VAS 2015 Report

VISUAL ARTS SYMPOSIUM EMONTI 2015 REPORT

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VAS 2015 Group Photo

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Summary: Visual Arts Symposium eMonti 2015

The Visual Arts Symposium Emonti 2015 was the first iteration of what is envisaged to be a biannual gathering of artists, art historians, art writers and other creative practitioners. It is intended to provide a platform for conversations, feedback, support, peer-reviewing and constructive criticism on the writings of its participants, with an aim to ultimately publish material coming out of these gatherings. The idea of a symposium was in response to what Black Mark: Collective Critical Thought (BMCCT) recognised as a glaring lack of publishing by Black South African scholars, writers and practitioners in visual arts.

IMG_8110For this symposium the group (Black Mark) felt very strongly that the presenters needed to have a consistent interest and practice in critical writing. And so the make up of the symposium drew from multiple perspectives including those working towards Masters and PhD proposals, research papers and theses, with a focus on emergent voices within the South African context. It also included those who have a track record in publishing for newspapers, journals, magazines, catalogues, etc.

Black Mark thus views the symposium as a space for cross-generational and interdisciplinary dialogue that enables its participants to write on what they like, how they like and in ways that are not beholden to “white” structures and validation, while maintaining the highest standard of criticality and editorial rigour.

The next symposium is planned for 2017.

About BMCCT

Black Mark: Collective Critical Thought (BMCCT) is a Johannesburg-Based reading and writing group, consisting of Nontobeko NtombelaTiffany MentoorDr Same MdluliKhwezi Gule and Londiwe Langa. The group was established in 2013 as peer review platform for members to critically engage with each other’s writing and intellectual projects.


Day 1                                                                                                                                     7 September 2015

Welcome Dinner

The Visual Arts Symposium eMonti opened on the 7th of September 2015 at the College Street Campus of Walter Sisulu University in East London. In attendance were the Acting Rector of the Walter Sisulu University Buffalo Campus, Mr C S Novukela; Head of the Fine Art Department, Mr Phumlani Mbanya; Senior Lecturer at WSU Fine Art Department and host of the symposium, Mr Churchill Madikida; WSU Fine Art lecturers Ms Dianne Leach, Dr John Steele, Mr Litha Ncokazi; members of Black Mark: Collective Critical Thought; and students from the Fine Art department.

The evening began with introductions by Mr Mbanya, followed by a welcoming address by the Acting Rector Mr Novukela.

Representing Black Mark, Khwezi Gule outlined the purpose of the Symposium, describing how it intends to advance Black scholarship within the visual arts. In his address, Gule highlighted that the Symposium was understood as a space that aims to encourage dialogue among black arts practitioners, writers and academics. He further explained that the symposium and the planned publication of symposium proceedings are part of a process to make black scholarship visible within larger discourses of art, and to build an archive of black thought in this field. He also added that by holding the Symposium within a university context, it was meant to benefit students, and, at the same time, encourage them to become future participants. Gule noted that the symposium also presented an opportunity to interact with South African spaces that remain largely ignored in national and international discourses of artistic practices and academic writing. Black Mark decided on the Walter Sisulu University as an important venue for this event.

Gule thanked Walter Sisulu University, Department of Fine Arts, for hosting the Visual Arts Symposium 2015 eMonti, and for their financial, technical and administrative support. The evening was concluded with a dinner.

Day 2                                                                                                                                       8 September 2015

Session 1: Reflections on the Public Art/Memory/Post-colonial

Chair: Dr Same Mdluli

Presenters: Churchill Madikida and Khwezi Gule

IMG_7972This session began with a presentation by Churchill Madikida titled Thinking Outside of the Colonial Frames: Rethinking Historical and Public Monuments in South Africa. It interrogated whether our current responses to colonial legacy, as expressed in public monuments, represents a failure to articulate a more progressive way of narrating South Africa’s history. Using the example of a proposed statue of Jongumsobomvu Maqoma, which is planned for King William’s Town in the Eastern Cape, Madikida pointed to the shortcomings in the framing of not only the size, material, dress and gesture of the proposed statue, but also its placing opposite that of Queen Victoria. He further argued that this dialectic only serves to reinforce the primacy of Queen Victoria and the colonial narrative, thus relegating African history to secondary status. Madikida’s presentation also raised the following questions: Who are these public spaces meant for? Who are they produced by? In what ways do these public art monuments help de-colonise historical imbalances?

