The Spectacle of Poverty

A white woman sticks her nose up and sniffs the air around the gold spray-painted corrugated steel structure that is made to resemble a long drop toilet at the Brother Moves On exhibition ‘Hlabelela : It’s A New Mourning Nkush’ currently showing at Goodman in Joburg.

She tip toes around the structure, sniffing and craning her neck to peek into the clean odourless long drop not unlike a mouse sticking its snout out of a hole in the ceiling.

Until this moment I had found the show –how do I put it?– underwhelming. It lacked structure and coherence, which works well in music, I suppose, but not so much in the cube. So I watch the nose peer into the corrugated long drop and recoil with curious, near squinting, concentration…sniff, sniff.  Inside the structure is a broken ceramic toilet with a pair of blue reflective sunnies dumped in it. A splendour of dada-esque proportions. And behind the toilet is hung a video monitor. The video of The Brother Moves On’s Rainbow Child featuring the late Nkulululeko ‘Nkush’  Mthembu, who was the founder of the band, plays. The exhibition honours his memory.

Of course, I didn’t have any refrain before going into the toilet, watching the video, and trying to record something (anything) on the old cellphone hung there for that exact purpose.

What was it about that toilet that I didn’t get which so consumed the woman?

For me the halting moment of the show is the text that greets the viewer at the entrance. It speaks of migratory patterns that led to the gold mines and with those migrants, came language. And how that language blurs national borders and binds Africa to a common history and a united place. I think that’s the essence of the text, anyway. Implied in the mention of the gold mines is of course cheap black labour and death. One only has to read up on the class action lawsuit by miners against the big

The Brother Moves On 'It's a New Mourning Nkush' installation view. photograph by Anthea Pokroy

gold mining houses operating in South Africa to get a sense of the scale of the issue. However, if gold kills underground it takes on a new meaning in the mythologies it produces about Joburg, the city that birthed The Brother Moves On. Gold represents success, the accumulation wealth or being famous or both. Brett Rubin’s digital print We Are Finally On A Billboard, 2016, when juxtaposed with the text at the entrance (Rubin’s ‘billboard’ stands behind a spray-painted tyre titled Necklace) gives the depth and complexity often missing in both the thesis of Joburg as being a city of gold and that of it being a modern day dystopia. The Brother Moves On says it is all these things at once. The sombre, polemical text, the tyre and its historic meanings which are peculiar to South Africa’s blood path to democracy, the motion and speed captured in the billboard, all come to bear witness to this.

Therefore, the dazzling, crumbling gold layer spray-painted on the corrugated toilet is the necessary illusion. For beneath it something stinks. And her tilted nose, her unwillingness to enter the toilet, attests to this. And then it becomes clear to me, that underneath the mere structure (which couldn’t quite attain the abstraction it intended) lies nothing more than a repulsive existence. In any measure, as a representation, it is a tragic metaphor for black life in Joburg and elsewhere.

As repulsed as the visitor is, she is still hypnotised by the spectacle. She refuses to go inside the toilet to watch the video, and yet takes no interest in the mirror besides the structure nor the gold spray-painted analogue camera hooked on the far corner. She doesn’t turn to the New Myth tote bags and the New Myth tour poster: Nowhere, Peace, South Elsewhere, 2016 print encased in glass not too far from her. It will probably take her the entire afternoon to get to the installation of treated animal bones in yet another room titled Suspended disbelief. Watching her I am convinced she will make nothing of the Nkululeko Mthembu: Self Portrait, an image of animal fat, flesh and eye which evokes sacrifice, custom and spirituality. The latter, read with the bones, begins to formulate a metaphysics and mythology which pre-dates colonialism and, by and large, transcends it.

But why should she look there when in front of her now twitching, now sniffing nose, lies the entire spectacle onto which she gets to feed her middle class gaze? Why delve into something deeper, into a language that is of such terrifying consequence, when you can trounce about feeding your insatiable appetite on the spectacle of black poverty? The entire exhibition then collapses to this. The videos of the band on tour, the care-free-black-boy outlook of the band in their colourful tights, no doubt in its resolve to transcend markers of conventional masculinity, and their colourful peroxided hair, and their music which stitches together continents and cultures, is unable to transcend this reality so sniffed out.

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The spring show and the end of history

In Johannesburg spring was rushed in by the ringing of rifles as rubber bullets and stun grenades burst throughout Braamfontein; as piles of rocks rained down on the Great Hall steps at Wits university breaking glass and bone and skull; as freedom songs boomed up into the ether in the standoff between the university and the #feesmustfall movement.

