Symposium for black artists steps out of the colonial prism

The Visual Arts Symposium is an addition to events related to the visual arts and literary space such as the FNB Joburg Fair. However it aims to interrogate ideas that speak to the work of black scholars and artists. (Lisa Skinner)

The Visual Arts Symposium is an addition to events related to the visual arts and literary space such as the FNB Joburg Fair. However it aims to interrogate ideas that speak to the work of black scholars and artists. (Lisa Skinner)

As South Africa delves into yet another themed month, the arts have come into focus because of their close relation to questions about culture and heritage. The month of September has seen events in Johannesburg such as the Jozi Book Fair, the South African Book Fair, the Fak’ugesi African Digital Innovation Festival and the FNB Joburg Art Fair, all of which are relatively new initiatives.

Although each of these seeks to evoke a broad range of issues in the visual arts and literary space, few are centred on black scholarship, critical creative thinking and practice. A new addition to this spectrum is the Visual Arts Symposium, which will be held at the Market Photo Workshop. It is an initiative of the Black Mark Critical Thought Collective.

Seeing the need to address the shortage of critical thinking spaces for black scholars and artists, the Black Mark Collective held its first symposium in 2015, with the aim of outlining and mapping out the research of black scholars and artists. This was hosted by Walter Sisulu University (East London), extending the conversation to locales that are often left out of the city-centred discourses about the arts.

At the centre of Black Mark’s project is the desire to interrogate ideas that speak to the work of black scholars and artists. Broadly speaking, the black visual arts practitioner with a cursory interest in art history, know-ledge production or criticism will probably have identified at least three urgent tasks.

The first is a corrective task. This involves actively challenging the hegemony of the prevailing Eurocentric scholarship. Implicit in this task is simply the need to establish one’s right to speak. The second task has to do with a restorative or recuperative project that involves uncovering, complicating and rearticulating forms of knowledge that have been neglected by the Western canon or that have been relegated to the realm of nonknowledge, superstition, the anecdotal and the unscientific. The third task addresses itself to imagining different discursive universes. Experimenting and seeking out new forms of expression are its hallmarks.

Underlying all these concerns is a desire to self-represent, self-determine and self-define. These concerns cut across a range of scholarly endeavours and pursuits of knowledge in every country that European imperialism has touched. But, in the visual arts, as in other fields of study, at the moment of inception these tasks come up against some formidable obstacles. These include access, language, resources, rank prejudice, marginalisation and ridicule.

Some of these obstacles cannot be said to simply be occupational hazards and, yes, they are always the product of human agents.

Although these hurdles are both symbolic and material, they are also subject to white privilege, with its moral and ethical rectitude as well as its aesthetic superiority. Challenging these obstacles means acquiring skills and a certain manner of speaking that will take the beleaguered and bewildered black critics further and further away from the very audience they seek to address, making them strangers among their people.

For this reason, the second edition of the biennial symposium explores tendencies that are prevalent in creative practices today. The programme includes presenters speaking about filmmaking, photography and photographic archives, collective practice and urban planning.

This symposium will emphasise questions about what it means to be a black scholar and artist today. As noted by Guinean revolutionary Amílcar Cabral, who speaks of how black subjects need to commit class suicide in order to identify with the “deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong”. But this cannot be achieved by exiling themselves from the world that has shaped their consciousness and language, being a black African scholar often requires navigating a range of tasks set by institutional structures and social imperatives.

In convening this symposium, Black Mark hopes the larger question of whether or not black creative scholars can marshal the master’s tools to undo the master’s house will be raised. The culmination of the proceedings will be compiled in a publication that seeks to fill a gap in black creative studies.

It is worth noting that, although Black Mark is interested in expanding the conversation about visual arts to other parts of the continent, this needs to be thought through because countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Uganda are light years ahead of South Africa in black creative studies.

This is partly because of the nature of South Africa’s art-historical narrative, where the arts have not only developed along racial and ethnic separatist lines but have also illustrated a number of indignities that are routinely enacted in arts conferences, talks, panel discussions and publishing projects. Even among those of us who have not lost our minds, all is not well. Even after performing all the rituals and following the protocols involved in one’s intellectual project, one is still exceptionalised, infantalised and exoticised.

Thando Mgqolozana, the founder of Soweto’s Abantu Book Festival, often recounts how the questions he is asked at literary festivals invariably leave him feeling like a curiosity because people don’t consider what he writes.

With all that said, progressive action and work by black visual artists and art historians have been unfolding consistently for decades. Although the archives of these histories remain largely beyond reach, because many public institutions are disorganised or in the hands of private collections, they are nevertheless captured.

It is in line with this history of progressive acts that Black Mark wants to position itself. The Collective is aware of the historical challenges of such collective endeavours. Few such initiatives, on average, exceed a five-year lifespan. This is perhaps a testament to how taxing the process of challenging and countering the colonial narratives can be while remaining true to the black project.

This contemporary moment offers us many possibilities. The advent of digital technologies and social networks has given us hope in imagining a different future. It offers opportunities to organise and co-ordinate this work in ways that veer away from individualised histories.

Learning from those who came before, this collective aims to author and archive to produce black representation that addresses black aspirations in the visual arts.

The Visual Arts Symposium comes at a time when debates about decolonisation have once again come to the fore. Although many black scholars have been doing “decolonial” work in one way or another, the term has become popularised to encompass a sometimes convoluted and contradictory meaning.

Decolonisation may not be at the centre of the symposium, but it is hoped that the debates and discussions will illuminate some of these contradictions and convolutions in a meaningful way to a wider audience than has previously been the case. — Black Mark Collective

The Visual Arts Symposium takes place at the Market Photo Workshop in Newtown, Johannesburg, from September 15 to 17. Email [email protected] for more details

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