OVER recent months the critical issue of identity has become such a serious topic that everyone feels it cannot be left alone.

OVER recent months the critical issue of identity has become such a serious topic that everyone feels it cannot be left alone.

This was then increased by a series of encounters seeing many art exhibitions in the past two years focusing on the issue of identity and some actually defining it as an "identity crisis".

The recent history of heritage and identity demonstrates a larger problem. Indeed, the sheer frequency with which heritage and identity have been cropping up can now be read as a sign that all is not well within political culture.

Many visual artists (painters, sculptors, print-makers, collagists) use their creations to challenge conventional notions of categorising people by appearance, gender and nationality.

These themes of identity and classification also look deeply at race or ethnicity and religious affiliation explicitly or implicitly structured through the arts.

It is a fact that visual artists are seen as paranoid because they always see what ordinary people fail to see. In many instances they act as if they are living in their own realm of space. But this time around they seem to be spot on when it comes to an identity crisis.

Artists such as Nombuso Makhubu, Lerato Shadi, Peter Tobias-Zulu and Senzeni Marasela are among the people who have tackled this issue of identity in various segments. Perhaps the bigger question would be why now people are becoming conscious of their identity?

Experienced curator Prince Dube of the Ekurhuleni heritage and museum services says: "During apartheid people knew their focal point. They focused on the struggle and to be free.

"Now that they are free they do not know what to do. They seem to have lost their philosophy and lack direction. It is these issues that have inspired artists to revisit the subject of identity."

Tobias-Zulu, a veteran visual artist, says those who really know who they are, both as a person and as a believer, live their lives to the full and make the greatest impact on others.

He says that as a result it appears that identity is a big issue and the core of people's happiness in life.

"This is the journey that many painters and sculptures embark upon. It's a journey that some people may never ever take or even be aware of its existence.

"For others it's a journey that they feel is too personal to talk about. It is the journey of discovering who you really are."

Tobias-Zulu says the subject of identity was inspired by his own life.

"As Peter I realised that I was not using the surname that I was supposed to. I was not following my culture. Through my work I encourage people not to forget where they come from."

On the other side, Marasela, one of the few women in the visual arts field who are not afraid to speak their mind, has touched on a sensitive subject. The female painter has came up with a concept where she collects black dolls.

She went on a mission where she toured the world with them trying to get various opinions.

"Many people told me that the black dolls were ugly. I question if it is the colour that makes them ugly? This made me to do a lot of research to find out what really defines black beauty."

Marasela's issue was echoed by curator and talented female artist Lerato Shadi. In 2007, Shadi exhibited in a group exhibition called Black Like Me-Sassy Conditioning at the Gordart Gallery.

In her creations the visual artist tackled gender politics and many critics viewed her as a serious feminist. Shadi chose to look at how men perceive women in our society. Her theme opened many people's minds.

"My work examines the notion of sensuality and sexuality as a state of mind. I am a woman and I feel I have to talk from a woman's point of view."

It was for these reasons that Makhubu felt that issues of identity, culture, land and religion need to be continuously explored.

Like many women, she is not afraid to explore South Africa's history. In her works Makhubu projects images of herself onto historically sensitive material to explore issues of self-representation and identity.

"I use identity as a theme to challenge notions of representation, particularly in a colonial context.

"I now realise that this journey of identity is a life-long one that I must be thorough about if I am to discover who I am."