The dress military uniform in the present lot by Hentie van der Merwe is blurred, almost as if the photograph is taken through a scratched lens. Van der Merwe photographed many such uniforms at the National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg culminating in an exhibition titled Trappings (2000–2003). Tightly fitting, emphasising a broad manly chest and a narrow waist, a dress military uniform is appealing both for its inherent ritualised style and for the power it confers inadvertently on the wearer. But flashy outer trappings can be deceptive. The dress uniform can also mask the wearer’s abuse of such power underneath a veneer of trust and authority. The images of these blurry uniforms, in richly coloured reds, greens, and blues, serve as metaphors of moral ambiguity and Van der Merwe does not shy away from suggesting in these photographs the atrocities often committed in the name of the State.
At the core of much of Van der Merwe’s work is the body, or the man, the soldier, who wears such uniforms. His body is laid bare in all its power, vulnerability, sexuality, objectification, its capacity for violence and intimacy. His very first exhibition at the Generator Art Space in Johannesburg in 1997, largely autobiographical in nature, consisted of a large number of archival photographs, taken by Hugh MacFarlane for identification purposes and to evaluate their physical condition of naked recruits embarking on military service. Van der Merwe inserted portraits of his own face on one of the bodies of these young soldiers. Stripped bare, these images appear more as a display of the men’s vulnerability than of their inherent violence or strength. The dress military uniform ‘clothes’ these naked recruits, but leaves absent the actual physical body. The uniform is a reflection on the ambiguous nature of manhood and of man’s propensity for violence and showmanship.