“Ordinary People, Ordinary Issues, Ordinary Emotions”: Practising with Garth Erasmus and black consciousness

POSTED ON: February 15, 2021 IN On Artists, Thulile Gamedze, Word View

by Thulile Gamedze

“Although much still remains to be discovered, and still more to be developed, this Biko—who knew that we inhabit a ‘larger world than the sophisticated westerner’—still has a lot to say. This Biko belongs to a different order of time, heterogeneous and dense, where the dead still live with us, and past and present are reconfigured in the instantaneous time of the here and now.” [1]

It begins with a 2006 interview between Mario Pissarra and Garth Erasmus, named Demystifying Art. [2] In it, Mario’s initial enquiries on Garth’s use of materials and working processes, gradually open the dialogue to exploration of bumpier terrain. We begin to understand Garth’s practice as an emboldened guide, taking an approach that leads relentlessly, if gently, into encounter with the ensuing problem of South African ‘democracy’: A political time of reproducing motionlessness, caught in the increasingly strong grip of neoliberal hold. Through the interaction, we are lead to consider how our ‘art world’ – its collections, its biased valuations of historical discourse, and its various arts institutions – contributes to protecting this frozenness of time. 

I position myself here as an additional – late, or future – entity in the dialogue. [3] And I dig through and around some of the ideas Erasmus mentions, attending to these through readings of a few of his projects, and the contexts in which they have operated, and operate. But my main interest is to make vivid, and to expand on the Black Consciousness principles that simmer throughout Erasmus and Pissarra’s conversation. Through the practitioner’s words and work, and with close relation to Biko’s texts, we are able here to think on a BC for “here and now”, to imagine how cultural work might be a tool for the facilitation of solidarity, connection, and motion, despite (and as response to) the reproducing stuckness of apartheid time. [4]

First, a sense of the two practices (Erasmus and BC). 

Introductions: [Garth Erasmus]; [Black Consciousness]  

As a result of the material inconsistency and media-experimentation of Erasmus’s work, it evades broad stroke analyses that are founded on formal or visual character. The practice seems to arise from more complex, ideological – and spiritual – roots, whose appearance in material form is infinitely variable, but whose underlying sense is marked by consistent principles. These include taking a position against the mystification of artists and art objects, a commitment to self and collective actualisation, and a rejection of racial category as a valid mode of identity. Materially, Garth has worked with an ‘elemental’ practice (using earth, water, fire, and air – with his wind instruments), as well using spray paint, found surfaces, sound, people, ideas, and space. [5] But in all these combinations, he offers an approach in practice that, at its root, encourages the relearning and awakening of our often latent mechanisms for healing, improvising, and becoming ordinary with one another once more. It is here that he meets Biko, an avid proponent of healing and coming to know oneself, and ourselves, with love.

BC was described by Biko as an ‘antithesis’ consciousness – Black solidarity as antithesis of ‘White Racism’ – and was never envisioned as the end point for liberation. [6] At its root, BC was meant to operate as a transitory, healing movement that would restore dignity – and resources! – to the historically violated Black majority, in anticipation of a synthesised socialist, non-racial future. [7] In the 1980s, artists like Erasmus, along with the Cape Town Vakalisa group of which he was part, and many others, identified themselves explicitly as proponents of Black Consciousness. That is to say that they rejected apartheid race, and thus, were Black, positioned against racial structures and segregation. Furthermore, Vakalisa, like others, was rooted by their identification of themselves as ’cultural workers’, rather than as artists. [8] Herein, they aligned their commitment to BC within the broader struggle of working class South Africans. [9]

The explicit re-uptake of BC today – with particular prominence in my own generation in the last five years – evidences the fact that race and class still structure all of South African life, and that the envisioned process of reaching authentic synthesis has never played out in the new(ish) political order. [10]

With this understanding, I continue analysis of Erasmus’s practice through the BC lens of its origins. By doing this now – with Naidoo and Veriava and many others – I am in conversation with BC as a living movement, rather than as a stilled object of historical time. To insist on this motion is to reject the closure and ‘pastness’ within which BC is often framed, but also to attend to its silences, in a way that acknowledges the fact that, inevitably, there will be silences here too. For many reasons, Garth Erasmus’s practice seems to me like the perfect place for these relations and difficulties to unfold.

