Candice Breitz

Ghost Series #10

1994–6

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Artist
Candice Breitz born 1972
Medium
Correction fluid on postcard
Dimensions
Support: 105 × 148 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Presented by Wendy Fisher 2018
Reference
T15153

Summary

This is one of a group of ten works in Tate’s collection from the artist’s Ghost Series 1994–6 (Tate T15145T15154), a series that originally comprised eleven commercially printed ethnographic postcards onto which the artist applied white correction fluid (commonly known by brand names such as ‘Tipp-Ex’ or ‘Wite-Out’). One of the postcards, Ghost Series #6, was sold by the artist in the mid-1990s (current location unknown). The postcards used were originally printed in Breitz’s home country of South Africa for the tourist trade; they depict bare-breasted native black South African women posed outdoors as single figures or in groups of two or three. In eight of the images, the sitters smile, acknowledging both the camera and the staged moment. Some appear to be paused mid-task, selling wares or transporting gourds upon their heads. In the only image where the subjects do not smile (Ghost Series #1, Tate T15145), the two figures are shown in profile with downward gazes as they grind maize into meal. The postcards were purchased by the artist in 1994, when she was leaving her country to pursue her art studies abroad. This was also the watershed year in the nation’s history, when the violent and oppressive Apartheid system of racial segregation was eventually abolished. Leaving visible only the immediate area around the eyes, nose, mouth, nipples and articulations delineating the curve of breasts, fingers and toes, Breitz obliterated – or whited out – all other traces of the black female bodies by painting white correction fluid across their skin.

The title of the series refers, in formal terms, to the resulting ghostly pallor of the figures, their faces taking on a particularly skull-like appearance. The reference to ghosts can be further interpreted as the spectre of white racial superiority which circumscribes indigenous cultures in general, and women in particular, as not only inferior but as fundamentally separate from contemporary life. In South Africa, Ghost Series received an initially hostile reaction, in particular from black women artists who felt the work merely replicated unjust power dynamics where cultural erasure could be enacted upon the black (female) body. As Breitz reflected to fellow artist Sue Williamson (born 1941):

They [ethnographic postcards] are very much about locating Africa in an unthreatening past, a past that is rural and exotic. Signs of contemporary life are deliberately excluded – there are no sneakers or Coke bottles to disrupt the exotic idyll. Nothing within the postcards allows for the fact that the women portrayed have a relationship to traditional culture but also exist very much in the present.
(Sue Williamson, ‘Candice Breitz in the Studio with Sue Williamson’, Art in America, October 2012, pp.158–65.)

The work has since been reassessed and is understood as being important for its engagement with the often assumed invisibility – and hence predominance – of whiteness. Curator and cultural critic Okwui Enwezor has written that the artist’s intervention into the postcards ‘engineers its own obliteration of recognition, whereby recognisability, a key feature of portraiture, remains manifest only in the emptiness and blank appearance of whiteness’ (Okwui Enwezor, in Kunsthaus Bregenz 2010, p.36). This is a theme to which Breitz returned in Extra! 2011, a single-channel video work which addresses the simultaneous ubiquity and unspoken about nature of whiteness in popular racial discourse.

Once the artist appropriated the postcards for her Ghost Series, they were briefly exhibited in Germany around 1995 and subsequently at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York as part of the group exhibition Africaine in 2002. While the Ghost Series postcards themselves have been virtually unseen, the images also exist as a photographic series of ten large-scale (1016 x 685.8 mm) C-prints, produced in 1996, which have been widely exhibited, including at Tate Liverpool in the exhibition Afro Modern in 2008. Speaking of the postcards, Breitz has acknowledged that ‘these works have seldom been shown – they have lived a secret, hidden life, with the photographs having received far more exhibition’ (in email correspondence with Tate curator Zoe Whitley, 30 March 2016).

Breitz has described her motivation for creating the work and for subsequently introducing a further layer of artistic mediation by making the set of photographs:

The idea was to remove certain elements and reconfigure what was left so as to create a new visual grammar through which previously invisible content might emerge from familiar images. After the process of deletion, I re-photographed the works in order to eliminate the fetishistic presence of the source image … I am aware of the invisible power and privilege that come with being white. The Ghost Series was precisely about the violence that can be performed by whiteness.
(Candice Breitz, in White Cube 2005, p.4.)

Further reading
Brenda Atkinson and Candice Breitz, Grey Areas: Representation, Identity and Politics in Contemporary South African Art, Sandton, South Africa 1999.
Louise Neri (ed.), Candice Breitz, exhibition catalogue, White Cube, London 2005.
Yilmaz Dziewior, The Scripted Life: Candice Breitz, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthaus Bregenz, Vienna 2010.

Zoe Whitley
June 2016

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