Tam Joseph

It would however be erroneous to create the impression that Joseph’s work is relentless strident in its tone. Native Girl with Fetish is a 1987 painting by the artist. Characteristically witty and slightly caustic, it features a young African woman, nude, reclining on her bed. It is daytime, and through the bedroom window behind her, we can see part of an urban street. Incidentally, the painting is set in Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast, one of the countries in West Africa (4). The young woman reclines on her bed, partially draped in its sheets. And she reads a copy of Elle magazine, complete with the seemingly obligatory blonde-haired, white face on the cover. The viewer is at once drawn to the striking visual contrast between the African girl's dark and stunning complexion, and the pink-skinned, blonde-haired cover girl.

But what completes the bizarre composition of the painting is the portrait of Pope John Paul II that looks down, cheekily, at the naked girl from her bedroom wall. The scene is extraordinary. And it is this extraordinary-ness that gives the painting its impact. The native girl is obvious - it is she who so strikingly occupies the length of the painting. But what is the fetish? The Pope or the magazine? To a degree, we might consider them to be mutually exclusive, and that they are in direct competition with each other for the girl's attention. But we might also consider the magazine and the image of the pontiff to be illustrative of the same thing – the Europeanisation of Africa. It is this tension between the painting’s three elements that accounts for much of the painting's impact. After all, aren't the Pope and the magazine symbols of much the same thing? In effect, the fetish - with all its Western implications of paganism – is not some or other African icon of superstition and primitivism. Instead, the fetish becomes the mass of largely alien sensibilities, such as Catholicism (as represented in the cheeky portrait of the Pope) and the assorted, highly problematic notions that are embodied in magazines such as Elle, with its highly racialised and prescriptive notions of beauty. And yet, within the painting, there is harmony. The painting triumphs because by irreverently and cleverly juxtaposing the cover girl with the Pope, they effectively cancel the power they would each have if they alone could claim the Native Girl's attention. The girl relaxes, contented, triumphant, embracing both Pope and cover girl, yet unwilling to surrender herself to either.

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