Gugulethu Seven Memorial: Our heroes died here

On the autumn morning of 3 March 1986 the diurnality of a community was disturbed by the ringing of rifles and the clapping of live rounds as seven anti-apartheid activists between the ages of 16 and 23 were gunned down in cold blood along NY1 in Gugulethu by the apartheid regime’s police services and the insidious Vlakplaas death squad.

On 21 March 2005 – South Africa’s Human Rights Day – a monument to honour their lives was erected on the site of their execution. Seven black granite blocks stand eerily like tombs on the busy NY1. Cut out in each headstone is a shape of each member – each youth with his hands up – not knowing that on this morning apartheid had come to deliver their deaths.

The memorial site is heavy with horror, the cruel paranoia of apartheid, of secret death squads and Askaris, the massacre of the young lives of black men and women throughout the apartheid nightmare. Lives snuffed out so soon and in a manner so vile, one shivers at the monument, which commemorates the death of Mandla Simon Mxinwa, Zanisile Zenith Mjobo, Zola Alfred Swelani, Godfrey Jabulani Miya, Christopher Piet, Themba Mlifi and Zabonke John Konile… The Gugulethu Seven.

“We were born in vinegar times and we were fed with lemons,” someone says in the film documentary about the Gugulethu Seven. In this moment of truth it seems only fair that one asks, if the times have changed, that the seven men were not robbed of life in vain. If you are one of the millions of poor blacks in the post-apartheid state, the times might not seem that different. This is the issue I have with symbolism in the not-so-new South Africa. Symbols alone do not materialise the promise of freedom that these young men had lived for, and died for, so tragically. The accountability of the city to all its citizens, especially those living in the townships and other marginalised areas would be a fitting honour to the young men who have been immortalised in this monument.

1280px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_marginIn terms of symbols of memorialisation, the Gugulethu Seven monument is a haunting one. The arms of the young men flailing up in the air are reminiscent of Francisco Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808”, with more motion rather than frightened surrendering of the man in Goya’s work.  This infused dynamism in the presentation of the dying moments of the seven men represents the energy and vigour with which the youth of the 1980s fought for freedom in a country that was hell-bent on oppressing blacks. The dynamism also signifies how the unruliness of the youth of the time and legitimises the disproportionate use of force to pacify the cries of the oppressed. Together, the dynamism of youth and force speak of the violence – physical and structural – that permeated the lives of black people in the margins of society.

After 20 years of freedom and democracy it seems pertinent to look back on our liberation heroes and their acts of defiance to oppression and begin to interrogate what that freedom actually means in contemporary terms. In revisiting the ruins of our apartheid history we might begin to make sense of our current situation and, if we are wise, begin to stitch together a country, which will never see another massacre such as the one that befell these seven young men. Looking back at the recent massacre of 34 mine workers in Marikana in 2012, one might wonder if it is too late.

On reading and writing in South Africa

There has always been an insidious suggestion from certain parts of polite society that black people do not read. And if you were to look at the sliver of shelf space allocated to African fiction at your typical mall bookstore, you would get the sense that black people do not write.

Both suggestions, however, are informed by the racist institutional practices of mainstream South Africa, which are dripping with condescension, prejudice and innuendo.

These were among the issues that the 19th Time of the Writer literary festival – hosted in KwaZulu-Natal a few weeks back – had to address as part of its Decolonising the Book theme.

When a panel gathered at Umkhumbane Library to discuss books and readership, the day was hot and humid; electric fans struggled to push the heat back out. It was midday; young people and pupils from around Cato Manor trickled in with contagious glee.

Extending the festival from the city centre to the fringe townships of Durban was a welcome novelty at this year’s festival, a model most visitors hoped would remain for years to come. Guests had heard about the panel event at their school, while others had only seen it advertised on posters around their neighbourhood and were shuffling to their seats.

“Libraries need to work like a bar,” said Wiseman Gumede, an aspirant writer and ardent reader, who spoke passionately about literature during the workshops set up to discuss aspects of “decolonising” – peeling off the barriers that prevent black people from participating in the literary field, whether as readers or writers.

