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by Jyoti Mistry and Nkule Mabaso

Introductory Comments: Initiatives and Strategies

 

The two events (ArtSearch, March 2017 and Third Space Symposium, August 2017) from which these contributions are drawn took place at an exceptionally volatile moment in South African higher education. The Fees Must Fall movement which started in October 2015 while, on the one hand challenging tuition and tuition increases, highlighted on the other hand, the structural inaccessibility to higher education. Moreover, it brought into stark relief the legacies of racial privilege sedimented in institutional structures that had not been responsive to the growing urgency for transformation in art institutions and universities: its hiring practices, student recruitment, the curriculum, the recognition of art practices that acknowledge and accommodate different epistemologies and aesthetics.

This has been a protracted journey in arriving at this open-ended ‘ending’—the consolidation of these contributions was forged from a period of resistance, protests, introspections and reflections, deliberation and conversations …

This publication marks rather a pause, a moment of bringing together the contributions that provided a reflective rest to recall all the efforts that were drawn from not just the spark of this movement but provides a recognition that in spite of the numerous challenges the space to support engaged dialogue was possible.


fig. 1: An interview at the University of Cape Town (1971) by John Muafangejo


1974

John Muafangejo’s linocut, An interview at the University of Cape Town (1971), depicts the artist being interviewed for entrance to the Michaelis School of Fine Art. Eight pairs of eyes stare out of the frame while Muafangejo, a lone figure on one side of the table, has his gaze fixed across rather than directly at the phalanx of interviewers.

The crowded faces stare across a large table, three of them wielding dagger-style pen, paint brush and scalpel. The open book, perhaps it is Muafangejo’s portfolio, sits in the hands of a conjoined/self-opposing member of the interviewer team, suggests a single authoritative narrative wielded by the pale faced custodians of the institution.

Muafangejo was rejected by Michaelis and took up a residency at Rorke’s Drift Art and Craft School.


2003

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9WMkaVl-_0

The documentary film The luggage is still labelled: Blackness in South African art, was created by Vuyile Voyiya McGee and Julie McGee. It consists of interviews, primarily with black artists in Cape Town, who reflect on the racially segregated art world that still prevails in educational institutions, museums and galleries. Many of the artists speak from direct experience, making the connection between apartheid’s institutional marginalisation of black artists and the contemporary persistence of white privilege. The interviews capture the ‘post-apartheid’ era in which gatekeepers of the art world reproduce imperial and colonial structures with scant attention to the stultifying effect on artists. The artists express an urgent need to transform institutional structures so as to include epistemologies and aesthetic art practices from multiple sources and experiences and not just the canonised tropes of Western, European art.


2015

fig. 2: Chumani Maxwele throws excrement on Rhodes statue


The Rhodes Must Fall movement starts at the University of Cape Town.

Same Mdluli: “… student activist Chumani Maxwele threw a bucket of excrement at the Cecil John Rhodes statue. This performative act spiralled into a movement that saw a generation of young South Africans challenging monuments and structures that are a representation of the past. While the protests were primarily in response to the lack of transformation within institutional structures that continue to ignore and neglect the ‘real’ lived experiences of margina ised people—who in South Africa make up a majority of black African people—it is also important to point out that the ‘RhodesMustFall’ movement was also a response to a continued monumental and symbolic presence of reminders of a painful past that South Africa has in many ways not yet addressed,” (2017).[1]


March 2017

Artsearch Symposium at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Using artistic research as a way to address decolonising practices, this three-day symposium brought together international scholars and practitioners from various disciplines. The presentations offered creative strategies to transform art institutions and recognise previously unacknowledged artistic practices and forms.

