/ 11 August 2023

Unearthing stories and reawakening collective memories

Zeitz Mocaa
Koyo Kouoh, Executive Director and Chief Curator, Zeitz MOCAA. Photo: Andile Buka

Zeitz MOCAA exhibitions showcase histories of struggle, resistance and radical solidarity

In a culmination of 18 months of tireless work, the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) last week launched its new season of exhibitions, with Past Disquiet and Seismography of Struggle: Towards a Global History of Critical and Cultural Journals taking centre stage. These exhibitions, described as critical curative interventions into art history, explore archival, exhibition and publishing narratives from the past, drive home powerful narratives of resistance, struggle and solidarity. 

Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Zeitz MOCAA, Koyo Kouoh, says the two latest exhibitions show the level of engagement and political inquiry that her team brings, not just to museum-making, but to the unearthing of stories. “They highlight the power and necessity of unearthing fundamental stories, and I think as Africans we still have so many stories to unearth about ourselves; stories that we were told wrong, that we have to reclaim in our own words.”  

Coinciding with the exhibition openings was the launch of Radical Solidarity: A Reader, inspired by a Radical Solidarity Summit, hosted online by the Zeitz MOCAA in September 2020, while the world was still under Covid-19 restrictions. “We were so energised by the proceedings that we decided to translate the entire programme into a publication, bringing together the ideas and projects of some of the most active and inspiring thinkers, artists and activists committed to fostering the arts from Africa and its diaspora,” Kouoh explains.  

Speaking at the book launch was former Chief Constitutional Court Judge, Albie Sachs, who has served on museum board for the past six years: “The Zeitz MOCAA is so much more than just this remarkable building. Halfway between a cavern and a cathedral waiting to be filled, the museum is vast and strong, which means it can take strong materials and house strong leaders. And in Kouoh and her team, it seems to be getting both of those.” 

Past Disquiet brings resistance art to life 

Past Disquiet is not a traditional art exhibition. Instead, it is the memory of art as resistance brought to life; an exhibition unlike anything hosted at the Zeitz MOCAA before. Through a collection of video interviews, publications, pamphlets, posters and photographs, Past Disquiet stitches together radical acts of solidarity and showcases how artists, militants, visionaries and dreamers from across the world organised exhibitions and intervened in public spaces to create museums with a difference — museums in solidarity with causes from Chile, Palestine, Nicaragua and South Africa. It is a story of museums without walls, and more often than not, museums-in-exile.

Rasha Salti and Kristine Khouri, the researchers and curators behind Past Disquiet, an archival and documentary exhibition that will be based at the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town for the next 10 months. Photo: Ramiie_G

Rasha Salti and Kristine Khouri are the researchers and curators behind Past Disquiet, the archival and documentary exhibition that will be based at the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town for the next 10 months. The show, they say, is best described as an exhibition of stories. “You will see art, but not necessarily art in the traditional way,” Khouri laughs. “We don’t even show archives in the traditional way!” 

The spark for the exhibition came when the duo encountered a catalogue for the International Art Exhibition for Palestine, held in Lebanon in 1978. “We wanted to understand how something so remarkable — an exhibition of 200 artists from 30 countries across the world — could take place in Beirut in the middle of a civil war,” Khouri recalls.

As they continued to dig, they discovered that this initiative in Beirut had been inspired by Chilean exiles in France in the early 1970s. This was also to be the seed for a collection for Nicaragua, as well as a collection in solidarity with South Africa’s struggle for liberation, known as Art Against Apartheid.

Salti says the connections between these four collections are important: “When we started, we were harkening to a past — a recent past — that had somehow been forgotten, marginalised in art history and museum studies. But it was not quiet or silent. It was just under the surface, angling to come out. Somehow, political awakenings always spark creative awakenings. It was a time when ideas like social justice, democracy, equality and anti-racism brought people together; a time when people gathered around these ideas. Not national identity, but ideas.” 

The invitation from the Zeitz MOCAA was important to bring the story of the Art Against Apartheid collection home. It was also a chance to expand the exhibition and add a new section paying tribute to local and regional art collectives like the Botswana-based Medu Art Ensemble, and the Community Art Project in Cape Town. “While artists from around the world were making posters and presenting art in public spaces for change, so were the artists in and around South Africa,” she explains.   

Presented in accessible language, Salti says the exhibition is spatially designed to engage, despite the density of the information presented: “In the end, what is important to us is that the visitor is immersed in all the stories that we tell, and finds themselves transported back to a universe not far removed in time from where we stand now. It was a time of difficulty but also of promise. If nothing else, we want people to leave with that emotion.” 

Khouri echoes this: “We want people to be inspired by dreams, because this really is an exhibition of dreamers; of people who imagined a just future. I hope that people walk away with an understanding of the hard work that went into ensuring that a future is possible, and that it remains possible today.

Seismography of struggle: Creating an integrated global history 

If there is to be a comprehensive intellectual history of humanity, the focus cannot remain solely focused on European perspectives. This is according to Zahai Rahmani, who is an Algerian-born academic and author, and one of France’s leading art historians. Rahmani is the curator of Seismography of Struggle: Towards a Global History of Critical and Cultural Journals, the second audio-visual archival exhibition that will call the Zeitz MOCAA home for the next 10 months. 

Academic, art historian and author Zahai Rahmani. Photo: Sebastien Dolidon

The installation, which brings together more than 1 000 journals and forms part of an ongoing research project, is an inventory of critical and cultural journals from the non-European world. It seeks to understand print media and publishing as fundamental tools in the struggle for anti-colonialist, abolitionist and liberatory movements in Africa, Asia and the Americas. 

“We need to review works like these because regularly, anthologies about art, culture and politics have the same European origins, which are only one part of the story,” Rahmani explains. “I wanted to find other writings, writings that were similar but not necessarily the same, from other parts of the world.” 

In her research, she forgoes the term art, instead focusing on the idea of culture. “The concept of ‘art’ comes from European people, and we always hear the same things — there is primitive art for Africans and for ‘the other’, and then there is European art, art with knowledge and intellectual perspectives and perspectives,” she says. “My idea was that we forget about art and look at what kind of conversation and what kind of fight was being proposed by non-European people through this idea of culture.” 

Behind every one of the 1 000 manifestos, she says, is intention, either in the form of a project or a prospective: “Europe in the 19th century was so conservative, and the writings of the time proposed specific politics, with the prominence of a monoculture, the idea of one god and prohibitions around drugs and sexuality. It was important to understand the culture and politics proposed by non-European communities during the 19th and 20th century, and I was surprised by the liberty we found in these manifestos.” 

She says the first texts about homosexuality came from Japan and Africa, and the first feminist movements from women in Egypt at the start of the 20th century: “I was very touched by this other way of thinking that had been around for so long, but almost erased from history. It is important for us to have access — free access — to these resources, because these are the memories and stories who remind us, and the world, who we are.” 

Rahmani was also surprised by how well-documented South Africa’s fight against apartheid was: “We have more than 100 journals from the African National Congress, and not just from South Africa. There was a shared solidarity and awareness from across the world.” 

Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs, Storm Janse van Rensburg, says this is why it is important to remember that Seismography of Struggle is not just an installation, but that the research conducted by Rahmani and her team is also available through a publicly accessible database. “That access and the connections it creates extend far beyond the walls of a museum,” he says. “What is amazing is that we as the Zeitz MOCAA can step in and provide a space where this work also becomes an immersive, physical experience to those who want to engage with it.”