Appropriating Hlungwani

 

In this text I will attempt to extend some of the observations I had made in the catalogue for the exhibition Dungamanzi (2008). In that text I had pointed to some limits in the language that is used to describe the work of artists such as Jackson Hlungwani who was the focus of the essay. Let me start by admitting that I have been victim to these limits of language and that there is no such thing as a rural artist. And there is no such thing as a Limpopo artist.  Perhaps the larger question I wish to put forward is: To what extent does the language shape or limit the reception of the artwork itself and as a means of exclusion. This question is much larger in scope than can be dealt with in this essay but it is something that has been of concern to me over a number of years especially with regard to those artists who are said to be self-taught and rural artists.

 

Recently I participated in a roundtable for the NKA Journal of Contemporary African Art. At the beginning of the exchange the moderator and convenor of the roundtable, Prof. Chika Okeke Agulu related a story about having asked an anthropologist working in Nigeria what was difference between the artists he had been researching, the Akigbo artists, and the artists who had been trained at university and the anthropologist answered that the difference was that the university trained artists could answer back and were likely to be in the audience of conferences where he would be presenting.

 

Crude as it might be, this assessment remains one of the primary ways in which artworks made by artists who do not occupy our discursive environment are evaluated and discussed. Broadly speaking I would say that the discursive environment I am talking about is a function of a combination of several co-dependant factors. These include the type of education one has received, the working environment, access to resources and technologies and access to networks which might include among other players, curators, academics, critics, artists from other countries and art historians as well as cosmopolitan spaces. It is this discursive environment that allows the type of language that not only enables us to speak to each other but also entitles us to speak on behalf of those who exist outside of it and to some extent also “gatekeep” their participation in “our” networks and the privileges that flow from it. It also allows “us” to label others as one thing or the other.

 

This is not to say that those artists who may be termed rural artists do not (a) have occasional access to this other world and (b) that there aren’t discourses on art outside the “environment” which I spoke about earlier. What it does mean is that we can ignore those discourses because we believe ourselves to be in possession of the analytical tools required to understand and know what everybody is doing, that our critical framework is the most reliable standard by which everything else can be measured.

 

Again, this also does not mean that those who occupy the discursive environment I am referring to have the same position of privilege within it. Historical, economic and geographic divisions between the West and the South, race and patronage, etc. also determine or influence one’s relative standing within that system. This relative standing and internal consistency within the discursive environment is also significant in silencing dissenting voices while keeping the appearance of criticality and objectivity.

 

A few years ago I came across a text titled Black Artists, White Critic by Jean-Marie Dederen. In this text Dederen had delineated three kinds of readings: conservative, liberal, radical that were used ostensibly by white critics to describe the work of Black artists. Dederen the proposes a fourth, “artist-based” reading of the work of Albert Munyai.

 

At the time of writing of the text for Dungamanzi I had found much inspiration from Dederen’s essay and observations. While I agree with Dederen’s assertion that the artist-based reading should be central to the analysis of an artwork, I believe there are limitations to the artist-centrered reading.

 

One such limit is that artists do change their minds about what their work and what they say about their work. Hlungwani was not always consistent in ascribing explanation of his work. Secondly, the basic problem of the artist’s access to the discursive environment which we inhabit limits their ability to question how their words are edited, used and interpreted.

 

In other words, the problem is a structural rather than an ideological one. The problem of who produces knowledge, where and how and for whom it is produced as well as the manner in which that knowledge circulates, is validated and canonised is as important as the ideological positioning of the people involved within that system.

 

A third problem is access not just to the words of the artist but to their own visual landscape, their discursive environment and their universe of meaning. By this I do not mean that these are so thoroughly alien to our own that there is no possibility for common ground. What it means however is that we cannot take it for granted that these aspects of the artist’s conceptual framework is self-evident and that our access to it is guaranteed. Without in-depth research into things such as whom the artist is inspired by, whom do they discuss their work with, how they understand the social value of their work, etc. much of the readings of art works remain speculative.

From this perspective it is clear that the practice of analysing works of art whatever the artist’s background or approach to art, there are no ready-made answers. If that could be said of art criticism, the same could be said of art history.

The practice of any discipline requires to some extent delineating certain practices and categorising information into a coherent body of knowledge. This exercise, it seems, requires among other things relying on established analytical and critical tools no matter how flawed they might be. It also relies on some consensus on basic principles and standards but perhaps most crucially it requires an act of imagination. The latter is one that is often rejected by historians because if history is allowed to be a product of conjecture rather than hard facts it opens the door for the distortion of history either through ignorance or malevolent intentions.

If we accept that the act of deciding which artworks are important and relevant or which aspects of the work are worth highlighting and how to distinguish between art and material culture, is itself partly a faculty of the imagination, it is possible to conclude that art history itself has been heavily influenced by intuition and imagination as much as the artworks they hope to describe. And as such terms such as “transitional” art, “traditional” art, “township” art, or even modern and contemporary art may have more to do with the discursive space that language and our imagination offers, until they are disrupted by other analytical approaches.

 

Similarly, identity is not one that is simply bestowed to us at birth. Self-identification with a particular ethnic group is not a sufficient basis for declaring that a particular artist’s production can be best understood through the lens of their ethnic identity. This is especially so if one considers the argument made by Mahmood Mamndani that ethnicity in Africa is largely a colonial invention[1] and that the meaning attached to ethnic identity is itself not assured.

 

In his essay for the catalogue Dungamanzi, Prof. Karel Nel goes to great lengths to illustrate traits of Tshonga/Shangaan carving practices that recur in the work of Jackson Hlungwani. It makes for fascinating reading especially in the recurrence of the motifs of the chevron and the foot in these works and in how these motifs are fashioned. One aspect that Nel’s analysis raises is that while he resides in both the worlds of modern and contemporary art and is an expert on traditional art, Hlungwani was not in a position to answer back[2].