“[T]he understanding of this decolonization … could help us not only to shift away from western-centric belief systems but also to debunk their recurrent predominance. Therefore, decolonising visualities is a call for a paradigm shift and recognition of previously marginalised modalities in order to make subtle and covert form[s] of colonial influence perceptible, inside and outside of academia. And this requires a breakaway from the western-centric education model into an African model of education,” Mawande Ka Zenzile, 2017.[2]


August 2017

3rd Space Symposium held at Cape Town University’s Institute of Creative Arts (ICA). Centred on creative practices ranging from performance, dance, theatre, film and visual arts, the second iteration of the 3rd Space Symposium focused less on institutional transformation and more on multiple aesthetic practices and strategies that challenged canonised Western and European art modes. It drew from unresolved histories and experiences that had been rendered invisible under colonialism and apartheid, and through race and class privileges.

Decolonial propositions

September 2020

Much has changed and more has remained resistant, the conversation to decolonise knowledge has once again brought to the fore some of the unfinished historical grievances and injustices which continue to define the present. Our truncated timeline points out to some these moments and the practices directed at this ‘yet to be concluded’ project of decolonisation especially in relation to grievances and injustices in education that no progressive African can afford to ignore.

Some of the interviewee subjects in The Luggage is Still labelled occupy positions of power in the same institutions that received criticism in the documentary…

the present and recurrent complaints speak to the coloniality of power, irrespective of whether one sits inside of the institution; or not – categorical non-conformity does not suffice to change the status quo. The demand for intervention is urgent and long overdue.


Overview of the Anthology

The material of this publication is drawn in part from the March and August 2017 symposiums. It is augmented by reflections and experiences that connect the past with the relative immediacy of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which, having gained momentum, expanded to the national and later the international Fees Must Fall campaign. The content of the publication moves beyond these seminal moments to discuss the myriad strategies that educators and artists use to address inequality and to create a futurity that is “uttered” on its own terms.

“[T]hinking decolonially (that is, thinking within the frame of the decolonial option) means to start from ‘enunciation’ and not from ‘representation’. When you start from the enunciation and think decolonially, you shall run away from representation, for representation presupposes that there is a world out there that someone is representing. There is not a world that is represented, but a world that is constantly invented in the enunciation,” Gaztambide-Fernández, 2014. [3]

The marginality that John Muafangejo experienced as a black artist is still here; it is tangibly evident within South Africa’s arts education institutions and in some institutions on the African continent and globally. In response, artistic practices have found multiple forms to express protest, resistance and defiance. These innovative forms demand a radical re-examination of knowledge and of prevailing assumptions about aesthetic form. Notably, the construction of theory – in the context of anticolonialism, postcoloniality and decoloniality – has made utterance central to the aesthetic practices explored in this collection.

The collection is organised in two sections. Section 1 reveals the myriad ways the contributors (often educators and practitioners in art schools) have through critical strategies offered by artistic research tackled institutional challenges in ways that move beyond simplistic notions of institutional critique. Section 2 examines decolonial aesthetic strategies in artistic productions. The artistic mediums used include photography, film, theatre (including contemporary drama and performance), visual art, music, video, and fine art. The essays reflect on the mutual enrichments that can occur between critical art practices and social movements. In these reflections the contributors elaborate upon the conditions for politicized critical practice, and examine the politics of institutional memory and the archival silences operating within the university.

Jyoti Mistry and David Andrew in the foremost paper in the On Art Institutions section, express the urgency of seeing arts schools and arts education within a contemporary political climate. In a jib-jab style (Punch and Judy), the work enquires into curriculum transformation as a possible pathway to “decolonise education”. Drawing from the ethos of artistic research, Mistry and Andrews propose ways of acting out against the edifice of arts institutions, and of bypassing (pavements) sedimented orthodoxies and knowledge production that refuses to see behind and beyond itself. Such acting out and open confrontation is explored as a liberating way to address the challenge to the arts school – its practice and pedagogy is not reactionary but wholly determined through the political, social and cultural milieu from which that definition is forged. Their sparring style offers discursive observations and enquiries that expose the fault lines of thinking and its operations in the university ( ponzi schemes). They propose the potentiality of artistic research in institutions to advance decolonial strategies.