Each group was allocated a panellist. The issues discussed included concerns about the price of books, current reader profiles as imagined by the commercial book industry, the process of deciding which books end up on library shelves, the national literary festival scene and the need to have young people place the reviews of the books they like on platforms such as those offered by Sunday newspapers.

Libraries need to consult communities about books – especially fiction – to place on their local library shelves or they risk being irrelevant to the communities they serve. The audience stressed the need to access books that reflect their lives and reality, and deal with their history, to “better understand ourselves and the sociopolitical dynamics of our space”.

Predictably, the rand’s collapse had affected book prices, said Exclusive Books CEO Benjamin Trisk. The fact that many South African books were not printed in the country, even if they were printed on local paper, was another factor that affected the pricing, he said, citing shipping costs.

Maria van Driel, director of the Jozi Book Fair and part of the editorial team of Khanya Journal, pointed to the history of dispossession and forced removals as having been a major factor – beyond pricing – barring the majority of people from reading.

Short-term interventions that arose from the discussions included hosting book launches in community libraries, and for publishers to use local newspapers to advertise new books and local events.

A suggestion of having residencies for writers at local libraries and to invite established writers to mentor them was also raised, as well as the sponsoring of free e-books for children to help them develop a love for reading at an early age.

While it was evident that those who attended the discussion were clearly interested in literature and emphasised its importance in their lives and community, they also cited that, between TV, Facebook or Twitter and, say, a book, most people were least likely to choose the last option. Critically, too, in low-income households, where the choice is often between buying bread and buying a book, the reader simply can’t even think of doing the latter.

Black bodies and strange fruit

A dead and dismembered Jacaranda tree hangs eerily on the left wall of the first room in Cameroonian Barthélémy Toguo’s Strange Fruit exhibition, like something that’s been broken, without being cracked.

Hanging by strings on its sinewy branches are drawings on paper – haunting abstractions bedaubed with red ink.

They foreground the full terrible metaphor that fills up the entire exhibition: the precise and historic plunder of black bodies in transatlantic slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow’s South and apartheid.

These stains, these red marks on thin pieces of paper strung up on a dead tree, point to the fragility of black life in the modern world.

Black don’t crack … but it breaks.

That is, if we are to take Toguo’s metaphor to its conclusion and hold his work as a mimetic rendering of the black experience in the present, which the artist formulates as a continuous past that never passes.

Upon seeing this unnerving work, one’s psyche swings from the killings of black men and women in the US by police, to the killings of black women and black lesbians by black men in South Africa.

And along these strings, from the drawings on paper to the branches of the tree, are all sorts of violent, murderous regimes, bludgeoning the black body until a strange fruit yields.

The exhibition takes its title from Billie Holiday’s mournful song Strange Fruit, of course.

The song and the haunting imagery of its lyrics – “Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/ Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze/ … The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth/ Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh/ Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh” – remind one of the brutality, the insecurity and the insanity of those with power. Look at how quick power, with its attendant insecurity and insanity, turns the scene from “sweet and fresh” to “burning flesh”.

I would like to bring another lens to this quick, brutal turn of scene – to South Africa’s own femicide, which is prevalent in romantic domestic arrangements that begin all sweet and fresh before power acts as it is wont to act.

If I could afford Toguo’s work, I’d acquire it to constantly remind myself of how history has mangled my flesh and how power, although alluring, has transformed humanity, and men in particular, into absurd, insecure beasts, brutal and grotesque.

Let us not forget the word ‘flesh’ in Holiday’s phrase, just as we mustn’t forget flesh in Toguo’s paintings, which seems peeled away in order for the artist to delve into the anatomical and skeletal frameworks of the body.

It’s difficult to metabolise black pain and not to merely exhibit it for consumption.

So, instead of focusing on the immediate flesh and dark skin, Toguo abstracts his skeletal figures with railroad-like structures, which gesture to the Underground Railroad – the secret network of passageways and safe houses used by runaway slaves to reach the free North from slave plantations and slaveholding states in the South.

In this way he is able to speak of pain and hope – for the Underground Railroad was a hope of freedom – without being entirely morose or exhibiting black pain for popular consumption.

