Serge Alain Nitegeka Mawande Ka Zenzile Deborah Poynton Pieter Hugo Viviane Sassen Nicholas Hlobo Nandipha Mntambo Dineo Seshee Bopape Meleko Mokgosi in conversation with Hansi Momodu-Gordon
Essays and interviews by Hansi Momodu-Gordon
Introduction 5 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.
Serge Alain Nitegeka Mawande Ka Zenzile Deborah Poynton Pieter Hugo Viviane Sassen Nicholas Hlobo Nandipha Mntambo Dineo Seshee Bopape Meleko Mokgosi
9 25 41 55 73 91 115 131 151
Introduction by Hansi Momodu-Gordon 9 Weeks maps a journey through an artistic landscape, at a particular moment in time. Over the course of nine weeks in South Africa at the end of 2015, I held nine conversations with artists represented by Stevenson. It began as a way in, and as a means of coming closer to the artistsâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; practices. As the project unfolded, with each new encounter I began to build a picture of a place, of South Africa, of Cape Town in particular and Johannesburg too, and of the sites of significance for each of the artists I spoke to. As an outsider of English-Nigerian heritage, with shared histories and cultural practices inherited through legacies of colonialism, but renegotiated through personal journeys with visual art, finding my place in Cape Town was an intricate act, in constant motion. I was deeply affected by the persistence of racial segregation in the city and the visibility of people living at the extremes of the economic divide. I was also energised by an openness with which new generations of people are talking about the issues of racial and economic 5
inequality that continue to permeate society, and taking action to make change happen. The conversations and essays in 9 Weeks portray a number of different approaches to art-making â&#x20AC;&#x201C; through levels of engagement with politics and the social, uses of materials, conceptual frameworks and historical references; and yet a number of concerns began to coalesce across the project. Concepts of time, the body and the silhouette as form, and a deep engagement with language and narrative in spoken and written modes are all expressed from multiple perspectives. Most persistently, the politics and the poetics of representation would come to the surface. Signs that we read in visual landscapes to make meaning, and that we seek to find in works of art, are shown to be culturally dependent, and many of the artists I spoke to are undermining, reappropriating or negating symbolic representations. Questions of who can or should represent whom, from what position they are speaking and the implications of that act, continued to seep through, with all propositions, possible answers and potential meanings shifting from speaker to speaker. Shared meanings and connections slipped 6
in and out of reach, guided by the structures of conversation itself. Within each interaction meaning was negotiated over shifting ground. Unfixed and floating, rather than a truth to be found, meanings were held in the exchange of ideas. As cultural theorist Stuart Hall has proposed, meaning emerges as ‘a process of translation, which facilitates cultural communication while always recognizing the persistence of difference and power between different “speakers”.’ 9 Weeks evolved out of the generosity of the artists who agreed to place their time and trust in conversation. Who participated in the event of dialogue, acknowledging its imperfections. Who recognised moments of beauty in misunderstanding and found fleeting connections when signs aligned to create shared meanings.
Reference Stuart Hall. Introduction to Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, edited by Hall. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 1997
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
Form without formula Serge Alain Nitegeka’s sculptures, paintings and installations manifest from internal meditations on shadow and light, material, texture and line. The installations reveal themselves to the artist as he wanders through a space changing his perspective and positioning. There is no predetermined plan or formula. There are materials and ideas and spaces, and a will to follow lines of possibility with an embrace of improvisation. Over time, one gesture makes another possible; a gap in the structure makes a new line visible. [B]efore you know it compositions are almost self-generating before you. It began with a screw into a block of wood on the wall, then expanded outwards. Nitegeka plays with the aesthetic language of architecture and, in dialogue with questions of function and form, his sculptures speak to the elements of design that make internal spaces inhabitable. Wood is utilised to numerous ends – as structure, cladding or bent into arcs and curves; it provides solid sculptural form, and may be laid bare or covered by layers of paint. Nitegeka often employs the wood of industry and transportation such as shipping crates or ply. Despite being industrially mass-produced the crates are chosen as objects with a history linked to the movement of cargo and, as such, invoke the artist’s personal story of forced migration and perhaps also the forced transportation of African people during the slave trade. In an early series of nude self-portraits Nitegeka expressed his personal narrative, drawing his own image in great detail with charcoal on the surface of crates. His facial expressions are clearly discernible – staring downward at the viewer with pride or contempt. Charcoal lines were soon replaced by silhouettes in his paintings and later his moving image work. The silhouette affords an anonymity to Nitegeka’s subjects, and its ability to conceal the individual while representing the human body allows him the space to consider the formal qualities of the body in relation to its surroundings. It also allows the artist greater nuance in reflecting his own personal story and speaking to a broader experience. 11
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
Balanced within Nitegeka’s practice is the relationship between internal and external worlds, where the artist’s own experiences of movement, as a migrant but also as a maker of objects, are made visible through his exploration of form. In turn, the outside worlds of nature and the built environment provide new ways for the artist to encounter, see and imagine his work into being.
To start, could you describe the work that you’re making here? Serge Alain Nitegeka:
It’s always hard to answer that question. Let’s see ... first of all it’s a site-specific work that has a fluid formal agenda in terms of the kind of lines and planes I want to make or shape. This is what I brought to this space. And for me in particular, site-specific work not only involves working with the physical space but also with the people I encounter in the space, the temperature outside on the street and how I feel in the moment. Pretty much the general vibe. Do you tend to visualise in advance? Do you have a set image of what you could create or is it about the emotions that you want to bring to the fore? It starts as an abstract emotion, if there is such an expression, mainly felt and hard to explain. I think to myself, I want to work with this material and I want to have my lines interact with the space in particular ways. 12
It’s a vague feeling that wills itself ever more steadily towards materialisation. It’s how you want people to feel when they enter the space? Yes ... for them to wonder how it all came together, work out and appreciate my logic of geometry that was once fuzzy visuals in my head. So it’s about clearing it up, getting it out of the mind and putting the puzzle together, as it were. So in a way you work with things that are known and things that are unknown. Mostly unknown, mostly unknown. But you set yourself rules around materials or time or … Let’s put it this way: it’s about an idea, this untouchable thing, becoming an object that you can physically touch and walk around; that’s how I see it. You visualise space and once you see it for the first time and you see the materials, you start with: what if I start with one of those? What if I stand over here to have a different gaze? And then before you know it compositions are almost self-generating before you. It began with a screw into a block of wood on the wall, then expanded outwards. 13
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
Yesterday when you walked through the space, you said to me, ‘This is where it first started,’ and you pointed … Can you talk a little bit about how you worked from there, now that we’re on day three of the installation? You know, the title of the show is Black Passage, and that passage started from the area outside the gallery staff office, gallery one and the main entrance into the gallery … That’s where most viewers enter the space and that’s where I had to start, where I would start to block movement. That was the most problematic part: where to start. But when I solved the problem and began to tame this area, then the show was done. It’s about identifying that starting point, the usual movement of people and objects in the space and changing or disrupting that a little bit. So you changed the flow of that space? Yes, I had to change that flow first, even before putting up the rest of the show, even for myself. How would I walk here? Oh, I’m not going to walk there, don’t want to ... let me find another way to access this space. You’ve used plywood to change the routes through the space. But you’ve left that kind of cheeky gap in between the two boards and so you’ve still got that vision, that viewpoint through.
Yes, I keep my approach fluid. What if I do it this way as opposed to how I have always done it? It might be more interesting that way, you know, let me experiment, let’s play and let’s see what happens. Do you approach your paintings with a similar level of spontaneity or is that a different process? It’s slowly changing now. Before the paintings were a way to document the installations that I did. So it would be taking a picture and working from that almost as a one-to-one translation, whereas the current paintings – for example Field Configuration – make no reference to any of my installations. They are composed purely from interactions of space, form and colour on an already charged wooden surface. How am I going to create the illusion of space? How am I going to work with form and light? How is that going to come through? These are the ideas I am exploring now. Whereas before it was working from a translation of three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional composition. But that in itself is not as straightforward as I’m saying because of the varying elements of surfaces I have to engage with. The idea of surface is really interesting in your work because there are so many different layers: you have different kinds of blacks, you have the matte black and the reflective surface, and then you have the raw material coming through …
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
I see that not only as a way of creating the illusion of three-dimensional space in the works, a flat surface having three-dimensionality, but also as a way of reflecting light. For example, this shelf is white, but the way the light falls on the different planes gives it depth and variation of colour and form. The idea of the positive and the negative space, the darkness and lightness is very much part of the installation as well. As much as any art is dealing with colour, you’re dealing with light, you know; light is one of the key elements I am working with, right next to colour and form. I wanted to ask you about your journey through colour, because I think at the beginning it was a very limited palette, and black was very much there, black with white and then red, which became a very powerful motif, and then this exhibition is the first one where you’ve used yellow and blue. Can you talk about your journey through the chromatics of your work? I’ve had those two colours, the yellow and the blue, sitting in my studio for the last three years. I just didn’t feel comfortable making that leap yet. What was the process that you went through to even choose those colours before they got to your studio? 16
There was a residency at Nirox where I had the space to create a three-dimensional work outside in nature. My installations had always been interior works, and these exterior works posed the black paint against the blue sky. Once I saw this I realised there was a nice complementary relationship in a pale blue sky next to my black objects. It wasn’t something I researched. That’s actually very beautiful because it came from the built environment in the outside world, in nature. Yes it is, I like to put some of these things in my work; it’s not some grand thing ... it’s the simple things staring at you that radiate charm later on. For me the yellow is very much like a sun shining yellow and so warm. The way the yellow came is that with most of my paintings there’s some exposed wood; the plywood sheets that I use vary depending on the trees that are used to make them, and some of them come out quite yellow from a distance or when you photograph paintings with exposed plywood and print them in books or in digital format. So I started thinking about yellow as interpreting light, as you say, sunshine for example. It’s also to do with sculpture being outside and people being able to see how the light falls on it and how it reacts to natural light. I make sculptures that usually stand in the studio or in the 17
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
gallery space against a backdrop of white walls; venturing outside they have to deal with the yellow and the blue. And what about the idea of blackness in your work? Because it’s there obviously in the form of chromatics, the colour that you’re using, but it’s also there in the political sense. There is a political notion that is implied; it’s what I don’t talk about but it’s obviously there. The colour black formally came up when I began to do the nude black drawings. It started with charcoal. I didn’t pick up charcoal and start to use it in a very political way that was about blackness. I’m not saying it’s not political, it’s evidently there, but the genesis of using it and its meaning to me comes from a different place. I think that’s interesting as well because starting from those personal self-portraits where you’ve got the figure and the individual, you then move to a kind of abstracted representation of blackness and so it’s a way of talking about a more global idea or consciousness, a group consciousness. Yes, when I speak about forced migration and use the colour black and black figures in my work, I’m making it an African issue. It’s out there, it’s straightforward to think about it but then again I’m not using it in a straightforward way. I’m leaning more towards abstraction but those are the anecdotes. 18
Can you tell us about the film work that you made, BLACK SUBJECTS? I thought that was so beautiful. I’ve just watched it a number of times and there’s something about the silhouette … It takes away the individual; it gives a sense of the group. You’ve got performers who’re dressed from head to toe in these black suits, moving through this architectural space … That was an interesting experiment. I wanted it to be a performance piece from point A to B, alongside the road, with the performers carrying a variety of abstract objects that they would assemble into a cohesive shelter object, rest and perform in it, then dismantle it and move on up the road, reassemble and repeat a couple of times till they reached B. Sometimes you want to explore an idea using a particular medium but down the road you find a better medium. I started with a performance and ended up with a film. I decided to experiment with the film to articulate a particular experience I’ve witnessed where people had to come together to transform a space into temporary dwellings. When displaced persons are given or find a space of refuge, transformation of the space often involves chucking things out that are unnecessary and making use of what they find there by making everything in the space function according to the most basic of human needs. Actually that leads on to something I’ve read in previous interviews where you talked about the 19
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
need for refugees to improvise and to use what’s in their surroundings and how that informed the way you approach your sculpture. What I’ve been interested in is the kind of creativity in that process, the forced creativity of those people to improvise and make that space through what they have. Well, necessity is the mother of all inventions. Exactly! So it comes down to that: I have a pen and I have a chair and I want to make a tractor – and you kind of MacGyver your way through, using what you have to fulfil a particular need. And the part of the unknown that I talk about in relation to the site-specific installation, where you’re moving into a space, using just the materials you have and find on site to transform a space, informs how I work. You apply yourself, you don’t go there with preconceived notions of what you want because that will hinder your progress or even deprive you of something beautiful that you could make ... deprive you of surprising yourself. I’ve noticed that you’ve gone through a lot of physical endurance ... you’ve been here physically making the work, forcing screws into the wall and deciding where things are going to go and marking things up, and I wondered if that physical process is for you an important part of making. 20
Yes, it is. I think this is one of the first times I’ve let someone else cut a particular piece of wood and screw it in place under my direction – I’ve always insisted on doing everything myself. Is that because you need to feel the process internally or is it because you need to control it? Yes, control, but I think internalising the process is very important to me because I feel that I could lose something that I stand to gain if I do it myself. I pay particular attention to everything – how things are placed or how they could be placed – as it could be an inspiration or a solution to something else that I am working on. The arrangement of things, their configurations, how I am cutting a piece of wood, the off-cuts ... I could see something in these that could resolve another issue elsewhere. If I let someone else do that I feel I might lose some of that chance. Because things often re-emerge in other works or other moments. Exactly! In the last couple of weeks I have been working intensely on some 20 works and I walked a lot tending to each and every piece – if I had to put all the steps together it would probably be the same distance from here to Johannesburg! That’s how many kilometres I have done in the studio! There’s a ritual of doing things myself, a sort of meditation if you like. 21
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
Another thing that struck me is that there are two sides to the coin: you have this spontaneity on one side but you also have this sense of choreography, both in terms of the film and in terms of how the visitors have to move through the space. I wondered if you could talk a bit about that element of the work. In this particular installation there’s a path as opposed to the labyrinth kind of installations that I’ve done before where there are multiple ways to go through depending on your ability and willingness to contort your body and to do whatever you need to do. Here it is more like a disruption of the normal way of walking about. If you’ve been here before, for example, you would have been able to go up and down from one gallery space to the next quite easily, but that’s changed. I’m prescribing a way to go around and move from space to space; there are limited options that allow you access to the whole show. This is jumping back a bit but I was wondering if you could tell me about your 100 Stools project, which you recently remade for the Göteborg Biennial. The idea of the stools was a gesture of dignity. I thought the migrants, the refugees and asylum seekers waiting at the Refugee Reception Office needed to have a symbol of dignity. I don’t know the situation now, but when I was there with them in the queues, we stood or sat on the ground the whole day with nowhere to sit properly and with nothing to do. It is demoralising. And so I thought 22
of the idea of the African stool which stands for, among other meanings, hospitality and dignity. It used to be that when you visited someone in their home you would be offered a seat, and on this seat you would be given refreshment, exchange conversations and feel welcomed. Hence, I thought my stools would symbolically reciprocate this gesture of dignity and hospitality. I made a few – I mean, 100 is a few compared to the thousands of people there but it’s the gesture that counts … I went there anonymously and I didn’t want to make a huge thing of it. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing so that people wouldn’t come and spectate. Put them there, people use them, good, I was gone. The Göteborg version of it – I haven’t made up my mind as to how it functions in space but from the outset I felt this project would have to work somewhere else and I always want my work to face new experiences. As a person I grow and as I grow my work grows; you try different things, you experiment. In Göteborg was it an installation that you look at or was it something that you interact with again? The House of Words pavilion was a constructed space in the biennale where there were going to be scheduled conversations around issues that the curator Elvira Dyangani Ose had set up, and members of the public and other invitees were going to have these conversations while sitting on these stools. Getting back to the African image of a stool, in a given village people would gather and sit under a tree on stools where they would have the 23
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
chief, also on a stool, address their grievances or make announcements. Whenever there were grievances or even community ceremonies, they would be held on level ground with everybody sitting on stools, the idea being: let’s all sit together, let’s talk about this. My stool design was simple, light and easy to carry. That’s one of the things that informed how I was going to design and make them because I wanted to instigate a situation whereby people could copy and make them themselves, carry them easily in a taxi so that they could bring them along the next time they came to the Refugee Reception Office. In Göteborg I wanted the stools to create the idea of a levelled ground facilitating important dialogues. It’s interesting to see how your work does seem to adapt and evolve in different contexts, so you’ve got the internal space at the gallery and you interact with the architecture, but you’re also fed by the outside world, placing your sculptures outside and seeing the sky and how they interact, and then placing them out in the world. In the future do you see your work taking more of a presence outside in the public domain? It’s something I’m open to. I don’t want to be set in thinking that my work only exists here and in this particular way. I don’t want to be set in anything; anything pretty much goes. This conversation took place at Stevenson, Cape Town, during the installation of Nitegeka’s solo exhibition Black Passage, on 8 October 2015
2. Mawande Ka Zenzile
2. Mawande Ka Zenzile
Sharing ground, staking claim
O my body, make of me always a man who questions! – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks Allow me, allow me to be myself! There’s not only one world view, there are multiple world views … – Mawande Ka Zenzile
The following texts are extracts from a number of conversations with Mawande Ka Zenzile. Our exchanges unfurled as a kind of excavation – unearthing battlegrounds and digging up gems. Each utterance would cause a renegotiation from one moment to the next, and when some kind of shared footing could be found we would venture together, a little deeper under the surface. Ka Zenzile is completing his MFA, preparing for his dissertation entitled ‘Decolonising Visualities’, and our first conversation took place in his studio at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, Cape Town. We talked about artist education in Africa and the West; of challenging Westerncentric curricula; his fellow students who have been moved to protest and the empowerment of doing this from within. Over lunch and before the ‘official’ recorded conversation, we exchanged ideas for a second time. We spoke more freely about the importance of cultural theorist Stuart Hall and his ability not only to observe but to newly articulate British culture because he was acting from a deep internal knowledge of its systems. Just 30 minutes later we sat again in Ka Zenzile’s studio; this time, by chance, our seats were almost side by side but we were facing in opposite directions. Our exchange was stilted, and I have come to realise that, at that moment, we were entangled in a struggle for representation. I am reminded again of Hall when he explains that: Practices of representation always implicate the positions from which we speak or write – the positions of enunciation. … though we speak, so to say ‘in our own name’, of ourselves and from our own experience, nevertheless who speaks, and the subject who 27
2. Mawande Ka Zenzile
is spoken of, are never identical, never exactly in the same place. (Hall, ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, 1990) Towards the end of the interview, at a loss, I asked Ka Zenzile to tell me what he is thinking about when he approaches his materials. His vivid response can be read here in part I. I ended the recording feeling acutely that Ka Zenzile and I were far from being ‘in the same place’. I admitted my sense of failure and asked Ka Zenzile what questions he would’ve asked himself in my position. His response was affecting and I pressed record. In this fourth conversation, reproduced here in part II, Ka Zenzile articulates his view of the world. On his own terms.
I Hansi Momodu-Gordon:
What are you thinking about as you approach your materials or as you make your work? Mawande Ka Zenzile:
Sometimes I even believe that I’m not thinking. I’m playing loud music, there’s smoke everywhere, I dance ... What music do you play? I play all kinds of music. I play Wasulu music from Mali, I play a lot of hip hop, the commercial stuff, but it depends what kind of thing ... You were listening to trap last time I came.
