“Perhaps we do not fear the scrutiny of daylight enough. I walk because of them (the politicians) and all the ugliness they have left us. But the ugliness from which we are trying to run is us. And always there is this terrifying screaming that comes from the deepest places within me. And it fills my lungs with air when I listen to that primeval scream of a thousand eons. It makes me remember that the story is still unfolding, that there is more to come.”
This is Tshepo. We’re on a first name basis. He is familiar. His mind convoluted, dark. An eerie quagmire he lets us in on. We’re intimate with him and the struggles which torment him below the surface. We know that this is part of the reason that he walks the streets of Cape Town until his feet go from aching to numb. Wanders until the friction causes them to boil and blister. We’re never sure if it’s a running away from or towards something.
Tshepo is the protagonist in K. Sello Duiker’s The Quiet Violence of Dreams, a darkly disturbing and well-written book which locates the reader so well in Tshepo’s reality that it’s hard for it not to shift one’s own. In a tribute to the author, Sam Radithlalo says: “It is the themes that Duiker pursued with a relentless scrutiny, sparing neither the reader nor himself, which cement his place in the pantheon of a new generation of South African writers.”
Delving into the showcase
The novel was the basis for the Stevenson and blank projects exhibition of the same name. According to the gallery the exhibition was developed by Joost Bosland in conversation with Moshekwa Langa. Of the novel Bosland says: “It described the world I was living in at the time… The character of Tshepo was very close to our lives. And the book stayed with me as a very important novel. I reread it when the new edition came out about two years ago. That’s when I realised that the book is much more important to visual arts than I had realised.”
Tshepo’s primeval scream; what it means and what it might be in reaction to, seeps its way into the curated pieces in the various exhibition spaces both in Cape Town and Johannesburg. Upon entry at the Stevenson Gallery in Woodstock one is greeted by dried roses at the entrance. Hanging from mesh wire overhead and scattered underfoot, so you’re careful not to tread on their delicateness. This installation, #SayHerName by Jody Brand, exists in all three venues. The artist’s intention is to “liberate black and brown queer and femme bodies from brutality and violence enacted in the name of imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, the media and the art world”. The gallery included the work because it depicts “two instances of violence, the unresolved murder of a Cape Town sex worker and the repeated victimization (sic) of Tshepo in the novel, inspired Brand’s contributions to this exhibition”.
Hating on same-love
Homosexuality and the violence which seems to linger not far behind it both locally and the world over are themes which oscillate in the novel, at times being so intertwined they seem inextricable, while at others remaining far enough removed to be considered foreign. Buhlebezwe Siwani, whose work is displayed in the main exhibition space turned out to have been family friends of the Duiker family, growing up with them. This according to Bosland.
Ithongo is visceral. Umkhando, a powdery, red pigment which is used in certain rituals is imprinted with body depressions interspersed between thirteen bed sheets as well as a psychiatric hospital blanket. The strength of the red is violent. This is juxtaposed with what the sheets are meant to represent; sleep, calm, rest.
The gallery notes the installation as reflecting the novel’s “violent circumstances surrounding the death of Tshepo’s mother which mark the beginning of his mental fragility. The beginning of his nightmare occurs on a bed in his family home. According to Siwani: ’The idea came from recognizing (sic) that solitary confinement is violent on the body and the mind, as Tshepo demonstrates when he’s shut in the Kulukutz… While the body is in a hypothetically in a restful state, it cannot really rest as it is constantly woken up to depress its face upon paper. This sleep pattern thus has the propensity to lead to a delicate and tenuous psychological state.’”
Some of the other themes explored in the novel are based on Tshepo’s inner life. They’re outlined by the gallery as “madness, shame, sex, violence, power, intimacy, history, xenophobia, sexuality, love, race, mysticism, and mystery – themes that in many ways foreshadowed prominent focal points in South African contemporary art as it emerged from the period in which the book was written”. Bosland echoes the sentiment saying, “A lot of the themes that are being dealt with in the book, artists have been covering in the decade since it was published. The themes have found their way into the visual arts.”