What follows is structured by a number of proposals for direct exchange between Erasmus and Biko, marking out alliances between their ideas, and also elaborating on these through parallel work. Although the two names appear often, I hope it feels clear to the reader that my focus is on something collective – an attempt to emulate the outwardly-focused energy of both Erasmus and Biko. 

[“Ordinary People”]; [“Popular Energy”] 

Mario asks Garth, “How does your choice of materials relate to what you’ve been talking about?”, at which point Garth responds, gradually transforming the material matter at hand into something much less material, and more about people instead. [11] After explaining his formative years as an artist in the context of 1970s and 1980s South African apartheid, he says:  

“I thought of artists as being very ordinary people because I saw myself as an ordinary person, and I was always fascinated to relay this message to the general public out there that there’s nothing fancy or great about art making really, its ordinary people and ordinary issues, ordinary emotions.” [12]

Blik’nSnaar (detail), 1985. Oil tin, bamboo, animal gut strings and wood (Photo- courtesy of Jurie Senekal)

His reasoning continues that if artists are ordinary people, surfacing and playing with ordinary issues and ordinary emotions, then it follows that their use of materials should be quite ordinary too. And therein, I’d say we could imagine, with Garth, that this holistic ordinaryness renders art processing as an open source technology, available to be used, and already used by anyone and everyone. The work Garth is describing seems to imagine itself as embedded in some sort of everyday aesthetic practice, operating beyond the scope of value judgement, product, or profit – just some sort of ordinary thing. 

I suppose that this leads us to the question of how Erasmus’s creative work actually takes place – as in, what is it that is so ordinary about his practice? In dealing with this question, I arrive at my favourite section in the interview, where I believe we catch a glimpse of where Garth’s (seemingly mundane) description of art may come from. Talking about the part of his career when he began to make indigenous – Khoisan – musical instruments, he explains the very organic way that by moving on, from initially looking at objects in museums, into the process of making them, his reading of their possibility in the world was fundamentally changed.  

It was during a State of Emergency, in 1985, when Garth became interested in indigenous instruments, as a result of never having delved much into his own Khoisan heritage. On visits to the then Social History Museum in Cape Town’s ‘company’s gardens’, he was seduced by the mysticism that surrounded the objects’ presentation in the formal setting of the institution. [13] As one is wont to in a museum, Garth fell for the objects immediately, in large part on the basis of their looks, taken aback by their “strange beauty”, as he describes it in another interview. [14] But more than that, it seems that the instruments and their initial mystery represented an index. And that, while distorted by colonial rupture, this index still offered a first means through which to connect with latent energies of his own cultural existence. As a way to pull himself out of a kind of ‘agitprop’ art rut (as he explains it), Garth was intent on building sculptural works that were based on the instruments’ forms. [15] But soon, the appeal of the initial visual introduction – the crush, if you will – which inspired him to make the forms, was replaced by actual love. And by ‘actual’ love, I mean to say that by sincerely engaging the central drive of the objects – as sonic tools – Garth’s project suddenly exceeded the scopic limits of the museum. No longer fetishised artefacts, the instruments now began to participate in a relationally-invested (Black!) praxis of unfolding actualisation.

“…when I made them the sound became much more interesting for me and it kind of took over to the point where I don’t see them as objects now, I see them as music making instruments where by actually creating the music that is within me…” [16]

Erasmus insisted, or perhaps just realised, that the instruments were ordinary, and that they should be treated as such. And through that realisation, he re-oriented himself, moving from the position of outsider to that of participant, able to embed himself within a sound tradition that was cerebrally new for him – but, more crucially, ancestrally old, somehow familiar, and as such, perhaps kind of ordinary too. The objects began to fail to be objects anymore, and began, through this relation, to return to their instrumental root, facilitating spiritual encounter and cultural-historical embodiments of (becoming) self.

Gourd Bow (detail), 1980s, Calabash, stick and wire (Photo ourtesy of Jurie Senekal).

