Over recent years, Breitz has collected and archived a wide range of found footage fragments that document ‘white people talking about race.’ Her archive includes the voices of prominent political figures, news anchors and talk show hosts, as well as those of lesser known and anonymous YouTube bloggers, covering white perspectives that run the gamut from neo-Nazi ideology and far right propaganda to everyday racism and the posturing of ‘good white people.’ Specifically, the archive observes the rising anxiety of white people as long-standing calls to dismantle white supremacy proliferate and intensify across the globe.
As such, it offers insight into the ongoing backlash against anti-racist movements, as white people struggle to come to terms with public discourse that highlights phenomena such as ‘white privilege,’ ‘white fragility,’ ‘white rage’ and ‘white guilt.’
In Whiteface, Breitz appropriates and ventriloquizes dozens of voices drawn from this archive, channelling them through her own white body. Wearing nothing but a white dress shirt and zombie contact lenses, the artist conjures up whiteness in a variety of its guises, rotating through a series of cheap blonde wigs as the work unfolds, among which her own platinum head of hair is featured. Breitz’s un-wigged appearance among the characters that populate the piece, serves to acknowledge the artist’s own embeddedness in whiteness.
Yet, while Breitz and many of the disembodied voices that she lip-syncs may be recognisable in Whiteface (Tucker Carlson, Rachel Dolezal, Bill Maher, Richard Spencer and Robin DiAngelo all make vocal cameos), specific white folks are not the primary target of this stinging satire. Rather, it is the condition of whiteness that Breitz seeks to prod into visibility. Dislocated from the white people who originally uttered them, the words that stream through Breitz accumulate to provide a scathing study of the vocabulary and grammar underlying this condition, a critical survey of the language via which whiteness frames, normalises and leverages its power.
The white dogma that flows through Breitz will be deeply familiar to those whose lives are impacted by racism. Whiteface is a portrait of whiteness in a state of panic. As the privileged status of white people comes under increasing pressure, narratives about white extinction have multiplied across the political spectrum. At a time when we are all threatened by possible extinction in light of the climate change crisis and other looming threats, Whiteface parodies the absurdity of white extinction anxiety—which, perhaps more than any other expression of whiteness, points to the delusional narcissism at the heart of the condition. Breitz’s deliberately theatrical performance in Whiteface draws attention to the constructed nature of whiteness and other racial categories. Her bleached presence and deadened eyes locate the fictions that naturalise and perpetuate white supremacy squarely within the genre of horror. Race is a dangerous fiction that continues to exert real and violent consequences.
Born and raised in Johannesburg during the era of apartheid, Breitz has consistently sought to grapple with whiteness in her work, from early photographic series such as Ghost Series (1994), to later installations such as Extra (2011) and TLDR (2017). Whiteface represents her most direct stab at autoethnography yet.
Parallel to Whiteface, Breitz will debut seven single-channel videos from a new body of work titled White Mantras, as well as a series of photographic portraits of the characters that make up the cast of Whiteface.
The books photographed for Candice Breitz’s Ex Libris South Africa were all found by the artist on the same dusty and neglected shelf within Bikini Beach Books, Gordon’s Bay (South Africa), during a single bookbrowsing session in January 2009. Collectively they catalogue a diverse range of anxieties, fears, hopes and expectations pertaining to life in South Africa over nearly a century.
The shelf of books has hung in the artist’s studio since 2009 and is being shared in a public context for the first time.
A History of White People is part of an extensive body of work titled Digest. Digest is a multi-channel video installation consisting of 1,001 videotapes that are permanently sealed in polypropylene video sleeves. The analogue contents carried on each buried videotape remain unrevealed. The series of painted tapes is arranged on shallow wooden racks that evoke the display aesthetics of video rental stores, commemorating a mode of image consumption that has since slipped into obsolescence. Each painted tape in the Digest Archive features a single verb drawn from the title of a film that was in circulation during the era of home video. Collectively, the verbs describe an embodied subjectivity that has come under increasing threat in the digital era. First debuted on the Sharjah Biennial 14 (in early 2019), the Digest Archive was completed in late 2020 and shown in full scale for the first time at the Akademie Der Künste in Berlin during 2021. Parallel to the production of the Digest Archive, a limited number of smaller unique works was conceived. Each of the smaller works draws on verbs catalogued in the archive, to propose an open-ended narrative via the selection and juxtaposition of particular verbs: In this instance, the five chosen verbs evoke the violence that has been visited upon those who have been subject to colonialism, invasion, occupation, political domination and various forms of expropriation across history: To capture, to divide, to conquer, to control, to possess... For Breitz, the verbs are collectively descriptive of “the things that white people have done and continue to do.”
Extra was shot on the set of Generations, South Africa’s most loved soap opera, and the most watched television programme on the African continent at the time the work was made. Broadcast since 1994, Generations paints a picture of the country’s emerging Black middle class against the backdrop of the media industry. Because much of the script is delivered in Nguni languages, white South Africans—who at this historical juncture rarely speak indigenous African languages— simply don’t fit into this aspirational landscape. As such, Generations does not include any major white characters in its cast. The shoot for Extra took place over a two-week period. Once each scene had been filmed for broadcast purposes, an extra take was captured, this time with Breitz visible on camera. Scene after scene, the artist inserts herself into the unfolding narrative; sometimes subtly, sometimes awkwardly and absurdly, always without easy explanation. Breitz’s performative interventions offer a grammar via which to consider the role of white South Africans in the post-apartheid context, providing a slew of gratingly uncomfortable visual metaphors which, over time, render visible the privileges that still very much attach to whiteness: Breitz’s ‘extra’ is less a character than an embodiment of white privilege, a figure mired in self-absorption and self-entitlement, a being that occupies more than its fair share of space and, in doing so, distracts from the labour—both fictional and actual—that is performed by the Black bodies around it (which become background to its presence). The disproportionate visibility of this mute white body, which greedily leverages attention for itself at the expense of the larger plot (and at the expense of the fictional community that it occupies), speaks to the violent insistence with which whiteness demands foreground.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Candice Breitz (b. 1972, Johannesburg, South Africa) is an artist whose moving image installations have been shown internationally. Throughout her career, Breitz has explored the dynamics by means of which an individual becomes him or herself in relation to a larger community, be that community the immediate community that one encounters in family, or the real and imagined communities that are shaped not only by questions of national belonging, race, gender and religion but also by the increasingly undeniable influence of mainstream media such as television, cinema and popular culture. Most recently, Breitz’s work has focused on the conditions under which empathy is produced, reflecting on a media-saturated global culture in which strong identification with fictional characters and celebrity figures runs parallel to widespread indifference to the plight of those facing real-world adversity.