The second speaker, Khwezi Gule presented a paper titled Towards a Praxis-Driven Memorial Culture in which he mapped out three dominant drivers of public culture in post-1994 South Africa, namely: the state, corporate entities and artists’ initiatives. Gule pointed out that these entities are not mutually exclusive, but that they are also underpinned by neo-liberal ideology. However, Gule noted that whilst these drivers of public memorial culture might have different motivations, they are largely informed by Western discourses, which is an imagery that is at odds with the praxes of everyday life and desires of the communities they are supposed to serve – what Gule referred to as a “signification deficit” borrowing from Michael Urban’s essay titled ‘Remythologizing the Russian State’ (1997). Gule also referred to case studies such as the Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth in order to point out how this signification deficit plays itself out in memorial culture and then suggested a few initiatives which worked against such deficits, for example the Joburg-based project Centre for Historical Reenactments and Ntyilo-Ntyilo, a vocal museum by Masello Motana that uses ways of thinking differently to engage different practices of commemoration and memorialisation that have taken place in recent years.

Session 2: Representation(s)

Chair: Khwezi Gule

Presenters: Mpho Moshe Matheolane and Dr Sharlene Khan

In his paper titled The Politics of Representation in the Comics of Mighty Man; mpho_presentationScreengrabthe Superman of Soweto, Mpho Moshe Matheolane sketched out a narrative of how the so-called ‘Info scandal’ of the 1970s, under the Apartheid regime, involved the production of a comic magazine centred around a Black superhero of Soweto, called Mighty Man. He examined how the production, writing, narrative, framing, reception and demise of this comic book mirrored the politics of South Africa at the time. Produced by white writers for a Black readership, he reiterated that it was a propaganda project of the Ministry of Information, which failed to gather a following even though it was sold at a nominal cost.

According to Matheolane, this hero actually didn’t have any super powers, and only tackled Black “criminals” who, as Matheolane deduced were supposed to represent ANC cadres who were considered terrorists at the time. He also pointed out that in fact this character Mighty Man was as an ex-cop, who before becoming a superhero, worked for the apartheid government. In his presentation Matheolane showed that the comic represented a failed attempt by the Apartheid government to get Blacks to conspire in their oppression through entertainment (he cited other examples such as films iNyaka Nyaka and Dingaka). The run of the comic ended when the factory where it was produced was destroyed.

IMG_8075The second speaker, Sharlene Khan presented a paper tilted Touching and Fondling the Black Body: The Significance of the Blackface Sign in Contemporary South African Visual Arts, where she traced the development of blackface as a genre from its beginnings in American theatre in the post-civil war period to current. She described how it came to be a dominant motif in various art forms in America and Europe, permeating into other cultural forms. She looked at how this practice is steeped into the cultural, political and economic circumstances that historically produced it. Khan then zoomed in on the work of Anton Kannemeyer, a South African visual artist, looking at his use of blackface in his comics and paintings. In doing so, Khan also unpacked the psychological and cultural operation of jokes in general and delved into how and why blackface continues to find new audiences and new expression in the post-Apartheid cultural sphere, particularly its effort to entertain whiteness. Khan demonstrated that in this regard, white fear and trauma become important drivers of the resurgence of blackface in contemporary South African popular culture, not only in the work of Kannemeyer but also in the work of other producers including Die Antwoord.