 

Could it be that this is another way of saying that since Hlungwani’s work contains elements of traditional carving it does not belong to modern or contemporary art? That it has been weighed against other works of modern art and failed?

 

One of the assumptions around works by African artists, especially those that are termed to be autodidacts and rural artists, is one of innocence. It is often assumed or taken for granted that the lack of formal education automatically means that the artist achieves visual competency, not through the rigours of practice, analysis, inquiry, research, etc., but through intuition and simulation.

 

Indeed all of art, no matter which part of the world it happens to originate or which era of human history it is made, relies to some extent on established tradition and intuitive impulses.

 

It is not that I want to argue that intuition and simulation are not part of artistic practice but that when it comes to “rural” artists historians are only able to comprehend and talk about the work largely in those terms. It is in this regard that I have often cringed at writers who evoke either tradition or ethnicity in analysing the works of artists like Jackson Hlungwani because these terms suggest that the artist achieves their skill and expression by merely following on a particular tradition; in other words simulation.

 

Of course there are many artists who conspire with these misrepresentations. These are often of the type that seek to explain the artist’s motivation for art-making as divine inspiration and intuition to the exclusion of rational thought.

 

Like Noria Mabasa who claims that it was her ancestors that bid her to make art, Hlungwani often explained his creative output as an instruction from God. I am not going to dispute that even for one minute. Whether one believes in Christianity or not the issue of divine inspiration is irrelevant to how art professionals view and discuss the work of an artist.

 

One of the obvious conundrums when trying to come to grips with the work of Jackson Hlungwani is that it belongs to a form of art that is not necessarily meant for the art world although it does not exclude it either. The fact is that Jackson Hlungwani’s work presents a provocation and a challenge to the mainstream art world. It requires multiple points of reading.

 

As I argued in the Dungamanzi text, to the extent that Hlungwani’s work was originally intended means that we do not necessarily have access to the discursive universe of the congregants at new Jerusalem. So in order to fully appreciate the scope of Hlungwani’s work this is an indespensable part of critical appraisal of his work.  However, here I also want to argue that since entering the mainstream art market his work has taken on an added dimension and intruded on our discursive universe and ought to be treated as such.

 

This brings me again to the problem of language and knowledge. Do terms such as “rural artist”, “traditional artist”, “self-taught” artist or “Venda/Tshonga artist” tend to exclude and marginalise artists? Perhaps the knowledge of the Other becomes a regime through which one’s own position is guaranteed and to keep the native in his place.

 

 

 

 

Bbiliography

 

Hassan, S. 2003. ‘Hassan Musa’s ArtAfricanism. The Artist as Critic’ in Farrell. L.A. (ed.), Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora. Gent: Snoeck Publishers.

 

 

Klaaste, A.1989. An Intriguing Encounter from Jekisemi Hlungwani Shangani: An Exhibition, published by the Communication Department BMW (South Africa) Johannesburg.

 

Rankin, E.1989. Images of Wood: Aspects of the History of Sculpture in 20th Century South Africa. Johannesburg, Johannesburg Art Gallery.

 

Dederen, J. Black artist, white critic, ideological mindscapes of otherness, from http://galerie-inter.de/kimmerle/frameText7.htm, accessed 11 October 2011.

 

 

 


[1] See Mamdani, M., African Intellectuals and identity: overcoming the political legacy of Colonialism (122-142) in Dikeni, S. and Gumede, W. (eds.), The Poverty of Ideas: South African democracy and the retreat of Intellectuals, Jacana Media Pty (Ltd), (2009)

[2] Jackson Hlungwani passed away in 2010. At the time of the publication of Dungamanzi, Hlungwani was still alive.

What’s in a Name: Jackson Hlungwani and the Politics of Language

What’s in a Name

 (This text first appeared in the Dungamanzi catalogue published by the Johannesburg Art Gallery in 2007) – A follow-up essay was written in 2012 (as yet unpublished) also on Jackson Hlungwani. It is also published here under the title: Appropriating Hlungwani

In this essay I would like to point to some inconsistencies in the way we describe certain works of art and, to do this, I will enlist the works of Limpopo-based artist Jackson Hlungwani. There is a tendency to write about works of rural artists in anthropological terms, downplaying the aesthetic and formal dimensions. For example, Hlungwani’s work has frequently been described in terms of his Shangaan origins and religious beliefs. Yet the two approaches – aesthetic/formal and ethnic/spiritual – in discussing the work of Hlungwani are indeed necessary and neither can be completely dispensed with.

Hlungwani describes himself as a Shangaan artist and his work was originally intended for worship. However, emphasising these aspects to the exclusion of others is problematic. But I also think there are two legitimate reasons why one ought to be cautious about appraising Hlungwani’s work according to the orthodoxy of ‘mainstream’[i] aesthetics. The first is that the gallery-going public is not the intended audience for this artist’s work. The other, which follows from the first, is that we may lack the critical vocabulary and the critical awareness to do justice to his work. However, as art professionals, we are required to explain in language what is visually conveyed, that is, what exactly it is aesthetically that draws us to the work of this artist.

African works of art have often been difficult to decipher through the lens of orthodox art history. One tempting avenue has been to simply analyse African art using the canons of western aesthetics and, within these parameters, African art had been found wanting. However, in the late twentieth century, this has given way to a more contextual reading of the art within its own framework of use and meaning. These challenges have often led reviewers down certain paths of interpretation that tend to generalise and to group artists and practices that do not necessarily belong together.

Even more concerning is the fact that, in recent times, one still finds unashamedly racist and ill-informed perspectives in critiques of African art. Take for instance British critic Brian Sewell’s (2005) tirade against Africa Remix, in which he states among other things that:

This wretched assembly of posttribal artefacts, exhausted materials reused, and what would easily pass for the apprentice rubbish of the European art school, has about it the air of a state-run trade fair.