Yes. Lately I have been listening to a lot of Future, the very interesting sounds that he’s making. I like that someone is a workaholic like myself because I immerse myself in my studio. And I think it’s a very holy space, even though I have to work on this one, go back to it and burn impepho every day to just get rid of the ghost of this place. But anyway it’s a magical space to be in where thoughts, a lot of feelings and vibrations happen, and this is something that someone else cannot experience – or maybe might experience but not in the same light because the spontaneous moment of making an artwork, the kinds of things that I do when I’m in my studio, you can’t imagine. Can you tell me? No, I can’t expose myself and that’s the beauty of it – that it has to be that mystery. But it’s fun for me, I just jump around. When I work I’m having fun. So there is a playfulness, there’s definitely a playfulness. Of course, it has to be there, I mean this thing heals me … I think that’s the most important part for me: the process, the art-making, it heals me, it makes me alive and it makes me forget about traumatic things. Sometimes I take that energy, that negative energy, and then I just throw it into these things and by that I get some kind
2. Mawande Ka Zenzile
of satisfaction which someone else from outside can’t imagine because I’m the only one feeling it. Even by applying something on the surface, whether it’s a colour or whatever, it’s still driven by the impulse, it’s still driven by the feeling. Or a colour will come into my head, aha! and I’m like, I’ll use that one – finally I’ve found it. And I’m not thinking about complementary colours, primary colours, and how in the art historian tradition they deal with visual schemas; that’s not what’s in my head. I work with emotions, I work with feelings, I work with the impulse. It tells me: ‘No, Mawande, put this colour’ – because this colour excited me and I want to fill the entire surface with this colour and so that’s what I do. So in any work that you see in front of you I suffer, because I go through a lot of stress if I can’t find the right thing, until that moment when I find the right solution for the work and all the stresses just go away. There’s something not scientific, something not mathematical about the process. You can’t say this plus that equals that, no, no. That’s not how I work unfortunately … Fortunately, I think. So for me, specifically for this work ... You’re looking at the self-portrait that you have here in the studio. Before the rational, the contextual and the explanation, which you are bringing now, I felt like doing it like this. 30
I thought, I need something like this. It’s not because of any reason that I know of, it’s just something that I felt. I always say to people that the rationalisation and all that crap, it comes after – because for me it’s not important. I make culture, I make things, so what is important for me is the relationship between me and the making. The rational has to do with other people and what their perception of the world is and what they want to see in the thing. Where I get involved is where people start to assume or start to impose – there I get involved, but otherwise I am so detached from the idea because for me what is important is that impulse that says, ‘Mawande make something like this, make a sculpture like this, or just take a bicycle …’ The story comes later as the materials come together. These things put together speak to an experience that I had; it speaks to a memory that I had or it speaks to a story that I related with. I know that the outside world wants people to explain and tell them what it means but that’s all signifiers, it’s all floating, like Stuart Hall would say. Anyone can take a word and make a meaning from it but an object is in front of you, it’s there, you can touch it. You don’t have to make a word for it to exist, it’s in front of you, it exists – if it’s beautiful, if it’s ugly, you can judge according to where you’re standing and to your own taste, but it’s in front of you. That’s one thing that is important for me when it comes to my processes and my practices, you know, that relationship that I have with the object, the relationship that I have with the impulse, the ideas … whatever that thing is that tells me, ‘Get this, make this.’ I write some 31
2. Mawande Ka Zenzile
of my things down to describe if it’s going to be a man standing. I don’t draw because the idea says that an object comes like that and now I have to go and find that object. So this is how I work. I suppose other artists work similarly but I don’t know; for me, that’s how I work. II Me, myself and my stand in the world … I can’t see from other people’s point of view unless we share a moment, a memory, there’s a connection there, then we can dwell on that. But it’s not guaranteed that everything is going to be the same, right? Allow me, allow me to be myself! There’s not only one world view, there are multiple world views … but because of this ego that wants to impose all the time, to speculate, subjectify, there’s power involved in that. Psychologically it’s easy to reject all of that if there’s no physical violence used – because in the past people were enslaved. But, I mean, if we are engaging with ideas, I don’t have to hold onto them because my way of understanding the world is different from yours. Ngugi wa Thiong’o says he can’t see himself but he can see me; he talks about this idea of moving the centre, that you can’t see yourself because that’s where you’re standing, it’s you. Do you really have to define yourself? I’m really interested in that – that’s why I am not interested in identity politics. I don’t have to define myself to anyone. I don’t feel I have to define myself because they will come with their own interpretation of what they expect me to 32
be and then conflicts occur. Because I don’t want to be boxed and more especially to be boxed by something that is ideological. You feel that this person is not even speaking from their core, they are speaking something that is common, that is general, that they heard somewhere. Or someone wrote a book about white walls and so everyone has to be anti white walls now because someone in the 70s wrote an essay about white walls. There are all these small projections that I am against, like ‘no, no, take that away from me’. That’s how you look at the world and this is how I look at the world. But I realise as I’m growing that this is something that has always been there. It’s an attitude that Christians have when they come to your house and they want to teach you about Jesus Christ – they don’t even ask what you believe in, they don’t even care – they want to bring you to the light. It’s the same thing when we engage with ideologies. You come convinced that your world is the truth and you want to impose it on everyone. No! Stop there, wait, come ask me how I feel about it. Don’t just say, this is how it is the Fukuyama way. That’s why we’re having all these troubles now, because one nation decides for everyone that this is how things should be. That’s a problem. That’s why I wrote the text ‘The problem we didn’t create’ in my catalogue. I was addressing some of my concerns regarding how the geopolitics of today has maintained the imperialist agenda. I liked how you end it with that reproach of art historians and critics. 33
2. Mawande Ka Zenzile
When I was in my undergrads they asked me to write an essay about the ‘picturesque and sublime’ and now Mawande has an essay: go to the window and describe the picturesque or the sublime. I don’t see it! I don’t, I don’t see it. I grew up in the villages and there was an open landscape and I didn’t get a sense of awe. There were waterfalls and rivers and I didn’t say, ‘Wow, this is beautiful!’ No, I didn’t see them, I just walked next to them. I’d go to the mountain, I saw plantation, I never got a sense of awe. I can’t even remember, since I was young growing up in the villages … but why now? Why is it important for me to see them now? At the same time I got to understand the politics, the power relations behind these notions and how they came about, because this person who is asking me to do this thing does not introduce me to how it was invented, these ideas of schemas and romanticism and nature are there and we are here. But then they come to me and they talk as if it’s truth, it’s a reality, that’s what it should be. That’s where chaos begins. I noticed the same thing throughout art history, the same thing even in art criticism, the same thing. Someone has assimilated a certain ideology and they believe that ideology unconsciously. Maybe they were conscious but they accepted it and now they want to impose it. When they expect other people to fit into that box, then there is a problem. Rather we have no conversation if it’s like that because you already erased me, and because I come from a certain context
or heritage that has been erased by history for so much, for so long, I have to react to that. I have to be straightforward with you and I have to say, this is it, take it or leave it. You document me or I’ll document myself. Can you tell me what you’re reading at the moment? Behind you. All of that? All of that. I have that, which is the Bible, and Civilization or Barbarism by Cheikh Diop and I have Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Moving the Centre and I have Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do, and then I have Diop, Towards the African Renaissance, and there’s Fanon, Toward the African Revolution, there’s Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Another Knowledge is Possible, and there’s another De Santos, Cognitive Justice in a Global World, and Making Europe, yes. You know these ones, these two, Yurugu by Marimba Ani and Civilization or Barbarism, they are very important for me. They are very important materials because they speak directly to the problem that I am trying to articulate, the one that we didn’t create. So Yurugu sort of like, similar to what I’m unpacking, takes the European ethos – she calls it asili, she takes the word from Swahili – and she studies the behaviour,
2. Mawande Ka Zenzile
the way that Europe sort of fixated itself in domination; everything that they do is about domination, whether bodily, like physically dominating, or epistemologically. Then you have people like Cheikh Diop who denounced or debunk the entire structure of the Western written perspective of Egyptian history. For me these are very important people who speak to the problem because when you’re young and you’re in an academic context, an undergrad, you don’t understand all those concepts, you just come and digest them. You don’t even know when you’re being misrepresented, you just assimilate. Sometimes you get this feeling that there’s something wrong with what is being taught to you but you can’t articulate what it is. But there are people who have been writing about these things and trying to expose these things, this idea of the West trying to claim everything in the world even though it has itself adopted things from all over the world, so whatever it has, it’s something that is borrowed. On the news the other day they were saying how some precious artifacts are appearing in London from Syria and in the end they said, ‘These items were being held by the British Museum for safe keeping.’ Well, we all know what happens then. Yeah, of course. I was in Germany some years ago at this symposium and someone was making a call about a museum without objects and I was thinking, all
the objects that are in Western museums are ancient objects from Africa, either Egypt or elsewhere. They degrade these people. And also I realise there’s no acknowledgement of African contribution to global knowledge and that’s why people always think that we are backward, and every time they think that we are emerging, you know? They exist because we existed before, we fathered them; in fact they are our imitation, all of these philosophies and structures. I mean, if you read Civilization or Barbarism, it even went into details of mathematics, of how it was invented in Egypt, but if you are in an academic context in a Western university they won’t tell those things to you. They will come with some justification that Sigmund Freud discovered psychoanalysis even if it is a practice that has been done for centuries in Africa, that practice of consultation, even though it is not scientific like in the social sciences. Then they will say Marxism, Marx founded socialism, and you’re like, but this is how we’ve lived all these years and we still do. You’ve got people who are sharing their cattle and giving to other families so that they can grow their own crops so that they can sustain themselves, and these are things I grew up experiencing. If someone is a sheep herder for another family, they will give that person a sheep so that he can start developing his own herd. So now a white man decided to theorise these things and then it’s an invention. He introduces it back to us, these primitive people. And that’s where it becomes a problem, because I think Africans taught the
2. Mawande Ka Zenzile
world a lot but the world is looking down at us. And I can’t see myself in that bubble. There was this interesting piece by Olu Oguibe who wrote of an artist who was visited by a critic ... Thomas McEvilley – he visited Ouattara. Yes, it was a very interesting thing. But I was in a seminar at undergrad and someone was teaching this, and you know the position they take, ‘Oh you know, Oguibe is so rude.’ The thing is, no one is expecting this voice that is not from within, that is criticising the within. I mean, Thomas McEvilley was an icon in Western art history, he is someone who was celebrated, who was a god, but no one would witness his mistake. He’s groomed by a Western university, he is influenced by that, and that’s why for me it’s difficult to use people like Derrida because they are short-handed. If I am going to talk about decolonisation, let me use people who have experienced it, people who lived that life and people who are speaking from within, not just logic. And people like Marimba Ani, they explore those ideas ... It goes back to the idea of the Trojan Horse and what we were saying about Stuart Hall as well. Ja, now let’s go back to that idea of the Trojan Horse, right, let’s say the establishment is the house. The house didn’t just fall from the sky and then they existed. We participated in building that house, right, it’s a huge 38
house now. My forefathers died, they bled building that house, they are dead now and some were sold building this house. Slavery, it’s one of those sources that have sort of grown the capitalist system as we know it today and contributed a lot today as we know it. And mineral resources, African resources are still being used today by people from outside. So they owe me, I don’t owe them; the inside is mine, so I belong. I can’t say ‘Oh no, I’m going to go and build an alternate space’, no, there’s a huge machine here. Let me get in there. I belong there, I deserve to be there, I’m entitled to be there. I think we need a generation that feels entitled to exist. I am entitled to exist, I am entitled to privileges like anyone. Yes, it’s good for me to understand how things like white privilege were developed by history and whatnot, but fuck it, I exist, I am here. I must benefit from that and I can’t complain all the time. I must be in, I must be proud of myself, I must influence power; I must contradict power from inside. I think in the 60s it was a cool thing to be in the underground and so on and so forth. I mean, there were so many hippie movements that were emerging at that time, but it’s a different century now and we understand all these things and how they came about and so being inside for me is a different thing to someone from the 60s, who just wanted to be cool, who wanted to be rebellious and leave everything. And most of the hippies, like white people who were rich, could leave their privileges and they could come back anytime they want. 39
2. Mawande Ka Zenzile
We call them Trustafarians! Ahhh! There was this guy, remember, during the riots in London, this historian who made this comment about how the youth now is speaking in patois ... The world is terrified of us. You know, they killed us, they enslaved us, and now they think we are gonna be the same and so they are terrified. But we are really nice people. This conversation took place at the artistâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s studio, Cape Town, on 9 October 2015
3. Deborah Poynton
3. Deborah Poynton
Seeing is believing Three Birds Painting (2015) is an oil on canvas by Deborah Poynton. The tilted pictorial plane is divided by two craggy embankments opening up to reveal flowing water collecting in a shallow pool and swirling into darker depths. In the centre of the picture a river bed of angular rocks, pebbles and pond moss is visible beneath the brown water. As the stream appears to flow north, its glassy surface with its reflections of grassy shadows is fractured; it glistens, opaque, and is impenetrable at the top edge of the canvas. Three small birds are interspersed in the foreground, middle and background. Beyond the confines of the river bank Poynton’s realist painting style breaks up and the canvas is covered by expanses of white with accents of brown and green gestural mark-making. Green blades of grass shoot upwards, some rooted around the water’s edge; others appear rootless, described by bold abstract lines in dark or light green. Perhaps none of this matters. When looking at Poynton’s paintings it is tempting to make all this into something, to imagine a story about what these marks on the canvas could represent. This is heightened when Poynton paints the human form, as she often does, yet this desire to read one’s own reality on the canvas can consume and blind us. After this instinctive looking through the lenses of symbolism and narration, a sense of stillness follows, opening up the act of looking to the sensory experience of an object, of colour, form, texture and space. For Poynton’s concern with painting is an act of creating ephemeral illusions, of inventing images that play with our comprehension of perceived reality. [P]ainting is an alternate reality, and in fact it’s not a reality, it’s a mimicking of a reality; if it were real it would not serve the purpose I want it to serve. The unsettling perspective of Three Birds Painting positions the viewer staring downwards at an image of earth and water that partially reflects what we perceive to be the sky. Somewhere between the elements one might, for a moment, expect to see one’s own image
3. Deborah Poynton
peering down towards the water. Instead, the sky remains empty and, as the surface of the canvas comes into focus, we are reminded of the illusory nature of all painting.
Could you start by talking about what you’re working on here in the studio? Deborah Poynton:
I’m working for my next solo exhibition at Stevenson – it’s going to be called Picnic. There are several large diptychs, and a whole range of different sizes ... I like the idea of a picnic as a piece of territory from which you can look at nature, but with the safety or containment of this little claimed piece of ground. I feel like a painting is the same thing – I like the analogy. I always feel like my subject is a bit of a red herring really. I play around with the idea of picnic and then people might get quite misled, but actually it’s a really profound metaphor for painting and how we are able to look at the world and remain contained, or how we are unable to look out without a frame or a containment. Going back to when you were beginning to paint, is there a particular series or painting where you feel like you found your language as a painter? There’s always been bits of it right from childhood, but I think the exhibition Safety and Security, which was four 44
huge paintings, diptychs and triptychs, probably was where it began. What was it about those paintings that made you feel like you’d found your voice? I always paint the same thing basically and this was the first time I expressed that idea of containment and safety and imagery. Even though it’s very easy looking at my paintings to think that they are about a lot of other things, they are really just about that. The following exhibitions, Everything Matters and then Arcadia, are the same thing, Land of Cockaigne is the same thing and now Picnic is the same thing. It’s always the same thing actually but I find as it goes along it comes out in different ways. How do the notions of safety and security manifest in the work or your process of making? It’s quite hard to put into words but there’s a containment in creating an image, there’s a paring down, a filtering, and I find infinite relief in that, just in that very thing. If the image is loaded with symbolism and representation I don’t find relief, I find that very wordy and sort of heady and so I look for this wordless relief and it’s a containment, and that’s the safety – illusory, of course, because a painting is an illusion. You’ve previously talked about painting in relation to the ability to invent space and then you said, ‘as 45
3. Deborah Poynton
if it were for real’. I’m interested in that idea of ‘as if’, that kind of metaphor that allows something to be ‘as if’ it’s real. Well, painting is an alternate reality, and in fact it’s not a reality, it’s a mimicking of a reality; if it were real it would not serve the purpose I want it to serve. But yes, there’s a beauty in shaping the form of a reality that I find redemptive or transcendent almost – without that I don’t see the point. Reading in your biography that you moved around quite a lot at a young age, I was wondering if you felt that that kind of movement into different contexts, and of always having to renegotiate your sense of self in relation to your surroundings, had in some way informed this sense of negotiating reality and what is real ... Yes, I think it completely did. You know, as a child I started to use drawing as a way of – I’ve spoken about it before – creating a doll’s house and inhabiting it as if the drawing or painting were the window of the doll’s house looking out. And so I think I have always created this place which I can inhabit, in the imagination, as a way of staying secure or soothing myself. I suppose it’s also a distancing mechanism in a way.
It’s a distancing and it’s a control. I always feel like a conductor conducting onto the canvas and it’s a controlled feeling that’s really reassuring actually. One of the things that’s very emotive in the paintings is the way you control light. I know you’ve talked about the idea of half-light, and going back to the idea of allowing that space for imagination and invention, I wondered if you could talk about how light allows that space and the relationship between the two. I think light is incredibly powerful. It can become a subject in itself and I suppose I have avoided it. I prefer to use a flat light that increases the sense of immediacy, of a mad degree of illusion. Some people hate the way I use light – it can be seen as deadening in a way. I don’t mind; it’s true, because that flat light increases the feeling of the painting being like an absolute end in itself, not a path to something else. I sort of hope that when I am an old woman perhaps all I can do is paint light but at the moment I cannot paint light at all. Ja, because light almost … light is everything, it’s really emotive and so it gets in the way. It starts making sense. Maybe light really is certainty or reason like the Stoics believed … and I want to create uncertainty. But I also like the way colour emerges out of a darker or flatter light, I find that compelling, and I actually do like it when colour almost services light. It becomes, well ...
3. Deborah Poynton
I hate the word kitsch, but it could interfere with what I’m really doing. But I am hoping that one day I will not give a shit. [Laughs] A lot of these images have this sort of fantasy feeling, this setting up of a scene that feels very close, recognisable ... but it’s slightly outside of known experiences. Does the idea of the fantasy realm, of creating fiction with your images, have any relationship to the work? It’s all just fakery; there’s no narrative, there’s no other realm. It’s all just throwing up illusions. All I care about is that throwing up of an illusory view. I like to play with what painting is or what it’s been because I love so much historical painting; I’m fascinated by it and I’m fascinated by how you can’t return to it. I think this question could have the same answer but I’m going to ask it anyway … Maybe I’m not accepting that there is nothing more because it’s so tempting when you’re faced with the work to take a journey through it. And, you know, it’s what each person brings to it, and I was interested by the dynamics that get set up between the individuals. I guess there’s often this intergenerational element to the sitters. I don’t know if that is a conscious thing or if it means anything, but for me I felt it linked to a sense of decay and death.
That is all red herring and it is a similar answer to before. All it does is represent that, when you look at it or when you look out there, you form meaning. That’s all. So ja, all of that stuff you see but another person might not see and I don’t see, unfortunately ... [Laughs] Can you tell me a little bit about the relationship that you have with the sitters, the models, and how that process works? Well, I paint my two sons, my partner and one or two other people. I like to paint them over and over again because I feel the more I paint them the more diffused and less portraity it is and the more I can just use them. I feel like when you paint a person it’s so laden, and I know these people so well … I can’t imagine going and finding someone else and putting them in my painting, it would seem like I was trying to say something I’m not trying to say. Is it important to you that you have that kind of connection with the person you’re painting, to know them? Funnily enough, one of them I don’t know really well, which is Peter. He’s a German professor in Cologne and I’ve photographed him over the years and I paint him. The funny thing about him is that he completely lets go and I think that’s part of it: all of these people let go, they don’t care what I do with the image.
