/ 14 April 2020

The politics of guilt and the violence of the archive

Frieda Lock 1902 1962 Slave Quarters Spier Farm Stellenbosch Rear View 1946 Oil On Canvas.jpg,1000
Freida Lock, Slave Quarters, Spier Farm, Stellenbosch / A Cape Dutch Homestead (back), 1946. Oil on canvas. (Courtesy of the Javett Foundation, Pretoria)

They say history is written by its victors. They don’t say which part comes first. Nor do they dwell on the fact that there can be no victory without defeat. The great sanusi Credo Mutwa, whose passing on March 25 was ironically overshadowed by the panic of the coronavirus pandemic, is a compelling subject in this regard. His artistic practice barely makes it into the art historic canon and his prophetic powers are taken as nothing more than superstitious folly. He was often criticised as a practising polygamist for his mangled depictions of womxn. In his seminal book Indaba My Children, Mutwa writes exaltingly how humanity came about through the viscious rape of the great mother by the tree of life. Although I’m deeply invested in what his work can teach us as artists, I am faced with the dilemma of who he was as a man. 

‘The Politics of Innocence’

A similar dilemma was faced by the curators of the exhibition, All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence, in the Javett Collection at the University of Pretoria, which was set to run from September 24 2019 to April 30 2020. The team was led by legendary curator Gabi Ngcobo in collaboration with researchers Donna Kukama, Simnikiwe Buhlungu and Tšhegofatso Mabaso.

The exhibition asserted itself as a protest in which the work of visual artist Zwelethu Mthethwa was a decisive tool designed to incite discourse around the plight of black womxnhood. Despite maintaining his innocence, Mthethwa was convicted of blugeoning 23-year-old sex worker Nokuphila Kumalo to death on April 14 2013. The curators chose to include the pastel drawing Wedding Party (1996) in which two men appear in swaggering pervasion as a bride quietly sips her drink and nearly shrinks into oblivion, overshadowed by everything around her. Part of the wall text read: “Through the window we see a white flag installed on top of a roof of a house, indicating, according to Zulu custom, that a man has ‘won’ the affections of a woman”. In the painting, as well as the wall text, the bride is as peripheral as Kumalo.

The exhibition hoped to shed new light on the collection through exposing its colonial implications. An example of this attempt was the edited title of Freida Lock’s 1946 work A Cape Dutch Homestead, which the artist had originally titled, Slave Quarters, Spier Farm, Stellenbosch. Despite the curators’ attempts to engage with these “historically misleading” nuances, it was difficult to see the whole endeavour as much more than an exercise in stating the obvious. 

Many of the paintings told the story of black womxn in service. They seemed to boast their legitimation as innocent artefacts or co-incidental relics for the way things used to be. The domestic workers represented on the idyllic colonial properties seemed to be doing similar work to what the curators were doing. They appeared caught in the sinister situation in which whiteness and patriarchy emerged not only as the perpetrators of violence, but the generous patrons of its commodification.

In the context of the controversy of the exhibition, very little light shines on these lost lines. Mthethwa’s work is captivating. The artist himself is a flamboyant character and his graphic sensibility is undeniable. He is known for his delicate representations of black life, often making portraits of shack dwellers in the media of painting and photography. He is part of the canon and his legacy is hard to forget. But he is not exceptional. Art is a product of a particular environment, the same way a man is a product of his. 

To claim that exhibiting the art of a perpetrator is for the purpose of encouraging meaningful discourse demonstrates a gross failure of imagination. By that logic we should spend our lockdown listening to R Kelly and call that “engagement”. The Cape Town International Jazz Festival was set to drop Sjava from its lineup because of the rape allegations made against him by fellow artist and former girlfriend Lady Zamar. Are these curators suggesting the festival organisers should have kept Sjava on the lineup so that people could talk about it? If the global community can have general consensus on boycotting artists based on allegations, why were these curators so committed to defending their engagement with this convicted artist’s work? And is the fact that they are all black womxn indicative of something? 

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) on whose board I serve responded to the decision to exhibit Mthethwa’s artwork because it viewed it as insensitive in the face of the ongoing global gender-based violence and femicide crisis. In Ngcobo’s Contemporaryand article, titled: “How do we (not) speak about art and violence?, the curator grapples with the precarious position. Unfortunately, the text comes off as unimaginative as the exhibition. 

The article makes many claims including “… the instrumentalisation of the separate interests of black women by a white woman, who is at the centre of formulating and circulating this narrative …”, thus not only implying a lack of agency on the activists’ part but also diverting attention, stating: “We wish for this very important discussion not to be hijacked by those who only have their own best interests at heart; who have always been riding on the backs of black bodies, whitewashing our narratives to make them appear as theirs while they bask in the limelight of their perceived innocence.” 

