An interesting exchange on the relationship between art and South Africa’s liberation politics — in the form of Athi Mongezeleli Joja’s review of Judy Seidman’s Drawn Lines exhibition and Seidman’s response in an open letter — occurred recently.
It was notable because South Africa does not have a strong culture of robust discussion and criticality in contemporary art discourse. For this, we can blame the neoliberal commodification of art, which has alienated the artist and placed them in the subject-position of “hustler”, with the critic as “player-hater”. This, by the way, goes for all fields of art.
As a student of black historiography, I was more interested in this debate’s implications for South African liberation historiography than in formal and aesthetic matters. What follows is less a defence of Joja; rather, it is a defence of intellectual tradition he speaks from.
After reading Seidman’s response, I was struck by how it seemed as if she had not heard what Joja was saying at all. Instead she mobilised the illustrious names of her black Medu Art Ensemble colleagues and comrades as a sjambok with which to beat the critic — who, at best, is portrayed as a historical revisionist and, at worst, a reactionary.
Her question, “Are you suggesting that people of this stellar calibre passively accepted a working environment in which ‘white people become the default tutors to black people’?”, sounds like a “Who are you to question these struggle icons’ radicality (and, by extension, mine)?” clapback. Seidman’s question is disingenuous if one considers the problematic nature of white-women tutorship of black artists that attends to South African art historiography – which is itself a discipline whose dominance by white women “is especially glaring,” as artist-scholar Sharlene Khan observed in her essay, Doing it for Daddy, in 2011. In this essay, Khan argued that the post-1994 dispensation has seen white women take up positions of leadership in many art institutions, with the white supremacist capitalist patriarchal power structures (to borrow from black feminist theorist bell hooks) remaining intact.
Disparate liberation traditions
Throughout her response, Seidman evinces an ignorance of the various intellectual traditions that have shaped the ideology and strategy of this country’s liberation movements. Her ignorance leads her to assume that the ANC’s approach (to which Medu was aligned) to the national and/or colonial question is the only legitimate one. Joja’s Afro-pessimistic critique of “cultural work” — which Seidman seemingly misreads as a reference to the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC — invokes a liberation tradition that refuses the notion of work itself because of its instrumentality in colonial-modern governmentality.
Following the African-American political philosopher and black studies theorist Cedric Robinson, we can refer to this tradition as the Black Radical Tradition. Its actors include runaway slaves from the Cape Colony, amaqaba and the tsotsis of urban South Africa in the 20th century. What connects these seemingly disparate figures is that none of them are afforded proper revolutionary subjectivity in the Marxist framework of the National Democratic Revolution, which informs the ANC’s strategy and tactics.
Seidman’s failure to hear Joja reminded me of African-American historian and writer Saidiya Hartman’s trenchant observation that “the history of black counter-historical projects is one of failure, precisely because these accounts have never been able to install themselves as history, but rather are insurgent, disruptive narratives that are marginalised and derailed before they ever gain a footing.” Joja’s call for us to “refuse to take theories of commitment only at face value” should be heard as a call for counter-histories of the anticolonial struggle that will eschew grand narratives of progress in favour of historical narratives that aim at the recreation of black life.
Njabulo Zwane is a writer and scholar of Black cultural his- and her-stories