Performance: Inzwi by Sikhumbuzo Makandula

Performance Review by Londiwe Langa

Sikhumbuzo Makandula

Sikhumbuzo Makandula

Down the cold campus corridors of the Walter Sisulu University, the metal clang of a sound reminiscent of a cowbell calls our attention but also recalls the bells that altar boys ring in Catholic church services. The auditorium falls silent in anticipation of the steady approaching call of bells with no visible source. For a minor interim each individual in the auditorium is left to negotiate where their individual eyes’ focus shall lead them; and perhaps for some, their own bodies become highlighted within the space in the absence of the source calling for our ears. The source enters the space. Sikhumbuzo Makandula is in red Catholic altar-boy regalia, with a differently themed red hat, a common Middle-Eastern regalia. He enters and wanders the space slowly with evident purpose. What could this purpose have to do with the auditorium or the Walter Sisulu University institution, let alone the Visual Arts Symposium 2015 gathering? He holds a human skull mould in hand.

The skull serves the function of a container as Makandula repeatedly reaches into it to extract content, which disperses to the crowd in likeness of the revered Holy Communion ritual. We all receive the spiritually heightened food. Having distributed to his satisfaction, Makandula returns to the centre and with an intensely fixed gaze on the skull he repeatedly chants “Buyisanini uMbuyisa[1]!” We are now witnessing another style of ritual with this calling, reminiscent of a traditional healer’s performed dialogue with the spiritual world. “Buyisani uMbuyisa” progresses into a menacing command. As the charge in Makandula’s voice rises, so does the impression deepen in our psyches whilst we negotiate the possible cause of this charged and desperate call. And quite appropriately, this performed inquiry speaks to the agenda of the gathering (VAS): after all, the common purpose was to hear the voices of the people or vocalise beyond a systemically silenced existence. The obvious reading would be that the performance addresses the spiritual discomfort of the religious mix and the inability of these rituals to reach or enable a state of resolve with regards to the absent ‘Mbuyisa’. This commentary extends beyond the missing Mbuyisa, making it applicable to art scholarship and the suppressed black scholar’s perspective. The calling in Makandula’s performance is a call to transcend the barriers of the silencing and silenced.

 

Day 3                                                                                                                                            9 September 2015

 Session 1: Revisions: Exhibition Histories, Collection and Spaces

Chair: Londiwe Langa

Presenters: Nontobeko Ntombela and Dr Same Mdluli

This panel put forward a critical engagement on the vestiges of colonial ideologies that continue to govern art histories. In her presentation titled (Re)Writing Art History: Exploring the Work of ‘Rural’ South African Artists, Same Mdluli raises questions surrounding the inaccuracy and lack of criticality in the way black ‘rural’ artists were written about, in particular with regards to their biographies and chronological order of their exhibitions. Mdluli’s paper revealed patterns of presumptive assertions; information not factually verified but circulated as ‘fact’ about the so-called ‘rural’ artists, resulting in the categorisation of these artists’ works being reduced to race and location. She further argued that such superficial reading of their artistic practise reveals the problematic misconceptions of the complex conceptual ideas that artists from such locations were and are dealing with. She asserted that such trends tend to silence the voices of artists in speaking back to these misinterpretations.

IMG_8044Nontobeko Ntombela in Learning from the Ruins focused her enquiry on art histories, more particularly through the curatorial practice. Using the intellectual propositions asserted by Carli Coetzee in Accented Futures (2013), where Coetzee unpacks the limitations of translation practise, Ntombela extracts a methodology of mediation (translating as an act of curating) as an opportunity to understand or see things differently. Such methodologies are premised on the concept that the mediator must always approach the process of curating with a willingness to learn. Integral to this methodology is the ability for the curator to allow a process of rigorous enquiry to guide the reading of dormant collections/archives to new possibilities. She asserted that such a strategy does not only disrupt the role of curators, but also the dominant ideologies that are maintained by museums and reinforced by curatorial practise.

