Booing It, Badly: A Response to Sharlene Khan

Mario Pissarra, 15 April 2011

In response to Sharlene Khan’s sequel to her earlier “Doing it for daddy” piece, I would like to briefly make a few observations. Firstly, there is much I agree with. I concur that there is “stagnation in transformation”, although I have my doubts whether it was ever really underway. I also concur that race, gender and class and their relationship to power is still critical to consider, not least in the visual arts. I also despair at the lack of engagement of the DAC with transformation, particularly in the visual arts, although I do think we should be wary about their ability to lead on this issue, given their dismal record. Like Khan, I welcome Riason Naidoo’s appointment at Iziko SANG.

More importantly, for the purposes of this response, I agree with Khan that personal slander and silencing tends to take the place of insightful criticism and robust debate, and that naming is sometimes necessary when dissecting power in the sector. I also agree with her that many whites look for “good” blacks to deracialize their white emporia, although I’m not convinced that “troublesome” black voices get a worse deal than troublesome whites, but let me not digress.

The point that I really want to respond to is Khan’s perception that her “cardinal sin” was that she had “unforgivably, named names”. It is instructive to go back to her original piece, and to recognise that comparatively few individuals were named at all. Her infamous list was rather, as she puts it: ”a quick census of institutions/projects headed by white women”. It is thus instructive that Khan did not, in most cases name individuals, but that the simple identification of institutions headed by (unnamed) white women was enough to cast her as a “pariah”. This is an indictment of the dangers involved in even coming close to naming real people, but that is not my main point.

My main point is that Khan let her own argument down by not going far enough. If her hypothesis was, as stated in her latest piece, that “white women [were] replacing white men in many key positions in institutions and projects” then one would surely need to begin by naming both individuals and institutions. Then one would need to address a series of questions to test this hypothesis.

Obvious questions to ask include: How many of the white women in leadership replaced white men? How many of these women were appointed into their current posts, or ones of equivalent authority, in the post-apartheid period, or were they already in such positions? Who are the white men who were deposed in the post-apartheid era? Who took their places? What patterns can be observed, and do they play out consistently across the country, or do regional dynamics come into play? One also has to make provision for personal agency: race, class, gender et al are important but people cannot simply be reduced to these categories. One should also ask of persons in leadership or positions of influence: have they done anything that warrants them being in these positions?

Like Khan, I suspect that affirmative action has sometimes been cynically used. I suspect that, in some cases, it has contributed to the furtherance of some careers of [white women] of questionable quality. But the way to make this point would be to make a convincing argument backed up by details, including names. (There would also be some interesting exceptions to her hypothesis to get one’s head around – Where do Maishe Maponya, Bongiwe Dhlomo-Mautloa and Okwui Enwezor come into the ‘deposition’ of Christopher Till, for example?)

Had Khan worked through such questions she may well have come up with some important observations that anyone interested in transformation would have to take seriously. Instead, by adopting the one label suits all approach she probably alienated many potential allies, and it is this lack of differentiation, I suspect, that was her “cardinal sin”.

I will avoid saying much about Khan’s dismissal of the Visual Century, a four-volume series of books featuring over 30 writers, even before it is published. Suffice to note that this confirms her tendency to judge on the basis of a superficial “census” the quality and integrity of a project.
But what does it matter what I think, say or do – my real name is, after all, Mlungu Kuphela…

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