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.
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.
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.