Session 2: Hypervisibilty: A proposition on Self-Actualisation

Presenters: Joint presentation by Portia Malatjie and Nontobeko Ntombela

Titled Hypervisibility: a Proposition of Self-actualisation, this session was structured as a conversation between Portia Malatjie and Nontobeko IMG_8081Ntombela around the hypervisibility of black women within the arts. It was a response to three-incidents namely, Regarding Women 2014, Where Hyper-visibility Meets True Transformation’ (2015) and nontransformative employment strategies that sparked a series of debates about the contentious position black women in the arts often find themselves and how such issues speak to subjectivity, agency and the need for self-articulate. The conversation highlighted issues of the ‘politics of participation’, stressing concerns over the erasure of black women’s voices. Elaborating on these incidents:

First, the panel discussion that took place at Gallery MOMO (Regarding Women, 20 August 2014) where Nontobeko Ntombela, Mary Sibande, Donna Kukama, Shatema Threadcraft and Ayana V. Jackson (convenor) was subsequently attacked on Facebook by artist Jodi Bieber for not being ‘inclusive’ in their panel composition.

Second, the article ‘Where Hyper-visibility Meets True Transformation’ (2015) written by Nadine Botha for the Mail and Guardian (interviewing a whole range of South African women curators including Malatjie and Ntombela) created binaries between women of different races, portraying white women as progressive and black women as angry.

The third, looked at black women’s roles in positions of supposed ‘power’ within art institutions. Malatjie looked at the dilemma of black women being put in the position of hypevisibility in the name of transformation and how this continues to favour an already established institutional structure of whiteness. She pointed out how this makes such institutions impossible to transform precisely because they are based on a flawed idea of equal representation through ‘representationality’.

Malatjie and Ntombela’s conversation thus, sought to question the platforms available to self-articulate. Questions that arose from their conversation are:

  • Why do white women always feel they have the right to question the position of black women in South Africa?
  • What are the platforms for self-articulation, without interference?

Session 3: Video Art and the Fantastical

Chair: Tiffany Mentoor

Presenters: Portia Malatjie and Dr Nomusa Makhubu

In her paper Speculative Fiction in Video Art from the Global South, Portia Malatjie drew parallels between global and local cultures through a study of ‘African Futurisms’. She argued that the multiplicity of narratives of African Futurisms offers a critical interrogation of tropes of globalisation. While it pretends to offer easy access to understanding ‘African culture’, it does not take into account financial access. Malatjie, thus, suggested that the countries that make ‘sense’ to the north are those who are part of the global system. She noted how exploitation in this context is desired because it means being part of that system – even though this is at times contradictory. Furthermore, she notes how the notion of “Africa rising” is part of the globalist project insofar as it is consistent with capital exploitation. Malatjie’s paper referred to Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum’s notion of African Futurism as a counter-discourse, one that seems to be inserting itself into a history concerned with how the future of Africa is represented. She argued that African Futurism, as opposed to Afrofuturism (which is often seen to be rooted in African-American history), is not only rooted in speculations of the future but can also rewrite the past and present, provide alternative histories and, referencing Kodwo Oshun, enable ideas of counter-memory.

IMG_8089Doing Things Differently: Re-Thinking the Discipline of Art History Through Video-film was the title of Dr Nomusa Makhubu’s paper. In her presentation she mapped out a number of areas in the cultural sphere that have hitherto delineated the realm of African cultural productions. She addressed how Western art history and the manner in which this discipline has set up hierarchies of knowledge is based on geography. She further argued that what is at stake are the ways in which this era of globalisation has, despite the post-modern critiques of modernity and its hierarchies, remained intact. Such an understanding appeals to the notion that Africans had a culture prior to colonisation, a position that attempts to recover African cultures as well as the proscriptions of post-modernity, which precludes ideas of the fantastical and their supposed antagonism to the rational. Makhubu demonstrated how the fantastical has always been part of other genres of popular culture and does this by debunking the rejection of Nollywood and its treatment as something ‘alien’. Makhubu pointed out that present-day evaluations of Nollywood make disparaging remarks around its superstition and the occult. She argued that such practices have been features of traditional rituals, including masquerade, and that Nollywood offers a space of moral, political and social engagement in understanding the evolution of video-film and how it transcends African film in the tradition of Djibril Mambéty.