Repetition is not revision

This reminds me of a time in 2014 when I was one of the protesters on the streets of London demanding to have the highly acclaimed exhibition Human Zoo cancelled. We were resistant to the Barbican’s show, curated by white South African artist Brett Bailey, who acclaimed cultural theorist Ashraf Jamal once called “… our greatest theatre director, hauntologist, mesmeriser”. 

Even then, it was clear that although certain conversations should be had, simply restaging the atrocities of the past was not enough. Repetition is not revision. The curator had every right to claim he was addressing important issues, but he had to be held accountable, especially because the dissent was explicit. Typically, the black performers enlisted to be exhibited in the cages were centred over the greater community, with a blurb in Vice magazine reading: “Activists demanding black people tell their own stories aren’t letting black people tell their own stories”. 

But who can say what our own stories are? And are we likely to find them in these historically white institutions? In the struggle to be heard, revolutionary acts are a spectrum and no one has monopoly. Thinkers we now respect were once critically on the periphery. A country like South Africa knows that it didn’t know its future during the Women’s March of 1956, or the Soweto uprising of 1976. But she marched on anyway. Made something from nothing. At the risk of ridicule or total exclusion, art practitioners cannot be afraid to produce knowledge without proof. Artistic production is the critical labour of speculative thought. During her presentation in 2019 at the University of the Western Cape, I asked Saidiya Hartman how we could ensure that critical speculation is taken seriously as a form of knowledge production? She answered: “Taken seriously by whom?” 

The most spectacular failure of All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Collection, is its loyalty to the problematic archive. Audre Lorde said: “You cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house”. This collection is the perfect illustration of that concept. The presentation was not only limited in its form, but lacked inventiveness in its attempt at rehabilitation. As we are compelled to enter hazardous archives, our first step should be a denial of their legitimacy. Although the curators claim criticality, there is no radical failure to adjust to the collection’s parameters. 

The black feminist project is something of an act of refusal. It constitutes a decision not to subscribe to certain narratives or schools of thought based on their political standing; recognising the potential in lived experience over histories of violence. 

As an artist whose own work is enmeshed in violence and the grotesque, I am not advocating for censorship. All of our work is valuable and deserves freedom in its various forms, but the reality is that some freedoms are at odds. Freedom itself is historically binary. The freedom of one may be linked to the freedom of another, thus creating a giant freedom system — one in which hierarchies have been established over centuries, maybe millenia and cannot simply be undone. 

This is even more so the case with the very real conundrum faced by those who are asked to abdicate their own freedoms for the freedom of another. Rather than work on changing structural inequality, the art world has largely been concerned with the cosmetic character of transformation. It has continued to centre the collections of rich, white men as resources for black intellectual labour, often ignoring, and to some extent, compromising its validity. 

Creating new templates

In an absurdly postcolonial moment such as this one, we cannot remain uncritical of the conditions in which we operate. As we sit in collective isolation and watch the face of the Earth truly transform, may we be motivated towards rigorous revisions of how our cultural histories are being produced. This moment calls for artists, writers and curators to create new templates; to rethink the moments and spaces in which we expect art to occur. 

As we shuffle to find our place in the art history sun, let’s not forget that we are accountable to each other. Our country has been embroiled in a saga in which the violence perpetuated by the vulnerable on themselves and each other is the invisible enemy’s most mesmerising magic. Let’s invest our energies into the authentic admissions of the predicaments the current system has put us in. As art workers and black womxn, this admission can at least hold space for work that serves alternative purposes — work we might just need at this tender moment. Work that doesn’t need to be owned. Bought. Kept. Or maybe even memorialised. Just seen or experienced. Maybe then forgotten. 

Yeah, I said it! Some things will and must be forgotten. Forgetting can be as revolutionary as remembering. The flames the student movements of 2015 and 2016 showed us did more than this insufficient show to shake up the canon in that something radically changed. The work was burned and now it’s gone. History was actually rewritten. Where else but in art can we advocate and appreciate the human condition of being constantly and chaotically in flux? The condition of change. Of loss. Of failure and fluidity. Instead, we are attracted to attainment and attachment. 

But the lesson of the collection in question, of Mutwa’s passing and even the time of the coronavirus, is to glimpse, imagine, care, even, but never hope to keep anything as it is. Beauty itself is guilty of this blinding betrayal because it lies precisely in the fact that it will fade. 

Thembeka Heidi Sincuba is a visual artist and the head of painting at Rhodes University.