Association of Visual Arts (AVA)
Cape Town I 26 November – 14 December 2007
africa south creates a space to engage with evolving and overlapping geopolitical identities, from the ‘local’ to the ‘international’. The exhibition privileges the perspectives of artists residing in the southernmost part of the continent, including more recent migrations, both ‘permanent’ and temporary.
- Participating artists
- Documentary images
- Curator's statement
- Notes on process
- Opening speech
- Artists' statements
With the advent of democracy, this former trading post on the way to the ‘East’ began to sell itself as the ‘Gateway to Africa’, but not long ago its tourism brochures boasted of its Mediterranean climate, and ‘culture’ was synonymous with eurocentrism … Many of those most commonly referred to as African live on the city’s outskirts, generations living in ‘temporary’ conditions. Since the 1990s Cape Town has seen a great influx of migrants from north of the Limpopo. Coming from across the continent, some of these migrants are, or are regularly perceived to be, political or economic refugees. They are commonly distinguished from tourists, a term that often assumes a racial identity in this part of the world; although a recent report noted that most visitors to South Africa come from Africa and the Middle East.
Today central Cape Town contains an eclectic mix of shops opportunistically branded ‘African’, mingled with the presence of ‘foreign’ Africans who increasingly dominate trade on the sidewalks and in the markets. This presence has come at a price, with xenophobia acquiring a particular character, being directed primarily at the makwere-kwere [colloquial term for non-South African Africans] by South Africans bred on fear of the swart gevaar, as well as by ‘African’ South Africans themselves… Clearly there are critical issues of identity that revolve around South Africa’s place in the continent.
By speaking of ‘Africa South’ one affirms that this is firstly Africa, secondly the South, both terms commonly associated with ‘underdevelopment’, particularly when compared to the industrialized West, the same ‘West’ whose imperial and colonial past has contributed to shaping South Africa as somewhat distinct from its African neighbours … the same neighbours whose history has been, and still is, profoundly affected by South Africa, and which in turn have shaped, and continue to shape, South Africa itself…At one level Africa South is about notions of place and space: political, social, cultural, economic.
Who has it, how is it defined, how did it come to be, and how does it affect mobility for individuals and ‘communities’? This applies not only in the ‘real’ world, but also in the world of art and artists- who decides which artists deserve space, and what informs these decisions? Consequently the curated space of africa south becomes an enactment of these concerns, with artists deliberately assigned uneven representation in terms of scale and positioning. In this way it is hoped that africa south will not only generate reflection and discussion on questions of country, region, continent and ‘our’ place in the globalised world, but will also facilitate debate on art being made today on the African continent, not least in the south…
Mario Pissarra, November 2007
Subsequently I drew up a short curatorial statement for the artists, including a few ‘new’ participants who were invited as ideas developed. This statement (slightly edited below) was intended to give artists some insights into my own thoughts on the theme, but artists were also given the option to disregard it, so long as their interventions applied to the notion of africa south.
Most of the twenty –five artists featured in africa south produced new works for the exhibition.Regrettably a further two artists did not complete work on time, and one withdrew after work broke in transit. Also, a planned installation for the stairs did not materialise.
Thank you very much for inviting me to open the africa south exhibition. The art works on display give a lie to those who proclaim the dissolution of the creative spirit on this continent and I wish to begin by congratulating all the artists whose work is exhibited here and also Mario Pissarra for his efforts at curating such a fine sample of works.
Cape Town has a notoriously poor reputation as a host city. It is after all in this city where so many Somalian refugees have been killed and where a Zimbabwean asylum seeker recently perished on the streets of Cape Town of hunger. It is the same city that jettisons many of those who travel from the Eastern Cape in search of work to the margins of the urban periphery, in a state of untold hardship. This exhibition, aptly titled africa south, should primarily serve as a reminder of the many ways in which this city, Cape Town, is a failed host. At the core of this failure, into which this exhibition is being inserted, is the unwillingness to establish an affective postcolonial ethos premised on notions of friendship, tolerance and unconditional hospitality.
Tourist brochures notwithstanding, for many Africans who arrive on its shores, Cape Town remains an inhospitable city. This is all the more reason to applaud the courage of the artists who, in preparing for this exhibition, have taken to heart the curatorial brief of “creating the space to engage with evolving and overlapping geo-political identities, from the local to the international”. Given the force of this framing, it is appropriate to bill this as an intervention, both a timely and important one at that. That force, I believe, resides in cobbling together a name for this exhibition by reversing the name of a place, state and country – South Africa. In the process, the artists’ perspective is brought to bear on the static geopolitical formulations and determinations that have wreaked such havoc on our continent. In short, the reversal and intervention made available through the title of this exhibition, as also in the works that are exhibited here, leads me to conclude that this exhibition perhaps best approximates what we may call a postcolonial event.