3. Deborah Poynton
When photographing them, are there particular things you are looking for in gesture, in pose, do you have an idea of what you’re looking for? I completely pose them – there’s absolutely nothing accidental about it. It’s very controlled and often quite uncomfortable but I am looking for resonances of art historical poses. I’m looking for something that I can only recognise with a heart, as well. So what I was looking for five years ago will be completely different to what I’m looking for now. I was wondering if this looking for something with a heart and finding it or exploring it through the poses is something that’s changed with you over time because of course you’re a changing person and the world is a changing place. I think it has, you know, they used to be quite confrontational poses in a way and they are not any more ... What I think about the figures in this exhibition is that they are both consuming and being consumed on this picnic blanket; in a way you enter them, you become … I think the person looking used to be more in conversation with them or having to engage with them and now there is a more open way in which, when you look, you can consume their beauty but also enter their position in the space.
The idea of intimacy is quite interesting … I’m enticed into feeling this sense of intimacy either by the scene or its lusciousness, but it’s also denied in a way. I don’t know about that, I think it’s more profound than that. I just don’t think it’s possible. I think if you really think you’re experiencing an intimacy when you look at a painting, you’re not, it’s just a reflection of yourself. What I mean in terms of intimacy is what you set up in the painting, the intimacy between models, between figures, and so you feel as though you are looking onto this intimate world when actually even between the figures there’s kind of an intimacy denied – the naked body which is naked but not sexual … these kinds of moments between people where they are together but not necessarily engaged with each other or in that moment. I suppose all of that was practice in avoiding a kind of obvious narrative, but of course you can’t because we have to make a story, you know … I feel like I just place and then whatever you see or I see doesn’t really matter to me. I wouldn’t be interested in painting a loving couple. I suppose it’s a solitary experience being alive and that’s why we need connection, it’s that paradoxical thing again; in the same way we need freedom and containment, these things are linked. And again, to paint something and say it
3. Deborah Poynton
doesn’t mean anything and of course it does … it’s really frustrating and irritating in a way. Well, it’s very interesting in the way it makes me reflect on the fact that anything outside of that also has that quality because as human beings we project meaning onto the world or onto the things we come across ... You know, I called one exhibition Everything Matters. I came very close to calling it Nothing Matters. It wouldn’t have mattered which one I called it, I just thought Nothing Matters would have been too misleading, but to me those two things are the same. What about this idea of connection – could you talk more about how that is important to the work or to you? Somehow the word ‘tethering’ came to mind, especially with these paintings where some of the marks are completely untethered and some are tethered to a real kind of a realism. I think we seek the familiar or we find connection through the familiar, through the known, and we also feel hampered by it and so there’s a tension in these works that is reflected in the actual way of painting. I wanted to know if all these years have been an exploratory process of looking and thinking about human connection and the models that you are 52
working with, and if that has taught you anything about yourself in that process. Is it a way of looking at yourself through the process of looking and making and painting and inventing images and has that been reflected back through the paintings? I actually feel repelled by that idea. It’s a complete denial of self, it’s an escape from self, and so if there’s some insight that I gain 10 years later, it’s like looking back at an old photograph, it has that much relevance. I’m not really interested in using painting to work out what’s going on with me, I want to escape from what’s going on with me through painting. Going back to the works that you’re working on now, there’s a much looser approach to the painting and I wondered about that shift in your realisation of the images. I suppose a completely closed image, where the skin is completely covering the canvas, for a long time this was all I wanted to do because I found that it highlighted the nothingness behind it, whereas with an abstract thing there’s so much space for projection. And then I came to see that they’re really the same thing, and I’m enjoying the tension between them, as I said before, because I feel like it doubly reflects the containment and the longing for freedom and it undermines itself or feeds itself, I don’t know. The two sides inform but also undermine each other and I like that. 53
3. Deborah Poynton
You have commented on our tendency to verbalise and I wondered about this relationship between words and images. Or the space that you feel pictures allow that words can’t. I think what I’ve noticed about now and art is that I don’t think people look with their hearts; I don’t know why but I think that they look with their heads and that makes it a very limited and dry experience. And ja, I think the verbal gets in the way and when I say verbal I mean trying to understand and looking and trying to go through a process of logic as opposed to having a visceral response as a human being. What on earth is art for if you don’t have that response? I simply don’t understand what the point would be. This conversation took place at the artist’s studio, Cape Town, on 28 October 2015
4. Pieter Hugo
4. Pieter Hugo
From the unsaid to the undead The view of the world framed by photographer Pieter Hugo concedes the precariousness of our existence. Hugo’s extensive body of work has continually found creative impetus in capturing both the realities at the edges of society and life at the edges of reality, and constantly challenges the documentary mode. Pressing against fears and requiting dark longings, Hugo’s photography enters into the spaces that most of us avoid, looks deeply into the crevices and exposes society’s entangled belief systems. Flying just under the radar, but manifesting in series such as Nollywood (2009), is Hugo’s attraction to popular culture and supernatural worlds uncovered within certain genres of cinema, literature and music in particular. Cultural critic TJ Demos has noted that Hugo’s photography exists in the tension between ‘ecological disaster and creative survival’, and this imaginary takes on new and at times grotesque enunciations when applied to the artist’s experimentations with moving images. In 2011 Hugo collaborated with musician Spoek Mathambo on the music video for Control, a ramped up house beat cover of She’s Lost Control (1979) by British post-punk group Joy Division. Mathambo, dressed in white suit and gloves, with a megaphone to his lips, marches, dances and preaches through a dystopic scene of burning and abandoned buildings to a congregation of children who increasingly show signs of possession and then revolt. Religious imagery permeates through a mixing of its many signs and symbols, but no single ideology dominates. Shot entirely in black and white, the video is a riot of baptisms and convulsions, vomiting, white paint and powder. Its macabre undertones are laced with humour. In his music video Dirty (2015), created for Cape Town hip-hop artists Dookoom, Hugo returns to a carnivalesque underworld. The video is grotesque and provocative and for this it could be read as a continuation of some of the concerns Hugo engaged in Nollywood. Reflecting on the visual tropes of the supernatural and the grotesque preferred by the Nigerian film industry, writer Chris Abani suggests that as ‘the subtle manipulation of the human form … the grotesque engenders sympathy, revulsion and real fear simply by employing 57
4. Pieter Hugo
self-recognition with a displacement’ – strategies which Hugo enacts in Dirty and indeed much of his lens-based work. Hugo is aware that his questioning of the world he inhabits, from a privileged position, often generates yet more questions rather than offering any absolute answers. One that is raised over and over again is whether it is possible for a white South African photographer to photograph the black body and not enter into the dominant structure that perpetuates racial hierarchies and results in exploitation and stereotyping. Yet, however uncomfortable this question and its potential answers continue to be, allowing them to surface creates spaces to interrogate and articulate the nuances that otherwise remain unsaid.
Your images seem to confront a very human desire to look, often at things that are the most painful to see, and it seems to me that this comes from a sense of curiosity about the world. Pieter Hugo:
Yes, very much so. To me there’s the act of making a photograph and then there’s the process involved in making the photograph. Often the process is more interesting to me, and that is what you’re talking about: that desire and curiosity. I often wonder where it came from, why I decided to pursue such a literal artistic form that is really about depicting the surfaces of the world. And I think it comes out of living in such a strange and peculiar place as South Africa and growing up here … I think if I had grown up in a very homogenous European culture or a non-multicultural kind of space I probably 58
would not have had that desire, or my motives for looking would have been very different. So much of it is about trying to figure out where to situate yourself in your environment, and constantly taking stock of that in some way. But I also think one’s relationship with photography, or with one’s medium, changes over time. For me it started out as a wanderlust – in my 20s I travelled all the time; all I wanted was to travel, to see the world and experience, and that was enough. It wasn’t very critical, it was just a childlike curiosity, and out of that has developed a completely different beast where my reading of the world has become more opaque and complicated. I know that when you talked about Looking Aside and some of your earlier series of portraits, you said it’s very important that you ask the person for permission to take their photograph. Recently you’ve made a very distinct departure from that with The Journey and I wondered if that’s something that’s changed over time. Yes, it’s really come full circle. In the beginning I had these ambitions to be a photographer who could encapsulate an experience in a single frame, narrative and emotion. My journey from photojournalist to artist is pretty well documented but I felt that I had very clearly failed at that, I wasn’t very good at it. I’ve come back to that a bit now, I want to see if I can do it again. At the time when I made Looking Aside my interest in photography was singular, it was like try and strip 59
4. Pieter Hugo
down a photograph to its bare essentials and impose an economy in the composition. I’m constantly trying to break out of that now, not often with much success, but there’s a desire in me. In the Journey series, although there are head and shoulder portraits which are very similar to the Looking Aside ones, they are obviously made without consent, but also my relationship to the dynamic, to the making of a photograph, has changed. Where I felt very much influenced by someone like David Goldblatt’s kind of … what’s the word one should use for this, ‘hyper-morality’ in the process of making pictures, I’ve come to distrust that in a way. I feel that sometimes now it is ok to make pictures without permission; if your intentions are solid, that the end justifies the means. The idea of your changing position in those different contexts is interesting. It comes through in other works or series, this relationship between the personal and the private or issues of propriety and power dynamics. In Kin, for example, you include a picture of your daughter and it’s one of the most intimate pictures you could have taken, and then in this new work in San Francisco you’re interacting with strangers. I was wondering how you felt that kind of dynamic shifts when you’re navigating those different contexts between the very well-known and the unknown, the strange and the familiar. Years ago I had a conversation with Guy Tillim – I don’t remember if it was a conversation or an argument – in 60
which he said he doesn’t want to photograph anything he doesn’t want to look at. I thought, well, I photograph corpses and I don’t really want to look at these things but I want to challenge myself, I want to challenge my own comfort zone in a way. And this is something I’ve wrestled with over and over, whether I agree with him or whether I think his answer is disingenuous. It’s something that has stuck with me and it’s a conversation I have with myself over and over, like, why would I want to do that? That kind of goes back to my first question because looking at the corpses that you photographed, it’s probably the first time I actually looked at a corpse but it’s something which was intriguing to me. I found that sense of looking really powerful because it enables me to look at things that on one level I want to see but I also don’t want to see. With the corpses, the Rwanda portraits – I call them portraits because effectively they are portraits – what was interesting was that it was really a learning experience. I went to Rwanda and I photographed the corpses and it didn’t work and I had to go back and redo it. The light wasn’t good and I realised that, by day two, picking up a body and moving it around … I mean, the first time I felt this incredible reverence and the atmosphere was so loaded; day two, nothing. And so two things I took away from that experience: it’s amazing how quickly the human mindset can shift from 61
4. Pieter Hugo
something that is completely unacceptable to something that is acceptable. For instance, in Rwanda I came to understand how, in the genocide, one day hacking someone apart with a machete could seem brutal and on the next day it could seem completely normal and acceptable … it told me a lot about human beings. And the second thing was spending so much time around the dead, it sounds strange but it’s a Buddhist exercise in considering mortality. You’ve done a number of projects in Rwanda. I know that your recent work comes from revisiting that space and I wondered how it felt, after having done the Vestiges of a Genocide project, to go back and document something else. I’ve been going back to Rwanda fairly regularly over the last 11 years. I’ve photographed President Kagame a few times, and I went on assignment with The New Yorker and for Condé Nast Traveller. I’ve gone there for my own work and the last time I went I said – to me it was a conclusion – I will never go back there again. I’ve seen the country emerge out of a genocide with a really optimistic sense of the future and taking history on wholeheartedly, to becoming a kind of police state where nothing is allowed to be spoken about. What was it that kept drawing you back during those years that you were revisiting the place?
I don’t know, maybe I’m interested in the extremes of the human condition. I am very fond of the place. I have a complicated relationship with it, I learned a lot about it. It was the first place I went to and really took time to do my own work, completely separate from being a gun for hire for magazines, and a big shift happened in my practice during the time that I was there. Can you tell me a little bit about the project that you are working on now? It’s called 1994 and it’s very loosely grouped series of portraits of children who were all supposedly born after 1994 in two countries, South Africa and Rwanda. Of course both these countries had very big historical events in 1994. But really it’s just an excuse to photograph children, and the challenge is to photograph children unsentimentally. Having had kids, it’s like my way of looking at kids has also shifted dramatically. What was your process of thinking in terms of how you would negotiate that, you know, image of the African child? As a white male, to go and photograph an African child is a pretty big challenge and I think I’ve found a way through. It started out of two things: one, the writer Stacy Hardy years ago planted a thought in my head when she said, ‘You should photograph flowers and children.’
4. Pieter Hugo
I thought at the time it was kind of a sarcastic, meanspirited challenge but anyway I took her up on it. Let’s forget about the African child because that’s kind of secondary in the series, it’s more about children. You have to frame a project, you have to give yourself some constraints, and I happened to start the work in Rwanda and I happened to be thinking about this year 1994 because over a period of 10, 20 years I’ve been engaging with this date. And it’s that classic thing where you see people who are not carrying the same baggage of history as you are. I see it in South Africa with kids that were born after 1994 and they don’t carry the same burdens as their parents, and their engagement with the world I find very liberating. I’m jealous of the fact that they don’t have the same baggage as my peers do. Aesthetically I found some of the images interesting in terms of the way that the poses are set up but also the clothing that the children are wearing. There’s something about the way they are dressed or the way in which the clothes are wrapped on the body that feels almost like a fashion aesthetic. I’m sure there’s an element of that. Ninety percent of the images are made in two places: in Rwanda, in these small villages in the countryside outside Butare, which is now called Huye, and in South Africa the images are mostly made in Nature’s Valley, a small seaside town
outside Plettenberg Bay which borders on a big nature conservatory. One of the things that was interesting to me in Rwanda is, years ago I read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, which is a terrible book but he made an interesting observation about how these hipster clothes from Europe end up being donated to Africa and have this kind of second life in villages where people are completely unaware of the kind of resonance clothes like that might have in Europe or in the so-called developed world. And secondly a lot of the clothes are made out of synthetic materials from the 70s and 80s and it reminded me a lot of the Balkan era, the imagery you’d see of decomposed bodies, and the only thing that would remain would be these synthetic elements of clothes that were not made out of cotton and so don’t biodegrade. So there was a big awareness of the clothing. The pictures are almost a 50-50 split between found and stylised; some of them are just found that way and in others I might take the dress off someone and put it on somebody else. Ironically most of the ones that we made at the end are the ones that were found. Sometimes when you try to re-enact reality it doesn’t work that well. You mentioned Stacy Hardy – you’ve worked with her on a number of your book projects, and also with Ben Okri. I wondered if it’s important for you for your work to be in dialogue with literature or fiction writing.
4. Pieter Hugo
I don’t know … For the first book, Looking Aside, I asked Antjie Krog to write a text following this kind of model where I thought, tie in a famous author and it will validate the work somehow. Like if you have to do a book on African photography you must have Okwui Enwezor write a text and somehow this validates it. And so Antjie Krog wrote this text and it was very beautiful but it never sat 100 percent comfortable with me and I’m sure my work never sat 100 percent comfortable with her either, which is possibly interesting because it gave some energy to the dynamic, the relationship between the text and the images. But with the second monograph, Messina/ Musina, I thought, fuck this, let’s work with someone who is actually into this and will make it their own in a way, as opposed to just reflecting it. I knew some of Stacy’s short stories – she’s not a very well-known author but there’s a visceralness in her writing that I relate to, and there’s an honesty and an acknowledgement of the complicatedness of … I come back to this word, the ‘opaqueness’ of the nature of being, and so we worked together a bunch of times. I read that Ben Okri short story when I was working on Kin and it hit the nail on the head, and that resolved the way I was approaching the book at the time. Initially I was going to have a number of extended captions, to explain the context where the images were made and giving them some sort of historical significance. Then I read that story and I was like, ‘We don’t need that at all, this is much more interesting.’ A picture speaks a thousand words and that short story by Ben Okri to me is like a photograph: it’s open, it doesn’t 66
dictate to you the reading of the work; if anything it opens up another reading. This I find interesting and once again I come back to David Goldblatt, who cast such a long shadow at the beginning. David was the model one had to aspire to in order to be a practitioner here. I felt like it was so important, the dignity David shows to his subjects, placing things in a historical context, but it took time for me to reach the conclusion that for me to do that would be disingenuous, Somehow, sometimes I think that can strip emotion out of the pictures, take away the heart. Going back to the process of making photography, which we touched upon a bit at the beginning, when I was reading your text for the Vestiges of a Genocide book, I noticed that you said the project came out of a set of questions that you had in response to a photograph. And when you were approaching the project that you did in San Francisco, it seemed to again come out of a set of questions. I wondered if thatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s often the case in terms of how you develop a project. I think a lot of my work is in response to images Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve seen in the media and an internal dialogue that starts around that. Permanent Error started from a photograph in National Geographic; Vestiges of a Genocide started from a photograph in The Economist; The Hyena Men started from a photograph on a blog. San Francisco happened just because I took my daughter to school on the border of this neighborhood that I ended up 67
4. Pieter Hugo
photographing. So you have this kind of call and response relationship with whatever inspires you to make work – for me it’s literature or images that provoke an interest. But at some stage you start having a dialogue with yourself and your own work, and your biggest influence – and this will sound terribly narcissistic – becomes yourself; you start making work that is in dialogue with yourself. I think that’s often the point where artists stop being interesting, they lose that naivety and you start understanding … How important is your own writing and note-taking to the process? I hate it but it’s a necessary evil. I’m not in a routine of writing all the time and so when I do have to write or do interviews like this I find it incredibly difficult. But I find it an important part of the process – it clarifies my thinking. Yesterday I was shown some of your music videos and it made me reflect on what TJ Demos said in relation to your series Permanent Error, how there’s this tension between ecological disaster and creative survival. For me the music videos occupy that space as well but in a completely different way, just because they are this horroresque underworld. Can you tell me how you started making music videos?
