The idea that clothes make the man has been around since the beginning of
time, although it was Mark Twain who first made it a pithy saying, and went
further to say that 'naked people have little or no effect on society'. This is a concept that Cape Town artist Evan Oberholster turns upside down,
as he shows how society and nudity are inextricably intertwined. What
Oberholster does is to deconstruct through his nude paintings of everyday
people, the camouflage that clothing provides and to show how culture is not
just a construct of clothing, language, belief, and behaviour. Culture
exists also in nudity.
Oberholster, who has had several one-man and group exhibitions since
returning in the mid-1990s to South Africa from the Netherlands, has long
explored the relationship between nudity and being. His latest showing is a
first public viewing of ordinary people in ordinary settings, all nude.
What he is doing is quite different from the trends that at present make up
nude painting. This is not the grotesque distortions of the human anatomy
and the human as animal that has become prevalent in contemporary art.
Neither is there room in Oberholster's work for lyrical romanticisations of
the human form or what he calls "the prevalence of the moody, sensual nude
with blurry genitals". He does not embrace the erotic tradition that focuses
on bodily perfection or the idealisation of the human form, nor the
pornographic realism of some modern work, but there is certainly an
underlying eroticism to the work which contradicts the deliberate
mundaneness of the settings - working on the computer, having a smoke break,
He observes wryly: "I have observed that the distinction between sexuality,
sensuality and eroticism generally says more about viewer than the subject
matter. Work that I have considered to be completely divested of sexuality
has been viewed by others as erotic. How we see nudes reflects on our own
prejudices about the naked human body."
The European influence - in terms of cultural and societal paradigms - has
changed in Oberholster's work. This is South African in a way that the
unclothed figure has never before been uniquely, unmistakably of our
experience. The vibrancy and contradictions of the whole of South African
society exists on these canvases in microcosm: tensions between
heterosexuality and gay lifestyles, between black and white, between the
roles of men and women.
Oberholster articulates this: "Particularly within the South African
context, on a personal level, this century is characterised by a
re-definition of relationships across lines of race, gender and sexuality.
Although this has been an ongoing process over the last decade, I am
attempting a contemporary visual representation of these changes.
"The challenge is to see the nude as a representation of contemporary
culture. To articulate this visually, I have looked both at the superficial
i.e. body ornamentation as in tattoos, piercings and the accoutrements of
style, as well as the more substantial portrayal in the form of
relationships of gender and sexuality."
Making Music - oil on board
From a series of oil sketches of male nudes