The Stains of History: Haroon Gunn-Salie’s ‘History After Apartheid’

The stains of history remain with us long after history has passed. This is essentially the central theme of Haroon Gunn-Salie’s last solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery in Joburg. Perhaps the fault in our logic is to conceive of history as a static, discontinuous, time capsule fixed in a particular point on the timeline of human civilization, or rather, as successive points of great activity which are self-contained within a particular era of civilization. This, in any case, is how a section of violently conservative racist white South Africa, which likes to identify as liberal, and a certain sector of self-loathing black South Africa, which goes by the term ‘progressives’ likes to conceive of history. In 1994 a previous history stopped and a new one started and all that had happened right up until 27 April of that year would not make it past the ballot box. Race, too, would remain behind. We would come into the new era as clean slates ready to be invested with new data. This is what the proponents of rainbowism call ‘social cohesion.’

Haroon Gunn-Salie <i>Soft Vengeance (Jan van Riebeeck)</i>, 2015. Reinforced urethane 198 x 117 x 43cm

In ‘History after Apartheid’ Gunn-Salie complicates this project by pointing to the stains that were inscribed on the pro-democracy demonstrators, whether by paint or bullet, by the apartheid regime which had surpassed its mandate of uplifting the Afrikaner from poverty into becoming the very scaffolding of whiteness in mid- to late 20th century, thereby continuing the colonial project in equally brutal ways as the English and the Dutch. The purple shall govern protests of 1989 point to a double marking of the black masses by Western thought, thus reinforcing the stain of being black in South Africa, as it were. The first mark is made by the paint to identify the agitators as though their agitation is not implied in the previous mark of race, their blackness, which has already been criminalised in Western thought and landed a status of subhuman within the colonial reasoning and apartheid state apparatus. However, like the way the arbitrary marking is shown up when the purple shall govern protesters got hold of the hosing mechanism on the vehicle that marked them and, in turn, used it to mark the apartheid government’s buildings on that fateful day, so are the marks of the subhuman in the coloniser revealed in Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Soft Vengeance sculptures. The hands of the colonist, from Jan Van Riebeeck to Cecil John Rhodes, are soaked in red paint to denote  blood. It is this blood on their hands which betrays the difficulty with which the project of instilling inferiority in the native must have been, that the patch of land on which we stand is soaked with the blood of blacks who have always resisted oppression. It is this blood on their hands that speaks to the immolation of their own innate humanity that they and most whites had to, and must, perform in order to justify all the means to create and maintain the ideal of whiteness. The blood stains points to the ways in which white South Africa created its wealth and the ways in which it maintains it till this day. This blood also points to the legitimacy of the grievances of the #RhodesMustFall student movement, the legitimacy of the #FeesMustFall student movement and the many other black student uprising, which have exhumed the skeletons of history which bind their feet and their hands. It is the same blood which trails privileged white South Africa from Imam Haron’s 1969 torture and execution in police custody. ‘History After Apartheid’ unspools like a long rope, with which white South Africans, especially, might have to hang whiteness if ever they are to restore their humanity. A rope with which black South Africa might have to cast to drag out of that space before 1994, to undo the knots of specific historical moments, so as to uncover the episteme that instructs his condition in the post-apartheid moment.

Haroon Gunn-Salie, 'History After Apartheid', 2015. Installation view

Of all the work that Gunn-Salie put together for ‘History After Apartheid’ no piece is more beautiful, more plaintive than the installation that commemorates Imam Haron titled Amongst Men. The installation is accompanied by activist poet James Matthews’ hoarse, agitated voice questioning no one in particular, ‘Was he a patriot or a terrorist?’ The installation is elegiac and terrifying in measured modulations; the suspended kufiya – a conceptual recreation of Imam Haron’s funeral which was attended by over 40 000 people – is a highly imaginative device to bring past and present into a single point of simultaneity. The foreboding void beneath the kufiya left me with a terrible feeling of grief. Viscerally, the room is full, filled with the voice of the poet and the imagined presence of the multitudes of friends and colleagues, of Muslims and Christians and atheists who were cadres of struggle to realise a just society. And yet they are not there. You are left with this loss of what dreams they may have had for the South Africa we live in today. You yearn to hear James Matthews voice explore reason in the recent arrest of #FeesMustFall students in Cape Town in Bellville, as well as the #OccupyUJ students who were hurled into dingy and dark cells in Brixton, Joburg. By exhuming history and airing it in the present Haroon Gunn-Salie allows us to make the connections ourselves and to judge for ourselves with our contemporary lenses amongst which men was Imam Haron? Is it the men we see in government today or the young students who have been thrown behind bars? Was he among the privileged whose ennui finds relief in the words ‘apartheid is over, just get over it already,’ or among those whose hands are dirty from ploughing the space on which a more just society might emerge? Perhaps, in the last analysis, the question Haroon Gunn-Salie poses with this exhibition is how we – all of us, black and white – would like to be remembered by history, going forward.

Originally appeared in Art Throb.