I’ve always loved music and I’ve always been interested in film – at some stage I will definitely direct a feature film. The first music video I made was for an artist called Spoek Mathambo. He had used a photograph of mine for an album cover, without asking my permission, and I knew him and it turned out that he was recording an album around the corner from my studio… so I summoned him to my studio mainly to shit on him! – I thought the least he could have done was ask my permission [laughs] … And he brought a CD with him of some new stuff that he had made and there was a track on there that was a cover of a Joy Division song, She’s Lost Control. I really liked this idea of a Goth track that I’d liked as a teenager, completely reappropriated to a township house beat; I liked this hybridisation and I thought this is a really good track, I can do something with this – and so I made a music video for it. The last one I made was for a group called Dookoom and a track called Dirty. I really like the track, but it is really problematic; the lyrics border on misogyny, on implied misogyny, but an honest kind of lustfulness … and this again provoked this dialogue in me, like, how would one depict this? I think a lot of art poses these problems and you solve these problems, these riddles, and because that stuck with me I thought I’ll take this on. I think there’s also another facet to me as a practitioner, as an artist, which is interested in pop culture. This is why I also shoot fashion and make music videos – it just informs so much of my history and personality. And there’s a part
4. Pieter Hugo
of me that enjoys the performative which I don’t feel I can express in photography; The Hyena Men in a certain way touched on that. And I find that in being able to make promos. I would also love to work in theatre – Nollywood touched a bit on that. There’s the temporal as well, the ability to build the narrative element that moving images have. Yes, I think if you look at my cinema work and at my stills, it’s clear that it’s the same author. I enjoy the temporal aspect of film, as you said, and the promo – it’s there and then it’s gone tomorrow, so quick, it will be forgotten. I like that it doesn’t have the deified monumental quality that art has. Which I like in photography, I like my prints to feel like they’ve got gravity. But cinema has another facet that’s lacking in photography. To me the worlds that are created through the music videos are this kind of dystopic space and I started to reflect on that in relation to a writer like Ben Okri, these kind of imagined alternative worlds. I wondered if that’s interesting or incredibly clichéd; whether you are interested in this alternative world or whether you are more interested in reimagining the world we are in now? Photographers are attracted to dystopia like flies to shit, we can’t help it, but you’d be surprised how many people actually don’t like dystopia … a lot of people have 70
a problem with it and I personally am attracted to it. I think dystopia expresses an anger, it acknowledges a malevolence that’s missing. So in the future we’ll be looking for more of your film work? Possibly, yes. The biggest problem I’ve got is finding a script. If I found a script I really believed in I would totally commit myself to it 100 percent, but I haven’t found it. The conclusion I am reaching is that I will have to write one. That’s just making the space. Maybe that’s a new space for another kind of collaboration? Yes, that’s the other thing with film, it’s much more collaborative than photography or art, and because it’s more collaborative it’s more compromised and I enjoy that too. I mean, being a photographer is such a solitary pursuit. I’m sitting mostly on my own in some hotel room in the middle of nowhere, I’m totally engaged with what I’m doing at that time, I don’t even really check emails or correspond at that time. With film it’s completely different – it’s a group of people working towards a common goal. It’s a very different energy. I find both very satisfying. This conversation took place at the artist’s studio, Cape Town, on 5 November 2015
5. Viviane Sassen
5. Viviane Sassen
No words without images Mirrors are very important to me as metaphors because they allow you to step into the other world … I was always intrigued by the other world, by something that I couldn’t grasp … I think mirrors express that in a way. It’s quite easy to step into the other world, which is there but simultaneously not there. In Viviane Sassen’s Axiom GB02 (2014) the background of the rectangular image plane is filled with desert tan colour, speckled with flecks of white. Its flatness is subtly undermined by the numerous colours that make up the impression of a deep beige, colours which, although barely discernible, give away a texture that suggests sand. It undulates slightly as a flat, rectangular object pushes into its mass at an angle and is supported there. At the top left corner of the object, where light is blocked entirely, a shadow forms a solid black triangle. Reflecting off the surface of the object, the peculiar angle of the horizon line renders sand and sky pure colour and form. Contrastingly smooth, the beige surface is sliced with light blue, where one presumes ground meets sky. Surrounding this deceptively simple formation is a translucent green square that hovers over the background, cut open by the mirror and its shadow. Its source appears to be held at a height by two hands, knowable only by shadows tracing their shapes in the bottom righthand corner of the image. To attempt to relay Sassen’s photography in a written or spoken form of language can only ever generate loose approximations. Words consistently fail to translate her visual syntax with the depth and fluency of her imagery. Sorry … I’m not very good at talking about my work. Mid-sentence, Sassen paused and apologised. Our conversation took place via video call from Cape Town to Amsterdam, at a distance of almost 10 000km. There were failures in connection, audio drop-outs and misunderstandings, some of which were caused by the technology that facilitated our conversation, 75
5. Viviane Sassen
others by the very nature of conversation itself. As I began to comprehend Sassen’s proposal to step into ‘another world’ and pass through the permeable boundaries between an image and what lies beyond, Sassen too was finding her way through the re-presentation of her images in words.
Last year your body of work Umbra was shown as a multi-part exhibition of still and moving images, with light projections and mirrors, and accompanied by a publication with poetry. Can you start by describing your inspiration for that project and how it came into being? Viviane Sassen:
I had got a call from the Netherlands Photo Museum in Rotterdam to say they wanted to give me an assignment, supported by a collector, and actually it was kind of carte blanche. They told me I was completely free to do whatever I wanted to do, but they were interested in me doing something new, something unexpected, or at least something that would bring me out of my comfort zone. So it was an opportunity in a way to reflect on what you had done previously and to do something new. At what point did you fixate on the idea of exploring the shadow – the title of the show means shadow, right?
Yes, Umbra means shadow in Latin. When they gave me this commission, I thought, well, I cannot do something completely new; it has to be somehow linked to my previous work. And I decided to investigate the shadow because the shadow has always been a very important part of my work and I was always wondering why … I thought there must be something there, there must be a reason why I am so intrigued by the shadow. And I think it’s partly because the shadow is about a kind of disclosure or not revealing a very important part of something. That has always fascinated me, the things that you can’t see, the things that you can’t grasp ... At first it was irritating because I started seeing shadows everywhere; it became very obvious in a way, you know, and very literal which was not the idea. And so I thought I have to do something else in order to get into this realm and be able to make new work on a more conscious level – because I had always used the shadow on a very subconscious level in my work. I started reading a lot about the shadow, for instance Victor Stoichita’s A Short History of the Shadow, which is about the shadow in art history, and there were some really amazing stories in that book which I used later. But it all became a bit too academic for me and I’m not an academic or intellectual in that sense, or an artist who works in a very conceptual way. At that point I thought, well, the only way to truly investigate these shadows is to go within, to investigate my own shadows. And then I thought I need someone to help me because there was this gap between my thoughts
5. Viviane Sassen
and the images that I wanted to make. I decided to contact a friend of mine who is a writer and poet, Maria Barnas; she is also an artist and at the time she lived in Berlin so we started this email conversation and I asked her to write some poems about the shadow. We had previously worked on some books together and she had written about my work in a very poetic way. So did she write the poems before you created theÂ images? Some of them, and some I sent her first, because I also went into my archive looking for images which contained shadows in a literal way but also in a personal, intimate or emotional way. So I sent those to her but at that point I also started writing to her about my personal shadows, my fears and longings, fantasies, my memories and ... well, basically everything that reminded me of shadows somehow. She took that material, my letters to her, and combined those texts with her own personal shadows. And so those poems are a mix of her shadows and my shadows. Was that the first time you had gone back into your own archive to reflect and create new work? Yes, yes it was. And how did your reassessment of those previous works inform the new photography that you made for the project? 78
Thatâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s a good question. I think at some point I decided that there were numerous interpretations of shadows in my work. For instance, there was this body of work which I made when I was very young, still in art school, in 1996/7, and those were images that for me translated back to the idea of the Jungian shadow, the shadow that Carl Jung describes in his archetypes as that part of our personality that we are afraid or ashamed of, and combining also the sexual aspect of lust and the body. Back then I did a lot of pictures of nudes and selfportraits and I think at that time I was still exploring my own sexuality and having my first relationships â&#x20AC;Ś So that was something I thought could have a place within the show, as a separate chapter basically, and afterwards I took some more pictures to complement that story. Could you talk a little bit about what the experience was like within the installation and some of the relationships you set up between the images and works in the space? Yes, Iâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ll guide you through it. The museum in Rotterdam is in a very large industrial building, and they divided it into seven different spaces. When you walked in you entered a space with a Beamer installation, with a large mirror on one side and a large wall and then on another side there was a large wall with a projection of still images that were moving past horizontally. There were a lot of landscapes and so you had the feeling that you were almost in the landscape and images kind of emerged 79
5. Viviane Sassen
from the line. The mirror was not opposite but at a 90 degree angle from the installation. Once you entered this room you became part of this installation yourself, so you would cast a shadow on the wall and you would also see your own projection. The installation format feels like a natural extension of the way in which you compose your images – there seems to be a conscious interaction between space and figure, sculpture and form, that can be played with. In the installation the viewer becomes the protagonist on a set of your devising, they walk around, and they cast shadows. What was your experience of creating shadows for the installation? Did you envisage it in the same way you might a photographic shoot or set? Mmmhhh! I wouldn’t compare it to an actual photo set but then on the other hand, now that you’re saying it, maybe it is … I’m always interested in the incidental and so all of a sudden when you have things moving, light moving, and also yourself as an object taking part or becoming a part of this installation, then a lot of unexpected things happen. Also I think photography is quite limited in the way you perceive or view it, whereas with an installation like this it’s more of an experience. I found this very interesting to discover. I even made this kind of soundscape in collaboration with someone as part of this experience which you could enter and walk around in … 80
You first published Umbra as a folder of prints and a booklet of poems, and you’ve just made a second version of the book that was designed by Irma Boom. What was your experience of thinking through the sequencing of the images the second time around? The second time around I thought it shouldn’t be so literal. In the exhibition, the installation which we were just talking about, Totem, is one of several installations within the show; others contain different set-ups and different work … And so I thought it would be more interesting to mix the images up a bit instead of making them into separate chapters ... I think the first publication is much more about the poems than about the images. In the second publication it’s the other way around, the poems are a bit hidden because they are in folded paper, so you can read them and you can see them but it’s a bit harder. There are still these different chapters but they run through the whole book and you can kind of feel them by the way the book was designed and the paper that was used – some pictures are on matte paper and others on glossy paper including the larger series which returns several times within the book. It’s an absolutely beautiful book and I really noticed that the relationship between text and images switches mode in this book compared to the other. The text is more hidden and you have to 81
5. Viviane Sassen
search for it or it reveals itself as you peel up the corner of a folded page; you know, the rhythm is different. What was the experience of thinking through that relationship between text and images and working with Irma as a designer, how did that dialogue unfold? At first she was a bit in doubt whether we should use the poems at all – she said, well, you’ve done that other publication where the emphasis is much more on the poems and maybe we don’t need them in this book, but I insisted that we have them and I think this was a way for her to give the poems a different place within the book. Are there any new images in this second edition? There are many more, for sure, because the first publication had only 11 images while the second publication contains all the images which were in the show, maybe a hundred pictures or so, plus a few extras. I’d read that you are an avid lover of photo books and I know that you’ve made quite a number of books yourself. I am interested to know if that knowledge of the medium affects the way in which you take photographs. Do you think about the end presentation of the image when you’re taking a photograph, and was that affected when you were making the installation because there were 82
so many possibilities of how it can be presented, whether it is projected or printed? I think the medium of the photo book has always been important. When I was younger and still in art school I was always making little photo books myself in a very simple way just by going to the photo shop – this was all pre-computers and stuff – and so it has affected my work a lot, I think. I have always been interested in how images communicate together if you change their context or in the way you pair them, for instance. I think that for me a project is finished when there’s a book. So I’m thinking much more in books than in exhibitions; with the installations it was a bit different and I think that was one of the reasons why I wanted to work with a new designer, someone who I admire and who I thought could make a difference. What I like about the work of Irma Boom is that all her books have this tactility, they are objects in their own right, beautiful objects, and I thought that was exactly what this project needed. In this edition of the book, I noticed a little drawing or sketch that you’d included – it’s two figures entwined, with legs and arms raised up at different angles; it’s loosely shaded and above it you’ve written ‘the other’. I feel like that simple sketch communicates quite a lot of the ideas that run through your work: there’s silhouette, the shadow, and also these entwined figures and this idea of the other. 83
5. Viviane Sassen
Definitely! I think all artists make self-portraits all the time in a way, well at least I do, but even if you are a very abstract painter I think that says something about you. My work has always been a way for me to deal with my own thoughts but also my fears and my longings. At some point I discovered that I make the same pictures over and over again, or at least there are certain themes in my work which keep on reappearing. One very important theme is the connection with the other, whether in terms of gender or race or whatever ... I think I’ve always been quite a shy person and I think I am longing for this kind of connection, this true connection with someone else. When I was younger I was always thinking about romantic love in a similar way, in terms of truly becoming one with someone else. Now I know it’s not possible but I don’t mind so much anymore! But yes, the other is everyone outside of myself and I think because I was partly raised in Kenya, there’s also this ‘other’ in terms of a different … not race, but how would you say that? Well, I think that the relationship between Europeans and Africans has been dominated by this sense of otherness and othering; an understanding of self in relation to an other ... That brings me to a question about your autonomous work that you’ve developed since you returned to Africa in 2001. It is possible to get stuck on this fraught history that dictates the power relationship between white Western photographers and black African subjects, and especially in the way that your subjects are 84
usually concealed by the shadows or their visibility is heightened through your play with contrasting colours … But when one takes your whole body of work into consideration, and that includes your fashion photography, it’s clear that your concerns around shadow and colour and form and this kind of framing that makes the everyday feel unusual have been there from the beginning. I wondered if you felt that your intent has shifted in any way as you’ve reacquainted yourself with Africa through your photography? Yes! What you’re saying brings up a lot of issues, maybe it will take too long to talk about all of them, but I do feel that I have a certain responsibility towards the people I photograph because, of course, being a white woman carrying a camera, the camera is already a tool of power, and being white in some areas of Africa is still in the eyes of some … I am very aware of the political issues that are being raised while looking at my work but it has never been my intention to make work that is political in an overt sense. I always try to go back into my own childhood and to have the same open eye and open vision towards the other as I had back then. And of course over the years things have changed, because I am not a child anymore, and while travelling through Africa many, many times I have also experienced different things … And of course I’ve grown and once you are aware of all the issues, the racial issues, then you can’t really neglect them. I think it’s something that I am struggling 85
5. Viviane Sassen
with because I know that photographing black skin is surrounded by huge political debate … at the same time I don’t necessarily want to be a part of that, which is difficult because a lot of people want me to take that responsibility. I cannot be that child any more, which is just, you know, taken by the beauty of it. It’s interesting you say that because it’s also just that childlike innocence as well. Yes, and it was only after I was back in Holland, and I was seven or eight years old, that my parents told me that there was something called racial discrimination, you know, based on someone’s skin colour, and I was completely blown away because I didn’t know that it existed. For me I always felt this longing to go back to Africa and back to where I felt I belonged. I felt part of that world although I also knew, although I was very small, that I was different from my friends and my friends were black and I was white and that was that. I don’t know, that’s just the way it was. It was not loaded with these political issues at all. But I do see that, in the eyes of some people, some of my work could look as if I am exoticising Africa. I guess my question was also around the fact that lots of the devices that you use – the shadow, for example, or body paints – are things that you’ve been using since really early on, before you returned to Africa, and so I guess they are formal 86
concerns that have been yours since the beginning. I was reflecting on your work in relation to the idea of photography as writing with light, and it occurred to me that at the same time you are also drawing with bodies and that in your photographs the body becomes a prop or materials and the kind of formal sculptural qualities are accentuated. Is that important to you in the work? It is but it’s more … sometimes I feel more like a sculptor than a photographer. I’m just in love with these kinds of body sculptures because for me they also express an emotion; they might seem very formal but there’s not only this formal aspect to it, there’s also an emotional aspect to it, at least to me. When I take pictures of these body shapes, for me there’s not really a difference between the white skin and the black in that sense. If I were to go back to Africa now I would probably stage less than I did in the past. But in the early 2000s when I went back to East Africa and started taking these pictures, I think I was one of the very first – or at least I hadn’t seen it anywhere before – to stage my pictures. At that time I was trying to show a very personal and different view on Africa, my own personal experiences, my childhood experiences in Kenya, because I think back then I only knew the pictures of National Geographic or the black and white grainy pictures of famine and, you know, hunger and disease and all these kind of stereotypical images of Africa … And at some point in my subconscious I was thinking, 87
5. Viviane Sassen
well, if you go to Africa you have to be at some level a documentary photographer. And then, when I went back to the places of my childhood and the villages, suddenly it made a click in my mind that I could also stage my pictures and make them personal. In Umbra especially, there seems to be this exploration of very simple things, geometry, pattern, colour, and this kind of spectrum between an opacity and translucence, and there are always these very simple devices that shift our perception but only far enough so that we see something new and I guess that’s the relationship between reality and the staged. Another device that you used throughout Umbra is the mirror, and I wondered if you could talk about the significance of mirrors as props or as metaphor in your work? Mirrors are very important to me as metaphors because they allow you to step into the other world. From a very young age onwards I was always intrigued by the other world, by something that I couldn’t grasp. I have always had very vivid dreams at night and if I would wake up I would remember my dreams and write them down; even as a child I was always very captivated by my dreams. For me it has always been a world that is equally important to my daily life and I think mirrors express that in a way. It’s quite easy to step into the other world, which is there but simultaneously not there.
So they are almost like gateways? Yes, they are. Beautiful! Going back to Holland from Kenya when I was young, Kenya was everything I knew, because I was two when I went there and I was five or six when I went back to Holland. So everything I knew was Kenya and when we went to Holland, I had never been to Holland, and I had a feeling that I was shut off from my real life, that I was trapped in this parallel universe and I couldn’t go back to where I belonged – which was Kenya, at least in my eyes. Is there anything you would like to share about the project that we haven’t discussed already? Well, lately I have been more and more aware of the whole racial debate, because there’s been such a presence, you know, of the idea of the other and of xenophobia; there’s so much in the media about refugees and people feeling not welcome. And I feel that I have the urge to say something about that in my work while at the same time I always try to avoid these kinds of political questions. I think people questioning my work and my integrity is a good thing, it keeps me sharp, and it also allows me to think in different ways or to experience and to see my work in a different light. That doesn’t mean
5. Viviane Sassen
that the work I’ve done in the past is wrong because I think it came from another space, it came from my own childhood memories that were coloured in a different way. For instance, the shadows that you referred to earlier in my work and hiding the faces – it’s something that I do realise is a very strong symbol but it was always my intention, even back then, to show … I was always hoping that those shadows function as a mirror so people could reflect on themselves and look upon their own preconceived ideas about the other. Obviously a lot of people don’t see those images in that way – but that’s something to learn from as well. This conversation took place via Skype at Stevenson, Cape Town, and the artist’s studio, Amsterdam, on 9 November 2015
6. Nicholas Hlobo
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
Compositions by line, stitch and sound I have this belief that people who are blind have a more interesting sense of the world. Actually I think their senses are much sharper than ours … as visually advantaged people, there are a lot of things that we miss. We have lost a great part of our intuition … Nicholas Hlobo’s Thabatheka (2014) dances at the edges of visibility. Using one of his signature materials, Hlobo stitches white ribbon through white paper. The forms in Thabatheka do not resemble or represent anything familiar to the naked eye, but with a shift of scale it is possible to imagine looking through a microscope at the essential building blocks of human or plant life. Hlobo’s marks through paper are incisive and final; they follow a meandering line that flows freely in loops and curves, doubling back and forth. At times threads are frayed and dangle outwards, lightly floating. There are a number of entry points, loose ends from which to commence a journey across the surface, tracing the eye along the Braille-like tracks of ribbon, with each knot an utterance, filling in part of the picture, telling a part of the story. Hlobo titles his works in his mother tongue, isiXhosa, and in his process of reacquaintance with the language pronounces its words aloud, breaks them down, and opens up its sites of meaning. Expanding on Phulaphulani, the title of a work on paper, Hlobo explains that umphulaphuli is the listener, whose job it is to break things down. Sound plays a supporting but ever-present role in Hlobo’s artmaking, whether as deconstructed language, assembled as music or sung into the rafters of his studio. Hlobo attunes himself to sonic frequencies and listens intently to the world and its resonating waves. I sing with the birds most of the time, they try to converse. For those who make sense of the world without sight, sound can enable perception of the surrounding environment, and the technique of echolocation is said to build spatial maps in the mind as sounds can 93
6. Nicholas Hlobo
be sensed reverberating off objects. Touch, trained through reading patterns of raised dots, can also become highly sensitive to external stimuli. In people who are blind from an early age touch and sound, like sight, are processed by the visual cortex and create images in the mindâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s eye. Hlobo openly shares his willingness to sing with the birds, to consider the richness of a world without sight and his belief that the ability to see can blind the intuition. His sense of curiosity is absorbing. As he talked with reverence and purpose over the sound of the Johannesburg rain, I felt an acute awareness of my role as the listener.
