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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