Let's change the subject

The Chimurenga collective has joined the Cape biennale (the title of which for this year is Convergence) to produce a remarkable installation that functions as a journey of discovery through the books in Cape Town Central Library.

The new library opened in the city’s Old Drill Hall in July 2008. Since then, according to accounts, the place has not only serviced readers and students but also the homeless and unemployed who find shelter in the ornately vaulted inner-city refurb.

Those who know the cultural journal Chimurenga will automatically understand that any participation by its founders in the biennale would not be a simple affair. Chimurenga specialises in mystifying anticolonialist themes through avant-garde literature and suggestive, comic-style illustration.

Now the collective has made an intervention in Cape Town library that uses a self-styled system of classification to point readers in the direction of themes and emotions contained in the literature. Perhaps this is a reaction to the standard Dewey Decimal System that may seem a little dry to those intending to stage a revolution in literary content.

Having visited the library while Chimurenga was setting up its “introspective” coding, I can confirm that the group—whose publication relishes complexity—has created a most simple and heart-rending “subjective classification system”. It consists of about 85 categories, some amounting to emotional states while others could be considered states of being.

Included are the following: alienation, apathy, awareness, beership, blackness, blues, corruption courage, dope, defiance, exile, football, hate, high prices, hunger, laughter, love, paranoia, police, rage, rats, red tape and Rockey Street.

Themes have been printed on boards and suspended at key points in the library. Below them, on the ground, are sticky tape arrows pointing in the direction of the literature now classified by emotion. In this way the creators have defined what they call “reading routes”.

The originators of the project are the founders of Chimurenga magazine, Ntone Edjabe and Stacey Hardy. They have been joined in this endeavour by artist Douglas Gimberg, a bookish, soft-spoken, hobbit-like creature with a long ginger beard.

Gimberg is perfect for the task of alternative librarian. He refers to Edjabe’s gathering together of a group referred to as Chimurenga People. It is a novel and useful idea that borrows what it needs from advertising while subverting the mainstream view of a consumer generation that does things together, with similar needs supplied by a certain product.

Edjabe and Hardy apparently began gathering their favourite texts when they established their acclaimed literary magazine in 2002. According to Gimberg: “They decided to find signifi­cant texts and to exhibit those texts in one form or another. And that is how the library emerged.

“We did not wish to create a spectacle for people who usually don’t come to the library, so that they would come and have some strange and exotic experience. The initial goal was to insert ourselves into the library in a way that the public, who use the place, would see that there is something strange happening. They would find a new system intervening in this quite condescending, existing system.”

An information table has been placed near the entrance of the library bearing a Chimurenga sign. Gimberg says that one of the remarkable effects of the exhibition has been the constant inquiry and debate by Zimbabwean migrants about the merits of the name Chimurenga (meaning “Revolution” in Shona). Many see it as an important concept in the Mugabeite patriotic lexicon.

On the library’s first floor the Chimurenga People have constructed an exhibition of sex in African literature under the title: Why Must A Black Writer Write About Sex?

Here the creators have suspended blown-up passages of erotica by writers such as Lesego Rampolokeng, Bessie Head, Sello Duiker, Zackie Achmat and Yvonne Vera. On a reading room wall artist and filmmaker Aryan Kaganof has written up a rambling erotic extract from Njabulo Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela. Unsurprisingly, he has changed myriad mentions of the word “country” to “cuntry”.

Gimberg says that he was unaware that Kaganof would further eroticise Ndebele, the master storyteller, but that it was his artistic licence. “It’s a curious object, people read it, but nobody has commented yet.”

Elsewhere in the library, in the South African history section, the Chimurenga People have blanked out the titles on the spines of books. They’ve replaced the graphic element with shades of skin tones of all the country’s population groups, perhaps indicating the major theme of our historical narrative to date.

Gimberg calls the exhibition a “simple gesture.” Yet it shows how, with limited resources, these artists are playing in the library, trying to understand why it is a space that is unevolved and sacrosanct.

To find out about activities related to the Chimurenga Library exhibition visit www.chimurenga.co.za, www.chimurengalibrary.co.za or www.capeafrica.org

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse

Matthew Krouse is the arts editor of the Mail & Guardian, a position he has held since 1999. He has edited two anthologies: Positions (Steidl, Jacana Media 2010) about artists engaging with politics in South Africa today, and The Invisible Ghetto (GMP, 1994) a compilation of creative writing about gender. His essays have appeared in collected works about arts and culture here and abroad. He has worked in the theatre for over a decade as an actor, writer and senior publicist at the Market Theatre. Read more from Matthew Krouse

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