Art review: Dan Halter and the problematics of representation

In Dan Halter’s work one finds a longing for a home. Not the distant, objective, home implied by most commentators who are desperate to always read his work as a critique of Zimbabwe (that infamous pariah state), but rather an internal resting place further away from the anxieties of life and its attendant violence. Over a decade since Dan Halter left, or rather fled, Zimbabwe that restless nervous condition is still prevalent in his work as though owing to a palpable dislocation from humanity itself.

In ‘The Original is Unfaithful to the Translation’ this sense of dislocation finds relief in looking back at Zimbabwe’s botched decolonisation project of the early 2000s and weaving that moment into other moments of the reproduction of refugees all over the African continent.

When Zimbabwe was imploding Dan Halter was evacuated and has since made a new home in the safety that is Cape Town’s centre. It is in this sense of safety and privilege that Halter begins his search for the source of his despondency and dislocation. And it is through this lens that I began to read Halter’s new work as a timely critique of white privilege from the doldrums of a ‘survivor’s’ guilt.

In this exhibition there seems to be no trace of a necessary binding concept other than the idea of immigration.  In a work such as The Map is Not the Territory (2015), Halter seems to acknowledge that, especially in Africa, one has only a singular conception of the immigrant: that of a poor, black African made destitute by political instability, war and famine. Although Dan Halter’s own evacuation from Zimbabwe owed to one or more of these stated reasons, through his middle class whiteness he is still at home in his new country and is allowed to take on his new identity with relative ease. This is where the fabrication of his narrative lies: that he is a migrant and yet, he is not. He cannot be ‘The Original’ – he is merely the translation. He will only suffer mild xenophobia if any at all. He still retains most of his privileges while his countrymen risk crossing the Limpopo, risk harassment, even death, at the hands of South Africans.

However, knowing very well that he is among the few who can relate the story of the post-2000 Zimbabwe, Halter deliberately re-appropriates African cultural aesthetics. In doing this he conveys the nature of white power and privilege and the manner in which it exploits African migrants all over the world. In a work such as V for Vendetta (2015) the ubiquitous tourist ‘curio’ that is the ‘African mask’ takes the form of the European Guy Fawkes mask from the eponymous graphic novel.

It is in this way that Dan Halter puts whiteness in its rightful place, right in the centre of his work.  For the artist, his new life in Cape Town no doubt bares some resemblance to the kind of privilege whites enjoyed in Rhodesia.  This in the exhibition is contrasted to the violent rejection that meets the black migrant whether from Zimbabwe or elsewhere in Africa.

As he has done before, Halter makes the plight of the black migrant poignant in the torn and tortured ‘Ghana Must Go’ bags pinned  up against the backdrop of the pristine whiteness within the gallery space itself.  In Kure Ndokusina Kwachiri Unofa Wasvika (2015)  — loosely translated from Shona as Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way — there’s a disquieting violence in the falling of a mini-migrant/Zimbabwean bag, in the middle of the gallery; its free falling acceleration only broken by what looks like parachutes. It is an installation very reminiscent of the manner in which the west delivers aid to ruined African States. The mat below is the colonial map of Africa in iconic mesh patterns.

Africa’s migrant status becomes a space through which white privilege sanctifies itself through aid, NGO work and philanthropy as poignantly illustrated by the parachuting down of a tiny plastic mesh bag falling anywhere within the meshed African continent.

By the time one is done with the exhibition one thing becomes clear: well-meaning, white, liberal sentiment and aid only perpetuates this cycle of displacement. Even that gesture fails to re-connect those with privilege with those without, or level one’s survival guilt with the political and material struggles of African migrants all over the world.

Originally appeared in Artthrob*


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