Sewell 2005

Some of the more common tendencies among reviewers of African art have been to highlight regional and ethnic affiliations. There are quite a number of factors that contribute to the persistence of these tendencies. In the case of South Africa, ethnic affiliations and their complex origins have been reduced to static identities. Furthermore, the administrative demands of the apartheid regime required that everyone in South Africa conform to some ethnic identity. These identities were then allocated to, and confined within, certain geographical areas or homelands. These forced identities became self-fulfilling prophecies. Even in cases where an artist’s production does not in any way conform to what may be referred to as ‘traditional art’, the ethnic label has stuck.

The idea of ethnic identities is one so deeply entrenched in the South African psyche that it is next to impossible to think outside of it. This is exacerbated by the claim to ethnic affiliation, often made by individual artists themselves, who locate what they produce within a kind of continuation of traditional practices, instead of within contemporary practice.

In various parts of the country, among them KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo Province, much of the production of rural artists has been closely associated with tourism. This is manifested in some cases with the emergence of art centres which serve the dual purpose of providing the tourist with idealised pictures about the region/culture being visited, while on the other being the primary outlets for artists in that region to show their art. While these types of art centres provide a worthwhile economic service, they often corral artists into exoticised spaces, free of rigorous reflection and critique. In such cases, explaining the work in terms of tradition and, in the case of religion, in terms of spirituality and mysticism, effectively explains away the artist’s choice of material and the technical accomplishment or lack thereof.

This is not to say that the artist is the unwitting victim of the omnipotent art market but that there are real restrictions on how art is read, imposed by the context in which the exchange takes place. In these circumstances restrictions are brought about by the access, or lack of access, that an artist has to mainstream art discourse and publications.

In trying to formulate a way in which African artists can navigate the treacherous waters between ‘authenticity’[ii] and reliance on the mainstream art market, a way in which the two are not seen as irreconcilable poles, I will use Hassan Musa’s idea of ‘ArtAfricanism’ as art practice where ‘certain authorities find an ethical or political, indeed economic interest in African art’ (Hassan 2003: 116). He continues:

 

The enterprise of ArtAfricaninsm seems to function efficiently, not only in America but also equally well in Africa, since there are numerous African or African-diaspora artists who find aesthetic interest in the project that the European ethno-estheticism machine proposes to them.

Hassan Musa, quoted in Hassan 2003: 116

Perhaps the difficulty has been to find a vocabulary within art writing for describing the works of Hlungwani, and others such as Johannes Maswanganyi, in terms other than ethnic or religious. Ideally an approach should trace the peculiar evolutionary path of each artwork in its own space and time.

The continuing proclivity towards certain outdated categories within the museum and, I would argue, the academy as well, continue to furnish material that locks the subjectivity of the artist within those categories even though individual curators and critics have moved on. In these terms it would seem that even though ideologies change and individuals change, the structure remains impervious to it. If much of what is termed ‘traditional African art’ comes from the nineteenth century, and has been shown to be strongly influenced by contemporary trends, what meaning can there remain for such a category to exist within the museum?

There are several incidents, not only in our recent history, that suggest that images, in spite of the intentions of their author, reproduce and provoke prevailing social and power relations. Steve Hilton-Barber’s photographs of male initiates are such an example. Whatever their intentions, artists are not the ultimate authority over the images they produce. In fact, in a manner of speaking, images can assume a life of their own.

This in no way removes the value of research nor of scholarly insight nor the rigour of analysis of the artist’s life. Rather, it highlights the fact that, unless critical methods are challenged, they can lead one to privilege biography over the artwork itself, and thus down the slippery slope to essentialism. Equally, by locating certain art practices within the realm of ethnicity or regionalism, one easily neglects those unique circumstances through which the artistic practice evolves. It also obscures shifts in an artist’s own specific production.

Another tempting tendency is to focus on the religious beliefs of the artists. Clearly these do matter especially in the works of Hlungwani. Merle Huntley (1992: 94-5)                                                                                                                               explains Hlungwani’s work as inspired by Christian iconography and Pat Hopkins (2003), in an article on the Mukondeni website, gives an interesting account of Hlungwani’s visions and the religious beliefs that inspire his art. However, there is no reflection on what it is visually that makes his art iconographic. Rankin (1989: 50), who distinguishes between Hlungwani’s iconography and Christian iconography, also does not account for what it is aesthetically that sets Hlungwani’s work  apart from Christian imagery and ‘traditional’ Tsonga woodcarving.

In recent decades analysing artworks has tended to summon cultural theory, gender studies and literary criticism in order to find a relevant vocabulary to describe art. In this form of analysis context has become an essential element in how works are read. This approach has also been instrumental in revising some of the prevailing misconceptions about African art. The side effect of this kind of reading, however, has been to subordinate the object to the context and aesthetics to biography. In this regard, Hlungwani’s New Jerusalem has lost some of its agency and has been enlisted by curators and historians towards the illustration of an idea. Other than snippets of Hlungwani’s own words and those of a host of critics and historians, there is very little that one understands about how its intended recipients, that is the devotees at New Jerusalem, received it.

Given my earlier assertion that many of the works produced by Jackson Hlungwani are not primarily intended for the gallery-going public, we might also have to take into account that much of our critical skills are inadequate for reading these works. This is particularly so because we subscribe to a different set of values than the congregation at New Jerusalem. This does not invalidate our visual experience of his work but, if we take it for granted that Hlungwani’s art was intended for his devotees, it follows that the privileged and educated, those with critical skills, are now placed at a disadvantage because we are confronted by something that resembles art but is not of art.

Often, when it comes to African artists and in particular those that are said to be autodidacts and those that live far away from the centres of art and commerce, allusion to their traditional practices or to their geographical location becomes standard. The same does not apply to (especially) white artists or tertiary-educated black artists for whom there is no assumption that their immediate community has any bearing on the work they produce. The implication is that some artists are worldly and others are parochial and local.

Most literature on Hlungwani avoids mentioning technical aspects of his work or aesthetic considerations. Despite many people’s genuine admiration of Hlungwani’s work, I often suspect that what propelled him into the art world is largely the novelty aspect [iii] where ‘untutored’ artists from the rural areas are ‘discovered’ by urban-based dealers and galleries.