Could you start by telling me what inspires you to make new work? Nicholas Hlobo:
I think the best way to put it is, I endeavour to celebrate all my identities and in the process of that celebration I also try and build my new identity; some things I revise and build anew in a way that makes sense to me. I look at my ethnic identity, my colonial heritage, my gender identity, my nationality and masculinity as well. So itâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s like a bag full of all those things which I try and sieve through in the hope of making some understanding of what it means to be me, what I stand for, where I come from and where perhaps I hope to be in the future. Youâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;ve been working now for a decade or so, and I was wondering if those questions around your multiple identities are as important to you today as they were in the beginning. Are they still central to your impulse to make work? 94
I think they are; they form a foundation. And apart from my own identity or identities, there’s also a focus on building a certain identity around my works – the paintings, the drawings, the sculptures, the performances – because I find myself to not be removed from what I do. It’s not something that happens in the third person; the works and the subjects explore a bit about me and how I relate to this part of the world, and the world in general and the universe, of course. I’ve said that when I take an inventory of my practice I find it to be on a path where, had I been a writer, I would describe myself as someone who is working towards creating my own autobiography. I regard all the things I create as pieces of writing but not conventional writing – it’s writing, it’s symbols which most people are not familiar with. The objects themselves tend to speak about me, you see, they are my pen. And as you’ve changed and evolved as a person, has that created shifts in your work? Or, to put it another way, is your understanding of your identities as they shift in time also reflected in your work? I would think so … A lot of things have changed: how I look at myself in relation to my practice and how I relate to all those around me – a whole lot of views from within me have changed as I’ve managed to gain some light on certain things that I didn’t have clarity on before. And as always happens there are some newer things that are a bit of a struggle to understand but for some reason I feel 95
6. Nicholas Hlobo
I have evolved, if I were to use that as a way of describing myself. My sensibilities, if that’s the correct word, or my sense of understanding everything that I believe I stand for or ought to stand for has somehow changed, so I’ve grown and I’ve got a better understanding of how I could use my practice as a way of going through things, of unpacking certain things … As happens with everyone, work allows me time to think about a whole lot of things that perhaps I need to resolve. Even if I have someone working with me, assisting me, it allows me a space to be somehow isolated. I get to be in my own space, to be with me, and I get to discover a lot more about myself and things get to grow. Because now, in 2015, how I see my subject matter is not the same as in, say, 2001, 2002, 2003, when I was still studying, or 2005 when I had my first show. A whole lot of things and how I look and the things that have inspired me have grown – I think most have grown for the good. Coming into your studio space before you actually enter the building, one has to walk through this very lush green kind of landscape – Overgrown garden! Overgrown garden – and I’ve heard you say in the past how nature and plant life inspire you and you feel like human beings can learn from that. Can you tell me more about your relationship to plant life and how that perhaps feeds in? 96
I’m the sort of person who is, one could say, strange. I like one of my grandmother’s analogies – she feels I am a little cuckoo, a little mad and she always worries: you shouldn’t think too much about things, you shouldn’t pay too much attention to every little detail. I try very hard not to look at human beings, even though I do – I find as people, whether an artist or whatever you do, the human body or human beings have always been part of our study because we are studying ourselves. And I am very curious about other forms of nature that are part of our community, if we were to look at us in comparison to plants or insects or the weather system, that sort of thing – we tend most of the time to disregard those or become ignorant and not want to learn from them. So the subject forms a foundation of where everything springs from; I study how other beings behave or how they carry themselves and regard myself as being … For example I love gardening, I am a bad gardener but I love the idea of sowing or looking after plants and looking after insects. If I see a caterpillar going I take it inside so that other people don’t step on it and that sort of thing and so I regard myself as being at their service. They are my masters, I am not above them. I think with me it’s an attempt to try and to sway away from the general human perception that we are above all. Because I feel we are the tiniest of creatures and I think our problem is, because we are able to reason, we believe that we are the ones who are the rulers of all in this world in which we live. To me, I mean, you’ve seen my works, they tend to be organic; in most cases they 97
6. Nicholas Hlobo
resemble nothing. It’s things I imagine – at times it’s abstractions of certain details from the things I harvest my inspiration from, the plants, the animals, the birds, the sky above, that sort of thing. Is that where your interest in that kind of embryonic state of human life lies as well – human nature at its natural beginnings? Because I know many of your works have referenced conception, embryo, sex, giving birth. Is that a way of thinking about human beings in that kind of natural system? Yes, I believe that idea of conception and sex is most important for our existence and other God-created beings’ existence because without procreation we cannot be here, we cannot be sitting and talking. But what is most curious to me is the idea of the soul of each creation. We try and most of us believe that we understand ourselves but in truth we do not. If we had a complete understanding of ourselves we could just create our own clones. We can try and create other human beings but one thing we still are unable to reach is the creation of the soul, the thing that makes Nicholas be Nicholas. I believe that idea, whether it’s a spiritual aspect of a human being or a plant or an insect, whether it’s spiritual or not, is something that people who are wiser than me can debate but that’s what I find to be most curious. I spend most of my time taking inventory of myself, analysing myself, and I’ve realised that the physical body is just a physical body; it has a lot to do with me but it has less 98
to do with who I really am. There is something that is deeper that I don’t manage to get a grasp of, I can’t get my sense around. For example, with Michael, we sit and chat and that always forms part of our conversation: the exploration of one’s inner universe, one’s soul and what it means, and when you do that you get to realise how vast you are, that you are not shallow. Even the person who thinks they are shallow, they are not shallow; no one is shallow – our depths run into infinity. It fascinates me, that which I do not understand and hope to understand, and the understanding that I will never get to understand it – I will understand certain bits and pieces. At school we were taught how seeds germinate and form plants but it’s that mystery of how life is created which I find to be very fascinating and that I wish I could understand to the fullest. But understanding it to the full would not be good because I would begin to play God. In some ways there’s value to that mystery, the unknown. Yes, it’s what becomes our jet fuel, that’s what propels us, we want to thrust forward hoping that ... We want to reach the end and once we reach the end then we get to understand the sense, the length that we have travelled, we get to understand the depth or the volume of the spaces in which we find ourselves. But because we can just go on and on and on, if we are able, we cannot reach the end – but we get to realise that the world within and around us is bigger than we might have imagined. 99
6. Nicholas Hlobo
Or could ever comprehend. Yes, it’s a very complex, multilayered system we find ourselves in, I think. This question is more focused towards your work: I was thinking about the way in which you use stitching and how there’s this act of piercing the surface and threading it with the ribbon. I felt as though that sort of stitching also says something about this idea of the invisible and the visible, so what’s behind and what’s in front, what’s seen, and then connecting to broader ideas in your work of what’s concealed and what’s revealed. I wondered if you could talk about that in terms of materials and the stitch – because you have, you know, the ribbon that’s looped from the back to the front ... And people tend to see the top and they never see the back of the suture which is perhaps not as neat. Stitching with me came about as a metaphor that I use to try and elaborate on my processes. When I was still studying, having to go through myself as a gay man, I had to use myself as my own counsellor and minister; I had to go and say, ‘Hey, I have this and this struggle, can you help me?’ like if you had to go and see a shrink, for example. And so I employed myself to deal with myself, and stitching is used as a metaphor because I’m from South Africa – there are a whole lot of issues apart from the personal issues; there are political and cultural struggles 100
that we are faced with in this country and it’s not only us who have those struggles, everyone in the world has them but at different levels. Stitching to me was the idea of trying to suggest how one can mend, because most of the time that idea of stitching, if you are not building something anew, if you are not creating a garment from scratch, if you have a shirt or trousers that you love and it gets torn at times because you love it so much, you mend it. The idea of stitching is that idea of trying to repair something, sort of conserve it and try and keep it instead of discarding it. It’s not like taking something and throwing it in the bin; instead of throwing it away you mend it or if you feel the garment is old you recycle it, you make cushions or a quilt out of it. And so it’s that idea of mending, healing ... It’s also I guess about the value; you’re valuing this thing. You’re trying to preserve and mend and heal it. Ja, when I look at all the subjects that I explore in my work, as a homosexual there are certain things I want to keep and there are certain things I want to discard. As a black South African there are certain things I feel mean more to me, I relate to them, and there are certain things about myself as a South African that I feel don’t make sense to me; I don’t belong there and I don’t relate to those. And so it’s that labour being taught where you are always adding and eliminating things; it’s like you’re a mathematician, you feel ok, I need this, 101
6. Nicholas Hlobo
I will multiply this and I will add some more on and take some things off because I feel they don’t belong. I use stitching as a metaphor because I relate to ideas of, for example, when the garment is torn and you need to mend it or if one is sick, let’s say you have to undergo a medical procedure, and the way in which they will heal you will involve having to cut you. And it’s pain, it’s inflicting pain in order to heal, and in the psychological, emotional or spiritual sense you go through the same. You have to somehow iron out the creases and it’s not easy to iron out the creases in order make it neat again. It’s that idea of employing constant maintenance in order to conserve and preserve and keep things going and have things standing up and proud – at the same time not too proud, humble at the same time, because I am fascinated by contradictions as well. So stitching is a metaphor of trying to keep things together, conserving, healing, yeah. What about the role of mark-making in your practice and drawing? I read that you used to draw a lot from childhood and I guess that you started experimenting as an artist through drawing. How does that manifest now across the different mediums you work in? My drawing has taken a new form because I don’t draw in a very conventional artistic way. I don’t use your conventional tools to draw with – I don’t use charcoal or pencils or paint, that sort of thing. For example, I use a 102
knife to draw, which goes back to my trying to build the identity of the works for myself and everyone else, and trying to unpack what it means to create an artwork and what drawing is. I’ve started to unpack those meanings because I strive to be myself and be very true to myself … How I try and explain myself to someone else is almost like the idea of a choir; what creates the harmony is the different voices and the keys that you get to hear or pick up from the choir when they are singing. There might be a very good lead singer or someone right at the back and someone might be just off key, but when it’s gathered by your ear it creates a beautiful harmony. At times it becomes disgusting and it’s something you feel you can’t listen to at all. The idea of drawing is an attempt to look at what drawing actually means, and mark-making. In regard to what I do, it’s one of those layers you have to employ in order to create an image, but then drawing also relates to other things: when you think about war, people in war or when they are having fights, you have to draw your dagger or your sword or a knife … Drawing means a lot of things, drawing is about harvesting at the same time, it’s about retrieving something, and drawing is about claiming something that in the beginning was not yours. You claim it, you make it yours and so you stamp that area down, you carve it, you annex it and say, this is mine. Drawing is about colonising spaces that do not belong to one, it’s about dominating, and the surface on which one has drawn then becomes a victim – it is taken over. In regard to human beings they get to be defeated and overcome by the powerful, whoever they are or 103
6. Nicholas Hlobo
whatever nation it might be that has taken over. And so drawing is very much about all that, because I am curious … I am very curious about words and what they mean and where they might come from. That brings me to the questions I wanted to ask you about your exploration of the Xhosa language. I wanted to zoom in on something you’ve said around the sounds of the language and how you break those down, and how information is shared through the sounds. And so I wondered first of all how your experience of the sounds of the language informs your work. What I’ve discovered is that there’s no spoken language that I speak fluently, including my mother tongue, the Xhosa language, and that became a bit of a struggle to me … What got me really to start using Xhosa titles and looking into the Xhosa language is when I realised that even my dreams were occurring in English. That disturbed me a lot; I said, what is happening with me? I would understand when I am conversing in English with someone who is Caucasian or non-African, but when I was just dreaming, my dreams were in English and I felt I needed to change this, I needed to train myself to dream in Xhosa. I don’t think I’ve succeeded but in my dreams I speak all the languages that I am able to speak. That drove me to look into my language, also because I am exploring myself and my identity and my language is one of the things that I am looking at. And when I 104
was looking at myself I realised that I have drifted away, I cannot speak the language. So looking at the Xhosa language is a way of trying to relearn it for myself and also a way to elevate the language and take it to a higher level, to take it into high culture. Because of where the country comes from it’s one of the languages that was not given that much respect, and you would come across the Xhosa language in literature, in music and in theatre and that’s as far as it would go – never in visual arts. So I felt that using the Xhosa language or studying it in my own way is a way to lift it up and take it towards the tip of the pyramid, if you want to call it that. By being curious about learning the language, I realised that it’s a very strange language because some of the words we have in Xhosa don’t sound Xhosa at all. And you get to realise at times that the Xhosa people and everyone else who is black in this country, apart from the Khoisan, we are not from here – we are also the first colonisers that drifted down here. Some of the words may sound like they have some Arabic seeds in them, like ‘amaqanda’am’; they are very strange. I find some of the words difficult to understand – they don’t sound Xhosa at all; where could this word come from, where could be the origin of this word? Maybe I read too much into them but there are a lot of words that, when I hear them I say to my Xhosa-speaking friends, ‘Don’t you find it strange that some of the words we use in our language do not sound Xhosa at all?’ The Xhosa language is in the same group as Zulu and the siSwati languages, but somehow it’s got some words which are mysterious. 105
6. Nicholas Hlobo
I guess because you have become distanced from the language it’s enabled you to hear it in a different way. Perhaps. Which then allows you to reflect on these kinds of nuances that you might not otherwise have realised, because when you do not understand a language you hear it purely as sound. In my own way of trying to unpack the language, I had a piece entitled Phulaphulani. My understanding of the word was that it was made up of two verbs and the original meaning of the verb was ‘to break’ – phula-phula which means ‘to break’ and phula-phula which is ‘to listen’. It’s a very formal word which refers to listening; we have synonyms like ‘mamela’ but they use ‘phulaphulani’ when they are being formal and the listener is ‘umphulaphuli’ – and so basically is a person whose job it is to break things down. And in truth the act of listening is to break things down – you break down the information you receive and remould it and pass it on, because when you tell me something and I pass it to the next person, when it reaches the 20th person it won’t be the same as it was uttered by the first person. And so those are the methods I use to try and understand language and read it. In addition to language, are there any other kinds of sounds or music that you have researched that have informed your work? 106
I sing with the birds most of the time, they try to converse. My friends always laugh at me. But music from different parts of the world … I find it really fascinating when I listen to music where, if it’s sung in a language I do not understand, like if it’s French – I don’t understand French – or if it’s classical music or opera, because I like opera, if it’s in Latin or German or French, I won’t understand what they are saying; the only thing I get to understand is the emotion that comes with the voice. And so I get to make sense of things – how I understand that song or the sound, the meaning I create around it, may not be exactly what they are trying to put across … I listen to different sounds, sounds that we make and sounds from different instruments and also other things in the sound piece that I had to create for my performance at Locust Projects, which I didn’t get to be present for, where we used things like that organ ... You’ve also got a violin here and these two guitars ... Yes, I can’t play any of these instruments … We had those cardboard spools for rolling paper and used those to create sounds. I find that to be a very interesting process or activity because when I was younger I thought I was going to be a musician. For some reason in trying to go into the music industry I realised that I didn’t fit there and where I really fit was in the visual arts. But then, all my interests and fantasies about where I’d be in life have somehow found a way of manifesting themselves through the visual arts. 107
6. Nicholas Hlobo
I guess that also links to the very strong presence of performance in your work. Yes, I was interested in acting, singing, and I do all of those when I perform and I pretend it’ll be like theatre but it’s not theatre. I was also interested in your exploration of sculpture because you’ve actually talked of the performances as moving sculptures. And the paintings or the works on canvas also have this very sculptural quality to them, and so it seems like that’s a very central part of your practice, the exploration of what sculpture can be. I tend to mainly work through lines – I draw and stitch lines. Even in sculptures it’s the lines that I find to be very important. I think that the idea of a line somehow relates to the word ‘dimension’. So, whether it’s in three dimensions or relief form or flat, it’s that line that’s important. In drawings, for example, it’s the ley lines; they become the energy lines, the passage that you would use to go wherever. Think of how birds migrate around the world – they follow certain wind patterns; they don’t just go against wind patterns, they go around like that. It’s like water and currents, there are certain directions that they have to take. I also think that spiritually that’s what we do, we have these lines that we follow all the time … Where were we? This rain is interrupting.