And so this exhibition tries to hold a delicate balance between revealing too much and preserving some of the nuances of the black experience, by using visual gestures that are able to speak to those in the know without alienating, completely, the unknowing viewer.

Strange Fruit is an insider conversation taken out to the rest of the world.

**Originally appeared in City Press.

A brief study in white suburban fears: Diane Victor’s ‘One Pound of Flesh’

Diane Victor’s ‘One Pound of Flesh’ reads like a treatise on white suburban fears. It is, paradoxically, a celebration of her new life after she recently underwent a life-saving surgery for Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD). In this new body of work she deploys her body, her disease, as a site to explore notions of whiteness, white privilege and survival.

The title of her exhibition is a reference to Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and the question imposed to us is: how far will one go for one pound of flesh? The question, of course, is a play on literal and figurative assumptions. It’s a non-metaphor metaphor and it has to do with South African society as much as it speaks directly to her own surgery. The title is a curious choice for Shakespeare’s Venice is soaked with bigotry – racism and sexism. It is, in a sense, a metonym for modern day South Africa.

Take, for instance, People in Glass Houses an installation of a typical suburban window – which is shattered, slightly and suspended in the space. Rendered in smoke stains on the glass, the two main window frames depict a white family gazing out. Perhaps, the family is looking out at the viewer, or, one hopes, onto the society around them, at their plunder and the guilt that comes with it. This, I must say, would be an optimistic reading of the guilt plaguing white suburbia. A more intuitive reading suggests that this family is most likely feeling under threat by the vermin of blackness which has encroached, since democracy, the halcyon whiteness, their ease with the sins of their past and present. This could easily be the window through which Penny Sparrow watched the New Year’s Durban beach goers. And, as such, one could be one of the figures looking out or the imaginary figures being gazed at. The shattered segment of the piece, one suspects, speaks of the fragility of white self-delusions of superiority.

In the piece titled The parable of the selfie and the self-perpetuating problem Victor explores the self-obsession of white privilege via a not so subtle reference to Pieter Bruegel’s painting The blind leading the blind. In composition both works are in perfect harmony, one depicting a more idyllic, sedentary setting while Diane’s is perfectly situated in the modern, contemporary moment. The only fault one finds is associating self-obsession with women (even white women) whereas, if we were to be honest, it is the white male, more than anyone, who has his eyes firmly transfixed on his navel. That said, the work attempts to make sense of how out of touch white South Africa is about the world that is changing around it, about the effects of its historic plunder of South Africa, about its negation of its own complicity in the violent mess that it has left in its wake.

Lastly, one finds Shadow Boxer – the piece that pulls together all the myriad explorations of the exhibition into a single image. In it, a woman – one suspects it’s Diane – fights her own shadow. Her boxing gloves resemble bean shaped kidneys. There’s a hint of mauve or redness. Her shadow is dark and menacing. Her withered kidneys taking on the likeliness of weathered gloves. She is tired, spent, yet still focused and fighting. Her skeleton protrudes between her legs. Her own skeleton, fortifies her and haunts her. She is fighting herself, the gloves old and worn but she still fights, for she is fighting for her very survival. She is fighting to protect herself from the imagined outsider which is signified by her own shadow. She is white and threatened by a ‘swart gevaar’ that is only a figment of her imagination. But she still fights.

The piece reminds me of something I read elsewhere, which I will try paraphrase here: those who have had a lot of privilege when asked to share, feel as though they are being oppressed. This thought sticks out when one takes in the image. If one were to take a casual glance at all the bigotry spewed on news sites, at the recent #ZumaMustFall campaign and the subsequent billboard, or the tone of political conversations amongst white South Africa, one could swear that democracy and the ANC government have stripped them of the illegal privileges they enjoyed during apartheid. Which is, of course, not anywhere near the truth by any stretch of the imagination. What one sees is only crocodile tears, a faux fight for survival, in a country that has proven itself to be anti-black over time and which, by all account, caters to the perverse whims of those who consider themselves white – with all the delusions of superiority that accompanies such identification – and has left the majority of black South Africans as the threat one imagines outside, when one looks through the windows of the glass house. And it is here, in this final analysis, that ‘One Pound of Flesh’ speaks directly to the blood that continues to be spilled so as to assuage white fears and to keep white privilege intact.