In my estimation several key concepts regarding Hlunwani’s work are eschewed in favour of the contextual approach. One aspect is the choice of materials. It has been argued by, among others, Lesley Spiro Cohen (1993), curator of the Jackson Hlungwani installation at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, that there is a long history of woodcarving in the area of former Gazankulu (now Limpopo Province). While this may be true, it does not explain what, for example, the type of wood gives or takes away from Hlungwani’s work. Furthermore, why is it that the specific type of wood is not consistently mentioned in the labels next to his work – whether he uses hard or soft wood, dark or light?

One cannot escape the conclusion that, with black rural artists, it is much more permissible to disregard basic documentary information relating to the artwork. There is also very little information on how Christian iconography influences Hlungwani’s work. How much do his depictions of God or Jesus differ from most images found in Christian church buildings?  How has Hlungwani’s work evolved, and why does the Crucifix that is part if the Altar of God look different from other crucifixes in his repertoire? There is also often an easy reliance on Hlungwani’s mysticism to explain the iconography, without really engaging with it.

The terms which we use to talk about Jackson Hlungwani’s works are inadequate, even within the narrow confines of western aesthetics. This does not stop us from appreciating them, but we need to give a convincing account as to what makes them exceptional. Works of ‘traditional African art’, as well as the works of contemporary African artists such as Hlungwani, have to be looked at with new eyes and mediated through a new vocabulary.

Notes


[i] I have used mainstream not as a binary opposite to other forms of art with the mainstream being the normative and others being marginal and deficient. Rather, I have used it in the historical sense in which the academy and the museum are defined as the centre.

[ii] The term authenticity, as it has been used here, denotes the capacity of the artist to produce art free from the demands of the art market, the ability to be true to oneself.

[iii] In Klaaste (1989), Hlungwani’s explanation of his work is described in what the author interprets as condescending terms that preclude intellectual and critical awareness. Among such terms are ‘innocence’ and ‘quaint’.

Anton Kannemeyer is not racist…

Anton Kannemeyer is not racist…

This article first appeared in the Mail and Guardian under a different title: http://mg.co.za/article/2010-08-23-just-cause-you-feel-it-doesnt-mean-its-there

Anton Kannemeyer is not racist. Like many South Africans and, in particular, recovering Afrikaners, he is caught up in a world that does not make sense. Not that apartheid made much sense. Eighteen years ago he joined forces with Conrad Botes to create Bitterkomix and boerepunk. Their abrasive humour ensured that the chink in the armour of Afrikaner nationalism developed into a gaping hole, and this should be seen as a progressive development.

I am less tempted these days to believe the outlandish claims by artists and critics that art is necessarily revolutionary, but if the Bitterkomix generation did convince some young men that apartheid was not worth dying and killing for, it was certainly a good thing. Whether that brand of acerbic humour is striking the right note today requires further reflection.

In Kannemeyer’s recently published Pappa in Afrika, an image titled Liberals (2010) is a retake of Zapiro’s Rape of Justice, except that in Kannemeyer’s version a ‘coon” is slitting the throat of a man one presumes is one of Kannemeyer’s alter egos. The alter egos populate the comic book. The rape victim screams: ‘Do something, Harold! These historically disadvantaged men want to rape me!”

The relationship between Zapiro’s cartoon and Kannemeyer’s is quite obvious, but with a few significant differences. Zapiro’s is a bit more literal in the sense that Zuma was accused and acquitted of rape charges, whereas Kannemeyer’s perpetrators are anonymous ‘coons”. Second, Zapiro’s victim is the mythological figure of Lady Justice in the form of a black woman. This is what sets Zapiro’s work apart from Kannemeyer’s in that the whiteness of the victim is a direct comment on the fears of whites generally, a theme elucidated in JM Coetzee’s Disgrace.

But the two cartoons are similar in a more fundamental way, in that criminality and deviant behaviour are directly identified with black masculinity. Zapiro’s may be a bit more blunt than Kannemeyer’s more tongue-in-cheek approach. That there are no women and white perpetrators in Zapiro’s Rape of Justice is also telling. There is no Jesse Duarte and there is no Carl Niehaus—both of whom were Zuma supporters. Although the treatment of the subject is different, white fear lies at the heart of both Zapiro’s and Kannemeyer’s work. But white fear is nothing new. It is what sustained and made apartheid possible in the first place.

 

Apartheid, in both its ideological and administrative manifestations, made one’s place in the world quite clear; social roles were narrowly defined. For many South Africans, both white and black, it seemed the world had turned upside-down in the post-apartheid era. Even during Nelson Mandela’s presidency people across the colour divide were struggling to come to terms with a Constitution that gave women equal rights and increased protection for children and minors.

The perceived loss of power and identity that came with both political and, to some extent, economic changes has left white South Africans, in particular, with feelings of insecurity. On one end of the spectrum there are those who are preparing for war in paramilitary training camps and on the other you have cynical liberals who are constantly making buffoons of current leaders.

There is no doubt we are living in a country of excess. There is pervasive violence and rampant corruption and artists and journalists cannot be blamed for pointing out these horrors. But a number of traps are set against these crusaders of truth and justice. These are the tendency to reduce the African experience to a kind of pathology, the temptation of African exceptionalism, the equation of transgression with progressive politics and the blind spot of their own privilege.

African-American feminist bell hooks is also useful here for having coined the term white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, which is even more instructive than simply to label someone as racist. It is also insightful for emphasising the connections and interdependence between these social forces that are often spoken about in exclusive terms. It is possible to critique not only the surface of Kannemeyer’s imagery, but also the underlying network of attitudes that underscores his art.

To a large extent the reasons negative images of Africa continue to be peddled not only by the right but also by liberals and so-called progressives is that they are compelling because they bear some resemblance to the truth and they have been internalised in our psyche and popular imagination. There are so many black and white South Africans who see immigrants from other African countries as being parasitic on South African ‘success”, which suggests that it is difficult or near impossible for South Africans to imagine that people from other African countries have anything to offer and that visiting or working in those countries can be anything but traumatic.