This narrative, while personal, describes a very important kind of aesthetic motion process: that of the object or image becoming a tool, or of the artist or intellectual becoming a participant. The implications are immediately consequential, since a tool is recognisable through the limitlessness of its possibility, where an image more often must declare some kind of outer representational limit. We hold the tool with the hands we’ve been given, and its productivity is determined through this holding and wielding. By contrast, the implied distance between us and art objects or ‘artefacts’ is imbued with something untouchable – often a colonised version of ‘other’ cultures, traditions and histories, which are represented as monolithic and static, especially in museums. That which is untouchable remains spectacle, but what we can hold, and wield, and make something with, is ordinary. And alive. 

“In order to achieve real action you must yourself be a living part of Africa and of her thought; you must be an element of that popular energy which is entirely called forth for the freeing, the progress and the happiness of Africa. There is no place outside that fight for the artist or for the intellectual who is not himself concerned with, and completely at one with the people in the great battle of Africa and of suffering humanity.” [17]

Biko’s words are clear – art and intellectual work should operate as part of all that is united in the struggle for Africa’s freedom. Erasmus, in his embeddedness in the ordinary, and his arrival at sonic process, displaces the art object, and foregrounds his encounter with it through the cultural history that the sound invokes. Biko, in a similar turn, displaces the mystical construct of the artist or intellectual, foregrounding their relevance as directly correlated to their willingness to act for the liberation – the happiness! – of the continent. We note in both of these maneuvers a resistance to objectification, and a refusal of the constricting distance proposed by coloniality between an art object and a viewer, a ‘professional’ and their audience, or, to use Biko vocab – a colonised person and their personality. [18]

Erasmus has faith in the ordinary, and insists, with Biko, on returning to normal, human relational processes, that are naturally imbued with expression, flair, and personality, and are positioned against injustice. These ordinary encounters refuse to mimic the violence of racial capitalism, which defines all relations through ‘the subject’ and ‘the subjected’. To insist on the ordinaryness of art is to allow it to act as a tool; to disrupt the ‘gaze’ that fetishises objects and their makers, separating them from the struggles of society.

The Khoi Khonnexion is an ongoing collective sonic project, consisting of Garth Erasmus, Jethro Louw and Glen Arendse. [19] The men perform together, sometimes with other musicians, and sometimes alone, their sets consisting of a mixture of storytelling, sound textures, rhythms and melodies from homemade instruments (which now have long transcended their original sculptural status), and others, like keyboards, drums, bass guitars, and guitars. The group performed in their early days, in 2001, at the Castle of Good Hope, in a commemorative event organised to honour the life of Khoi ancestor Krotoa. In order to outline some of the history that the collective’s engagement touches, perhaps we can briefly think together about Krotoa: 

Krotoa died in July of 1674, after a short but turbulent life, approximately just under thirty years. She worked as a ‘negotiator’ between her Khoisan community and the first Dutch settlers in the Cape. She was the only person in the 1650s capable of doing this work, as a result of her fluency in both Khoi and Dutch languages. She suffered through unbearable entanglements with the brutal life of the first years of settler incursion. Her duties included work as a labourer in van Riebeeck’s home, ‘negotiating’ for the remaining pieces of her peoples’ quickly disappearing autonomy, and marrying and bearing the children of a Dutch settler man. Later, as a widow, she became an alcoholic, and supported herself through sex work, and then, after the years of enforced servitude, and no doubt a set of sexual traumas which are unfortunately still vividly familiar to many people of contemporary Southern Africa, Krotoa was banished to Robben Island to live the last of her stolen years. [20] Krotoa’s story is not simply a matter of political and public undoing, but rather, colonial violence that extended to the sexual, psychological, and spiritual realms of her being.  

‘Khoisan remember the skills of Krotoa’, 2001, Khoi Khonnexion in Cape Times.