I do not mean this in any grandiose sense but as a challenge to how we might approach the works gathered under the title, africa south. The association of this title with the contested notion of postcolonialism resides in its desire, and potential, to break with the narrowly overdetermined political forms for imagining the inhabited spatialities of Africa. Such a task cannot of course be achieved by aesthetic means alone, or by any singular heroic scholarly or political effort. At best, what we might envisage in such a reimagining is the gradual gnawing away at the presuppositions that have hitherto dominated the discourses of Africa. The postcolonial event in Africa, rather than representing a cataclysmic eruption, must proceed by the slow meticulous unraveling of the assemblages of knowledge and power, image and perception that have come to render its geographies largely unlivable. In fact, a postcolonial event is an effort of learning to learn from subaltern strategies on how to inhabit such a scarred landscape, and surviving amidst its ruins.
What, precisely, does it mean to attempt to walk out of the geopolitical predetermination implicit in the proposal of this exhibition? What, in other words, might it mean to stage an intervention in the midst of Africa’s geopolitical inheritance? Many of the works on display here simulate this conundrum that has bedeviled the efforts at materializing a postcolonial aesthetic of Africa. Many are entangled in the very modernities they set out to challenge and reinscribe. Perhaps, it is here, in the midst of such entanglement, that it may prove most productive to think of the relation between artist and the postcolonial critic, so that they may critically interrupt each other’s discourses and practices.
In the interests of precisely such an encounter I want to ask for a deepening of the use of the notion of Africa South that serves as the title of the exhibition before us today. As I see it, Africa South is not merely a matter of perspectival orientation or a manner of speaking about cultural sovereignty. It is not a view from below or a representation of those who were once thought to be without history. Rather, Africa South names the effort that ultimately strives to inhabit a predicament that is itself constituted through relations of violence in which knowledge and power have had profound consequences. Africa South is the name of our modernity, not the name of a place but the name of a question about the entanglements of discourse and time and our efforts to break free. Africa South answers to the question of how we have come to be what we are, not where we are.
If the art catalogued under the heading africa south is to serve as an alibi of a postcolonial critique, if it is to serve as a measure for ground-clearing that may pave the way for the arrival of a postcolonial future, then we should more rigorously subject its frames to critical scrutiny. The task may be more difficult than we initially assume. After all, Africa South is geopolitically overdetermined. Whether one speaks of colonialism or whether one speaks more recently of the Cold War, or even more recently of what some have called globalization, Africa’s spatiality is overwritten in a myriad of ways through an expansive technology of sight and sound, knowledge and power. When Valentine Mudimbe speaks about its invention he is not speaking of a small instance of fabrication but a vast network of disciplinary formation.
It is true that from this sorry story various transcendental claims have been made in respect of Africa. Whether in the claims of nationalism or in the radical formulations about economic development we have had to deal with the consequences of disappointment. In each instance, we have been returned to a politics that is overdetermined by geopolitical considerations. In my view, postcolonial criticism must set to work on this endless repetition by instilling within it a movement towards a different discourse.
What does it mean to disentangle the geopolitical inheritance of Africa South? Is not the figure for thinking this question the refugee, the stateless subject who in fleeing the predicament of one condition of statist abandonment finds him or herself entangled in another state of over-regulation. Today the refugee inscribes over the geopolitical maps of colonialism and the Cold War, maps of violence and the effects of technoscience, often etched deep in the flesh. To enhance mobility, the refugee has to both encounter and dismantle geopolitical constraints, sometimes unwittingly so. Unlike the voyages of discovery that marked the onset of colonial expansion, the flight of the refugee is a much more ambivalent undertaking, with no guarantee, as Deleuze once reminded us, of not encountering precisely that which is being fled. It may be useful to cite Deleuze in this respect because it captures the ambivalence of the refugee so brilliantly. He writes: even when a distinction is drawn between the flight and the voyage, the flight still remains an ambiguous operation. What is it which tells us that, on a line of flight, we will not rediscover everything we are fleeing? In fleeing fascism, we rediscover fascist coagulations on the line of flight. In fleeing everything, how can we avoid reconstituting both our country of origin and our formation of power, our intoxicants, our psychoanalyses and our mommies and daddies? How can one avoid the line of flight’s becoming identical with a pure and simple movement of self-destruction…?
As an alibi to a postcolonial critique, the artist may have to ask what it might mean to inhabit the world of the refugee and disinherit the geopolitical legacies that impinge on our sense of africa south. What might it mean to produce art that does not readily lend itself to the geopolitical constraints of the past? What would it mean to re-evaluate our economies of exchange? In broaching these questions we may be advised to think about the post Cold War scenario into which this intervention is being inserted. Achille Mbembe has offered perhaps the most astute if not terrifying account of what the present holds for Africa when he writes:
In the framework of the strategic ghetto that Africa has become in the aftermath of the Cold War, another more basic spatial arrangement and another geopolitical situation is currently taking form. Three processes separated in time but complementary in their effects are involved in this development. First, the processes currently underway are situated within the major ongoing movements of destroying and reconstituting the nineteenth-century state. Sometimes they occur in precisely the spaces as they did in the last century. On another level, dynamics that were introduced by colonisation and essentially continued by the independent regimes are grafted onto these processes. Through the mediation of war and the collapse of projects of democratisation, this interlacing of dynamics and temporalities leads to the “exit of the state.” It promotes the emergence of technologies of domination based on forms of private indirect government, which have as their function the constitution of new systems of property and new bases of social stratification.
