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Created: August 13, 2001
Latest Update: March 28, 2003

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Site Teaching Modules Fences in South Africa

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, March 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

A series of painting that reflect images from my Travel Journal. South Africa.

Fences and the social contract. Fences and the social contract. Rousseau.

The softening of denial. The softening of denial.

Exclusion. Exclusion.

Fences and the Social Contract

The fences scared me. There were these reminders everywhere, against beautiful backgrounds, that somewhere, somehow, someone was excluded, by force. Barbed wire permeated the landscape, even around beautiful, traditional-looking suburbs outside of Johannesburg, and acorss the country on the Blue Train, en route to Capetown, and in the North, in the animal preserve at Mala Mala.

Here, I tried to capture the different ways of seeing all this. Sometimes they were just there to remind me of the social contract in place. Some could not enter, though they apparently continued to try, so they had to be held off forcefully by the barbs on the wire. Funny social contract. Who ever agreed to it in the first place? Maybe that's what the violence of the barbed wire is about. Maybe some didn't agree. (Social theory reference - Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the social contract.)

The Softening of Denial

Even though they scared me, my mind could play tricks with the fences. I could call them fences. Just fences. And we're used to fences. They mark off the parcel of land where we have to mow the grass or tend the lawn, or whatever. Nothing scary about that. Unless I paint them without the barbed wire. That would be a lie. But I can soften the barbed wire. Paint it a lighter gray. And then, if there's enough in the background, I can push it to the edge of my psychological life space, and give it an insignificant valence. Now the whole scene is a little less scary, and I don't have to think about the social contract.


Or I could just focus on the fences and the barbed wire. Take out all the color. Add some words that hit home: structural violence. Now the painting takes me right to the heart of the fear. Those fences aren't innocent. They're not the kinds of fences I'm used to. Those are fences of violence. Not violence against a specific individual or group, but violence built into the infrastructure, violence to harm any who try to cross those barriers. Kids don't climb over those fences in communal play. Who does climb over them? Why are they there? Is there someone out there who means harm to those inside?

Notice how color, light, bits of words external to the visual scene itself all point our responses toward different perspectives. This is a taste of the power of art. The power of art to deceive. The power of art to enlighten.

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Black and white image to color or paint.


Image to color yourself. The file is fence08.htm.

Click here to print a coloring page with just the coloring sheet on it. Coloring page of fences.

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Discussion Questions

  1. How does the difference in perception of fences make it hard for us to communicate about the problem of fences and what they mean?

    Consider: What happens to be of importance in your life space at the moment colors your interpretation of the scene. Read Kurt Lewin's psychological life space in field theory.) For example, if you have just seen large groups of poor people walking along just to the outside of the fences, along the highway, you are likely to focus more on the barbed wire, and consider that perhaps it is meant to keep them out. You are more likely then to see the fences as hostile and exlusionary.

  2. Do you think it would make a difference if the apparently poor people walking along were smiling and waving to you?

    Consider: People's reactions to us color our reactions to them. It would produce cognitive dissonance to think of people smiling and waving to you as hostile and intending harm to others.

  3. Think of how our images are being used on television to portray the war with Iraq. How important are the attitudes of the people portrayed to our reactions to the war?

    Consider: We tend to trust appearances at face value. Did you question how we would know if the people walking along the highway were poor? Chances are, by appearance. Obviously worn clothes and shoes, or no shoes (which may not be a valid predictor in some countries or geographical areas). Since appearance is only one measure, we are making lots of unstated assumptions, if we refer to people as poor based on appearance alone.

  4. Can images tell us things about people, even when there are no people in the images?

    Consider: The images of fences, especially with barbed wire, tell us that someone wants to keep someone Other out, Then the color, the things included and omitted, the things softened and the things made to stand out give us other clues. Consider archaeology, in which we draw conclusions about people who lived thousands of years ago, without being able to see even one of them.

  5. These are not happy, beautiful paintings. They focus on a visual experience that tells us of painful things. Are they still art?

    Consider: The visual is one way of expressing perspectives. Such expression is knowledge. And knowledge helps understanding. Art is about more than just a pretty picture on the wall. Think of Guernica, Picasso's response to war:


    For more information and understanding of Guernica see Aesthetic Realism and Picasso's Guernica: for Life By Dorothy Koppelman. On the Tennessee Tribune Site.

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    From the Chile Workshop on Kids' Guernica

    KIDS' Guernica Webste. See especially Workshop where each pink dot is a link to a whole series of paintings by children in different parts of the world.