In arriving, through Krotoa and others, at their shared Khoisan ancestry and the histories of endured violence which that implies, the Khoi Khonnexion do some of the Black history work Biko talks of in White Racism and Black Consciousness: 

“Thus, a lot of attention has to be paid to our history if we as blacks want to aid each other in our coming into consciousness. We have to rewrite our history and describe in it the heroes that formed the core of resistance to the white invaders.” [21] 

The band has, over the years, played numerous art and music events. Their conception of storytelling seems to break strict disciplinary lines, the shared narratives operating in a multi-channel of recreation, critique, pedagogy, spiritual connection, and historical consciousness. So too, do their energetic dives into genres from hip hop to jazz, show an approach to culture and tradition that is occupied in its ongoing social movement, mixing, and interactivity – this ‘return’ as impure as culture has always been. [22] In a recording of a track of theirs called Inna third world, a looping imbira-esque instrument is overlaid by Jethro Louw’s lyricism, and later keyboard, bass, drums and vocal chanting accompaniments. Louw, at a certain point, narrates something like this: 

“Why rush into tomorrow when yesterday still lies unknown, our past – it’s been postponed, the shaman’s gnatty dreads – it’s been combed, our ideas – preowned…our pride – stunned and stoned…” and ”…the nama desert call – deserted, genocide was not averted… the truth – how does one unearth it?… exploited inna 3rd world…” [23] 

In these expressions of the violence of colonial domination, Inna 3rd world situates its focus wide, its analysis extending at different points to Addis, the Swahili regions, Brazzaville of Congo, and even to the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro. In this regard, it functions as a Pan-African, indigenous cry, resonating with that larger vision for BC, which, beyond refusal of racial identity in South Africa, is always invested in the recognition of oneself as part of a continental liberation project, against western capitalist domination. [24] In the Khoi Khonnexion, we find robust response to the problem of history in the style of BC. Through reclaiming and using Khoi technologies in the present, and collectively learning and healing through processes of actualisation,  the sonic group finds itself in continued, moving relation with Biko and friends. 

[“apartheid devices”]; [“historical disfigurations”] 

Erasmus speaks many times about the shock that the end of apartheid carried with it the continued burden of its particular racial naming scheme. In the 2019 interview with Geselev, he says of (so-called) ‘colouredness’, 

“For me it is a willful ignorance with political motives and a means of subjugation. It is nothing more than an apartheid device still applied.” [25]

Dividing people into racial categories in the South African apartheid situation made very little sense outside of the visual schema of skin colour, and is a disturbing example of colonialism’s application of race as a technology for disembodiment. That it is said that people in urban areas frequently ‘passed’ as a different racial category than what they ‘were’, for instance, is a lasting historical misnomer, whose effect is to assume a robust logic in the dehumanising and frankly confusing system of apartheid administration. In a society where a person’s entire value and access to the world is captured by something so crude as their skin’s hue, to ‘pass’ is not to pass at all, but rather to be forced to recognise that one’s existence is determined purely by the way it is read by whiteness.  

No.2 (Xnau series), 2001. Flame, scorched paper, petroleum jelly, correction fluid, 11 x 11 cm (Photo courtesy of ASAI).

Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí reminds us in another now ageing text of intact urgency – Visualising the Body – that ‘western’ knowledge systems are rooted in the visual sense. [26] In other words, the power dialectic of global capitalism (in the recurrent exploiter/ exploited relation) is historically based in an understanding of physical bodies that are differentiable purely by observation, with some seen to possess inherent power and some, inherent inferiority. Foremost examples include the constructions of ‘gender’ via sex, and ‘race’ via skin colour; constructs whose consequences include the terror of South African apartheid. Highlighting the fact that constructing hierarchies of bodies based on observation is by no means a universal system of social organising, Oyěwùmí shows how the west’s dominant knowledge systems are guilty of structurally confusing and mistranslating African cultural histories. [27] This is echoed by Biko, who, referring to Fanon in We Blacks, says this:  

“One writer makes the point that in an effort to destroy completely the structures that had been built up in the African Society and to impose their imperialism with an unnerving totality the colonialists were not satisfied merely with holding a people in their grip and emptying the Native’s brain of all form and content, they turned to the past of the oppressed people and distorted, disfigured and destroyed it.” [28] 

Here again, Biko is preoccupied with the problem of colonial time and colonial history, which has severed us, in many ways, from embodied understandings of cosmological frameworks that are not derived from the west. Referring to his body of work, entitled Xnau, the Khoisan word for ‘initiation’, Garth says the following: 

“I have to also quickly explain this notion of “initiation” in the sense of the XNAU because it means a different sort of rite of passage. It means a spiritual reconnection to your culture from which you’ve been cut off.” [29]