In keeping with the potential of artistic research, Zen Marie attends to artistic practice as a formation of knowledge without need for further self-qualification. Marie’s paper, The Paradox of the Art School in a University, explicates how such a position needs to be embraced, rather than artists being forced to conform to the technocratic and rabid rubrics of the neoliberal university system. Marie views the aesthetic as having the potential to enact the double movement of simultaneously refusing to conform and performatively asserting forms and content that are not merely oppositional or reactionary, but are substantively iterative of unprecedented and emergent epistemologies. He draws from practical examples where the paradox of the art school in the university comes to challenge convention and would seem to align itself to a broader project of radical politics. This potentiality embraces epistemological breaks that both the project of decolonisation and its aesthetic forms provoke, and which affect the very core and nature of academic work.

It is through the archival policies, collections and research foci of educational institutions that one set of artistic practices is validated over another. In Relocating the Centre, Bongani Mkhonza addresses some of the challenges that colonially conceptualised archives present. Drawing from the ongoing discourse on “decolonising the Westernized university” and its museums’ management policies, Mkhonza proposes a set of prompts for thinking about and finding ways to move the collections, their practices and policies towards Afrocentricity. He proposes negotiated processes for exploring possibilities beyond the Eurocentric epistemic positions.

Also scrutinizing the factors that inhibit change within South African institutions, Unathi Kondile scratches at the thick layer of colonial dandruff to expose latent racism towards black people’s bodies. He makes the point that in order for a black person to succeed they are forced to assimilate. Using the frustrations of language and self-translation as the barrier to access, he traces the direct and indirect hostilities in art schools, the university and cultural institutions. His focus is on using language in the service of transformation in order to create environments that are conducive to the self-definition of those previously marginalised.

The prevailing Eurocentrism in institutions is examined in Bekele Mekonon’s article and in the interview that Ruth Sacks conducts with the Kinshasa-based artist Henri Kalama Akulez.

Mekonon recounts the history of the Alle School of Fine Arts in Addis Ababa and how in its 60-year existence it has (in fact, it hasn’t) been Reshaping (the wax). Mekonon asserts that despite the changing national politics, the art school has not fundamentally questioned its curriculum or institutional structure. Mekonon’s glimmer of hope resides in a more holistic approach to entrance criteria, in institutional changes which support curriculum shifts, and in acknowledging the realpolitik of the Ethiopian context.

Similarly, Henri Kalama Akulez points to the urgency of epistemic re-evaluation.

He shares creative strategies that educators and students use to navigate a way forward within the entangled aspirations of decolonising the historical model of the Academie des Beaux-Arts and the practical exigencies of living in Kinshasa and pursuing a degree in art. He describes to Ruth Sacks the current and contemporary trends in painting and the challenges encountered in the pedagogical pursuits of the university.

The final interview in this section is with Miguel Marrengula from the Faculty of Cultural Studies at the Higher Institute of Arts and Culture in Mozambique. Marrengula offers a comprehensive vision of how the curriculum, the modes of teaching, and education in the arts has to contend with the challenging socio-economic conditions in the city of Maputo. Nkule Mabaso’s questions expose the differences in political and social priorities that inform how “decolonising” is operationalized. Fundamental definitional discrepancies informed by historical specificities and contemporary political conditions are highlighted.

Section 2 focuses on the poetics of artistic practices, and is introduced by jackï job through the evocative potentialities of Third Space in South African Academia. In an adaptation of a performance-paper she delivered at the Third Space symposium job makes a case for liminality as a way to eschew reductive and binary ideas of culture and identity. The performance and its attendant analysis draw on butoh principles to experiment with form that is not only multivalent, but incorporates polyvocality – using Patwah and Afrikaans to further challenge the centrality of English in academia.

For job, it is the practice of exploring liminal spaces itself that functions as the transformative proposition to avoid fixity or singularity in expressing the connections between politics and its aesthetics.