It was indeed a fine day for mischief: a warm, cloudless spring day. And by mischief, I mean the dirty job of manufacturing history and, dare I say, of ending it. Beyond the programmatic demands (re: fees, insourcing etc) by the students, it is history that is in question and the protests are, I suppose, one way to try set history right, to take it off its current phallic trajectory, and to imagine it anew, in ways that might help re-imagine what a post-modern, post-apartheid society might look like.

Further away from the chaos in Braam, in a quaint space surrounded by oaks and pepper trees in Parktown North, Gallery MOMO is showcasing its Spring Group show that features Ayanda V. Jackson, Mary Sibande, Joël Mpah Dooh,Raél Jero Salley, Andrew Tshabangu and Kimathi Donkor. Many of the works on show deal with this question of the end of history and modernity, and the current state of a post-modern reality with an unsettling anxiety.

Andrew Tshabangu from Under The Bridge

Take for one Andrew Tshabangu’s images of Christianity in Africa. With religion being the modernising tool of the colonising project with its attendant erasure of pre-existing cultural identities and practices, often replacing them with a new, racialised social hierarchy, one cannot help but see in the diffident women in white in Tshabangu’s brilliant images – brilliant for their composition and his use of natural light and shadows – a surrender that is antithetical to, perhaps, what one might associate with the post-modern Africa of Mary Sibande in which ‘black woman’ takes on a more robust, active form.

Sibande’s Right Now! becomes the near perfect articulation of this new language, which veers away from Tshabangu’s scenes. It is worth noting that where Tshabangu’s frames and documents, Sibande creates and frames. And perhaps the resilience outwardly expressed in Sibande’s work agitates somewhere beneath the women in white, behind their closed eyes and the worn hands clutching candles whose frozen fragile light give the black and white images a palpable, internal glow. This glow is disturbed by the round smiling face of a corpulant priestly gentleman sitting on a couch as if on a throne and spotting and bejeweled crucifix, which doesn’t scream ‘servant of god’ but rather ‘self-serving power’.

Tshabangu’s From the Bridge series and Sibande’s Right Now! appear to exist on different timelines, one fixed in the past and the other evolving with the now. And here then lies the crisis in which the student protesters find themselves – that while evolving with the tide of late capitalism and its demands and pressures, one is structurally stuck outside present world as a kind of fixed fetish of a monomaniacal modernity that refuses to come into the present.

Timelines cross again in Kimathi Donkor’s For Moses had Married an Ethiopian Wife. Two figures dressed according to the times caress lovingly on a bench foreground the image. Two black laptops on either side of them, indoubtably a couple savvy in new technologies and social media. However, behind them is unlikely structure for such a progressive scene: a zinc shack such as one sees in Nyanga in Cape Town. This juxtaposed coupling of the two timelines, of late capitalist societies as signified by the technology and the shack that was created for blacks by modernity, again points to the crisis of the present moment. Donkor’s When Shall We 3? and You will never have me are both images that spoke speak to frustration, desire and anxiety of the unfinished business of history. However, both paintings are centered around men – black and white – and, as much as both scenes depict servile white women, they still re-edify patriarchy as being the pre-eminent, pre-ordained, societal order.

Ayana V. Jackson Sarah Forbes, 2016.

One is then forced to move from such static work to that of Ayana V. Jackson, which opens up, for the viewer, new histories and possibilities. Here, Jackson continues with her study of the black experience, both African and diasporic. In one of the series of performance portraits Jackson grapples with the life and legacy of Sara Forbes Bonetta of Yoruba royalty, who was enslaved, then liberated from slavery to become the goddaughter to Queen Victoria. Jackson’s re-imagining of Sarah Forbes takes the form of dark, rich, laced fabric and a posture both stern and seemingly uncomfortable. Perhaps this is the effect of the mixed legacy of her subject: that of royalty and slave, of being a princess and a black woman, of being Yoruba and British, of being great part of history and, at the same time, being outside of it. Such is the nervous condition that subsumes Jackson’s portraits in this exhibition.

It is with my foot inside the gallery and the other outside, in Braam, covering the student protests that I’ve been able to appreciate the crisis at hand. It is useful, I dare say, that one not assume that history has been concluded, that the modern world as we experience it is the only possibility. The presence of historic structural inequities should point, then, to any imaginative person, that humanity hasn’t produced its best version of itself just yet. And art, for all its limitations, often than not, points us to this simple fact.

Alfredo Jaar: images as instruments of power

At the Museum of Modern Art in 2002, Alfredo Jaar created a text-based polemical installation that reproached the West for its egregious abuse of power through its monopoly ownership of images.

The installation was called Lament of the Images and revealed that more than 17 million historical photographs and artworks were de facto owned by one man – Bill Gates, through his private company, Corbis.