Day 4                                                                                                                                       10 September 2015

Session 1: Archives, Authorship and Artistic Practises

Chair: Churchill Madikida

Presenters: Athi Mongezeleli Joja and Zamansele Nsele

Athi Joja presented a paper titled Of Culture and Politics: A Delayed Response to Albie Sacks and the Like. In his presentation, Joja traced the present nexus between culture and politics. In doing so he analysed Justice Albie Sachs’ position paper Preparing Ourselves for Freedom, a paper that is considered seminal in some circles within the arts. Joja linked this paper to what he argued is a consistent drive within the white liberal establishment in South Africa to supplant radical black politics with a politics of demobiliszation. Joja pointed out that Sachs’ paper was centred on discouraging political messaging in art (what Sachs at the time referred to a pamphleteering). Joja related this to how, in the 1980s various artists, including those who had been working under the ambit of MEDU Arts Ensemble, had pledged to use art as a weapon of struggle against Apartheid. He further stated that this also included actual combat training actively involved in the armed struggle. Joja pointed out that at the time that Sachs delivered the position paper at an internal African National Congress (ANC) conference in 1991, South Africa was still not a democracy and this marked a time when sections of the ANC were advocating an intensification of the armed struggle within the ANC and the South African Communist Party. Joja also traced this trajectory to the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955 where, again, he argued that the white liberal and communist agenda managed to derail a more radical and Africanist agenda, which led to the break-away group led by Robert Sobukwe who later formed the PAC.

IMG_8100According to Joja, the current situation where whites are leaders in cultural discourse emanates from such moments. This he argued is a prevalent norm in the arts industry where white cultural practitioners and academics have become the experts on the black experience including academics such as the late Colin Richards. He further pointed out that similar arguments have been made by Lewis Nkosi and Njabulo Ndebele with respect to literature, where they claim that much of what passed as protest literature was more or less reportage.

Presenting a paper titled The Nostalgic Turn: Colonial Aesthetics and Post-Apartheid Ethics, Zamansele Nsele looked at the temporal phenomenon of nostalgia in South African politics and its relationship with time.

Demonstrating what she terms a ‘nostalgic turn’ in contemporary art in South Africa and the diaspora, Nsele looked at the work of Bogotsi Sikhukhune, Joseph Coetzee and Ayana V. Jackson. She analysed how these artists aestheticise images of historical oppression in their work – which shows how this kind of art is entangled with politics of enjoyment – where both master and slave are implicated.

IMG_8021Nsele mapped out the scholarship around nostalgia, citing key scholars who have informed her understanding of this term, such as Jacob Dlamini and Svetlana Boym who both operate in fields outside of visual arts such as politics and literature. She explained how these writers have helped her articulate an argument around the nostalgic turn within contemporary South African art.  According to Nsele, ‘nostalgia’ is both futuristic (forward-looking into the future) as well as about the past (a painful and sometime pleasurable longing), pointing out that artists use these images of history to critique the current context, most of which underpins race politics. She linked the idea of ‘race as pleasure’ with the semantic experience of the black body as a representation of racist pleasure. She further discussed how these artists critique the ‘moral failure’ of apartheid and slavery, and use images of the past to articulate the psychological impact of the past in today’s culture, in order to cite the contradictions existing in the establishment of post-Apartheid and in the case of Jackson, post-slavery.

Furthermore, she asked: What does it mean to remember life under Apartheid with fondness? What does it mean for artists to be preoccupied with the image of the past today? Through the works of the selected artists, Nsele discussed how artist’s reference to history is abstracted, superimposed and enacted through the medium of video, photography and internet art. She also noted how this has been seen as a form of escapism disguised with humour. Nsele argued that the result of this is that we (in this case referring to the artists and herself) find ourselves aligned with the very same systems that we are attempting to ‘decolonise’ or dismantle. In her argument she put forward that perhaps part of the de-colonial process requires that we change the way we enjoy certain images, and that the way we enjoy these images needs to be dislodged. Discussing how the selected artists’ works are encountered – given the fact that these artworks are usually experienced in spaces of art and pleasure – she stated that the visual arts field heightens the element of enjoyment, something that does not often get critiqued within such spaces, but should be.

