- Abject Afrikaner, Iconoclast Trekker: Peter Van Heerden’s Performance Interventions within the Laagers of White Masculinity
“Rough work, iconoclasm, but the only way to get at truth.”—Oliver Wendell Holmes
Beeldestormer. (noun; Afrikaans). An iconoclast, literally image breaker, someone who attacks cherished ideas or traditional institutions.1
The words “Wit Kaffir” (“White Kaffir”) are scribbled in black ink across a middle-aged white man’s chest. He is blindfolded and strapped to a cruciform scaffold in the blazing African sun. It is Good Friday, 2008, the first day of South Africa’s annual Afrikaans-language2 Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK)3 in the dusty ostrich town of Oudtshoorn, in the Western Cape. The man is Cape Town-based performance artist Peter Van Heerden, and this crucifixion scene is part of his nine-day installation called Totanderkuntuit, which translates literally as “Through-the-other-cunt-out.”4 Van Heerden claims that it is only through “the abjection of white masculinity, that a new practise can be celebrated.” The process of holding up whiteness for exploration “is not in praise of its hegemony,” he says, “but rather as a condition for sacrifice. . . . This ritual sacrifice of whiteness must become a feast and celebration, to enable the formulation of a new non-racialised practice.”5 Literally and figuratively stringing up the Afrikaner male, Van Heerden is, I argue, engaged in acts of volksveraad, or “race betrayal,” that reveal the symbolic and material privilege through which white men have dominated Southern Africa since the seventeenth century. As a beeldestormer, or “iconoclast,” he not only reveals, but also explodes, familiar images of Afrikanerdom in order to reconfigure the ways in which white South Africans can participate as citizens in this young democracy. In the following pages, I will trace Van Heerden’s performance strategy of attracting audiences and then refracting what they encounter, as well as his use of iconoclasm, word play, strategic blasphemy, and physical abjection in his 2008 [End Page 7] performance installation, Totanderkuntuit. I will situate his performance within a larger genealogy of Afrikaner self-presentation. Van Heerden operates within the notion of the laager (the circle of wagons used by Dutch pioneers or voortrekkers during colonization) and works through notions of shame and betrayal that permeate much of Afrikaner culture. Through my position as an insider/outsider, I will examine his challenges to audiences to rethink their own positions in relation to South African history and Afrikaner identity and his interrogation of Afrikaner male whiteness.6
Performance Genealogy/Re-Orienting Whiteness
In their recent contribution to the field of whiteness studies, historians Leigh Boucher, Jane Carey, and Katherine Ellinghaus advocate for a re-orienting of the discourse on whiteness by historicizing whiteness as a colonial formation, and by expanding its scope beyond its US-centered focus and into a transnational field of power that includes settler colonies of the British Empire, particularly in the Pacific Rim.7 Theirs is a vital intervention that examines whiteness, which they describe as the “sovereign—if sometimes silent—social, legal, cultural, and experiential category that the very idea of race essentially functions to privilege.”8 But starkly absent from their collection of essays connecting whiteness and settler colonialism is the most obvious case study of systemized racial power in a settler colony: South Africa. This essay is an attempt to fill that gap by unpacking an important enactment of whiteness—namely, Van Heerden’s Totanderkuntuit—that resides in a genealogy of performance by Afrikaners, the settler population of white Europeans who have been staging themselves into and around power since they first settled the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa in 1652. My larger engagement with Afrikaner performance addresses the manners in which this nation, or volk (literally: “people”), stage their public identity over time—before, during, and after apartheid—and how the volk constantly negotiates its identity through reiterative enactments of race (whiteness) and gender (masculinity).
For example, several Afrikaner performances that I would describe as looking backward to history in reactionary gestures immediately come to mind. The first was the formation of the apartheid state between 1938–1949 through a series of public pageants...