Strange objects of desire

It's not just about black leather and body piercing - fetishism has a long and noble African history.

Fetishism: for most of us the word evokes an image of leather, rubber or whips. An exhibition currently showing in Brighton explores a different and more complex history of the concept and the word, linking colonial oppression, sex, death and the body. An avant-garde art of unexpected and sometimes disturbing juxtapositions is set alongside African power objects whose original use was to forge a link between the spirit world and living supplicants.

This was a new approach to fetishism for me. A display of portrait photographs of studded and painted fetish dressers in the art gallery cafe alludes to contemporary fetishism, and this will be more familiar to most of us. These days London, at least, is full of fetishists; they almost took over the "Street Style" launch at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Skin Two can be purchased at Waterstones, and Madonna and Thierry Mugler have removed the gear from seedy underground clubs to the catwalk and the music video. I would hesitate to say that fetishism has been reduced to a fashion, but how sleek and unthreatening the leather crowd appears these days.

More than merely unthreatening, in fact: fetish dressing and S&M are positively politically correct. Practitioners assert the power of the body and its performances, but their sexual practices of "exchanges" of power and theatricalised sex seem cosily consensual. (If the pain isn't real, can you really get off on it?) Radical theorists love S&M, fetish and transvestism because it says that both sex and gender are all about performance and masquerade, rather than being natural (which is what conservatives would like to believe). These dressing-up games push at the boundaries of normality, but that isn't quite what the Marquis de Sade himself had in mind. He didn't believe in Nature either; he wanted to show how black and cruel it is, and his works are a shout of blasphemy. He chose to be on the side of Satan, and like him cried: "Evil be thou my good." Transgression was the whole point. The S&M performance relied on shock and outrage, with a bit of gothic skulduggery thrown in.

Once it has been legitimised by political correctness and become part of mainstream mass culture, it loses its power to shock, let alone to alter our view of the world. Contemporary fetish dressing displays a preoccupation with surfaces and ritual that is too transparent. It has become merely part of the glossy hedonism of the mass culture that surrounds us, the black leather face masks, gorgeous teetering shoes and wicked corsets simply a new kind of beauty not really so different from the familiar cosmetic masks, long legs and sinuous waists found on every page of Marie Claire and Elle.

How different from the objects in the Brighton exhibition itself. The term "fetishism" was first used by Portuguese colonialists to express contempt for African religious power objects, the carved, usually human figures found in Central Africa. Coming from "Darkest Africa", these objects were emblematic, for Europeans, of "primitive" forms of worship, witchcraft and superstition, although ironically some collectors and anthropologists have speculated that those who carved them had been influenced by the Crucifixion, the martyrdom of St Sebastian and other Christian images.

The cultic wooden objects are low-lit, and the dim light enhances the awesome mystery of their silent presence. Their value lies not in the rough nails and blades, bits of rag and splintered wood from which they have been constructed - those are humble enough - but from the lost occult meaning that was attached to them. The sense of transgression here may be that by placing them in our museums, we Western heirs of colonialism have diminished them to the status of ethnographic curiosities, and have thereby done violence to their original spiritual meanings, at the same time imposing on them an ambiguity they never had.

The link between African power figures and metropolitan leather freaks may seem obscure, but lies in the word - fetish - and its meanings. These, like the objects themselves, were diminished in Western theory. Freud and other psychologists adopted the word, and altered and degraded the term by using it to refer to a form of sexual pathology. Fetishism became a perversion, in which sexual desire fixed obsessively on some article such as a shoe. In conventional psychoanalysis there was an implication of moral inadequacy in the idea of sexual perversion, but contemporary fetishists have inverted this moral disapproval, celebrating what was formerly condemned.

Today's fetishists emphasise the body. The African power objects were also representations of bodies, bodies that were violated by nails and blades. The "wounds" created a gap for the passage of the spiritual power of the dead ancestors. It is much less clear exactly what today's fetishistic body violations and decorations mean - tattoos, piercing, sacrifice - but perhaps they assert power through suffering, again recalling the Crucifixion and the martyrs, only in a secular do-it-yourself version, which is also playful; perhaps it doesn't mean anything. Or perhaps the power of the modified modern body asserts a new ugliness against familiar pop images of beauty - only to be incorporated within that very aesthetic. When everyone can be beautiful (such at least is the adman's promise), who would want to be? Fetishists aim at an aristocracy of negation, using the most rejected and despised elements of modern culture - clothing and adornment associated with outcasts and deviants.

The contemporary art displayed in the Brighton exhibition also renounces the hackneyed plenitude of beauty, making use instead of insignificant objects and "inappropriate" materials - what Freud called "the refuse of the material world". They concentrate on the human body in disconcerting ways, making use of discarded garments, hair, nail clippings - what remains when we ourselves are dead. Most of the art works play with boundaries and the horror of their transgression, and one of the most uncanny is the boundary between body and not body, the interface between living flesh and dead matter. The indeterminacy of some of the works on display arouses horror, unease and sadness: Rona Pondick's wax turds joining baby feeding bottles to scuffed infant shoes, for example, or Tony Oursler's horribly uncanny mouths speaking from internal organs preserved in jars of formaldehyde.

This is art for a culture that does not know what art is for; it is art for a culture that is obsessed by the body and by the horror of its dissolution; it is art for a culture in which all conventional notions of beauty have become kitsch, so that only an art made from degraded material, only an art of ugliness, can shake us into seeing the world anew.

Meanwhile the fetishists strut their stuff. But in our usual British way we have dealt with them by turning them into new examples of a familiar figure: the harmless British eccentric.

n For details see listings below

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

    A Very British Coup, part two

    New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
    6 best recipe files

    6 best recipe files

    Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Atwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open