The photographs are buried 67m below the surface in a subzero storage vault in western Pennsylvania and include a collection of images of Nelson Mandela in prison. While it’s accepted that the works are there to be preserved, the act carries with it an insidious suggestion for those whose history and heritage has long been “preserved” in British museums, and whose land is still preserved in neo-Dutch and British hands.

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Further, as Jaar suggests, this kind of preservation is merely a metonym for dispossession, since the images are totally inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t own the vault. Of course, it has become clear to anyone with a modicum of intelligence what dispossessing people of their images actually means. One only has to look at Jaar’s 2006 work called From Time to Time, in which the only images of Africa in his selected collection of Time magazine covers are of our big cats, a gorilla, starving children, deprivation and famine.

The Sound of Silence

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One of the images owned by Corbis is the infamous picture taken by Kevin Carter of a vulture stalking a collapsed famished child on her way to a feeding centre during the Sudanese famine in 1993. This image, since its publication, has served as a vexed metaphor for Africa’s despair.

On the one hand, one finds the argument that takes the image for literally what it is – a document of a time and place, and its attendant realities. Another school of thought frames the image within the debate of the way in which the Western gaze has historically presented Africa as a basket case, Joseph Conrad’s Dark Continent begging to be rescued. This school finds its expression in Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal work, How to Write about Africa.

Jaar, in his exhibition The Sound of Silence at the Wits Art Museum, creates an uneasy dialectic between these two schools and almost suggests that the two binaries reproduce each other in the moment that the image itself is materialised. He formulates this conversation inside an illuminated cube. Each group coming to see the exhibition gets eight minutes in which they learn about Carter, his infamous image and the details surrounding his suicide in 1994 after winning a Pulitzer prize for said image.

When the rhythmic text-based video reaches the moment of reveal, when the audience will see the picture, there’s a moment of frozen anticipation followed by a flash of blinding light. It is precisely this moment of image production itself that is whitewashed by blinding white light, thus locating Carter’s picture itself in the moment of revealing (the first school of thought) and concealing (the second).

Needless to say, the image remains unresolved and contentious, and the timing of Jaar’s exhibition is appropriate as the West brazenly extends its commercial interests ever more firmly on African soil, and as the atrocities in the youngest African state, South Sudan, begin to escalate with acute terror.

Amilcar, Frantz, Patrice and the Others

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Running concurrently with his exhibition at the Wits Arts Museum is Amilcar, Frantz, Patrice and the Others at the Goodman Gallery, where Jaar explores how images are used to socialise the world in a way that perpetuates myths that sustain the immorality of Western capitalism.

Jaar’s artistic practice has always concerned itself with the politics of images. Through his work, he draws the “structural link between ethics and aesthetics”.

“Images aren’t innocent,” he writes.

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They are instrumental in altering not only the political landscape of a country and the world, but also serve to set the agenda of what we, the public, might consider priorities of modern society. He illustrates this in Untitled (Newsweek). The work shows 17 covers of Newsweek magazine during the five months of escalation of genocide in Rwanda, in which more than 1 million people had already perished by the time the publication decided to dedicate its first cover to the carnage. Erasure forms the haunting subtext in his work.

There are two works that grapple with creation and evolution of images of blackness, both here and in the US, on covers of two seminal works by black authors in the international publishing industry. The first series of prints trace the modulations in covers of the reprints of Irving Wallace’s The Man – a book about the likely political and social consequence if a black man became president of the US. The book was first published in 1964. The second book is Things Falls Apart by Chinua Achebe.

Needless to say, both evolutions discharge iterations of black fetishising. In Achebe’s book, with or without the black body, the fetishist gaze lingers over the covers. The logical explanation is, of course, that this possessive or, rather, dispossessing gaze prefixes the image. It is the tool as much as it is within the tool that constructs the images.

It follows that, for as long as the concentration of ownership of these media and the control of the dissemination of these images is in the same old white hands, little can really change.

Black and white

As such, I find the black consciousness argument about the impossibility of true solidarity between the materially oppressed and the liberally conscious quite instructive, especially when confronted by the work titled Life Magazine, April 19, 1968, which shows three prints of Martin Luther King, Jr’s funeral procession. A sea of black dots and the sprinkle of red marks designate black and white attendees, respectively.

Jaar’s use of presence and absence has a sobering effect, even in the sparseness of the exhibition itself. In one sense, there’s this comment on loneliness and isolation from the world, or the ways in which the world has historically isolated you through robbing you of everything you were before you met the colonial grinder. And maybe all this stripping down of your sense of self, of belonging, history, identity, custom and community is the process of individuation. It is the preparation of the oppressed subject for democracy, for the libertarianism implied in capitalist societies. Perhaps the crossing out of each name in the title typography indicates a reversal of this or maybe it points to “erasure” and to the silencing of one opposing force by another.

