Becoming animal: liminal rhetorical strategies in contemporary South African art

  • Ann-Marie Tully
Keywords: liminal therianthropic body, contemporary art, Derridian, South African art


In this article, I address the liminal therianthropic body in contemporary art that employs hybridity (performed and represented), as a mode of rhetorical potency in the expression of marginal subjectivity. The Derridian position that postulates human identity in a metaphoric relation to the animal (animetaphor), and Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s notion of becoming animal, are instrumentally applied within the scope of this article.

By way of situating these theoretical positions in the South African art and social context, I discuss specific works by two contemporary South African artists whose methodological approach invokes the hybrid animal/ human body. The chimerical sculptural work of Jane Alexander, where human form seamlessly meets animal façade, is referred to as an example of a representational mode of this therianthropic tendency. I thereafter discuss artworks in which the artist has created the sense that the human body is being performed in animal likeness and gesture. In doing so, I look at Nandipha Mntambo’s performed animal transformations, in which she paradoxically critiques and embraces the figurative animality of the African body in colonial discourse. In analysing these artistic instances, I employ a dialectical approach that manifests in two textual voices. The “academic” voice highlights symbolic meaning, while a voice speaking in “intuitive prose” draws attention to elements of the artworks that are aligned with the notion of a human/animal “becoming”. Through this off-set dialogue, I foreground the anthropocentric motives of symbolic representation, whilst also gesturing towards the agency enhancing properties of this trope in artworks wherein the artist courts disenfranchised human identity. The deterritorialising effect of “becomings”, where fixed subjectivity becomes dissoluble and mutable is highlighted, as well as the less colonising ends of such strategies in terms of the project of non-human agency. By way of stretching the discussion of artists who employ hybrid therianthropic strategies to a global context, I also discuss the performative artwork of the British contemporary artist Marcus Coates.