In a complementary stance, Sharlene Khan’s Unorthodox Autobiographies captures the performative poetics of her politics. Through her art practice, her words and her body, Khan explores the intersectionalities of her identity in a series of repetitive gestures that aim to confront the institutional structures of the artworld and academia.

In an interview with director and theatre maker Nwabisa Plaatjie, the relevance and contemporaneity of adapting the1989 play The Native who Caused All the Trouble is situated in the gendered politics of her directorial interpretation and a radical re-examination of land. Lindokuhle Nkosi’s interview with Plaatjie offers a refreshingly complex proposition of what it means to be a black woman in South Africa – a futurity of Land as Milk. In keeping with the exploration of black womanhood, Nomcebisi Moyikwa’s performance, Qash-Qash, is a provocation that picks and pulls at essentialist notions of “sisterhood”. The performance traces the intimate interconnections between different people, places and spaces, placed both in the theatre and outside of it, which contributes to debates about relational geographies of responsibility and embodied agency.

Setting up a nuanced and complex “face off ”, Nomusa Makhubu explores the presentation of blackface minstrelsy and caricature in Zanele Muholi’s photographs. While Muholi’s own enactment of blackface is presented as a celebration of black identity, Blackface Whiteface! exposes the double bind and laboured conflict present in Muholi’s work. Makhubu cautions against Muholi’s striking evocation of the derogatory practices that emerged in nineteenth-century America, where black people were caricatured by white entertainers who darkened their skin and lightened or exaggerated their lips. Makhubu calls for frank and unapologetic engagement with the way specific dimensions of race in the arts are reproduced in recurring symbols of historical black humiliation, which at times re-surface as self-representation and activism. By way of contrast, Makhubu discusses Cele’s Black Off performances in which Cele plays Bianca White, a middle-class, white South African woman to address the chasms between the consumption of race as image or the minstrelisation of racial politics and the labour of activism.

Through revitalised cinema aesthetics, practitioners Nobunye Levin and Nduka Mntambo pose research questions that set new politics of film practice in motion. Through Walking, Levin explores the limits of gendered Willful(ness) by working with the film fragment as a discursive form. There is an insistence on sensuality and emotion rather than narrative through which characters cohere. The strategy of working with fragments invites an open-ended attitude to the experience and brings into play cinema as citation. The essay is complemented by Levin’s film work, which is orientated around a set of rhythmic acts: waiting, walking, wandering, willfulness. In exploring these movements and gestures discretely, Levin creates a scaffolded experience-argument for “falling in love” as the political potential to produce “de-colonial love”.

Upturning conventional cinema practice even further, Mntambo takes us through his working process towards the manifestation of the three iterations of Asymmetries (2017-19) – an installation of moving image sequences. The work is not held together by any grand mimetic narrative, instead it is conceived of as a making-thinking-spectatorial project on the urban environment. It is premised on strategies inspired by enquiries which capture the difficulties of theorising many quarters of African cities, where complex social interactions challenge normative modes of research. The installation project demands a different conception of the relationship between the screen, the image and the viewer.

Form is one of the cornerstones in Jay Pather’s performance practice. In his meticulously detailed essay, Pather charts the development of three projects (Body of Evidence, Qaphela Caesar! and rite). The projects are interconnected through Pather’s other fundamental concerns: the body, structural violence in South Africa both historically and in its contemporary manifestations, and the relations to space/place. The situatedness of the performances is central to how memory and apartheid, truth and reconciliation” come to be embodied and expressed in multiply-layered and hybrid forms. Pather’s paper not only attends to the process and conditions that lead to his insistence on excess and, on layering and counter-narrative strategies, but his recounting of the research-rehearsal process is fundamental to the relationship of aesthetics to the politics of utterance (as opposed to the aesthetics-politics of representation).

Pather’s parting shot cues to the orthodox strictures of institutional research, which have failed to respond to a society where utterance (gesture) and its various aesthetic forms constitute the pulse of (lived) “decolonial politics”. Alluding to the profound disconnect, he writes provocatively at the end, “one hopes that someone sees the point”.