You were making a really beautiful point about how we follow lines. Yes, because for example when I’m drawing I might have a cup as a reference but I don’t draw that cup necessarily. I draw the essence of that cup, because trying to make a close representation of a cup on canvas is not important to me; what is important is the essence of a cup. It might contain a hot fluid that is evaporating and what I’m curious about is, you know, the genie that is moving up from the cup and just disappearing into the air. I’m curious about what you said earlier, what is revealed and concealed; I’m more curious about what is not seen. For example, the bulges I would make sometimes is the idea of ‘look at ourselves’, you know, our structure; what you see on the outside is the other forces that are pushing, for without those we wouldn’t have the look, whether you are beautiful or ugly or somewhere in between. For me what is interesting is all the energies and forces that inform what the inside looks like. And I enjoy the idea of what I myself do not know because it gets me to be very motivated and curious and build some sense of relationship with the object. And in the drawing, the painting or even the performance the thread that runs through them is the line. When I’m wearing a costume that is stitched, it’s that line that I find to be interesting because it’s holding everything together. When you were mentioning how the sculpture and the performance are the same, then that is in the study
6. Nicholas Hlobo
of the human figure because throughout the ages we have not let go of the habit of studying ourselves, apart from looking at nature and landscape. We still endeavour to look at the human figure and that has become one of the primary subjects that we are focusing on as artists – or filmmakers, they also do the same. And so I feel it wouldn’t be easy for me to just leap from that … I am still part of this world and we have not evolved that much to forget about the human body. We have not gotten to a state where we understand our minds very well but we can let go and study lightning. So I still do what everyone is doing, study the human form. Sometimes I present it in a mute stance, whether it’s in a sculptural form or if it’s in a drawing, or do a performance and animate it, give it life and basically allow that body, that vehicle, to present itself. But when it presents itself it will be me performing, which is not me but a character I am assuming. It’s theatre. But then there are other things: you might have your choreography and all your steps written down but when you perform certain things change, so the performance gets to take charge. That performance is something that happens in all the things I do because I enjoy the process, because the process and all the material and what the project in the end will look like is very important. It’s a very democratic process but the process of creating is one that I find tends to be dominant, to be above all, because it’s where I allow the object to create itself. That’s how I describe it because I might have an idea but as I’m making I don’t become too stiff and say I have to stick to the guidelines I’ve set 110
for myself. I allow the process to lead me somewhere. I always wait and look forward to some mistake because once there’s a mistake that’s when things become more interesting because you begin now to go astray and you bring yourself back … Sometimes you get completely lost and you go in a totally different direction which you didn’t plan. And is that about you following your lines or the lines of the work? It’s an interesting one, I do not know. I try and not be in control, it’s an exercise where I trust myself and try have very little control and it’s silly because it is still me who is doing that. Basically what is happening there is I’m beginning to split myself into several components; there is part of me that is very conscious that will be in control but there should be a part of me that is not conscious at all. I was going to say that there’s a very deliberate element as well. Yes, I say to my assistant, you know, it would be nice if one was blind. Not that I wish to be but maybe because I’m sighted I have this belief that people who are blind have a more interesting sense of the world. Actually I think their senses are much sharper than ours; because we see, our senses are somewhat blinded. We think we are able but we are disabled in a sense because, as visually advantaged people, there are a lot of things that 111
6. Nicholas Hlobo
we miss. We have lost a great part of our intuition and actually become very ignorant towards that because most people feel it’s primitive to be listening to your intuition, whereas I feel that to blind people their intuition is very important and how everything is based on their smell, their touch and their hearing – their world looks like it is very interesting. Or feels like it rather. Yes. I would love to have them draw it or describe it because it would be interesting to see how they see the world … The thing is, I feel their brains might be larger than ours. When I close my eyes I become very scared, I have to imagine where things are. So their senses of temperature and the closeness of things … I think what I’m trying to understand, maybe it’s based on sound, the closer you get to something, you feel it before you get there. We sighted people do not have those capabilities of closing our eyes and knowing that I’m close to something, but blind people I believe can and so I think their world is very interesting. That’s what I try and exercise as a performance to myself perhaps, try to sort of thrust myself onto a different path completely. As a final question, I’m interested to know where you feel your practice is going. Are there any further evolutions that you feel are taking place right now? What do you foresee with your work and where do you want to take it? 112
It still has a very long journey, I believe; I have not reached the place I’d love to reach. And I’ll never reach that place because if you have a destination that means when you get to it you just retire or die. I believe that I still have a great deal to learn, that I still need a lot of growth. I always find it quite amusing when my friends and people I do not know regard me as if I have reached my mark. There’s a whole lot of stuff I do not know and I feel very intimidated because I feel I have a lot to learn. I have not in my practice grown to a point where I feel I can sit down like a granddaddy and tell my grandchildren how to go about doing what I’ve done. I am still praying and hoping to reach newer frontiers, so the journey continues. And to me what is important is not to have a definite destination, it’s just stopovers, it’s places you go past and you move on because once you reach that destination it might be boring. I’m like a bird drifting from one country to the next and in each place you just rest and breathe for a while. And people believe that that one area is its natural habitat but what’s happening, all I’m doing, I’m migrating, just chasing seasons all the time, just moving across all the time, I follow my wind patterns … So to me what’s important, and I believe with everyone else, is to continuously move forward, no stopping. And as you move forward new things will reveal themselves if they have to be revealed, and at times you find yourself going back to the old things. I feel that’s how growth happens, you have to strive for it, it does not create itself. And so the future that you live doesn’t create itself; if you don’t create it 113
6. Nicholas Hlobo
then you will be lucky to get to your better future without your having had some deliberation. I believe that you create your future and you live it now, so that when you get to it, it’s something you know already. That’s how I see my practice: it has to move into the future, the future I can perhaps imagine but I don’t know if it will be like that when I get there. I might have my own vision of the future but it does not mean it will be like that and when it gets to be the way I’ve seen it or envisioned it then I count my blessings and see myself to be very lucky. But the future will reveal itself the way it’s supposed to be and the way it wants me to be in the future – I am not entirely in control of how it’s going to be. This conversation took place at the artist’s studio, Johannesburg, on 18 November 2015
7. Nandipha Mntambo
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
Shapeshifting, between life and death I’ve always been interested in that space of how one understands male versus female. In my personal life … being seen to be androgynous … it’s something that’s always been there. And in art, men are the ones that generally become successful sculptors. I think there’s a very gendered understanding of who can take what role within the artistic space … Nandipha Mntambo’s works in sculpture, photography, video and painting are subtly linked by threads of inquiry that lead from dreams of cowhides to female matadors and the hybrid nature of the Minotaur. Mntambo regularly chooses to take on the male-dominated space of sculptural practice and work with materials such as bronze and stone, in addition to her signature material of cowhide, to shape figures that defy such restrictive binaries, suggesting her own revisions of traditionally gendered narratives. With her bronze sculpture Minotaurus (2015), Mntambo recalls the tale of the half-bull half-man Minotaur of Greek mythology. In Mntambo’s retelling, these porous boundaries and categorisations are further ungrounded by a switch of gender. The artist casts her own body and imagines it into the role of Minotaurus, subverting the positioning of a male identity entwined in this existence between human and animal form. The myth of the Minotaur is stitched with scenes of death – the story reaches its violent climax as the beast is slain by Theseus of Athens, and ends in the tragic suicide of Theseus’ father, King Aegeus. Mntambo’s Ophelia (2015) is also cast in bronze, modelled on the artist’s frame at one and a half times her scale. On first encounter this sculpture of a naked female form surrounded by water appears serene, recalling the optimism and promise of a wishing well. However, this is a comfort soon dispelled by a deeper comprehension of the scene: Ophelia floats, motionless; facing death. Both Ophelia and Minotaurus were exhibited in Metamorphoses, a solo exhibition named after an epic collection of poems by Ovid. Metamorphoses begins with the creation of the world and ends with the death of Julius Caesar, and this framing of Mntambo’s work between life and death is fitting. 117
7. Nandipha Mntambo
Death is implicit in Mntambo’s core material and must be accepted if not contemplated throughout the process of making sculptures with cowhide. Working with animal skin forces Mntambo closer to the physical realities of death than many of us allow ourselves to venture. Yet also underlying the artist’s first experimentations with the material was an exploration of her source of life. Mntambo made one of her first sculptural series by moulding the material to her mother’s form. When questioned what led her to work with her mother’s body, Mntambo replied: ‘she was my primary life source, and my understanding of life, my introduction to how things happen as a human being, is centred on her in many ways’.
I read that you had an early interest in forensic pathology and its chemical processes, and I’d like to hear more about what drew you to a practice which is really about looking at and trying to understand death. I was wondering if that also informed your decision to move towards cowhide, because death is implied or implicit in that material. Nandipha Mntambo:
I suppose I’ve always been interested in science, in chemicals, in the way that organic things can be manipulated or understood. Initially though, when I shifted from forensics to fine art, it was a decision that wasn’t critically thought through. It was more that I felt there was too much death, too much explicit death, you know; seeing dead bodies every day isn’t something that allows you to have distance from the whole concept in
any way. And in making the decision to pursue art I didn’t have any particular goal or outcome in mind … As I was continuing along that journey there was this struggle around what material to use because at the time I was one of very few black students on the campus [at Michaelis School of Fine Art] and I guess because of the history of South Africa and the way that people understood blackness or even art history in the context of where we live, there was a push to try and make me interested in certain materials. Materials such as wood or clay, which were typically materials that black people would use, I guess because they were easily accessible. I found myself not really interested in those things, and I struggled for a long time to figure out which material to use. For some reason I figured maybe cowhide. I actually had a dream about it … and I decided to find a taxidermist who could help me understand the process. At the time I was not thinking about death but the dream had been about death, very literally … Only now, over time, understanding the material and being able to go to the source, being in contact with the animals and understanding how the people who handle the animals think, it’s become more obvious how much my work really is about death. At the time I thought of it more in terms of organic process and impermanence; funny enough, it’s all the same thing. [Laughs] I’m wondering about cowhide’s specific qualities as a material and how it’s revealed itself to you in
7. Nandipha Mntambo
the time that you’ve been working with it – what attracts you to it and what have you learned about it as material? When I first started working, I didn’t have a handle on the chemical process and how to control it so there was a lot of decay and rot and flies and maggots. Beside the weird self-punishment of deciding to deal with these things, they just reminded me about what being a human is and what being on earth is about, this process of living and dying. Now, because I’ve become more aware of how to avoid certain parts of the process, it happens less that I am confronted with the very horrible parts. Not that I’ve separated myself from the process, but I have a little bit of distance around how I react to grinding cow fat, for instance, and so the feelings around it have changed quite a bit. Do you think that your route into art through forensic pathology in some way prepared you for that, in a way that other people wouldn’t be prepared? I don’t know if it really prepared me. Actually I think the only thing that can prepare you is time, and that’s the human experience. You know, you speak to people who have children and they say, ‘You know, I’ve been thinking about it forever but until the child came I had no idea all the things I would have to deal with.’ Just like going to school, you could be prepared on some level for 120
what you might experience but until it happens there’s no way of really knowing. When I started to think about the material in relation to death, I thought of Damien Hirst and some of his earlier works which deal with death and rotting animal bodies. One of them is The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, and in some ways it feels like there’s a connection there with what you’re talking about, in terms of the material of dead animals and not being able to comprehend death. Yeah, it’s just a really interesting thing that we’re all confronted with all the time on some level. If you’re a person who eats meat, for instance, and choose not to understand how it gets onto your plate, you distance yourself completely. I’m interested in that complex space of actually confronting it and dealing with it and not being distant from how it works. Going back to some of your earlier sculptures that you made by moulding with the cowhide, you made the decision to make a mould of your mother’s body and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that. I guess the decision to work with her was centred on the fact that she was my primary life source, and my understanding of life, my introduction to how things 121
7. Nandipha Mntambo
happen as a human being, is centred on her in many ways. I was interested in understanding that relationship and how we influence each other; how, although I was developed inside her, I was also a very separate person from her. And then as you grow up there are certain things that you inherit or that are learnt behaviours you don’t even realise are happening – and so this connection but also disconnection to her was what interested me. Trying to imagine what I would be like at her age, looking back at her and what she looked like and how she described herself when she was my age … and also having this complex space with her where she somehow believes that she knows everything about me and that I share everything with her, which is obviously a falsehood, it’s just not a possibility. And so that relationship of withholding but also sharing at the same time is what I was interested in. You’ve worked with choreographers on a number of occasions and I wondered what that experience has taught you about the body and its capabilities, its restrictions? It’s really interesting because choreographers are people who understand the body in a way that’s different to how I understand it, and understand the spectacle of the body in a way that I don’t necessarily understand or even connect with. Because, although I use my body for the mould, I am never really present in the same way as a dancer would be. I think the decision 122
to have a recording of a performance rather than a live performance is also an interesting one. Working with the choreographers was scary but also quite comforting in a way. It took me a long time to decide who to work with and how we would work, how to relay ideas in a way that somebody else would understand – and to ensure that their way of working, even though it helps in the process, does not completely take over the outcome. Because in a way your body becomes their material. Yes, and having to separate myself from that idea of ego was a very humbling experience, because you have to completely trust that you have relayed your idea in a way that is understandable to somebody else, and also trust that, although they hold on to how they work, that person’s ego is also left at the door. In the video work Paso Doble, you’ve got this very traditional dance which is normally performed by male and female dancers; you play with those gendered roles by having two women enact this dance, and the women themselves are kind of androgynous looking. I also like the idea that the dance steps are the paso doble but the music is different. In a way it’s like playing with society’s structures and dancing to a different rhythm. Could you talk a bit about how you explore gendered identities and androgyny in your work? 123
7. Nandipha Mntambo
I’ve always been interested in that space of how one understands male versus female. In my personal life at different stages, being tomboyish or being seen to be androgynous just because of the ways I’ve looked, it’s always been something that’s been there. And in art, men are the ones that generally become successful sculptors. I think there’s a very gendered understanding of who can take what role within the artistic space and so this whole question of male/female has always been on my mind in different ways. A couple of years before I made the Paso Doble work, I had been to Portugal trying to job shadow a bullfighter. He was a young man, similar in age to me, and his father was training him. The father didn’t speak any English, and while this guy spoke English and Portuguese he never really spoke to me, so I relied on his sister to be my translator, my main point of contact. Eventually when the father asked me, ‘Ok, you’ve been here for a month, what is it that you really want?’ I told him that I wanted him to train me as a bullfighter and his immediate response was ‘No! I’m not going to do it, you’re a female. I’m sorry, no!’ And so I suppose that conversation and experience had been on my mind as well. In a weird way I’ve never really fitted in to any kind of social box or construct. Growing up I wasn’t straightforwardly black, you know; I don’t have a straightforward experience or understanding of blackness or growing up in South Africa or all those kinds of things. It also comes back to my mom who also grew up in Swaziland and so her experience of being of a particular age, of a particular race living in South Africa 124
is not the same as someone who’s spent their whole life here. So there’s this disconnection from other people’s expectation that there be a collective experience of how we understand our social standing. It’s interesting because there’s a gendered hierarchy which is so strongly ingrained even to this day – while we might feel that the world has progressed, for the bullfighter it was a flat out ‘no’. So even though there’s a real subtlety to that piece, it’s actually quite a powerful statement that you’re making in changing those gendered roles. Yeah, sometimes people seem to think the only way the message is heard is if it’s really loud, whereas I think that it’s the things that you don’t necessarily hear or understand immediately that have more impact. I suppose I’ve always been interested in that underlying unclear, complicated space that you can’t really articulate. Another work which I find really intriguing, that touches on similar concerns, is the photographic series ...everyone carries a shadow. To me the work feels like a kind of exploration of self and the balance of the gendered identities that are within us. I wondered if you could talk a little about that work – maybe it’s an extension of the previous question … [Laughs] I feel like all of my work is connected somehow although I don’t necessarily see the connection while I’m 125
7. Nandipha Mntambo
making something – it becomes apparent a month or even years later. ...everyone carries a shadow was made with a choreographer who I first worked with when I was making the bullfighting series, and reconnecting with him was the main preoccupation. And trying to in a way step out of myself … You know, when I first started working on the piece, I tried to find somebody who could be my body double, so either somebody who looked similar to me or somebody I could change my body shape to seem similar to. I’d found somebody I thought that I could work with and for some reason that didn’t work out. Then I reconnected with this choreographer that I had worked with and in a funny way, without understanding that it wasn’t just a visual thing, it was also a spiritual connection. Right, so how did it feel to be seeking out your male double? What was the process of even thinking it through? It was very odd actually and a very quiet process, it wasn’t like I was holding casting sessions. Because you can very easily find someone who has the same body shape as you but their energy is not necessarily something that can work, you know? So I had to step back and be quiet about it, quiet in my mind about how it would work itself out. And it just happened that we reconnected … and so I think what was really interesting about that process was that it wasn’t about a physical space at all; the physical space worked in the way it did 126
because of things that were beyond the physical that were already in place. I was listening to a talk you gave in which you mentioned a video work that you made with the French bullfighter Marie Sara. One of the things that struck me is you said you were trying to understand the things that she doesn’t remember and the things that she chooses not to tell you. It links to what you were saying about what you reveal and what you don’t reveal, and I was wondering how you feel memory but also its retelling is explored through your work. Again the idea of memory is quite a complex thing. Initially I was thinking about material memory and the fact that cowhide, as much as I try to control it through chemical processes or stretching it over a mould, if I were to re-wet it, it would continue to remember a particular shape. So the control that I think I have isn’t a reality because the material functions in a way that it remembers and even chooses to remember. Beyond material memory there’s this understanding of cultural memory, there’s the social memory that we all have, and history and how it’s told or not told. I think my interest specifically in Marie Sara was that she’s this very glamorous, amazing woman, wonderfully dressed, and nothing that I read about her or experienced of her indicated any kind of struggle around being a bullfighter. There are hardly any stories of her being 127
7. Nandipha Mntambo
maimed by a bull, and she doesn’t talk much about the gender roles that have obviously influenced her life and her path. In a funny way she reminded me of my mother and myself – my mom is a very particular type of woman who never walks out of the house without makeup – which I’ve obviously learnt from her! – and never gives you any indication of a struggle. [Laughs] Obviously I don’t understand Marie Sara’s personal experience or how she’s gotten to where she is, but it was interesting to me that she had quite a difficult and complex job but really showed no indication of that at all. When I work there are so many things that are private in the creating of the artworks that then become the spectacle of ‘oh wow, it really looks great’, but no one really understands the process. I think that kind of double existence is what I was interested in initially. I was thinking about the relationship to memory but also wondering if that’s what interests you about mythology. Mythology as a form of storytelling – it’s a form of memory recall but it allows for fiction and also fantasy and so it’s also this style of narration that I guess relates in some ways to this. Yes, definitely. I think that how we understand history, how we understand our connection to the universe, the earth, is based on a lot of fiction. What you choose to believe becomes a reality for you; that complex weird thing that we have in common is this whole fiction that we make a reality. 128
Marie feels, from what you’ve described, like the type of person who does become someone of legend or mythology, at the kind of colloquial level of the urban legend, she could have that status. In making that video I had a discussion with her around the fact that I felt it would be interesting for the viewer never to see her face but to have an indication of what she could be like by seeing snippets of her, whether the shoes she was wearing that day or jewellery … I was also trying to understand how I might have imposed my own feelings around my history, how I was understanding her in relationship to myself, in relationship to my mother ... She was the canvas for a whole lot of possibilities. Can tell me about the works that you are currently focused on? Are there any new research interests? I know that you research deeply as you make work and I wondered what direction that has taken you. Well, right now I am in the space of wanting to explore and play. I started painting because I was getting bored with sculpture, or maybe not with sculpture but with myself. I’ve been trying to find a different language and I’ve increasingly become interested in this humped shape; I’ve always imaged the body very clearly in my work but never really tried to simplify the shape. I feel that the body consists of these humps and bumps, you know, your shoulder, your ear – this really simple shape that implies safety, housing, a shield of some sort. And 129
7. Nandipha Mntambo
I decided to start playing with the colour black and understanding the different variations of black. Playing around with oil paint and then printmaking and still this preoccupation with this shape … You retained the hair from the cowhide as well? Yeah, so just trying to expand the language of how I can work, and also now working with bronze on a large scale. I just had a show at Stevenson in Cape Town, still around mythology but on a more personal level … I’ve always used myself as a subject but there was a bit of distance to how I was doing it. So I’m making the decision to be more physically attached to the outcome of the art piece. Yeah, so it feels like I am revisiting certain aspects of the process that I never really delved deeply enough into, so not really new ideas or new preoccupations but maybe new ways of dealing with the same things. This conversation took place at Stevenson, Johannesburg, on 19 November 2015
8. Dineo Seshee Bopape
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
Memory over time [T]he aesthetics are in complete relation with the politics of how something is seen and not seen in relation to objects, in relation to people, in relation to time, memory over time and things that are re-presentable in memory and things that are not … Dineo Seshee Bopape’s approach to the written word displays many of the concerns with representation and its failings that permeate her broader practice. In artist’s statements Bopape’s prose is often tautological; her paragraphs are more like stanzas, some just a single word; and she makes graphic interventions, striking through whole lines of text. Her work titles are also treated visually. The title tell me_____can you dispossess a void, for example, uses a poetic device of underlined space – a gesture that not only highlights the question posed but also subtly reflects the form of the work itself. On deeper refection this ambiguous title soon becomes a political question if we look at the primary definition of the word ‘dispossess’, which is to deprive someone of land, property or other possessions, while the legal usage of the word ‘void’ is to have no legal force of effect. Bopape’s refusal of the conventions of writing about art and artists extends to her biography. Diverting the trappings and assumptions generated by the facts of an artist’s year and country of birth, Bopape instead introduces a list of events that took place across the globe in 1981, the year she was born. This lateral approach to time suggests the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate facts and also the idiosyncratic nature of narratives about the past, which must be rebuilt from the changeable faculties of memory. … like with stuttering, what are the ‘aesthetics’ of the difficulty to find words or to let go of that rhythm … it’s difficult to let go of that ‘khakkkakkakkak’ … the rhythm almost holds you captive, the rhythm of the language, of time as well. The rhythms of language, and of time, are compelling routes into Bopape’s art practice. Both inform our comprehension of history and the past, the present moment and our projections into the future. 133
8. Dineo Seshee Bopape
The etymology of the word ‘time’ is considered by linguists to be linked to the concept of ‘partition’ or ‘divide’. It follows that, over time, a rhythm is established by the passing of sequences of events. There is a rhythm too in Bopape’s sculptural works and installations. Her choices of what to include, what is seen and how it is displayed, are ways of partitioning, dividing and editing through which she authors a distinct visual language of objects, sounds and images. All of which are in an ongoing, measured dialogue with that which she highlights as absent: the negative spaces of voids; the pauses between thoughts, words and actions; omissions and silence.
