Michaela Younge and the South African Double Consciousness

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Richly detailed tableaus explore violence and desire in absurdist dreamscapes.


By Chloe Kingdom

This article is exclusive to the Online Edition 4 of VARSITY News.


On a Thursday evening, almost two years to the day, I walked into Smith Studio on 56 Church Street to browse the art exhibitions, with a glass of complementary red wine in my hand. The exhibition was dominated by Michaela Younge’s detailed tableaus on the main floor of the studio. The tension between the anthropomorphised nonhuman and human figures in the scenes of domestic life are juxtaposed against the colourful tapestry of merino wool stitched into felt background. The unaccountably strange depictions of violence and death, and the overt displays of dark eroticism, are heightened by the incongruity of the brightly dyed wool cartoon figures that are features in the artwork – figures that ironically belong in a child’s bedtime storybook.


Absurdism in contemporary fine art is a popular genre to explore because the subjects are unmoored from reality. The absurdity of everyday life inspires artists like Younge to explore the incomprehensible associations and tensions between our wants and desires in a way that is freed from the constraints of our physical reality. On this idea of wants and desires, Younge notes that, “South Africans have an inherent sense of humour, but there is also violence within us.”


The absurdist approach Younge takes to her work influences the dreamlike quality of the narratives she presents. The normalised everyday violence and oppression in South Africa is processed through absurdist elements that counterbalance horror with humour. In Younge’s 2019 tableau, Canned Ham and Prime Cuts, a naked person rests upon dead flesh that is sold under the sign, “Prime Cuts”, at an up-scale butchery; customers in the store remain undisturbed by the sale of human flesh alongside animal flesh. These depictions of competing human-animal desires reflect the troubling “double consciousness” that pervades South African society.


Canned Ham and Prime Cuts, 2019. Michaela Younge, ‘Nothing Bad’ solo exhibition, Smith Studio.


The colonial system of Apartheid segregation infused social inequality within the fabric of society. The segregation of identity across arbitrary racial and ethnic lines has manifested into unstable identities. In conjunction with suppressed human desires and free will, violence is always boiling below the surface and erupting in domestic scenes across the country. Absurdist art then becomes a way for South Africans to explore deeply painful realities at a psychological remove.



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