However, Victor conceives of whiteness as something similar to her diseases, as something toxic and self-harming. In Shadow Boxing it is rendered in perfect metaphor in the oversized old pair of gloves (bean shaped like kidneys, Diane’s failing kidneys one presumes), tinged with blood and rotting from within with sickness; the gloves effectual in neither attack nor defence.

**Originally appeared in Art Throb.

Alienation, Home and Humanity: Jonathan Hindson’s ‘Home’

I went to see Jonathan Hindson’s ‘Home’ at Gallery MOMO  and naturally, Toni Morrison’s novel of the same title sprang to mind, especially its epigraph: ‘whose house is this?’ For the book’s protagonist, Frank Money, home – far from being a kind of permanence or belonging – becomes a site on which to contest the very ideas inherent in its classic definitions. Home, in Hindson’s series of paintings, seems to be losing its grip on permanence  and finds itself as nothing more than one’s own self-delusion.

Hindson’s paintings are often forlorn, disassembled, with an acute sense of alienation, that speaks to the misrecognition of a place one ought to call home but which has, over time, become some bleached out, disintegrating trace of memory.  As such, one gets a disassembled conception of home; a home that is neither real in one’s imagination or in one’s sense of objective reality.

It is tempting to conflate Frank Money, who is a war vet from Korea returning home reluctantly, with the story of Hindson, an artist who grew up in Johannesburg in the 60s before leaving for France and only recently returning. Both men leave their respective, segregationist societies for distance world – one an integrated army and the other, a democratic Europe. Upon their return home the former finds a segregated space and the latter  finds a democratic place that still reels from the legacies of its segregationist past. The fact that the one man is black and the other, white, is of critical importance since each body experiences his homeland uniquely from the other. And, as such, however tempting it might be to make both exiles equal upon their return, the writer ought to separate his peas from his pears. And perhaps, the only real intersection between the protagonist in Morrison’s novel and the visual narratives carried within Jonathan Hindson’s paintings  is that of a human being searching for a meaningful subjectivity and, perhaps, selfhood.

To compose his paintings, Hindson uses photographic images  which he distresses onto wood over and over again in order to achieve a surrealist phantasmagorical quality.  In Walk on by a young woman is seen walking down a street by herself, with a house perched right above her. Outside the house an elderly woman appears to be looking, even watching her. Or – and this is because of the layering and the unnatural light – the woman by the door is looking at us, the viewer, or the photographer who took the image and who has, in a sense, implicated us in the process. This multiple remove – that of us looking at the lonesomeness of the woman walking down the road, past the house, and being watched, like unwelcomed voyeurs; that of the eye of the outsider (the photographer) who gives us a glimpse of the moment in this communal setting, and that of Hindson, the painter, who further obscures our view through his process of vanishing the image until it is but cloudy fog of smoke  alienates us but also poses the question: is this place home? Needless to say, the setting is a black township. Perhaps, here, Hindson is speaking directly to laws such as the Group Areas Act, which, in fact, took people out of their homes and dumped them into matchboxes along the fringes of cities such as Johannesburg, in the guise of giving them ‘new’ homes. Perhaps he is looking at the current RDP programme and its own perpetuation of apartheid era spatial arrangements both in the building of similar houses and in placing them away from green suburban spaces. It is worth noting that it is in this moment, especially for the artist returning to a supposedly transformed place, that home – as in homeland – is an enigma: that everything has changed by remaining the same.