Instead, what the spectator encounters are neon-lit typographies of these revolutionary men. The neon lights, for me, recall the nihilism of late 20th-century anti-establishment rave culture at the precipice of what would be late capitalism, or capitalism on steroids.

Do engagements with critical radical texts and thoughts still carry the transformative possibilities of the struggle years? Or are they pills we pop to assuage the guilt of the present? To maintain our sanity while we consume? In the same manner that one might put on a T-shirt displaying the face of Che Guevara or read Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like without necessarily abdicating, or even contradicting, their capitalist aspirations? Is our seemingly inescapable contemporary consumerist reality just another myth created to sustain the immorality of Western capitalism?

Black modernisms and white saviours

Tensions over who has the legitimate claim and authority to frame the black modernist tradition in our art simmers beneath the exhibition, on at the Wits Art Museum. They point to old and new debates about the exclusion of blacks from cultural institutions and the role of white art historians in black art historical narratives.

Bhekisane Manyoni’s The Dancer

 

As it is, white South African modernists, who broke from the realist tradition in art, are vastly foregrounded and more valued in the market – Alexis Preller, Irma Stern et al.

In the case of Black Modernisms, the tension also surrounds the erasure of black artists by commission or omission from cultural memory.

“If you are going to make the claim that this exhibition should be understood as black modernisms, then you have to be conscious of what your omissions are going to imply,” says art historian Same Mdluli when we meet to speak about the exhibition. “Not including someone like Ernest Mancoba, for example Z you’re in essence erasing him,” she states.

“I feel like I should make a disclaimer,” she says regarding her involvement in the exhibition. “I also feel like it should be out on the record because for me it speaks directly to the kind of experience I’ve had as a black scholar looking at black South African art.”

She is referring to being treated as a black token in South Africa’s predominantly white art world.

“The only thing I was asked to do was the biographies of these artists,” says Mdluli. Officially, the exhibition is “curated by Professor Emeritus Anitra Nettleton, in collaboration with/assisted by Dr Same Mdluli and Bongani Mahlangu”. The exhibition is attached to a colloquium that will happen in June around global modernisms.

“Anitra, the person responsible for the conceptualisation of Black Modernisms, is also one of the people who are convening [the colloquium],” Mdluli adds.

Nettleton is an art historian and was Mdluli’s supervisor for her doctorate in art history.

“I have more than 30 years of this,” Nettleton says.

By “this”, she means working on collections of South African and African art at Wits Art Museum.

“We don’t hand over curatorial responsibility to people without experience,” she says.

At the centre of the tension is what artist and writer Sharlene Khan termed “Doing it for Daddy” in an essay
in 2006. The essay argued that “a patronising white mommy has displaced the art world’s patriarchal apartheid white daddy,” to cite artist, curator and academic Thembinkosi Goniwe.

“The ascendancy of white women into positions of power suggests a glaring lack of faith in black cultural workers and intellectuals,” Khan wrote. “When asked why there are so few black writers, curators and academics staffing key institutions and projects, the rote answer is that there are no ‘qualified’ black incumbents, or simply too few. This attitude has successfully thwarted substantive racial redress in the visual arts, and also been used as a ploy to promote ‘yes baas’ blacks.”

In terms of looking outside Wits Art Museum for other “more experienced” black curators, Nettleton says there was no budget to get someone from the outside.

“Why bring in other people when we have our own people?” she asks.

Khan’s essay was completely puerile, she says.

What she finds an issue is the over-determination of race as a proxy for one to speak about certain cultural subjects. “Does the colour of your skin determine what you can talk about?” she asks. “If we’re going to go that way, we’re not going to go anywhere … We won’t put on any exhibitions by black artists if we don’t have a black curator or unless we have the budget to hire one.”

However, Mdluli traces the tradition of liberal white curiosity in studying black South African mid-20th century artists to the 1990s, where “scholars were trying to legitimise their scholarship”, she says. “You name something, then you can speak about it; you can own it and start speaking authoritatively about it.”

Who had the right to decide or define what authentic African art is, she asks.

Nettleton, on the other hand, doesn’t see the exhibition as being definitive, but rather an explorative endeavour.

At stake, of course, is our historical cultural memory, as well the master narrative informing it.

In tracing the biographies of the artists selected for this exhibition, Mdluli has keenly observed the white Messiah complex deployed, especially those from specific art centres like the famous Polly Street.

“I’m not saying Cecil Skotnes [of Polly Street] did not have an influential role,” Mdluli says. “But for how long must we speak of Cecil Skotnes, even if he was only present for a short period in these artists’ professional lives?” she asks. “Rescuing cultural memory is important. Rescuing institutional memory is important. But how do we liberate the artists from their benefactors?”