Session 2: Space and Currency

Chair: Nontobeko Ntombela

Presenters: Londiwe Langa and Tiffany Mentoor

Londiwe Langa focused on economic freedom for black artists/arts practitioners and economics of the arts in her paper titled Race, Space: The Creative field and Economic Power. The paper examined the workings of ‘redlining’, a strategy used by banks to demarcate, identify and isolate unprofitable (bond) property zones in cities across South Africa classified under urban decay. At most these are spaces that have become dilapidated due to overcrowding, lack of building maintenance and, most importantly, the influx of black immigrants (according to Langa, these strategies continue to work in favour of white economic power). Once banks decide on redlined spaces, they do not fund or give bond loans (private or business) for property within these demarcated areas, as they are rendered high-risk due to decay.

Langa analysed how young white developers then use this redlining as an opportunity to buy buildings at a low cost, because they come with private funding for the purpose of rebuilding for profit. Her paper, thus, argued that these two business models – redlining and gentrification- work hand-in-hand in further disempowering black arts entrepreneurs. When re-gentrification projects start, black artists who occupy these spaces are often forced to leave due to increasing costs. Those that stay, end up generating value for the white economy. Langa calls for strategies that seek to overturn this trend, asking for this forum to consider collective strategies that will begin to offer other ways for black artists to gain some form of economic freedom.

The second speaker Tiffany Mentoor based her presentation on an investigation of the museum, considerations on the history of the IMG_8023museum and its evolution from being cabinets of curiosities to becoming grand monuments of former powers. Her paper, titled Remembering Outside the Institution: Ouma se Huis made comparisons between the Johannesburg Art gallery and East London Gallery, pointing out the colonial legacies these institutions carry, which no longer serve the communities around them. She posed questions of how art is valued in different contexts and the currency it has in various communities and notes how the museum complicates ways of remembering history, which, in her personal experience, is in conflict with the idea of preserving memory and heritage.

Mentoor drew on Fred Wilson’s Mining the Museum exhibition, in which Wilson engaged with the collection of the Maryland Society Museum (United States of America) through an intervention that critically disrupted the museum’s displays. Wilson demonstrated how museums staged historical contentions, often in favour of dominant groups. Mentoor also referred to the work of South African writer Chris van Wyk and how his book Shirley Goodness and Mercy looks at his life growing up in Riverlea. Wyk’s work elicited a positive response from various communities that resonated with it. She further cited other examples such as Alice Yard in the Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, which is a backyard space of the house of Sean Leonard’s great-grandmother that was turned into a space for meeting for artists to share and exchange ideas.

Mentoor cites these examples to illustrate the ways in which other kinds of spaces can exist and offer new ways of articulating a different history and memorialisation, which is not restricted by the traditions and conventions of an authorised museum space.

 

WAY FORWARD, FUTURE PLANS AND FEEDBACK

The intention is to publish the symposium papers through a peer-reviewed process.IMG_8063

The Black Mark is currently looking for publishing partners.

Feedback/future incorporations to consider:

  • To increase the scope of scholarship by inviting scholars from other parts of Africa
  • Have the Symposium over the weekend, so as to accommodate neighbouring university students, staff etc.; try and aim for a long weekend that does not clash with the Joburg Art Fair or holidays of significance
  • To continue engaging and encouraging student participation
  • Aim to include more student papers, particularly from WSU
  • Crit sessions to be held at the beginning and end of the Symposium
  • Consider an exhibition to launch the event
  • Integrate a writing workshop
  • To consider events that are happening at the same time or important events of the hosting or neighbouring institutions so as to integrate with the Symposium

Where to next: Next symposium 2017. Venue to be confirmed.

[1] Mbuyisa Makhubu is the eighteen-year old youth who is pictured in Sam Nzima’s iconic image of the dying Hector Pieterson who was shot on June 16, 1976. Mbuyisa disappeared in Nigeria following his initial exile in Botswana due to harassment by Apartheid security forces.

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