The first and most obvious temptation is to suppose that the only response people can and should have to colonial violence is murder and rape. The notion that oppressed people can have novel and even non-violent responses to racial violence is a trap that even progressive movements seem unable to escape from. In the rhetoric of films such as Birth of a Nation, this endemic violence is a sign not of colonial violence but of a less developed, uncivilised psyche.

Furthermore, post-independence kleptocracy and corruption are alternately seen by leftists as necessary and inevitable consequences of unequal power and capitalist exploitation and, by those on the right, as necessary and inevitable consequences of the loss of the steadying hand of the colonial master. In some cases it is evidence that the African subject is inert to modernity. In either case the anomaly of misrule and bad governance are assumed to be conditions from which Africans can hardly escape.

In this way the historical-materialist analysis that purports to be more politically aware than the essentialist notions of African experiences also has the tendency to pathologise African subjects as nothing more than prisoners of history and violence. Unfortunately for all their political savvy and attempts to be critical, these assumptions maintain that the cartoons of people like Kannemeyer are unable to subvert.

In the concluding pages of Adam Horschild’s Leopold’s Ghost, the author raises questions of what motivated the groundswell of criticism of Leopold’s excesses in the Congo and why similar excesses by other European powers, not only in other parts of Africa but also in the colonised world generally, did not elicit similar outrage. In the attempt to answer the question he notes that the movement for change in the Congo came on the back of the abolitionist movement. Paternalism and philanthropy in protecting defenceless Africans against the Arab slave trade gave King Leopold II a pretext to enter the Congo and to turn it into his personal fiefdom.

The idea that there is something special about Africa, even though putting a finger on exactly what that thing is often proves illusory, does not prevent people from insisting that it is there.

It is difficult to look at the excesses that continue to bedevil the continent and not come to the conclusion that there is something seriously wrong here. But it seems that it is equally difficult for us to acknowledge that there are millions of Africans who travel to other countries—not as refugees but as businessmen and women, tourists and scholars. It is also difficult to imagine that there are generations of Africans who have never experienced war, famine or a coup d’etat, or that there are millions of Africans that enjoy a middle-class existence.

One of the questions that Pappa in Afrika raises is whether art that is somehow transgressive or subversive necessarily implies progressive politics. Pappa in Afrika is awash with imagery of African atrocities, the buffoonery of its leaders (Idi Amin appears a number of times) and corruption, but also the complicity of the West. In the world of art, as in the world of political and social satire, evidence that the audience is offended is seen as affirmation that the medicine is working.

Courting controversy and notoriety has become the stock in trade of artists of the post-1994 era. This is especially true of white male artists. Challenging political correctness has been their rallying cry. Such notoriety has been interpreted as a sign of genius in itself without really interrogating the content of the work. Among these have been people such as Kendell Geers, Brett Murray and, more recently, collectives such as Avant Car Guard. But there is a reason we don’t go around calling people ‘kikes” and ‘kaffirs” in the street, even if it is done in the name of humour. But if some infantile artists do just that, we are supposed to say they are not racist.

In the accompanying essay in Pappa in Afrika, Danie Marais makes a spirited argument that Kannemeyer is in fact exposing white fears and the racism that inspires them. And the implication here is that, because he is making fun of or ‘exposing” these fears, he can’t be racist. Whether his use of racial stereotypes, subversive as it might be, is sufficiently removed from its source to make it transformative is a question we have to ask Kannemeyer. Personally, I am not convinced that they are.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Zapiro, in defence of his Rape of Justice cartoon, claims he is not racist because his record in the anti-apartheid struggle ‘speaks for itself”. If we say that struggle leaders are to be held accountable for what they are doing now and that their struggle credentials are of little consequence, then by the same token we should hold Kannemeyer and Zapiro to the same standard.

In his postscript Marais makes the claim that Kannemeyer’s work should be welcome because the issue of race is one that is not openly discussed in South Africa. This is true, but talk of race and racism has consequences. In an economy in which wealth and privilege are still heavily in favour of whites, there are dire consequences for ‘race talk” for black people. But it is easy to talk about race as long as you do not mention that attaining social justice also means the necessary pain of having to give up wealth and privilege.

It is not that Kannemeyer is ignorant of the privilege that comes with being white. But acknowledging one’s privilege is not the same thing as acknowledging the responsibility that goes with it. In a world in which artistic freedom and creativity are rightly valued above the instrumentalisation of the arts, ‘responsibility” is a dirty word. I am the last person to advocate that an artist’s creativity ought to be stifled in favour of political correctness, but that is not to say one ought to celebrate the cynicism of arrogant and intransigent products of racial privilege.

It is not only on the level of race that I find Pappa in Afrika reprehensible. In one of two works, titled Thank You, Black Angel, a black angel gives the artist a blowjob. Whether they are intended to be subversive or simply funny, much of the imagery is condescending. So what if the black people, men and women, in Kannemeyer’s cartoons lack agency and when they have any they act as agents of disaster—and then serve only to populate white fears and Kannemeyer’s fantasies? It does not matter that they are offensive. It certainly does not matter that he dredges up a host of racist imagery and stereotypes. Indeed we are supposed to look and laugh—because ‘Anton Kannemeyer is not racist”.

Decolonising Excellence

Recently at the African Freedom Station I took part in a talk about excellence in the work of Black artists. My fellow panelists and I also dealt with the merits (and de-merits) of Western euro-centric education, gate-keeping, alternative standards of excellence, Black aesthetics, art development as well as South-South dialogue.
 
