Black Portraitures III and the lessons of asserting Blackness

Of all the clearly discernible features of the recent Black Portraitures conference the sheer magnitude and presence of black voices in one place and one space must be the one that stands out the most.

Here one witnessed an array of voices, of colour mostly, speaking for themselves, speaking on their experiences and discussing their various forms of artistic and cultural expression without apology or the slightest hint of needing the affirmation of anyone to do so.

More significantly is the fact that they were doing so through a scholarly and intellectually engaging platform which whilst seeming to miss the mark at some points, nevertheless opened the proverbial door to what is possible when black intellect and scholarship is gathered together. Now this may seem an unimportant or redundant point to begin with but consider for a moment how rare it is, in South Africa especially, to be witness to such an event where scholarship and its accompanying narratives are in the hands of the people whose lives and works are its very subject.

Under the theme of Reinventions, Strains of Histories and Cultures the conference sought to not only bring together minds from across the world but to provide a platform where this very theme could be examined and interrogated to foster deeper and newer understandings.

In a conversation with the conference organiser Professor Deborah Willis and distinguished Professor Emeritus of Art at the University of Maryland Dr David Driskell, I was particularly interested in getting to the heart of what a conference such as this means. Willis mentioned how having participants from almost everywhere in the world, all sharing scholarship into aspects of black culture and the expression thereof was significant enough on its own but equally important was the realisation, when she was considering all the papers submitted for participation, how many of these geographically separated voices and scholars displayed a commonality beyond just being black but a methodology that is seemingly similar and beautifully serendipitous.

During our conversation, Dr Driskell relayed the tale of how when visiting South Africa in the 70s, he was given the title of “honorary white”. “I couldn’t understand how they could put me up in Mt. Nelson hotel in Cape Town but could not do the same for my friend Peter Clarke – it seemed very strange that there were those kinds of differences and it didn’t make any sense to me”.

I suggested to him that in many ways this type of holding of black people who are not considered as tied to or burdened by local issues is still happening – they are perceived as less threatening.

But what the relaying of this story was about, apart from being a personal experience of Driskell’s, was the way in which identity as constructed under racist systems and institutions, has played itself out in a way that continues to divide people of colour – we get caught up in who is more black than the other rather than give voice and celebration to the variety of perspectives that each person brings with them.

In some ways, this led to our discussing the idea of asserting blackness in a world that seems to have a Western blueprint for aesthetic beauty, cultural and intellectual achievement.

What does this mean? Driskell offered the take that when you are not heard and you don’t see yourself represented in the spaces that you inhabit then you must make yourself heard, be seen and control the narrative of what you do.

In some ways, this linked well with what another participant in one of the panel discussions, the Black Panther Party illustrator Emory Douglas, said when he spoke about how the party created its own newsletter and controlled who could take images of it and how.

It was the party asserting itself, an assertion of blackness – not so much the readily reductive although important idea of political assertion such as civil and constitutional rights, but an intellectually driven assertion that makes clear that here stands a grouping of people that is aware of its place particularly in relation to its cultural production within this world.

Considering how in the US, where black people make up the minority of the population and regardless of the many resistances that they have faced since demanding emancipation and equality from the days of slavery to the present day – Driskell noted how there comes a point of realising how much of a force you must make of yourself in order to create the change that you wish to see.

I couldn’t help but think how In South Africa on the other hand, where most of the population is made up by black people, this group’s ability to assert itself post-apartheid and post-colonialism is ironically still arduous.

Perhaps then, it is in this spirit of realisation that Driskell was speaking of, that student movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall have come to the fore.

They are indicative of what can still happen and in many ways the Black Portraiture[s] conference achieved the point of serving as a reminder that there is nothing preventing a local version of black portraitures from happening not only in the country but within the continent. Fortunately, with emerging platforms like Abantu Book Festival and other of the like there is something to build upon and with.

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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