexuality that he had been socialised into.
The Scope works, which appeared in their first iterations in 2015, are political in the sense that they bring into stark relief and then annihilate the assumption that heterosexual desire is the norm. Notably, while Scope was not exempt from censorship in the apartheid era, the risks involved in obtaining and openly reading anything remotely homoerotic – already a rare commodity– were disproportionately severe during this time. In fact, not everyone had been as discreet as my grandfather: Scope is remembered by some, including Le Riche, as a conspicuous feature of typical middle-class suburban homes in South Africa in the twentieth century. The memory of the nonchalance with the which the magazine was often displayed during his childhood has, to my mind, alerted the artist to the hypocrisy that separated harmless fun from abhorrent smut, 'us' from 'them'. The works simultaneously speak of disobedience and resourcefulness, of not accepting the narratives of gender and pleasure offered or condoned by the mainstream, at least not in their original forms. Indeed, the idea of translation is central to my understanding of the Scope works, which defiantly turn paper to thread, the pornographic to the erotic, and straight to queer.
Press release courtesy SMAC Gallery.
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