There’s a particular piece that I wanted to ask you about as a way to explore some of the ideas in your work: same angle, same lighting. The work is an assemblage of different materials and the image pans across these flowers and you’ve got a spy camera and a number of different components. Can you talk about the process of assembling that piece? Dineo Seshee Bopape:
I just remembered that the image I used in that work is one that I found when I was doing another piece called grass green/sky blue (because you stood in the highest court in the land insisting on your humanity) ... I had gathered all these images from Garden and Home magazines of gardens in the early and mid-90s in South Africa and that image just travelled with me, I guess, for years … I was thinking a lot about this lady who had taken [Jacob] Zuma, now president of the country, to 134
court – she had been in exile and she had come back to South Africa and now she was forced back into exile after the whole rape trial. That’s the grass green piece? Yes. The image or images of the gardens were of this – I guess – hopeful time in South Africa, this promising time of lushness and the apparent inclusion into richness. And we look at the magazines then and also now, and the gardens are of the homes of the whites who still run the country. So coming back to same angle, same lighting, this camera searches back and forth on the image aided by an arm that is attached to a disco ball motor and also a printer part which enables it to move back and forth, searching this image for something – but it is not clear what it is; the image is then sent to other monitors that are hosted on these poles that are also part of the structure. When you are making a work like that, do you have a seed of an idea, do you visualise the overall look of how it’s going to be or is it that you find the image that leads you to another material and you build it from there? I guess one piece leads to another, leads to another, leads to another. There’s another video called the light was just like this which has a camera looking at some kitchen utensils, focusing on light, and then some shadows also come past and something about 135
8. Dineo Seshee Bopape
that process of just looking constantly and this internal tautological movement also informed same angle, same lighting, this constant ‘zzzzt-zzzzt-zzzzt’ reversing, thinking back, re-examining ... There’s a repetition as well as searching … The aesthetic of the spy camera – I liked the idea when I read the list of materials and I wondered what impact that had on the visual aspect of the panning. To me, it looked as though it had a certain visual quality – it made the image difficult to read, like I couldn’t tell whether I was looking at something flat, and the movement also gave a sense that I could be looking from very far away, like a bird’s eye view. Yeah, for me it wasn’t necessarily important that it was a spy camera – as a small camera it could be a spy camera or a cellphone camera – but it couldn’t be too big and obscure the image or the mechanism; the mechanism still had to be visible. It also implies an eye of sorts, a displaced eye, whereas a big camera would imply media, the news.
same angle, same lighting has evolved over a number of different iterations and I was interested in your experience of adapting your work in different contexts. Do you intuitively know which elements can and can’t be adapted to a space? Where do you draw the line and say ‘Ok, this is a new work now’? Or do you feel quite open to that process? 136
It depends – some pieces feel quite strict and can’t be adapted; others are more fluid or malleable, one can say. It felt ok to keep on morphing this one because it invokes, mechanically, a process of memorialising or memorising or studying something that you keep on revisiting and revisiting. The changes became part of the process of the piece, reconfiguring, and so it’s like trying to remember something, a memory of an event; sometimes with time the memory keeps on changing depending on the circumstances when you revisit it. Could you share with me the ways in which your sculpture and installation work are ways for you to think through space, or how they interact with space? I guess the objects or things kind of carve out space, or the space also carves out where the object is, with all the negative spaces inside the object and around it. So there is a direct awareness of where the wall is in relation to the other objects as well as the shape of those negative spaces. I was also interested in this because the first time I saw is I am sky was on a computer screen just as a viewing copy, and then I recently saw the piece again at the Hayward show and my experience of it changed completely; it felt like it was so immersive – I had a completely different experience seeing the work at that size. I wondered what informs 137
8. Dineo Seshee Bopape
your decisions because you do display some of your moving image works on these small domestic-sized screens. How do you come to those decisions in terms of presenting the work? It depends on what the piece needs. For is I am sky, because the sound is so big, and the image is so detailed, it’s just too small on a small screen. Yeah, it’s got such a quality to it on the large screen, it takes you into this quite meditative state which I guess you don’t get on the small screen. Have you shown that work outside as well? Yes, it was shown at Nirox, Cradle of Humankind, and it was at night so the night sky was really amazing with the sky in the video, the night sky in the video, the different skies in the video – the black, the grey and blues and purples … the colours became more alive, the colours of the night together with the video. And was that a surprise to you or had you thought about those things when you were making it? I can’t remember whether I had thought to show it outside when making it. I finished it while I was at Nirox and then it just made sense to show it there because it was so large. The sky there was also large and the grass was sprawling ...
I could imagine just lying on the lawns … Yeah, it just made sense there. This is another question that goes back to same angle, same lighting. You’ve said in relation to that work that meaning is rather impure and that is something the work helped you to navigate. Could you talk more broadly about the idea of meaningmaking in your work? I guess again that process, what happens in the piece – this relooking at something over and over again, assessing what this thing could mean, that the meaning keeps on changing, and in the Stuart Hall sense the instability of meaning and of things in relation to each other and the context, time and place, rhythm as well … all those things affect what a thing is or is not. And it’s quite fluid – the negative spaces and the positive spaces and also the reversal and how the contradictions as well emerge as soon as you enter into the truth of it, and then it becomes, possibly, false. That leads on to the way in which you write your biography. I think it really cleverly brings together all these moments that took place worldwide and it shows an interconnectedness. You’re bringing together events that happened concurrently around the time of your birth, and it also brings forth the
8. Dineo Seshee Bopape
idea of narrative and counter-narrative. I wondered if that is something that you feel is important to you, across your practice? Counter-narrative? … A narrative happening concurrently or opposing? I guess alternatives too, alternative narratives as much as counter-narratives ... Alternative to the known? Yeah, exactly. I feel as though your biography, although it’s something we take for granted, actually sets up all these other stories, these minor and major stories, alongside the fact that you were born on a particular day. And so for me it’s introducing all these different stories. Yeah, I guess it is. I just remembered Isabel Allende, the Chilean author, and also Salman Rushdie and who else … yeah, those are the main two that pop up, the way that they write ... with Isabel Allende combining food with the politics of a place and love, disaster, lust, anger, hunger – all these things are happening at the same time. I guess it’s also expanding on what the truth or a truth is, making links visible that perhaps a big or the main narrative might deny or obscure. It would never have been known that Princess Diana was marrying Charles the same year I was born [laughs] or what the 140
implications of that are ... And also, when writing a story of where somebody is from or the biographical details of somebody’s life, saying somebody was born in 1981 in South Africa, the only story that becomes apparent is apartheid, post-colonialism or settler colonialism, whereas that happens concurrently with all these other things. So: complicating the narrative. I guess in some ways it’s truer to acknowledge all these other things happening and that we don’t live singular lives in isolation. Yeah, when Binyavanga Wainaina speaks about his own childhood and about the things that were happening, for example, there’s this one story where he speaks about that song – what was it called? Do They Know It’s Christmas, the charity song by Bob Geldof – he used to sing it merrily, not knowing that song was ‘about him’. [Laughs] Yeah, he was referring to elsewhere but that elsewhere was referring to him, which complicates it a bit because he’s not just a poor African boy growing up in Kenya in the drought or the famine, yeah, there’s more; there’s more to somebody than just the mega narrative or a ‘single story’. Your choice of words to accompany your visual artworks is often very poetic. What is the role of word play in your practice – do you see it as part of your artistic practice, your titling and the words? 141
8. Dineo Seshee Bopape
Yes, I guess they are part of the work because they unlock what the piece is, the mechanisms of the piece. There’s also a graphic treatment – sometimes you cross things out which I think is really interesting. The title tell me_____can you dispossess a void sets up this beautiful relationship with the work itself, which is a very fragile, torn, textile piece. It happens let’s say ‘organically’, whatever that means, but it’s displacing the subject and the title as well, the dash and that blank, and so there’s this double void happening, referring also to this other void. Another one that I liked is but that’s not the important part of the story … Oh yeah, the first one came about from a text, it was a line I stole from a text or a book. The second one is from when I was talking with Kara Walker and while we were talking in came another story, ‘rhahrhrhahah’ – ‘but never mind that, let’s get back to the main thing’. It’s almost like an anecdote. I think that it’s not completely part of a whole, but it’s the whole of it, the back story or the backbone. It also goes back to the idea of who chooses what the important parts of the story are. Yeah, something neglected or nagging at the back – even just the smell of these flowers, like they are sitting here 142
but then there’s a smell which kind of influences the conversation, or even where we are, the walls or the couch, the colours or the works, the neglected bits of time or memory or event, history … I’ve heard you mention recently that the problem of representation is of ongoing concern and I wondered if you could talk about that in relation to the political aspects of representation but also in terms of the aesthetics of representation in your work. [Laughs] I guess, again, like this conversation, there are things that are said that may become ‘invisible’ or masked once the conversation is re-presented, like any other event or memory – the failure to represent something fully, to represent it as it was or retell it. Then also I guess, back to the narration or narratives of people’s lives, of being or self-representation and time travelling as well … How do you gather everything to then move forward in a way? I’m not sure if I’m making sense. You are. Yeah, re-representing oneself. I guess we like leaving space for contradiction as well. Yeah, and also in time, like even now as we speak, remembering the words in a sentence as we are talking 143
8. Dineo Seshee Bopape
and representing the thoughts and also everything else that informs it and the references as well, like Stuart Hall or Gayatri Spivak, or like history, time and everything that is represented but impossible to encapsulate or forever ongoing but you can’t somehow put up a fence around it or mark it or change it … Because it’s continuously changing. Yeah, aesthetically too I guess, the aesthetics are in complete relation with the politics of how something is seen and not seen in relation to objects, in relation to people, in relation to time, memory over time and things that are re-presentable in memory and things that are not, things that language fails to hold together or to represent. And I guess the aesthetic of that as well, like with stuttering, what are the ‘aesthetics’ of the difficulty to find words or to let go of that rhythm as you’re trying to talk and it’s difficult to let go of that ‘khakkkakkakkak’ as you try to talk, the rhythm almost holds you captive, the rhythm of the language, of time as well. There are two works that I would like to know more about. One of them is a video work that I saw when I was going through your files at Stevenson. It’s a video piece, the file was labelled ‘zuma’ although I gather this is not the actual title. I don’t know if it’s a finished piece but it’s from 2013. It’s a very different style from the others. I hope you 144
don’t mind that I’ve seen it. I thought that it was harrowing but very powerful and I was interested to know more, but if you don’t want to talk about it that’s fine. No, I can talk about it. It’s an ongoing thing, I guess, with the failure to represent something as well … the piece is not finished and it’s a frustrating thing that something there is not fitting especially towards the end. I mean, the beginning and the main body are ok but not the end. Can you describe it a little bit? What happens in it? The story in it is based on the trial transcripts of the rape case, what they both said in court; also fictionalised elements as well but the core of it is what was said in court. That there’s an older man who is on a couch with a younger woman who is like a daughter to him. And yeah … trying to then find somebody who looks like a rape victim or somebody who looks like a rape perpetrator, how does one, how do you even find that? Yeah, how do you cast that? Yeah, and so I just opened it up to whoever was willing to act in it. I have to say the male protagonist is incredibly creepy, for lack of a better word ... 145
8. Dineo Seshee Bopape
Really? He’s such a sweet guy, he’s just so gentle. But it was so tense what you set up between the characters, it’s incredibly powerful. Yeah, I’m still struggling with it. The touch, and also what he says about, you know, being a real man and that role of the man is really the dominant patriarchal man, and gendered identity, the way he reveals his naked body and playing with the undressing of the clothes – I thought it was really emotive. Maybe that will encourage you to pick it up! [Laughs] The title I’m playing with is the line that ‘nature abhors a vacuum’; somehow I’m still working that title in there or the work is somehow going towards that title but I’m trying to figure out whether it is or it’s not because the title keeps on changing. At one time it was mirror because there was a mirror in the piece initially but then I cancelled it. Flowers reappear throughout that piece as a kind of leitmotif and on bed sheets and it’s kind of abstracted. But I’m reminding you of it now – have you looked at it recently? I looked at it about two months ago … I’m cleaning out my computer again to be able to edit it because the 146
editing takes a lot of memory. The computer needs to be able to work amazingly fast and to be able to process the images and the special effects especially towards the end of the video, yeah, there are very fast changes and so that’s also one of the things that’s made me hold back because if the computer is slow and won’t be able to process it’s like aaarggghhh!! Well, I look forward to seeing it when it’s finished. The other work I was interested in hearing about, I think it’s also an ongoing piece, is the bronze cast – is it called Juju? Oh, that doesn’t have a title yet. It’s a portrait of Julius Malema. I’d been making these clay rocks – they take shape from the hand or cupped hand or fisted hand – and so I asked him to squish clay in his hand in the shape of a fist, and the void that’s wrapped by the fingers is then articulated by the clay. So it’s a trace of him in a sense, it’s a trace of his hand, and then these rocks multiply to potential to do or not and this is impotence versus action that’s implied in the work and whether that can actually work or not. And also I guess the articulation of one’s power. Because the clenched fist also has a particular symbolism? Yeah! So now I’m playing with that, I’m still trying to figure out how to show it ... I’m torn between keeping all 147
8. Dineo Seshee Bopape
the pieces together or showing them apart. Keeping them together the pieces remain metaphors but when they are separate they become more real somehow, or more fertile. They activate different spaces … Yeah, they have the possibility of going outside the art metaphor or the artist or protest – I’m still trying to figure it out. It was also informed by other works I’ve been making with a cast of my own, a fist of my own in a void, and those are more about self-presence and almost a mirror of oneself or one’s presence in the world. But they feel a bit different from Juju’s ones, maybe because Juju’s ones are more outside because they are made with someone else … I guess maybe he also felt that it’s an articulation of his own power and presence and ... How was it to work with him and to create that? Did he get it? Was he into it? I don’t know, I’m not sure. It took a while to convince him to do it and I had to get another friend, a mutual friend, to convince him. At first he was doubtful because he didn’t want a portrait of him very grandiose like ‘Oooh!’, and then when he read a little text I sent him he was like, ‘Ok, let’s see.’ And I guess maybe the mutual friend just said, I don’t know, ‘She can be trusted’ or ‘Her politics are … you may find them interesting’ or … I don’t know what he thinks actually. I want to give him one of the pieces even before I show it. 148
It also goes back to that idea of positive and negative space. Yeah, voids and dispossessing a void as well and repossessing it and making something of it, I guess, in the same way as the Afrofuturist Sun Ra’s way of thinking of articulating one’s death or using one’s death as a force instead of as a pacifier, but ... Yeah! This conversation took place at Stevenson, Johannesburg, on 19 November 2015
9. Meleko Mokgosi
1. Serge Alain Nitegeka
A sequence of events The painting installation Full Belly (2011) from Meleko Mokgosi’s Pax Afrikaner project comprises four panels of oil and charcoal on canvas. From left to right, form is given increasing levels of detail and colour transfigures from tinted washes to solid fields of pigment. Pairs or groupings of people are engaged with the unfolding activities of waiting or marching, of guarded visitation and intense discussion. The third and fourth panels are both composed around the act of conversation. In the third Mokgosi has constructed a meeting between two seated figures, surrounded by three times as many uniformed guards who stand in shadowy silhouettes, encircling the interlocutors with their formal postures. Under such conditions one might imagine the conversation between the two protagonists as a measured exchange, with words chosen precisely for their ability to convey meaning to multiple listeners simultaneously, without betraying the speaker. It appears as if some grave consequence might result from a word placed out of turn. Their hands are raised and apparently cuffed, rested palms up on a void. In the final panel attention is drawn to two men in business suits. They sit on chairs drawn around a rectangular dark-wood table, with a bunch of yellow flowers centred on a white cloth. Both men rest elbows on thighs, their backs leaning forward to allow their faces to align at close proximity as they speak directly to one another. Their attention is immersed in the conversation, their interaction energised by gestures. The speakers use their bodies to shield and direct their speech. Here again conversation takes place under stressed circumstance and this time the silent bystander is overtly excluded from the exchange. Mokgosi methodically researches, conceptualises, aesthetically organises and historically grounds all of his project-based installations, and in both his figurative and text-based works he continually explores processes of meaning-making through language. Mokgosi has concerned himself with understanding the confines and possibilities of narrative, and expressed that he has ‘always approached making a painting as if writing a sentence’. 153
9. Meleko Mokgosi
Sentences, in the written form, are elemental to his practice, and when invited to exchange ideas through conversation he chose instead to forego spoken words and privilege the written. In Full Belly Mokgosi depicts conversation as an event in time, demarcated by the physical proximity of two people face to face, both intent on sharing information. In each scenario the element of risk in verbal exchange is palpable. For Mokgosi time is central to narrative, its construction and deconstruction, and time unfolds at differing speeds within acts of writing and speech. Whether or not we are dealing with linguistic or semiotic language, we always try to convert data into narrative format because our experience of the world is dependent on temporality. The slippery transience of speech allows for immediate reception and loops of feedback between participants; it is both consequence of the moment and contained by it. Writing, however, offers a more stable structure, allowing contemplation through a slowing down of the exchange and the formulation of composite propositions. This methodical pace is integral to Mokgosiâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s art-making and was applied here in our sharing of ideas which materialised in written form, developed over a number of days.