The work, a series of ‘fire drawings’, came after the traumatic experience of his home burning down. But following the initial shock, something else happened. Erasmus, visiting the ruins of their home, “became fascinated and absorbed by the markings on the walls”. [30] The drawings that emerged from his mastery of scorched paper, are somewhat unexpected. Mixing in petroleum jelly, as well as correction fluid at times, the images are a unique combination of the ethereality of smoke, the flatness of the tipex field, and the puddly, greasy liquidity of the gel. Garth’s recurring stick figures are present in No.10, a group of them on a journey around the surface of the earth, or the moon, or somewhere else, their tipex bodies oddly elongated, as if at any moment, the lack of gravity might carry them off into space. In No. 2, there are legs; two pairs, facing each other, in some sort of limbo galaxy. They are in conversation perhaps, hanging bodiless and full of personality – two versions of a single consciousness? 

No.10 (Xnau series), 2005. Flame, scorched paper, petroleum jelly, correction fluid, 15 x 18 cm (Photo courtesy of ASAI).

The images are eerie. The ever-present smoky, burnt areas create a kind of mist that eats at the edges of the figures and symbols, and moves our reading somewhere mystical, and at times, maybe mournful. Shadows, impressions, ghosts, masked faces – they all seem as though they are on their way somewhere else, keeping something from us. Erasmus speaks of this series as part of a process of healing from the key betrayal of the ANC – their renewal of painful racial categories into the ‘democratic’ period. [31]  Whilst the particularities of this Xnau processing and healing may remain relatively opaque to viewers, the idea they offer, of re-initiating into one’s roots, is a potent one. The vast majority of so-called ‘south africans’ have indigenous roots that were once in motion, across what are now borders or what were recently allocations for bantustans. In Erasmus’s use of fire, we can feel both destruction and the appearance of something new, less describable, and maybe even old, too.  

Oyěwùmí’s identification of colonial violence and indigenous mistranslations helps us to elaborate on Erasmus’s practice. Colonialism over time has lead to the alienation of Africans from themselves, and from their own ancestral technologies of social, cultural and epistemological life. The dire consequence is that Africa finds itself using colonial cosmology, like ‘race’ – the wrong conversion software – to interpret the data of its social, cultural, and historical life and livelihood. But Xnau offers an-other option for actualisation – the re-initiation into familiar, if distanced relational and cosmological zones, the recognition and healing of what, within us, has been ruptured. 

No.13 (Xnau series), 2013, flame, scorched paper, petroleum jelly, 15 x 18 cm (Photo courtesy of ASAI).

[“State of Emergency”], [“black urgency”] 

In the State of Emergency series, Erasmus repeats a distressed stick figure in spray paint, over variously patterned, lettered, textured and drawn backgrounds of different surfaces. [32] Frequently, the figures seem restricted or entrapped by bars. Where not entrapped by bars, they are often on the run, and, when not on the run, one catches the hopelessness in their crudely described countenances. One figure – untitled – stops me every time. Three impossibly long, crude eyelashes frame her nearest eye, composed otherwise of just a few lines and a painted white dot. Against a background of haphazard strokes in greys and whites and yellows, the figure – of transparent body, and with small blue rectangle for a mouth – feels eerily present. While I hate to comment without reasonable cause, I do want to express that rarely has my heart felt so broken by a painted stare, and by three impossibly long eyelashes. The state of emergency in this body of work, seems to me, in great excess of any ‘official’ articulations of the period.  

Untitled (State of Emergency series), 1985 – 1989. Spray paint and mixed media, 58 x 71 cm (Photo courtesy of the artist).

The five year period that constituted the ‘State of Emergency’ was an urgent moment for white people inasmuch as Black organised resistance – the longing for ordinary life – presented threat to the terrorist regime. The license to declare emergency could never conceivably have belonged with the whites, whose very entry into the Cape, as Krotoa’s life shows us, brought with it enduring, intergenerational emergency for those already here, and for those whom they brought, and would bring, as property. Perhaps it is this, in Erasmus’s figure’s eyes – the torturous, slow emergency that sits inside and hangs off of those three long lashes, hanging amongst backgrounded chaos. The series returns the State of Emergency to its unfortunate historical owners.  