Jonathan Hindson Addo Shopping Centre, 2015. Mixed media on wood

The images, even the seemingly sunny ones, for lack of a better word, are haunting.  Haunting for their lack of a lucid  reality to which we might hinge our own subjective selves in some kind of temporal similitude with the imagery in the paintings. Not only is the work literally grey in palette but it is also grim in its depression and the way in which light seems swallowed up and sometimes merely reflected crudely and garishly on surface speaks to a state sandwiched between the two iterations of light and that state is made up of desperate yearning – a desire to come out of one’s self-imposed alienation and expand oneself into one’s first home, the body. I had first read the work with a particular reference to home as South Africa or some patch of land elsewhere. And then, after a while thinking about it, I began to find this alienation an intrinsic feature within the consumerist culture of late global capitalism. That, in fact, now more than ever, the human being – naturally a social creature, warm and self-loving, one hopes – has receded into himself into such a horrid, haunting state that not only can he not distinguish the real from the imagined, cannot distinguish who he is from what he has been told he is, and has thus been unable to even recognise, within himself, his own innate humanity for he knows not what to make of it. “Whose house is this?” Tony Morrison asks. “Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?”

**Originally appeared in Art Throb

Manufacturing Otherness from Within: Mikhael Subotzky’s ‘WYE’

Writing about white people, about whiteness, is tiring, unfulfilling labour. Not very different, one supposes, from talking to a wall about its wall-ness. You will shout your face blue, then green, then you will, eventually, filled with the nausea of the inexorable senselessness of the endeavour, vomit on yourself or the wall. Either way, you will not accomplish much except, perhaps, finally grasping one’s own predictable and insatiable rage. Rage is, I suppose, necessary for revolution but always looks out of place inside the cube. The space is already within fictionality and everything that falls within its glaring whiteness thrusts out into our view with cloying childlike desperation for our attention. It becomes, you might say, visible. This is no mistake on the part of the space of course for the white walls themselves contain and complete the ideal modern, that is, the creation of strangeness out of otherwise un-strange things.

Two weeks ago I went to Mikhael Subotzky’s new show at the Goodman in Joburg. The last I had spoken or seen anything by Subotzky was about two years prior, when we had a somewhat relaxed conversation about his work, especially the work that had attracted him some controversy. I could sense a disillusionment about the project of image-making in South Africa and the projections and positionalities involved in that process of re/presentation. Subotzky, everyone knows I assume, is a photographer – a documentary photographer at that – and a white documentary photographer whose work, the work that attracted him the blinding spotlight of media attention and its concomitant ire of rage and disapproval, concerned black bodies existing and instrumentalised within various boundaries of pathology: the prison, inner city squalor, poverty, etc. The kind of themes that attract precisely the kind of documentary photography which is lauded and rewarded by the institutions made up of people who get off on that kind of stuff. And so, I slightly looked forward to our conversation, given the themes and the analysis we’d shared in our last chat about image-making, South Africa, and so on.

It was sunny two weeks ago and I walked out of my Sandton electric-fenced bricks in shorts. I’d been cooped up for too long inside that maddening security I was becoming confused whether it was the criminal outsider (Other) they were keeping out or the sociopathic insider (Other) they were keeping in. In any case, the cruise to Goodman was fairly smooth. No traffic. I had promised myself to see this show, to speak to Mikhael if possible, if not for the reasons I’ve stated above, then for the simple reason of taking oneself out on a midday one-man date around the city in shorts, shades, a tote bag with a book and a pack of cigarettes. Nothing more.

Subotzky found me laughing. I was on one of the stretched out beach chairs that had been arranged for the viewing of his film WYE. It is based around Britain’s stretching out, almost as a yawn, into a Y that would map its colonial trajectory, from itself, then to South Africa and Australia. My memory of the film itself is quite vague and, at best, untrustworthy (go see the thing for yourself). But it involves three narratives set in three different yet simultaneous times, involving three men who could be seen as one, as though one were watching a hybrid digital motion picture of Charles I in Three Positions. Myth-making is, of course central to both the film and Van Dyke’s painting. In Subotzky’s however, the fictionality functions to unmask the functions of fictions of whiteness, drawing from colonial anthropological curiosity, exoticisation, and finally, the manufacturing of strangeness where none existed before.