Hate crime survivor I, from Zanele Muholi’s series Only Half the Picture.
The list of contributing artists whose work tackles some of the threads in the novel has been delegated to the three spaces. They also include Isghaan Adam, Jane Alexander, Abdulrazaq Awofeso, Raphaël Barontini, Faka, Lyle Ashton Harris, Nicholas Hlobo, Evan Ifekoya, Bronwyn Katz, Glenn Ligon, Turiya Magadlela, Zanele Muholi, Robin Rhode, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi, Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Unathi Sinegugu, Penny Siopis, Barthélémy Toguo, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Akram Zaatari and Portia Zvavahera.
The Quiet Violence of Dreams is a mixed media exhibition which also allows viewers to watch videos, which play on a loop. Evan Ifekoya’s digital print on vinyl, Ebi Flo (flex), is a playful and lively celebration. The flamboyance in homosexuality. The second part of the work is a four-and-a-half minutes long video, Ebi Flo (WE ARE FAMILY). The gallery notes this work as Tshepo’s discovery of a brotherhood in the gay community.
The artist puts it this way: “In Ebi Flo (WE ARE FAMILY) the video is a refrain. Ebi Flo is a family becoming. Ebi Flo is nature yet an artificial construction, an overwriting [and] undermining. The installation Ebi Flo (flex), on the other hand, explores the persistence of loss, mourning and celebration in the lives of queer black subjects as it diffracts through inheritance, nightlife and polyvocality. Ebi Flo is a gift. A glitch. A glow.”
Homosexuality is touched on again in in Akram Zaatari’s video How I Love You. This explores a conversation between homosexual men, some individuals and a couple as they share insights about their lives, how they feel about their bodies, sex, passion, love and a multitude of their experiences in a country where one can still be jailed for being homosexual. The artist described this visual representation as a “creative documentary” that explores “homosocial and homosexual relation” among gay men in Lebanon… Despite their differing circumstances, Tshepo and the men in How I Love You are bound by the same insecurity, nostalgia, fear, tenderness, hunger, desire, fatigue and hope.
Wandering through the Stevenson, one is greeted by Jane Alexander’s disturbing photomontages. Abstract and distorted paintings. Striking photographs and unnerving installations. Take a walk across Main Road and into Blank Projects and one lands on Glenn Ligon’s blinking neon sign, Untitled (Bruise/Blues). Police brutality is a reality both locally, where the public is exposed to videos of police dogs being unleashed on prisoners, and in the US where recorded incidents of racially motivated mistreatment have become viral.
The art of violence
Early in the novel Tshepo is stopped by police while walking home after a night out. After being struck by a policeman Tshepo holds his cheek “and it feels hot with blood. I look at the police van; electric blue light spins furiously. I feel nauseous. The stringent light assails me and fills me with angst. It seems to scream with urgency.”
Zanele Muholi’s photographic series Only Half the Picture also hangs in this space. The images are of hospital patients and case numbers, scars and wounds. Blank projects’ write-up refers to Tshepo being raped twice amidst the novel’s pages. And how, after the second assault he makes the declaration: “I will survive. I’m not going back to a mental hospital” and how this sense of tenacious self-care can be seen in Muholi’s work.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that an exhibition would be curated in honour of Duiker in a novel which explores how precariously one’s mental state can balanced. There is beauty and art even in the imagery the title incites.
In September 2004, three years after the book was published, Duiker contributed an article to the Rhodes Journalism Review. In it he notes the struggle of growing up in the 80s and the light he sought that kept him looking towards an end of that oppression. “I remember what kept us going through those dark years: the hope that one day we would all enjoy the fruits of living in a democratic society… [and] perhaps there was another subtle force that gave us hope, at least for me – and that was art.” He committed suicide four months later.
The Quiet Violence of Dreams is being exhibited in three parts at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg and Cape Town; as well as blank projects until the 27th of August.