In his text “Black Souls in White Skins?” Biko writes, 

“The liberals view the oppression of blacks as a problem that has to be solved, an eye sore spoiling an otherwise beautiful view. From time to time the liberals make themselves forget about the problem or take their eyes off the eyesore. On the other hand, in oppression the blacks are experiencing a situation from which they are unable to escape at any given moment. Theirs is a struggle to get out of the situation and not merely to solve a peripheral problem as in the case of the liberals. This is why blacks speak with a greater sense of urgency than whites.” [33]

Biko argues that there is simply no way that those on the receiving end of the fruits of exploited labour, can possibly sustain the same sense of urgency for liberation as those rendered inherently subservient and inferior by the system. He shows that white liberals’ frequent tendency to take the lead over their black counterparts in political work is evidence of a lack of true solidarity, which should act instead to elevate and assist the agents of struggle. [34] In Erasmus’s State of Emergency series, we see the shadow of state-sanctioned emergency – the ongoing urgency of the colonial-apartheid-post-apartheid condition that continues to still our political time. 

Red Rage (State of Emergency series), 1985 – 1989. Spray paint and mixed media, 58 x 71 cm (Photo courtesy of the artist).

Conclusions: [“We have been engineered”]; [“Our society will be run almost as of yesterday”

So what of today? Well, the recognition now of an ongoingly racially-divided South Africa under capitalism has to be a recognition that the ‘state of emergency’ is yet unfinished, regardless of what South Africa’s liberal post-apartheid narrative may suggest. Further, Biko did not need to be alive in order to analyse the contemporary situation:  

“If we have a mere change of face of those in governing positions what is likely to happen is that black people will continue to be poor, and you will see a few blacks filtering through into the so-called bourgeoisie. Our society will be run almost as of yesterday”. [35]

In their conversation, Pissarra and Erasmus speculate about the fact that South African institutions have historically glossed over Erasmus’s work – that it is not collected by any local art institutions. What is it in the work that makes its presence so ‘other’ to institutions, public and private, that pride themselves on celebrations of the new South Africa, on ‘supporting’ conscious, identity-based work, and hosting much younger Black artists for fancy dinners? And if South Africa denies Erasmus’s work the space of enquiry it deserves, then what of the American Smithsonian’s significant collection of his pieces, including some from State of Emergency? [36] What is the value of ‘African Emergency’ in the United States? Could we diagnose the phenomenon, as Mario suggests, as “Peter Clarke Syndrome”? [37]

Garth speculates on the collection of his work: 

“I suppose people have seen something of a local character in [my] work… these overseas people they see something of an Africa, something of a here in the work [that is] of interest to them…” [38]

And a bit later: 

“We don’t even know enough about each other because this is where I see that problem of the Peter Clarke syndrome that you’re talking about, and I agree with you, I know that I fit into that. I can see things happening along that way but it says a lot about our own society and how we have been engineered, and for me it speaks about what it is we must do that is not happening. [39]

 So, ‘Peter Clarke syndrome’ would seem here to refer to a phenomenon where South African – or perhaps, African – artists remain un-, or under-recognised at home, while they gain success internationally. [40] Of course, the presence of a ‘syndrome’ or a problem herein is an undeniable thing. But I might suggest it would be better diagnosed as a condition that infects and re-infects institutional life and ‘national culture’, rather than as an ailment diagnosable in individuals.  

Thus, in these terms, the question of why Garth Erasmus remains relatively underrepresented in broader narratives of South African art is not a debate on the potency, urgency, imagination – and beauty – of the politicised aesthetics through which his practice practises. Instead, it is a question regarding the drive of the art world we have inherited, and maintain. In an article based on an interview with Lefifi Tladi, Percy Mabandu writes on the tension between the ‘reconciliation’ and ‘decolonisation’ streams within South African art history (and the ongoing present):

The reconciliation narrative includes individuals or artists historically aligned to the ruling party, while the decolonisation stream comprises artists who have historically been outside of the ANC. Some of these are people who came out of the radical politics of BCM and Pan-African persuasions. [41]

Mantis Praise #160, 2000. Mixed media, 24 x 29 cm, (Photo courtesy of the artist).

