Sexuality in art form, and it’s occurrence in South African metal.

Black Orchid Beasties

Why should we be talking about this?

Recently, there has sprung a debate on the facebook event page for WinterFest’10.  It began with an outburst against the presence of a local Burlesque Troupe, the Black Orchid Beasties, on the entertainment roster of the Metal 4 Africa events since 01 August, 2009.  Seen in the exchange of commentary on this subject, a distinct difference in “schools of thought”, held by two opposing sides can be observed.  Each side, obviously, sharing a different set of values in their interpretation of what is art, what is not, and how it fit’s into the context of Heavy Metal.  Each side represented valid points of view, and ultimately, agreed to disagree.  In my view, as representative of M4A, a healthy outcome.

Sexuality has always been linked closely with all forms of art, ranging from fine arts such as painting and sculpture through to performance arts such as dance.  It has appeared in both the male and female context for centuries and even millennia; from the earliest cave-paintings and rituals through to classical art pieces such as ‘David’ or ‘The Birth of Venus’.  Certainly, throughout history, it has also been the point of much contention and debate.  The reason for which M4A came under fire was that of having females onstage at our events in what has been regarded as an unfavourable light (figuratively speaking).

Diva Disastar

In one book first published in 1992, ‘The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality‘, the authors work has been summed up as: “The Female Nude represents the first feminist survey of the most significant subject in Western art.  It reveals how the female nude is now at the center and at the margins of high culture.  At the center, and within art historical discourse, the female nude is seen as the visual culmination of enlightenment aesthetics; at the edge, it risks losing it’s respectability and spilling over into the obscene.”  This perfectly sums up the essence of the debate as to whether or not these girls work should be respected as art or merely dismissed as distasteful sleaze.

It is in this context that the art form of Burlesque steps into the foreground.  These performers blend in a strong and distinguished visual element to their sensual performances.  They celebrate an art form that embodies the spirit of aesthetics, and they draw the line at obscenity.  You will never see anything on the burlesque stage (at M4A or any other venue) which is otherwise considered indecent or unacceptable in a broader public context (as defined by television broadcast standards).  Let’s take, for example, a popular South African television channel that advertises for movies which are to appear during a given month.  Presently, as this post is being written, MNET is broadcasting within family viewing hours an advertisement which displays prime examples of all of the following: pole dancing; the provocative taking off of clothes; sexually suggestive demeanour; women (and men) in underwear (and/or swimsuits being roughly equivalent)… the list goes on – all of these are present in a typical burlesque performance by the Black Orchid Beasties, and yet they never infringe into the realm of obscenity. 

Scar-lit Hearts

 Is it not fair to ask: why should the Black Orchid Beasties or M4A fall into disrepute when the performance takes place before an audience who are at a venue voluntarily, and have the opportunity to turn away to enjoy other entertainment if they so wish; while we don’t hear of MNET being dragged off the Broadcasting Complaints Commission for televising similar material right into the public’s privates homes?  In front of their children at that!  We are the first to admit that this is not suitable entertainment for minors, but Metal 4 Africa events take place at a venue that is known to be licensed, thus only welcoming adults over the age of 18 years.  Not that it is relevant to this subject, but in South Africa, the legal age of sexual consent is 16 years?

Roxy de Light

On the other hand, it has been argued that these performances by the Beasties places extreme pressure on the values of some metal (or also generic) audiences.  It has been pointed out that the exploitation of women as “sex objects for men” is now being promoted in metal, whereas before, it has not.  Perhaps, from a conservative feminist point of view, the first claim is true.  Although as promoters of metal sub-culture, which in itself is an embodiment of all things controversial, we as M4A do not wish to alienate supporters of the genre in any way.  However, we also do not wish to place constraints on artists means of expression.  Steps must, and certainly will be taken by M4A in future to ensure a better knowledge of what will be on display at our shows, and properly outlining times that such performances might occur.  This should offer the public a greater freedom of choice into what they are exposed to.  It should also alleviate the need for members of the metal-loving public to outright boycott the event.

The second issue relates to the presence of sexuality in metal.  This in itself is a whole new topic.

Although not for so long in our beloved, still relatively-conservative South Africa, the presence of issues pertaining to sexuality has always been an integral part of metal sub-culture all around the world.  From the big-haired, lipstick days of Hair Metal in the 80’s, now regarded almost as homosexual; through to the macho-testosterone driven music of bands like Manowar (who have also appeared publicly in the equivalent to underwear); and then populating the CD racks with album artwork such as Dimmu Borgir’s ‘ Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia’; down to live performances including dancers or other sexually inductive “stage props”… Metal and sexuality have always walked hand in hand.  We at M4A are not promoting this in SA metal, in the same way as we are not promoting an ‘anti-religious’ atmosphere by allowing bands to perform who incorporate some questionable content into their music/art, but rather we are facilitating it from a neutral point of view.  This exists here, therefore, we observe and acknowledge.  We are not going to exclude artists from our events on the basis of spiritual or moral viewpoints that they stand by, but we have learned from this episode that we should make this more widely known.  We also are not trying to absolve ourselves from any sort of responsibility to the public, but that is why our shows are no longer inviting all-ages (already since 2008).  As consenting adults, it is our audiences responsibility to interpret the artistic expressions performed on the M4A stage.  One of our key reasons for choice of venue is also that attendees may move around freely, from one entertainment area to another, without feeling pressured to leave the premises if an act comes across as a little too ‘extreme’ or ‘distasteful’ to their set of values.  Mostly, our events are regarded by the metal-loving public as a widely enjoyed celebration of all elements of heavy metal sub-culture in Africa, and we have successfully drawn the largest crowds into a pleasing social environment to share in this celebration.

All men, believe it or not
Bring forth more men!

An interesting example of sexuality expressed in metal.  Funny enough, Dimmu Borgir are vastly popular amongst members of the fairer sex.  Any idea to the meaning behind this artwork?

Not quite the Mono Lisa!

For those of you who are interested in discovering more about the world of Burlesque, Diva Disastar did a fantastic interview in the June 2010 edition of Vixxen magazine.  Go check it out at http://www.vixxen.co.za/?page_id=161 and if you are vehemently opposed to it, maybe this interview could offer you an insight that reduces the desire to hurl inflammatory remarks…

Nonetheless, we please encourage commentary below.  Now that you have our view, please share yours.

Black Orchid Beasties photographs, courtesy of Anya Kovacs

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