The discussion did not explore curatorial practice in great detail, i would concede that as far as the job i am getting paid to do which is that of chief curator and museum head requires various sets of skills i do not have – for instance municipal management, financial management, HR management and even curatorial work itself up until recently i did not have a formal qualification in curatorial work. 
 
i am still working my way to getting a qualification  in heritage management which i a post-grad qualification where the candidates do not come from a management background but mostly from an art/historical background and even the courses that we are dealing with don’t have a management component in them.
 
So clearly i am underqulified for the job i am doing – no disputes about that and no excuses but then one would have to ask where these skill sets might come from? the environment that i work in would not, i believe, be better served by someone with an MBA because museum and heritage management requires another set of skills – involving partly knowledge production, programming and a good sense of the cultural sector that an MBA might not be primed to understand. so the work is rather specialized and it is very difficult to find someone who can fulfill all of the criteria.
 
judging from what i have said it would be easy to conclude that i support the “it doesn’t matter if you haven’t got qualification so long as you know how to do the job” faction but this could not be further from the truth. but the issue of “skills vs qualifications” needs to be seriously unpacked.
 
Firstly this is not a new debate – mohlaudi or JZ are not special cases. This is why the NQF was introduced along with recognition of prior learning. If these measures have proved inadequate to deal with the challenges of our history and inequality then they need to be reviewed in a systematic way rather than simply to say that any standard goes.
 
There are of course very serious ambiguities in either approach so for instance I am sure that whichever way you slice it politics (as in political affiliations and ideologies as well as class and racial pigeonholing) do play a big part in this debate. I am sure there are those conservative of even those in the right liberal establishment who are rubbing their gatekeeping hands with glee at Madonsela’s report because it proves the failures of among other things cadre deployment. But let us not forget that cadre deployment was meant in part to deal with the fact that, because of the sunset clauses, a large part of the administration in the post-1994 period was populated by Nats and the ANC government could not have brought about social change with so many Nats still in in key positions and in the general staff in government and in para-statals. And of course if one had looked then, as is the case now, at how many Black people had the required qualifications to fill those posts there would be and still is a big gap between what is required and what is available.
 
The problem of course goes beyond the SABC and affects all levels of government and parts of the private sector as well and that is also a problem of the type of education that is available, the prohibitive cost of education, the lack of adequately skilled people to do the teaching, etc. etc. And for me the SABC itself is implicated in this lack of skills. As a public broadcaster I am not sure if the best people to head that behemoth and to occupy positions relating to content, are necessarily those with journalistic or managerial backgrounds but perhaps it ought to be people with an educational background. 
 
The commercialization of the SABC in the 90’s I think was a really bad move because just at the time where programming needed to be more, not less, educational, entertainment became the new gospel at the SABC. Ratings, populism and advertising revenue became its most important function.
 
There should have been a more open and wide-ranging process of determining what the mandate of the SABC should have been and should be in the future. I think we as citizens and as TV license  payers having been robbed of the opportunity to determine the nature of the SABC and having been robbed of a radical agenda within the SABC and that has been tantamount to criminal neglect by both the SABC and Government alike. By so saying I am not so naive as to think that the ANC leadership does not privately or overtly harbor fantasies of turning the SABC into a government mouthpiece. But that’s another debate.
 
For me the SABC could have and still could/should be a very effective tool to bridge the gap between the shortcomings of the state and the cultural, educational and social needs of a society that remains largely (structurally) under-educated and marginalized,
 
Those of you who have watched Soweto TV lately will know that is it is very bad mixture of hours and hours of gospel music, motivational talks and programming and music videos. Its like there is a second wave of social engineering designed to make Black people dumb in the name of giving people the content they want. Yes, Soweto TV is a community TV station and not the public broadcaster but why must ICASA renew their broadcasting license? And yes, if the SABC delivers boring programming no matter how informative it is people have more options now – internet, multi choice, eTV etc.
 
But I don’t think the SABC should be competing with these other media. It has a very important social and historical role to play…the internet, youtube FB, multi choice don’t have that responsibility (actually they do as responsible citizens). And because the SABC has that responsibility the government should fund them appropriately – provided they deliver on their mandate and provided that the content managers can produce content that is independent of Luthuli House.
 
And even then it does not mean that that educational content has to be boring. For instance (and this may just be a reflections of my class affiliations and tastes) the series Society and Home Affairs were excellent – they dealt with modern subjects and reflected a lot of the issues of contemporary South Africa in a way that was informative and entertaining.
 
But now let me once again go back to the issue of education and in particular educational institutions and what it is exactly they are supposed to be producing. I am not one of those people who advocates for the instrumentatlisation of knowledge but at the same time there has to be also sufficient room created for technical education. Let me use myself as an example – the type of education I received at both technikons where I studied was geared towards the idea that we were all going to be artists. In reality maybe only 10 percent of those that graduated are actually making (any) living at all from making art. For those who have stuck to it like Sharlene – three cheers for them but for others like me – we could have benefited a lot from more diversified curriculum. I realized probably in my third year that I was not going to be a full-time artist but for at least four more years after that I was in denial about it and that’s partly because there were few other options. 
 
We were not introduced or taught art administration, or introduced to curatorial work or any of the professions up and down the value chain of art-making. As I mentioned earlier even now I am doing an MA in Heritage Management with Cynthia Kros which has no managerial component to it. Not that I was expecting such content in the course but I would say most of my fellow students over the past two years work in government institution and we need some of that non-conceptual, mostly administrative training for us to be effective bureaucrats.
 
I also do not want to pit informal education against formal education – that debate for me is unproductive, rather the issue is what is the quality of education one has received whichever route one has taken – or circumstances allowed one to take – and what are the standards that we can use to determine minimum standards and how do we benchmark excellence (assuming that excellence is something that is over and above basic requirements). And de-racialising the notion of excellence.
 
So again rather than ONLY blaming the people in high positions without qualifications we can also ask what role educational institutions are playing. But of course if those people do not themselves realize that there is something missing in their skill-sets or are unapologetic about it, as seems to be the case with Mohlaudi then we have a huge problem. As I said in the talk on Tuesday it is worrying when people working in youth development (many of whom working without remuneration and who are fulfilling a need in their communities – so I am not hating on them) are themselves in need of developing but somehow they feel that they are already there (wherever that is because I certainly would never ever claim that I am there) then again I have to be concerned about the futures of the artists they are producing.
 