I’d speculate here that it is within the ‘decolonisation stream’ that we find work, like Garth’s, described by him as having “local character”. In fact, I believe that it is the very ‘locality’ of the work – a committed, depthy and historical locality – that renders it as part of Tladi and Mabandu’s “decolonisation stream”, whose systemic exclusion from recent history may highlight a contagious institutional aversion to forms of Black situatedness that have material bearing on the ongoing structural problems here.

Erasmus is not too bothered though: 

“I like to think that not compromising and not being easy to box has also been interesting for me.” [42]


And he’s right. In positioning himself and his work as ordinary, as unboxable, Erasmus insists on a practice of relationality, openness to improvisation, and a demystified approach. Engaging a present Khoisan, in language, sound, conversation, and image, he responds to BC’s calls for Black history work, and Black actualisation (as) Black becoming.  

As we follow his variously formed experiments, it is easy to get together toward a shared feeling for Erasmus’s practiced-groove, one of endless curiosity, and flexible mechanisms for healing, playing and listening.  

Thulile Gamedze is Johannesburg-based cultural worker, producing writing, drawing and curricular. She’s interested in Black Consciousness, cultural work histories, and Queer politics.


[1] Ahmed Veriava, Prishani Naidoo, ‘Remembering Biko for the Here and Now’. In Biko Lives!: Contesting the Legacies of Steve Biko, Mngxitama, A., Alexander, A., Gibson, N.C. (eds), (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 235. In this text, Naidoo and Veriava outline a compelling argument for recognising the existent applications and potential of Biko’s work in the conditions of post-apartheid historical time. Significantly, through study of Biko’s texts, they insist on understanding what he offers as ‘method’, rather than as stilled symbolic rhetoric, here finding some parallel with Freirian dialogue and praxis, as imbued with truth and action. If we shift the framing of BC thus – from historically objectified, to method-based – we are more able to both recognise and engage its strategies.
[2] Garth Erasmus and Mario Pissarra, Demystifying Art: Garth Erasmus interviewed by Mario Pissarra, (ASAI, 2006), https://asai.co.za/demystifying-art-garth-erasmus-interviewed-by-mario-pissarra/.
[3] To a lesser extent, I enter as a third voice into another dialogue with Erasmus, conducted in 2019, by Valeria Geselev. Garth Erasmus and Valeria Geselev, Garth Erasmus: The knots of time and place, (ASAI, 2019), https://asai.co.za/garth-erasmus-time-and-place/.
[4] Naidoo and Veriava, Remembering Biko for the Here and Now, 235.
[5] Erasmus points out, in the 2019 interview with Geselev, that only through his Xnau fire series, did he notice that his practice seemed to be almost entirely absorbed in the elements. The realisation lead him to the AKWA series of water drawings. Erasmus and Geselev, The knots of time and place.
[6] Frank Talk, ‘Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity’, In Steve Biko: 1946 – 1977/ I write what I like, edited by Aelred Stubbs, (Oxford: Heinneman, 2005), 90.
[7] I use ‘Black’, with a capital B, to explicitly symbolise political Blackness, as a potent refusal of the constructed racial groupings of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa. Blackness implies an ideal politics of solidarity amongst people oppressed in various, differing ways – and to vastly different extents – by the racial system.
[8] Vakalisa involved James Matthews, Lionel Davis, Peter Clarke, Rashid Lombard and numerous others. The group, who were largely ignored by the gallery system, in turn identified themselves beyond the scope of the so-called ’serious’ art world. As cultural workers, they held exhibitions and events in spaces like community halls and libraries, in their own communities away from the CBD art hub. Whilst Black Consciousness and Pan African politics would come to be somewhat outsiders of the ANC mainstream, within Vakalisa at the time, there were differing partisan associations, including with the ANC. Centre for Humanities Research, The Factory of the Arts in Athlone, https://www.chrflagship.uwc.ac.za/research-platforms/the-factory-of-the-arts/the-factory-of-the-arts-in-athlone/; Mario Pissarra, email correspondence, 02-02-2021.