You describe your work in relation to its engagement with nationalism, democracy, postcolonialism, globalisation, whiteness, Africanness. These are all very large and complex topics of significance on a macro and micro scale. How do you reconcile the magnitude of such topics with the aesthetic concerns of the works themselves? What do you perceive to be the role of the artist in 154
engaging with these topics and why it is important to you to take on such discourses through yourÂ work? Meleko Mokgosi:
Indeed these are large and complex topics with plenty of unwanted baggage. The projects really come from a personal and intuitive working through of multiple interests, and trying to articulate a set of questions around the things I am invested in. So, for example, Pax Afrikaner developed from the horrific 2007-8 xenophobic attacks in South Africa. The project was not aimed at providing any answers or personal perspective but rather at trying to find tools that could help me understand and articulate the manner in which xenophobia exists in relation to regional specificity and national identification. Extensive research on these ideas was coupled with the discourse of history painting and the specificity of objects, images and other forms of representation in southern Africa. So the work comes from a personal, conceptual and socio-political investment, and it is only after I have established the framework that the project is placed within already existing discourses as a way to make it somewhat legible. Put otherwise, I began the project with specificity; thereafter the work places itself in various fields that circumscribe the ways in which the questions are formulated. Or to rephrase again, the work is focused on these large and complex topics mostly because of how I have come to understand the idea of the project and how the project is situated around discursive 155
9. Meleko Mokgosi
sites. From my training, the project can be simply described as the entire framework and field of inquiry of any given discipline. And in terms of the discursive site for my work, I would outline this as the various African nationalist movements in both their emergent and subsequent forms. Because the African nationalist movement functions as the discursive site, my work will always be informed by post-colonial studies and Marxism; and the rules are generated by history painting, cinema studies and psychoanalysis. To return to Pax Afrikaner, the question of nationalism was framed by psychoanalysis and post-colonial theory. Here I used the tools that I already had available, even though some might say these tools are quite Eurocentric and may not actually work well when they travel to other regions. In any event, psychoanalysis was a key part in trying to figure out how individuals invest intense emotional energy into objects, otherwise known as cathexis. In other words, what could explain this thing called national identification â&#x20AC;&#x201C; which in many ways looks and smells like fascism? I have talked about this elsewhere so I do not mean to rehash that old argument. But very briefly, I was drawn to the idea that national identification relied on how groups of people organised and invested meaning in particular forms of enjoyment and simultaneously projected their inevitable experience of the failure to experience complete enjoyment onto an outsider; so here a narrative is constructed such that the outsider becomes the cause of the failure to experience full enjoyment. And the really interesting part is that this 156
production of the narrative is a mere symptom of much bigger things that are tied to the structure of the psyche and the experience of enjoyment and dissatisfaction. But to get back to the question, the way I reconcile the relationship between the complexity of these too-grand ideas and aesthetic concerns is through specificity, used with the hopes of doing two things at once: to render these specificities within the rubric of history painting and therefore give them a particular form of representation, and also to use specificity in such a way that it allows a kind of abstraction that gives the viewer a bit of space for projection. Why do all this? Or what is the role of the artist? I cannot really say I have an answer out of fear of saying something that is too easily universalisable. I came to art with the central concern of teaching. Becoming an artist, as anyone would say, is totally accidental. Even in college I did not think of myself as an artist, I just made political paintings. So instead of saying something like ‘the role of the artist is to try to give representation to that which cannot be captured through language’, I prefer to say that art is a personal and strategic way of trying to pose urgent questions through ambivalence, ambiguity and polysemy – and done in a way that defines and acknowledges ‘culture’ to perform specific roles in society. To account for my view of culture then, I would point to one defined by Gayatri Spivak at a recent lecture, where culture is, and I quote, a set of widely unacknowledged assumptions held by a loosely defined group of people mapping negotiations between the sacred and the 157
9. Meleko Mokgosi
profane, and relation between the sexes, with sexual difference unevenly abstracted into gender, and gendering as the chief semiotic instrument of negotiation. I think this is a very useful definition of what we now understand as culture, and one that I can commit to. No matter whether one likes it or not, every artist always already has a definition of culture within which they imagine their artwork to participate in, and defining this thing has become an important aspect to my production. You have said previously that you are asking the question â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;what is narrative?â&#x20AC;&#x2122; How have your reflections on this changed across your projects and towards your new painting installation, Democratic Intuition? Narrative has definitely been an important factor both in the construction of the composition and installation. As an idea, narrative functions in a way that allows the subject to get some kind of closure because most narratives are constructed so that there is suspense and predictability. Specific information may be different from narrative to narrative, but it is pleasurable to know that at some point there will be a climax, the resolution of a conflict and the ending of the narrative. These points mark the narrative as something that shows details about the psychic and emotional structure of the human psyche. To the most part narrative structures are diachronic; that is, narrative literary structures can only be diachronic (linear) because of the conventional 158
structure of the sentence. A sentence is structured around a subject and a verb, a specific movement of time or progression of information that can only be diachronic. Where the syntax tries to counter this diachronic system, it will nonetheless be read within the register of the diachronic because this is the only way for the information to register cognitively Whether or not we are dealing with linguistic or semiotic language, we always try to convert data into narrative format because our experience of the world is dependent on temporality. So my experimentation with narrative is focused not so much on the idea of the narrative, but on the active part within the movement of the narrative, namely narration. To this end I developed the idea of a localised narrative, which tries to contradict and negate established and taken-for-granted grand narratives that have the privilege of not competing. I have defined the localised narrative elsewhere as a way to deviate from the connotations of the local, thus â&#x20AC;&#x2DC;localisedâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; is used here to stress the diegetic process happening within a culturally and geopolitically specific matrix. Therefore the localised narrative is meant to highlight how a narrative structure is always under negotiation and construction, putting emphasis not on the narrative itself but on the witnessing behind narration. The localised narrative allows for a constant and careful analysis of oneâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s positionality in narrative structures within which one is implicated directly and indirectly, as well as how one takes stock of and utilises established and untracked histories. More recently, I have used the concept of metalepsis 159
9. Meleko Mokgosi
in forming various narratives. Here, the rules are quite simple, to construct a narrative by stringing along multiple metaphors, and sometimes you can create a metaphor for a metaphor. I have become more interested in this way of building a narrative because of another growing interest in the use of allegory as a way to examine history. By engaging with the genre of history painting you are in a way reasserting the role of painting in the narration of historic events. What do you feel is the significance of using the medium of painting to retell the history of southern Africa? I cannot say that I am retelling any history really; this would presume a kind of stability and authority in the kind of information I am conveying. Rather than retell, I try to focus on trying to articulate questions that are meaningful through specificity, and therefore produce representations of things that would otherwise not be given any attention. What all this reveals is a mistrust in histories as well as the processes that author and legitimise them. Why painting? Again this I do not know. One of the enjoyable things about being an artist is that we can produce things that are closely connected to our desires and demands, even though these can never be known in their entirety. Another way to think about it is that there will always be an unspoken-for element in relation to any art object, and this unspoken-for is conditioned by the authorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s desire. 160
Your painting installation projects, developed over a number of years, are structured using cinematic and literary devices such as chapters and scenes and character ‘types’. What is your experience of drawing on these inherently narrative art forms in the formation of your painting projects? I have always approached making a painting as if writing a sentence, so the link between painting and these other fields seemed to be an ideal fit. Cinema was more about finding a way of programmatising the studio process, so finding avenues that can be used to house the conceptual framework. I think these are also devices that have continued to negotiate and undermine how we understand narrative in productive ways. How has your perspective on the narratives of southern Africa shifted through your experience of living in America? I am not entirely sure how it is has changed. Living in the US has certainly given me some distance to formulate my thinking, in addition to continuously working within an academic setting. These elements have definitely given me a particular approach, which certainly stresses Eurocentrism but also provides useful tools. Before attending specialised education, my ideas of ‘home’ and history were narrow and obviously not conceptual enough. So perhaps I should say it was not so much living in America but rather the opportunity 161
9. Meleko Mokgosi
of developing in an academic setting that allowed me to experiment with thinking and making. This kind of training could have happened anywhere, but it is true that resources and training in America are plentiful and quite good. I will say that it took living in the US to appreciate and actually have access to many African writers, artists, musicians and so forth. I highly doubt that I would otherwise have been reading Achille Mbembe and Gayatri Spivak, or listening to Thomas Mapfumo and Feliciano Gomes, for example. How do you gather your source material and what different forms can it take? In the past I mainly used physical sources, which was limiting but necessary. I still use physical newspapers, magazines etc from Botswana and South Africa, but I have broadened my sources to academic periodicals, online databases and other published material. There is something wonderful about buying books and going to the library, but it also means I must frequently scan hundreds of images, which is necessary too. I have also used ethnographic data, so collecting sand samples as geographic and colour references, as well as other cultural paraphernalia. At this point, I use anything I can get my hands on, including taking pictures of myself when there is a pose that I need. The nature of the pose is so culturally specific, and sometimes these are not captured well in photographs, mostly because of the lens. So if I see a photograph I like, which mostly 162
has to do with the pose and framing, then I am more likely to copy the pose and find a way to construct the other details. In Fully Belly (2010-14) from the Pax Kaffraria project a number of the figures are floating upside down at the top edge of the canvas. What do you feel is the role of this inversion? This installation was really inspired by Max Beckmannâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s 1938 painting titled Death. This is one of my favourite paintings, and for a while I had wanted to make something in relation to the composition â&#x20AC;&#x201C; the idea of using an illogical spatial format within a narrative. Another painting to use the upside-down figures is an altarpiece from 2015. Here, the challenge was compositional but different because it had more to do with the format of an altarpiece, which is necessarily always broken up into at least two spaces. Because the altarpiece space is tall and does not mimic how we experience space, I found it to be a productive challenge to make representations of contemporary life (as opposed to religious allegories) but still use the format of the altarpiece. The inversion is somewhat a metaphor too, but it began with the composition. In Pax Afrikaner your brushwork is looser and large areas of the canvas are left open, sometimes with just the outline traced in pencil or the bare canvas showing through. There are also areas 163
9. Meleko Mokgosi
where you overpaint with a transparent colour or whitewash. To me these areas imply possibility, ambiguity, revision or nuance. These spaces for reflection are also present in Pax Kaffraria but they feel more contained and stylistically unified with the other areas of the canvas. Can you describe how you apply different painting techniques in these two projects and how this may have evolved across your projects? This is a great question. The spaces in Pax Afrikaner are a lot more experimental and less stylised, they are much messier, but in Pax Kaffraria, I think I became obsessed with a particular kind of touch that presented itself as refined. In the end, it also had to do with time and the space to allow myself to experiment. But with experimentation comes the possibility of failure, so in creating an installation out of ten 275 Ă&#x2014; 365cm canvases I became less inclined to experiment for the sake of experimentation. I also became less interested in how looseness always connotes expression, freshness and experimentation; rather I experimented with the more rigid abstract mark that references modernism and minimalism. Doing this also meant that the nature of the tool changed. So in Pax Afrikaner, major marks were made with a 10cm brush or a 90cm squeegee or a 90cm broom; and now I am using these tools plus more, but also using them in different ways. Yet it all comes down to an evolving examination of painterliness and figuring out the best way to fake it. 164
The role of pedagogy and the transmission of knowledge seem central to your position as a professor, to your engagement with the history painting genre which is definitively aimed at inspiring or educating a public, and to your textbased interventions into museum interpretation material. Can you talk a bit about how you see the role of pedagogy in relation to your broaderÂ practice? I am uneasy saying that what I do can educate anyone in any particular way, but what I can say is that my work as an artist and educator tries to concern itself with closely re-examining already established knowledge systems and things that are taken for granted, and simply trying to figure out how we are implicated and participate in all of this. Even though we might not want to admit it, we all participate in capitalism and globalisation and racism and imperialism and sexism and so forth; so it makes sense to me to begin with the simple gesture of admitting our complicity and then finding a way to engage ethically. So perhaps this might be the role of pedagogy at any given point: an ethical engagement in the ideas of others even if these ideas might contradict yours. Your approach to art-making has developed through working closely with American artist Mary Kelly â&#x20AC;&#x201C; are there any other artists or art forms that you feel your work is in dialogue with? 165
9. Meleko Mokgosi
As mentioned before, Max Beckmann has always been an important influence. I have also been influenced by artists like Richard Hamilton, Leon Golub and Kerry James Marshall (who have in different ways challenged the techniques and practices related to the convention of painting, as well as renouncing and putting into question the already accepted and institutionalised semiotic approach to visual signifiers); Harun Farocki, Isaac Julien and Fernando Ezequiel Solanas (who seem to insist on the plasticity of cinematic tropes and hence conceptualise the moving image beyond camera angle, frames, shots, etc). Your body of work has unfolded over a number of strands â&#x20AC;&#x201C; the text-based works, and painting installation projects that develop over a number of years. How did you come to these formats? What it is about the specific structures that best allow you to express your ideas? The question of time is a central one because it reveals something about oneâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s practice. All my work is projectbased and relies a lot on research. There is a specific method that is involved in conceptualising the projects, organising them aesthetically and grounding them in historical and cultural specificity. Ultimately, the method also serves to slow down the process of thinking. I believe I am a slow thinker, so it takes time to filter ideas and arrive at something that I want to commit to.
The unpacking of terminology seems to play a significant role in building a framework for your projects. For example the title Pax Kaffraria: the word ‘pax’, which you have explained is taken from the original phrase, ‘we Romans have purchased the pax Romana with our blood’, and ‘kaffraria’ which you identify as a British adaptation of the word ‘kaffir’, which was used by the Dutch or Boers in South Africa as a derogatory term. Why focus on individual words and specific terminology? Most of my work comes from the texture and history of words. In some sense, this is an approach closely related to Bakhtin’s idea of dialogism. The basic premise is that a dialogic text concerns itself with being read against a multitude of other texts in the past and present. Dialogism, in terms of language, also has to do with the social life of language and is not exclusively tied to the life of the text. Another way to put it is that a dialogic space is invested with the specific lived history of a given text so that that history also informs how the text accrues meaning. Since we depend so much on language, my projects are structured around language. For example, the first stage in making any painting is the formulation of the project title and the titles for all the chapters. And from here, other texts then inform the paintings – everything from theory to fiction. Your new project Comrades examines the historical, aesthetic and conceptual links between 167
9. Meleko Mokgosi
southern African liberation movements and communism. Both necessitate a level of collective consciousness geared towards political gain. What is your understanding of how this group identity and shared consciousness have impacted on the history of the region and is this something that you feel is important to manifest in your work? I am in the early stages of understanding this work so I do not think I can provide a productive answer here; the work and ideas are still evolving and I hope to be able to articulate these well and more concisely. But as you rightly point out, I am interested in these ideas of a collective movement towards political goals, or more specifically, towards national liberation. So a question one might ask is: how was collectivity structured and how were the goals towards freedom and democracy articulated during the fight towards independence, and how are these different now? I suspect that the way people were organised and united during the struggle is actually not what can work towards achieving a democratic state today. I am not suggesting that that history should be negated but simply pointing out that forms of action, solidarity and mobilisation during a nationalist movement inevitably seem not to work in constructing a democratic state, especially given the painful history of the colonial enterprise and the fact that those who were oppressed were denied access to resources, education and had previously not been able to practice freedom, justice and equality at the level 168
of modern institutions of governance. To return to this chapter, if we take the word ‘comrade’ – sources tell us that following the French revolution, the term always had political resonance and was developed as a form of address between socialists and workers. In other words, the word was meant to always refer to egalitarianism, and thus became a demonstrative form of address that was supposed to cut across gender, racial, ethnic and class lines. Yet in South African politics, ‘comrade’ has come to mean something specific and demonstrative of both the history and evolution of the struggle toward freedom and democracy. How does it feel to be exhibiting your work in southern Africa for the first time in a decade? Perfectly ambivalent. This conversation took place via email over a number of days in December 2015
BIOGRAPHIES Dineo Seshee Bopape was born in 1981, on a Sunday. If she were ghanaian, her name would be akosua/ akos for short. During the same year of her birth, the Brixton riots took place; two people were injured when a bomb exploded in a Durban shopping centre; bobby sands dies; 100 were killed during riots in Casablanca; mtv is launched; the boeing 767 makes its first flight; umkhonto we sizwe performs numerous underground assaults against the apartheid state. princess Di of Britain marries charles; bob Marley dies; apartheid SA invades Angola; AIDS is identified/created/ named; salman rushdie releases his book midnight’s children; Winnie mandela’s banishment orders are renewed for another 5 years; in the region of her birth – her paternal grandmother dies affected by dementia; people cried and people laughed … The world’s population was at around 4.529 billion ... today bopape is 1 amongst 7 billion – occupying multiple intersecting adjectives. Nicholas Hlobo (born 1975, Cape Town; lives in Johannesburg) has held solo exhibitions at Locust Projects in Miami (2013); the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo (2011); Level 2 Gallery at Tate Modern, London (2008), and the Boston ICA as part of the Momentum series (2008). He has taken part in the 18th Biennale of Sydney (2012); La Triennale 2012 – Intense Proximity, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012); ILLUMInations, the 54th Venice Biennale (2011); Touched, the Liverpool Biennial (2010); and the third Guangzhou Triennial, China (2008).
Pieter Hugo (born 1976, Johannesburg; lives in Cape Town) has held major solo exhibitions at Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson, Paris, The Hague Museum of Photography, Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Ludwig Museum in Budapest, Fotografiska in Stockholm, MAXXI in Rome and the Institute of Modern Art Brisbane, among others, and has participated in group exhibitions at institutions including Tate Modern, the Folkwang Museum, Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, and the São Paulo Bienal. Hugo received the Seydou Keita Award at the Rencontres de Bamako African Photography Biennial in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2012. Mawande Ka Zenzile (born 1986, Lady Frere, Eastern Cape; lives in Cape Town) is currently completing his MA Fine Art at Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. He won the Tollman Award for Visual Art in 2014. He has held three solo exhibitions at Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg (2014-16), in addition to shows at VANSA (2011) and the AVA (2009) in Cape Town. Group exhibitions include Material Matters at the ICA Indian Ocean, Port Louis, Mauritius (2015); and Between the Lines at the Michaelis Galleries (2013). Ka Zenzile has been a regular participant in academic conferences, and many of these projects and exhibitions have been accompanied by his performances. Nandipha Mntambo (born 1982, Mbabane, Swaziland; lives in Johannesburg) was the Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art in 2011. She 171
has held six solo shows at Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg, since 2007, and two at Andréhn-Schiptjenko, Stockholm. Notable group exhibitions include What remains is tomorrow, South African Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale (2015); Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, Seattle Art Museum (2015); The Divine Comedy, MMK Frankfurt and other venues (2014-15); My Joburg, La Maison Rouge, Paris (2013); the third Moscow International Biennale for Young Art (2012); 17th Biennale of Sydney (2010); and ninth Dakar Biennale (2010).
organised Turbine Hall commissions and live projects in The Tanks and worked with the collection to develop holdings of art from Africa. She has held curatorial positions at Turner Contemporary and the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, and published writing on contemporary art with The Walther Collection, Rencontres de Bamako 10th edition, Albertina Museum, Contemporary And, Frieze and elsewhere. She was nominated for the sixth Lorenzo Bonaldi Award for Art – Enterprize in 2011.
Meleko Mokgosi (born 1981, Botswana; lives in New York) studied at Williams College, MA; Slade School of Fine Art, London; the Whitney Independent Study Program; and the UCLA Interdisciplinary Studio program. He was the recipient of the Mohn Award during the 2012 Made in LA biennale at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Recent projects include a solo show at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, and a contribution to the Göteborg Biennial (2015). He has also exhibited at the Botswana National Gallery; Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art; The Studio Museum in Harlem; Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyon.
Serge Alain Nitegeka (born 1983, Burundi; lives in Johannesburg) was recently included in What remains is tomorrow, the South African Pavilion, 56th Venice Biennale; and the eighth Göteborg Biennial (both 2015). His first museum exhibition took place at SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah, Georgia (2015). Group exhibitions include Venturing Out of the Heart of Darkness, Harvey B Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture (2015); To Have and to Hold, Rubell Family Collection, Miami (2014); This House, part of Nouvelles vagues, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2013); and My Joburg, La Maison Rouge, Paris (2013).
Hansi Momodu-Gordon (born 1985, Hertfordshire; lives in London) is an independent curator, writer and producer with recent projects at Autograph ABP and The Showroom. As an assistant curator at Tate Modern (2011-15) she organised exhibitions by Ellen Gallagher and Damien Hirst, curated Word. Sound. Power., 172
Deborah Poynton (born 1970, Durban; lives in Cape Town) studied at the Rhode Island School of Design from 1987 to 1989. A survey of 25 years of her painting, titled Model for a World, showed at The New Church Museum, Cape Town, in 2014, and her first US solo exhibitions were at the Savannah College of Art and Design galleries in Savannah and Atlanta in 2009. Group exhibitions include Exact Imagination,
Standard Bank Gallery, Johannesburg (2014); Experience 3: Truth, El Segundo Museum of Art, California (2013); and Eros and Thanatos, SOR Rusche Collection, Berlin (2012). Viviane Sassen (born 1972, Amsterdam; lives in Amsterdam) was awarded the Prix de Rome in 2007, an ICP Infinity Award in 2011, and was nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2015. Solo exhibitions have taken place at Atelier Néerlandais, Paris; The Photographers Gallery, London; ICA, London; and Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam; a retrospective of her fashion work showed at Huis Marseille in Amsterdam, Rencontres d’Arles festival, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, Fotografie Forum Frankfurt and Fotomuseum Winterthur (2012-14). Notable group shows include Modern Times. Photography in the 20th Century, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (2014); The Encyclopedic Palace, 55th Venice Biennale (2013); and New Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York (2011).
I am grateful for the openness, generosity and energy of the many collaborators, co-conspirators and conversationalists who made this project possible. I would like to thank Michael Stevenson for engaging me in enriching discussions about art, writing and philosophy throughout, and for his attentive and critical readings; and Joost Bosland for his enthusiasm and support for the idea. My heartfelt thanks is shared with each of the artists who gave their time to talk, make connections and share ideas. Living in South Africa for nine weeks shifted my perspective with a profound subtlety, and many of those movements occurred in conversation with people from all walks of life. To all, I give thanks. â&#x20AC;&#x201C; Hansi Momodu-Gordon
Published by Stevenson © 2015 for texts, the authors ISBN 978-0-620-69507-7 Transcriptions Pamella Dlungwana Text editing Sophie Perryer Portraits Hansi Momodu-Gordon, Hanneke van Leeuwen (Viviane Sassen), Blaise Adelon (Dineo Seshee Bopape), Paul Mpagi Sepuya (Meleko Mokgosi) Design Gabrielle Guy Printing Hansa Print, Cape Town STEVENSON CAPE TOWN Buchanan Building 160 Sir Lowry Road Woodstock 7925 PO Box 616 Green Point 8051 T +27 (0)21 462 1500 F +27 (0)21 462 1501 JOHANNESBURG 62 Juta Street Braamfontein 2001 Postnet Suite 281 Private Bag x9 Melville 2109 T +27 (0)11 403 1055/1908 F +27 (0)86 275 1918 email@example.com www.stevenson.info