Of course, this strangeness is not only projected outward onto the ‘African’ or ‘Native’ landscape but also inwardly, thus creating, an obscure internal alienation and internal instability which feeds into the narrative of white superiority where none exists. In one of the scenes in the film, the character, a colonial construct of the artist’s own imagination, an 1820 settler, pens a letter to his colleagues in Britain. ‘Gentlemen of the Dowsing Guild of London, I write to you from the distant shores, from where it is my prestige to furnish you with the inaugural scientific accounts of the practice of divination on the African continent,’ he writes. However, the viewer is made aware of no such scientificity in his account of these ‘distant shores,’ rather, his accounts, which follow a few scenes later, allow the viewer to witness the dubious fictions that the colonizer created for himself about a place, which might –I suppose which does– seem quite normal to me. At least before being drawn and framed within the civilizing sketch. But the colonial gaze, crazed by its own desperation to materialize its own superiority casts upon the normal the abnormality, which could only exist as a manifestation of its internal abnormality. When a few scenes later this same character writes, ‘Until you visit the Southern Hemisphere, you cannot comprehend the disarrangement of your senses wrought by the aberrant land’ he is fictionalizing his own exceptionalism, making for himself and the Dowsing Guild of London myths that would justify the project of his motherland. It is telling that he concludes this part by stating that ‘the flow of energy from the earth to my fingertips makes little sense,’ thus centering the place around his sensibilities as though the world were a vast canvass on which to project a portraiture of himself. ‘The vibrations,’ he continues, ‘seem to speak a language that I do not understand, can Nature itself move by different laws? No! The sun still rises in the east, an object dropped still falls to the earth, and the tides still follow the pull of the moon, despite the fact that its Hare is turned upside down.’

Hare is another character in the film, a prospector using a metal detector on the beach, involved in the same futility of searching for the strange buried in the shores of the beach, never for once beginning to question the strangeness that exists within. I will not pull out every single item of the film and neither will I dissect further that which I have already written, except to say that I found it rather amusing, the way it seemed that the past and the present, presented in the figure of Lethbridge, Hare, and the other fellow, seem to fit the contemporary preoccupations of white people, at least those who do believe, almost socio-pathologically, to be white. It was this that made me laugh. The sheer stubbornness with which whiteness has come to believe, defend and protect its own fictions as though they were scientific fact. Scientific phenomenon is forever open to discussion, however try remind a white person at a Spur that they are not white but rather fickle, fearful human beings wrapped in pink-pale skin, and you might get your head bitten off for separating fact from the fiction. Although satisfying, I imagine, it must also be terrifying being white, being so estranged from oneself, from objective reality, cocooned in a fantasy world of fantastic fictions, which end up giving you endless nightmares at night. Are ‘they’ coming for ‘us’ yet? It would be simply laughable if it weren’t for the material costs, the sustained injuries, of having to maintain white fictions.

The rest of Mikhael’s show plays along this register of the fictive narratives that have come to inform much of the psyche of whites, both here and elsewhere. There is also another dimension in this study of creating things out of thin air – there’s the matter of photography itself as a problematic, manipulative tool. The photographs pinned up on the white walls give off a documentary quality, the sea, the scenes from the film, appear as one might expect from the practice of documenting ‘reality.’ However, the scenes inside the images are all pre-empted, acted, and contained fictions. Even the light that falls on the landscape has, then, this fictional quality, in the end. The images, from a critical distance, blur the line of what is believed to be the capturing of ‘reality’ in the practice of documentary photography and the manufacturing fictions that satisfy the taste for the exotic other – this blank figure onto which we might project all our internal terrors and disfigure him to our horrific whims.

There’s a lot more to see in the exhibition, which I found interesting in parts and predictably boring in other (e.g. the beach chairs are set on sand as some kind of porous space between the contained filmed and the unrestrained outside as though anything could unrestrained and unpredictable within a gallery) but, as I said, it is a tiresome labour writing about white preoccupations and white people, in general. There isn’t enough gin in the world to justify undertaking such an endeavour, which is why I salute Subotzky for having the time and for giving it some thought. God knows white people would prefer being left to their superstitions and fictions that have taken them to the ‘edges of being’ as I believe Gordimer once wrote about the isolated white character of 20th century French fiction.

*Originally appeared in Art Throb.