Add to that an even more vexing question that of decolonizing our education system – (and our cultural sphere including our SABC). again this is something that requires a greater debate and cannot be left either to Luthuli House, or to technocrats. Tied to that is the notion of how we connect with other spaces on the continent in terms of content and then the rest of the so-called developing world. How do we decolonize without falling into an all too easy and simply reactionary and chauvinist conception of nationalism or worse one that has overtones of sexism, homophobia and tribalism.
 
Like some of the questions that emerged during the discussion at the Freedom Station  the issue is very important to what museums ought to be doing in our (post)colonial setting, whom are we supposed to serve etc. etc.
 
Finally, please take this for the rant that it is…I am not as you know a broadcaster but I am a citizen and a consumer of TV and radio and I am a cultural bureaucrat who still harbors hopes for a revolutionary ethos in what we do rather than simply plodding along which is basically what I do on a daily basis.
 
PS: I need you good people to help me think about something I hope will be the basis of my long paper  – i.e. trying to understand where the idea that memorialization can deliver social justice comes from and if there is any reasonable cause to believe that it actually can.

Topographies of Morality

 

This text originally appeared in the publication by the Market Photo Workshop on Landscape and Photography in 2012.

Where to begin? I suppose for this dropout Christian there is no better place to start than in the Garden of Eden. This founding narrative of Judaism, Islam and Christianity already implicates the land, read as the Garden, as a place where the contest between good and evil is played out. From it springs the idea of purity and contamination, knowledge and innocence, pain and suffering, nakedness and shame. From it also comes notions of labour in both senses of labour as in work: “you will work hard all your life to make it [the land] produce enough food to eat.” but also the punishment that Eve gets for having tempted Adam into eating the fruit is that women must suffer pain during childbirth. And from there also the notion that woman is lesser than man.

What are some of the ways in which landscape can express the moral order of a particular time? How is this moral order represented in images? Perhaps it might be worthwhile to begin this discussion by recalling two artistic movements that might illustrate different ways in which representations of the landscape can be said to reflect moral and aesthetic concerns. The Rococo period was characterised by excess and the images of the landscape of the time reflected this tendency. Nature was overgrown and untamed. This conflation moral decadence and landscape is most aptly depicted in Fragonard’s painting The Swing.

By contrast images of the neo-classical period exemplified the spirit of their time which was the Enlightenment that promoted restraint and clam which was perceived as consistent with the age of reason.

In the 19th century while European society was reeling from the devastation brought by imperial wars and increasing industrialisation and urbanisation drove many painters to seek in landscape painting an expression of a simpler time and more genteel time. Again the countryside, in the case of painters such as Constable embodied a moral counterpoint to the degeneracy of the city. Others such as Turner and Friedrich valorised the power of nature over civilisation. A theme that portrayed in poetry such as Shelley’s Ozymandias and literature such as classics like Moby Dick. The binary between nature and civilisation was also played out in the struggle between “man” in the masculine sense and nature. In other formulations such as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness the landscape in this case the jungle represents literally and figuratively Darkness lack of reason and civilisation.

As Gabeba Baderoon has shown in her essay Ambiguous Visibility: Islam and the Making of a South African Landscape the depiction of Malays in landscape in painting of the Cape Colony in which the Malay is often positioned at the edge of the painting marking the edge of the civilised space of the colony and the uncivilised and hostile interior. On the other hand the Malays are also shown in various types of labour which is in contrast to the depiction of the settlers in a state of leisure in a way that betrays and erases the slave revolts and the violence of slavery.

Morality is represented the labouring and compliant Malays also stands in opposition to the “kaffirs” of the interior who are seen as idle and unproductive. Baderoon makes a vital connection between the perpetuation of the notion of black idleness and the notion of empty land “terra nullius” thus making it (the land) available for settlement and exploitation and for the moralising benefit of cultivation.

Similar tropes can be seen in some of the work of Guy Tillim especially in the series Leopold and Congo and in the series Johannesburg. Whereas the Leopold and Congo series is not so much a comment on Belgian colonialism as the title suggests but on the devastation that was left in the wake of the civil war that finally saw the ousting of the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

In this series of images of a failed state a degraded landscape misrule excess, brutality, ungovernability, poverty and idolatry become recurrent themes through which morality or lack thereof is figured into the landscape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Not unlike Conrad’s novella the jungle that has reclaimed parts of the homestead that was once the palace of Mobutu represents a failed society a failure to live up to the standards of human civilisation. The failing is not Mobutu’s alone but that of the whole society.

That the images by Tillim are decontextualised in the sense that they are largely absent of any visible perpetrators, only victims, thus lend themselves to be read that it is not just specific individuals that are responsible for the state of decay but a whole society, a nation condemned by its own excesses and uncontrollable power of destruction.

In contrast to the visible and overt correlation between civilization and decay as portrayed by Conrad and Tillim, Antije Krog and before her Santu Mofokeng implicate the landscape, in this case a seemingly ordered and sedate land and cityscape of Europe in the greatest mass murder of Western Europe, the Jewish Holocaust.

In her recent book Begging to be Black, Krog juxtaposes three narratives, that of a murder in Kroonstad, in the Free State, the story of King Moshoeshoe and the time she spent at a post-doctoral residency in Germany. What unites these narratives are questions about what would be a fair moral framework to apply in a context where the very model of morality we use is based on violence, intolerance and  exploitation. In one scene she describes a vision that came to her while returning home from a New Year’s party where the dead of the holocaust appeared in the streets. By so doing she refuses to see Germany only in terms of its present image as a progressive society and brings the past to bear on the present.