If we accept this description of Africa by Mbembe, then I hope that I am correct that the art works assembled here are meant to activate questions that relate to the history of the present. I invite you to look upon them with a critical eye and to think of it as a point of discussion and debate. Perhaps in the works gathered here we may discover new strategies for thinking our way out of our predicament, to mark our way out of those fascist coagulations that haunt us. As we revalue these works of art as alibi for staging a postcolonial event, we must necessarily place on them a fairly daunting set of demands that far exceed the demands that they are accustomed to in the market place.
Of these works and of this exhibition we expect nothing less than a setting to work on a postcolonial aesthetics that gnaws away collectively at the geopolitical determinations that have hitherto produced Africa in its marginal position. This applies not only to reversing the way Africa and Africans are mediated via the colonial archive but also in how the legacies of the Cold War and more recently, globalization, are dealt with. But more importantly, we expect a far more rigorous effort at thinking about nationalism’s promise in Africa and its failure to finish the critique of colonialism. Rather than confronting nationalism on the terms prescribed by its romantic foundational fictions and its attempt to tie us to the West and Africa binary, we should rail against its organicist narratives, those normative narratives of subjection that are inaugurated through its flailing institutional edifice. It is afterall this organicism that renders it inhospitable and unlivable and ultimately that leads it to war against its own subjects. This is a tall order to ask of an art exhibition. However, in naming this exhibition africa south, we may also be invited to raise the stakes of critique. Most of all, in viewing this exhibition, and in opening it, I am moved to say that to be oppositional to our predicament, is not to wallow in despair.
Again my congratulation on this superb display. I trust you will be provoked and enabled by the sharpness of cut into the present.
Premesh Lalu lectures in History at the University of the Western Cape and chairs the Commission for the Study of the Humanities in Africa.
 Achille Mbembe “At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality and Sovereignty in Africa,” in Arjun Appadurai (ed.) Globalisation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001) 39.
[i] Gilles Deleuze and Claire Parent, Dialogues II, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, (New York : Columbia University Press, 1987), 38.
ROOTS AGULHAS (THRO THE EYES OF NEEDLES) – Gerry Dixon
The roots were cast aside at a road works in Pearly Beach near Agulhas. It had grown 200 metres from the sea and could be several hundred years old. The colour slowly over the years will turn golden…Rocks that jut up dangerously from the sea bed are called needles. Agulhas is Portuguese for needles.
ASSIMILADO – Mario Pissarra
Assimilado means “an assimilated one”. It comes from the Portuguese word assimilicao (assimilation) which was a policy practiced by the Portuguese in their colonies. A more sophisticated version of divide and rule than apartheid, through the processes of assimilation critical elements such as Christianity (particularly Catholicism), the Portuguese language, and missionary education converged to create a class of ‘civilized’ Africans. As a term, Assimilado was also used to refer to mulattos, the offspring of settlers and natives, produced through consensual and coercive means.
If my interest in assimilation is in part retrospective, it is also motivated by consideration of its potential currency in the contemporary environment. Certainly if the notion of assimilation were to be applied in the post-colonial African context, it would imply very different readings to how it was originally understood. For example, minorities who were dominant (or relatively dominant) in the colonial period are faced with the historical challenge of redefining themselves as part of the majority (‘Africans’). On the other hand many values and cultural practices that marked settler rule have been appropriated (assimilated) by the new elite. New ‘authenticities’ begin to take shape: the historical binaries of settler and native become fluid, at times dissolving; at other points these binaries come into stark relief.
Personally I am intrigued by the ideas of who assimilates who? What is gained and what is lost through assimilation? Is assimilation an unwelcome, forced process; or is it organic and desirable? Does it represent an ongoing process of self-definition, or an end-point driven and managed by social engineering?
Perhaps the challenge is, as Senghor is reputed to have said: “assimilate, don’t be assimilated”.
THE BLIND EYE WATCHES – Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi
[Excerpt from Poem – I am Dark because the World is Dark]
Darkened is the soul of me
Darkened is my thought process
Darkened is my experiential reality
I pay homage to the darkness of me
I am a prisoner
A captive imprisoned by a universality of my darkness
The imaginariness of darkness
The intangibility of my darkness
The deepness of my darkness
The corporealness of my darkness
The darkness of my Darkness
In a strange world
Living in a strange world
Surviving the darkness of a strange world
This means that I am dark
The cutting edge brightness cast a shadow of lightness
I revolt because it is contrived
It is not far-reaching
It is duplicitous
An unending paradox
It deals a death blow
It leaves a vagueness
It leaves an unreal reality
It struggles to undarken the darkness
Will darkness triumph in the face of adversity?
I am strange
Am I strange?
Are we strange(rs)
ATROCITY ARCHIVE: INDIVIDUAL TITLES – Donovan Ward
Locations of Mass Graves.
Names of Restricted Persons.
People Killed for Bounty.
Records of Torture Victims.
Records of People Worked to Death.
Ways of Life Destroyed.
Names of Slaves.
People Killed for Resisting Oppression.
Native Lands Stolen.