Decolonial practices exist as forms of protest and transgression and as aesthetic affirmation of experiences from the margins. Furthermore they secure and safe-guard spaces of resistance to dominant and “institutional” aesthetics. To decolonialise art institutions across the entire spectrum of arts education, including places of exhibition, (taking into account critical reception) entails making the relevant point visible!


2020

fig. 1: An interview at the University of Cape Town (1971) by John Muafangejo


How might this John Muafangejo image be inverted to reveal a revised relationship of seeing and being seen. Of being heard and hearing. Of deep listening that does not assume the certainty of knowledge, but recognises all knowledges and experiences.

The artist sits at the head of the table. He is bearer of a system of knowledge unknown to his audience. How might the members of that audience recognise their complicity in white power – and take responsibility for the privileged place of whiteness and address their own dearth of knowledge in utterances they do not recognise – in languages they do not speak.

Decolonialising is not a mythical endeavour, it is ultimately a politics of recognition.

It demands that aesthetics and the politics of practice dismantle singularities and the monolithic – it seeks out the nuances, the co-existence of contradictions and invites us to look, see and listen and to not deny the legacies of privilege borne from structures of power.

 

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Nkule Mabaso is contributing editor to the Oncurating Journal and is the director of Natal Collective an independent production company active internationally in the research and presentation of creative and cultural Africana contemporary art and politics. She graduated with a Fine Arts degree from the University of Cape Town in 2011 and received a Master’s in Curating from the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK) in 2014. She headed the Michaelis Galleries at the University of Cape Town between January 2015 and June 2021. Mabaso’s practice is collaborative and research interests centre around theorizing and articulating nuanced aesthetic questions from the black female vantage point.

Jyoti Mistry is Professor in Film at Valand Academy, University of Gothenburg in Sweden. She works with film both as a research form and as a mode of artistic practice. Select works include: Cause of death (2020)   When I grow up I want to be a black man (2017), Impunity (2014), 09: 21:25 (2011), Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit (2010), and I mike what I like (2006). Her work has featured at festivals and museums including the Berlinale International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, Kurzfilmtage Winterthur, Rotterdam International Film Festival, Durban International Film Festival, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume Paris, Kunsthalle Zürich, Kunsthalle Vienna, Museum der Moderne Salzburg and the Eye Film Museum, Amsterdam.

Select publications include: Places to Play: practice, research, pedagogy (2017) explores archive as exemplar of “decolonised” film practices. She has edited special issues of the Journal of African Cinema: “Film as Research Tool: Practice and Pedagogy” (2018) and the International Journal of Film and Media Arts: “Mapping Artistic Research in Film”  (2020).

She has taught at University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), New York University; University of Vienna; Nafti in Accra and Alle Arts School at University of Addis Ababa. Mistry was in the Whitney Museum Independent Artist programme and artist in residence at California College of Arts, and a DAAD Researcher at Babelsberg Konrad Wolf Film University.  In  2020, she completed a residency at Västerbottens Museum in Sweden working with the indigenous Sami collection. In 2016-2017 she was Artist in Residence at Netherlands Film Academy. From 2017-2020 she was principal research investigator on a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) cross cultural project that explores image-making practices. Currently she   is editor in chief of PARSE (Platform of Artistic Research in Sweden) and on the editorial board of L'Internationale Online.

 

Notes

[1] Same Mdluli (2017, p79) Chasing Colonial Ghosts: Decolonizing Art Institutions in “Post-Apartheid” South Africa in Decolonizing Art Institutions Oncurating Issue 35 / December 2017: 79-81

[2] Mawande Ka Zenzile (2017) Decolonising Visualities: changing cultural paradigms and freeing ourselves from Western-centric (MAFA Thesis) Art History, University of Cape Town

[3] Gaztambide-Fernández, Decolonial options and artistic/aestheSic entanglements: An interview with Walter Mignolo Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 3, No. 1, 2014, 196-212 2014 R.

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