Similarly Santu Mofokeng’s series Chasing Shadows presents seemingly genteel and peaceful landscapes. It is only in the titles that one becomes aware of the horror that these landscapes embody. Through the tension between the apparent seductiveness of the landscape and the crimes that were enacted on it the presumed binary between purity and contamination, good and evil, order and chaos is shown to be, at best, both contingent and relative.

Between Authenticity and Worldliness

First published in:

Flow catalogue 2008

The Studio Museum in Harlem

Close Encounters with the Strange Kind:

In December 2005 in Khayelitsha, a black township near Cape Town, South Africa, I saw a man in a lace bonnet, a leather jacket with a rubber hunchback, a skirt made of neckties and a pair of rubber boots beautifully stitched together with red ribbon.

The locals—many of whom, I guess, had never been to a gallery—greeted him with embarrassed laughter, curious looks and whispers. But they were engaged. The performance, Igqirha Lendlela[i] (2005) by Nicholas Hlobo, inspired what I always hope to see from gallery audiences: a sense of wonder and an inquisitive impulse.

Hlobo himself was enjoying the attention, which makes his work appealing in a way that belies the fact that it is labor-intensive.

In Bhaxa Iqinile2 (2006), Hlobo applied green laundry soap to two old chairs and then had a model sit on them, creating a negative impression of the model’s bottom, legs and testicles. The title of the work, a Xhosa3 onomatopoeic word—roughly translating to “plonk” in English—asserts the artist’s wry sense of humor and the inviting tactility of his work, which make his art pleasurable, even when it relates to touchy subjects.

In a country of homophobia, racial and ethnic divides, gender violence and hate crimes, discussions of gender, sexuality and identity elicit a lot of emotion. Hlobo navigates this ground by juxtaposing humor and seriousness, authenticity and worldliness.

 

Taboo:

With the many taboos in South African society, silence is often employed to keep people in line and police morality. Initiates undergoing circumcision are not supposed to express pain—even when they are in mortal danger—or relate their experiences to women, outsiders and the uninitiated. Secrecy, it seems, is essential to the coherence of society.

Though we are fourteen years into the democratic era, we are still a nation in transition. There is much to be contested in material and cultural terms. Claiming cultural space has been relegated to third place behind politics and economics, but is no less contentious. Democracy brought a new set of taboos. The imperatives of nation-building and threats such as HIV/AIDS have thrown together old and new prohibitions and taboos. The old policing of sexual behavior found new expression, and practices such as virginity testing have been rediscovered.4 In the same way, traditions such as the male initiation ritual ukoluka have become both cultural practices and ways of maintaining group cohesion and resisting Western values. In the patriarchy/power/ethnicity matrix, appeals to traditional values, nation-building and morality are perfect foils for increasing calls for social justice. This applies to all spheres of society, from government policy to public discourse to the home.

For all his lightheartedness and seductiveness, Hlobo is determined to break taboos. In traditional Nguni societies, sex is not discussed openly, and a number of Hlobo’s works relate to genitalia, particularly penises. Upon closer inspection, however, even in traditional culture one finds that “sex talk” is concealed in everyday speech as euphemisms and rituals. In one of Hlobo’s early works, Untitled #2 (2002), a phallic mound made of woven palm leaves rises from an ordinary rug. Whatever is “swept under the rug” emerges one way or another.

To claim cultural space, confronting racial dynamics, privilege and fear is unavoidable. Is the presence of black artists such as Hlobo on the world stage going to lay to rest fears about the marginalization of blacks voices—and the whites who benefit from it—in South Africa? Not likely. We have not reached a stage where a white artist or museum director is prepared to admit to having benefited from white privilege—the ultimate taboo. After all, we are told, we were all victims of apartheid. Amaaaandla!5

 

Contradictions:

These tensions in Hlobo’s work may not be immediately apparent. The need to understand or preserve Xhosa traditions clearly is very important to him, which explains why he bestows Xhosa titles on his work. He also mistrusts outsiders, particularly whites who tell black stories.6 I suppose this would, in the words of Achille Mbembe, constitute the “nativist reflex.”7 On the other hand, there is no explicit, stereotypical sign that his work is made by an African. Hlobo clearly articulated to me his resistance to the idea that African art should have a look; he borrows from other cultures, including colonial South Africa. Such an approach places him in line with the more open-minded and inclusive Afropolitan view of the continent.

But reality is much more complex than the binaries implied by nativism and Afropolitanism. As artists try to produce socially engaged art, they must perform a very delicate balancing act.. Perhaps the artist’s job is to make good art, not good politics. And yet artists, from Imhotep to Fela Kuti to Hlobo, do play at politics, or at least “polytricks.”

 

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[i] The title of this work, Igqirha Lendlel, is derived from a Xhosa folk song made internationally famous by South African singer Miriam Makeba.

2 Bhaxa, like the name of the language from which it is derived, isiXhosa, is pronounced with a click. Iqinile literally means “hard” but, according to the artist, it is a word often used to refer to a boy becoming a man and having hardened testicles.

3 The Xhosa are part of the Nguni people, which include the Zulu and Swazi nations that established kingdoms in the eastern parts of South Africa. Nguni languages are quite similar and mutually intelligible.

4 Virginity testing is practiced in certain parts of KwaZulu-Natal, a province in South Africa dominated by Zulu speakers, and is performed by older women to ensure that girls and young women are virgins until they marry. Though some claim virginity testing also applies to men, the testing of women is most common. The practice has enjoyed renewed interest as a way of preventing HIV infections and teenage pregnancy.

5 At protests and marches during the anti-apartheid struggle, and even at present-day political gatherings, the person at the podium shouts “amandla,” which means “power,” to which the crowd responds “awethu,” meaning “is ours.”

6 The artist’s opinions here come from Nicholas Hlobo, interview with the author, January 2008.

7 Achille Mbembe, “SA’s Mprofeti Is Leading Us on Road to National Suicide,” The City Press, June 3, 2006; and Achille Mbembe, “Afropolitanism,” Africa Remix: Contemporary Art of a Continent (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2007), 26–29.