[9] The category of ‘artist’ was rejected by numerous collectives and practitioners of the time, perhaps most notably the Medu Ensemble, who were exiled in Gaborone from the late 1970s. Many saw the word as marked by individualism, elitism, and the a-political use of images and symbolic work. John Peffer, ‘Culture and Resistance’, In Art and the end of apartheid, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 80.
[10] Erasmus and Pissarra, Demystifying Art.
[11] Erasmus and Pissarra, Demystifiying Art.
[12] Erasmus and Geselev, The knots of time and place.
[13] Erasmus and Geselev, The knots of time and place.
[14] Erasmus and Geselev, The knots of time and place.
[15] Erasmus and Geselev, The knots of time and place.
[16] Erasmus and Pissarra, Demystifying Art.
[17] Frank Talk, ‘We Blacks’, In Steve Biko: 1946 – 1977/ I write what I like, edited by Aelred Stubbs, (Oxford: Heinneman, 2005), 32.
[18] Frank Talk, We Blacks, 29.
[19] The Khoi Khonnexion was formed in 1999.
[20] South African History Online, Krotoa (Eva), https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/krotoa-eva.
[21] Frank Talk, ‘White Racism and Black Consciousness’, In Steve Biko: 1946 – 1977/ I write what I like, edited by Aelred Stubbs, (Oxford: Heinneman, 2005), 70.
[22] This is in reference to the Cabralian ‘return to culture’, as a mode of popular resistance to colonial domination. Amilcar Cabral, ‘National Liberation and Culture’, In Return to the Source, edited by Africa Information Service, (New York; London: Monthly Review Press, 1973), 39 – 56.
[23] Khoi Khonnexion, inna 3rd world, https://www.facebook.com/Khoi-Khonnexion-80191441911/app/2405167945/.
[24] Frank Talk, We Blacks, 32.
[25] Erasmus and Geselev, The knots of time and place.
[26] Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, ‘Visualising the Body’, In The African Philosohphy Reader, edited by P.H. Coetzee and A.P.J. Roux, (London: Routledge, 2003), 456 – 486.
[27] Whilst the argument’s principles can be broadly applied, Oyěwùmí’s account is from the cosmological frame of Yoruba culture, history and language. She frequently cites Yoruba words and cultural examples, to try to illustrate the gaps and jumps in meaning that have taken place through the english history-writing of the culture, which has introduced, for instance, the presence of gender, a construct not otherwise present. Oyěwùmí, Visualising the Body.
[28] Frank Talk, We Blacks, 29.
[29] Erasmus and Geselev, The knots of time and place.
[30] Erasmus and Geselev, The knots of time and place.
[31] Erasmus and Geselev, The knots of time and place.
[32] Erasmus began the series following the apartheid government’s declaration of a ‘State of Emergency’ in 1985, and worked on it until the end in 1989.
[33] Frank Talk, ‘Black Souls in White Skins?’, In Steve Biko: 1946 – 1977/ I write what I like, edited by Aelred Stubbs, (Oxford: Heinneman, 2005), 19 – 26. 22.
[34] Frank Talk, Black Souls in White Skins?.
[35] Biko and ’European Journalist’, Our Strategy for Liberation, In Steve Biko: 1946 – 1977/ I write what I like, edited by Aelred Stubbs, (Oxford: Heinneman, 2005), 149.
[36] Although engaging the political and historical agendas behind the Smithsonian collections is a separate issue, it is rather a relief to know that Erasmus’s work is surveyed in a decent amount of detail in a collection somewhere, even if rather far away. It is encouraging to know that someone’s meeting with Garth’s work could somehow invoke a parallel relation to Indigeneity across space, similarly spurring traversals of art objects’ proposed cool distance.
[37] Erasmus and Pissarra, Demystifying Art.
[38] Erasmus and Pissarra, Demystifying Art.
[39] Erasmus and Pissarra, Demystifying Art.
[40] Peter Clarke, (1929 – 2014) was only really perceived to gain recognition in the South African art world many years after much success, and a few awards received overseas from Europe and America, and also, significantly, Taiwan, whose Taipei World Academy of Arts and Culture awarded Clarke an honorary doctorate of literature.
[41] Lefifi Tladi and Percy Mabandu, ‘Propaganda And Politics: Tunnel Vision History Of Art Activism In South Africa’, In Chimurenga Chronic 16, https://chimurengachronic.co.za/propaganda-politics-art-activism-south-africa/.
[42] Erasmus and Geselev, The knots in time and place.