All Your Faves Are Problematic, curator Khwezi Gule’s first show as director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), provides all sorts of clues for states, universities and galleries about what to do with a suspect colonial legacy in woke times.
Gule’s achievement is no small feat, for what to do with the legacy of the colony is something that has troubled formerly colonised countries for decades. At independence, most nationalists of such countries simply inherited institutions from the former colonisers and hoped that, by virtue of being a different hue, the state they were taking over would reform itself.
The Danes and Norwegians built Osu Castle in Accra, Ghana, in the 1660s. During its long history, the edifice has been a post for commerce in gold and ivory and the trade in slaves, and is now the seat of the Ghanaian government. (How tone deaf do you have to be to establish an office in what was once a jail in which slaves wrenched from their homes were interned, before being trafficked to the Americas?)
In Zimbabwe, former president Robert Mugabe instituted some cosmetic changes. He changed the name of Salisbury to Harare and Southern Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, and removed Cecil John Rhodes’ statue from Jameson Avenue (now Samora Machel Avenue) and dumped it at the grounds of the National Archives. But he left the architecture of the colonial state intact – even retaining former prime minister Ian Smith’s top brass in the army, intelligence and police, the very men he had been fighting – in the forlorn hope that transformation would happen by itself.
Walking a tightrope
As the gallery’s chief bureaucrat and the man entrusted with the treasures housed at the institution, Gule is in an invidious position. When he walks into the storerooms in which the JAG’s permanent collection is kept and sees an offensive artwork, he cannot throw it into a hastily made fire like the Rhodes Must Fall activists did at the University of Cape Town in 2016. Such a gesture, however revolutionary some may perceive it to be, wouldn’t be well received by the City of Johannesburg, the “owners” of the gallery.
This is the Durban-born gallerist’s second stint at the JAG. He was the curator of the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto between 2010 and 2017, and of the JAG between 2004 and 2010.
All Your Faves Are Problematic (as in, favourites) features artwork by Dorothy Kay, Irma Stern, Alex Preller, William Kentridge, Walter Battiss, Jürgen Schadeberg, Maurice van Essche, Sue Williamson and others, artists an artistic statement correctly describes as the “staple diet that many South African professionals were raised on”.
Gule’s office is in the bowels of the sprawling edifice that dominates Joubert Park in Joburg’s inner city. He was keen to emphasise right off the bat that the gallery has in its collection “objects that raise a lot of questions about the position of the artist in relation to their subject”.
It would be a shock if it did not, for the gallery structure was completed in 1915, but had started its collection in 1910 and so was collecting for the greater part of the 20th century, when colonialism and apartheid were at their most brutal. It’s no surprise that there are many works in the exhibition that show, in Gule’s words, “a direct kind of power differential between the subject and the artist”.
Take Irma Stern’s Native Study, a charcoal drawing of an African woman with a sharp nose and high cheekbones wearing a doek. This drawing is hung in a room together with other ethnographic artworks such as Kay’s The Patchwork Shawl, a depiction of an African woman carrying a child on her back, and Van Essche’s oil painting Native Woman, which portrays a bare-breasted African woman sitting on the ground while, in the immediate background, another woman holds a pestle over a mortar.
In these and other works there is an obsessive interest in the “native” or the other, a fascination that would not be out of place in a bureaucrat working in what was called the Department of Native Affairs.
Gule is right when he says “there is nothing inherently racist about” the images if you take away their context or history – eugenics, colonialism, apartheid and so on. What is in front of you is just a bare-breasted woman in the forest and you will rightly say: “So what is the problem?”
Gule says that it is only when you take the history of the image into account that its meaning becomes clear. Any work of art, he says, is not only in conversation with its primary viewer but also conversing with other writers, artists and thinkers who have explored similar themes.
“My lecturer used to say, back in the day, that every image has a visual ancestor,” Gule says. “It is those kinds of things that, once you put together in a kind of puzzle, a particular picture begins to emerge.”
The power of being white
The moniker “fave” is particularly applicable to Schadeberg, a Berlin-born South African photographer. The man is acclaimed for his work in the Drum magazine era, in which he photographed musicians, politicians, the township and the manifestations of apartheid.
Included in this exhibition is his documentary work, The Dance of Exorcism of the San People of the Kalahari Desert, a series of photographs taken at a traditional trance ceremony that recall a famous study of the San by Wits University paleoanthropologist Phillip Tobias.
One of the five black and white images featured shows a shirtless man. His eyes are closed dreamily as he inhabits another world, a bonfire lights his face and he is supported by other congregants at the ceremony.
These days, photographs and cameras have become so commonplace that it’s difficult to imagine how intrusive Schadeberg’s camera would have been when these images were taken in 1959. But there was no way the San community would have turned down his request to photograph them. Even though Schadeberg, who also photographed anti-apartheid activists Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Govan Mbeki, didn’t have anything to do with apartheid, he was a white man and so his request arrived accompanied by the power that came with being a white man in apartheid South Africa.
Likewise, photographs from Steven Hilton-Barber’s Northern Sotho initiation series show the same problematic relationship between subject and photographer. Even though the photographs were taken in 1993, as democracy beckoned, there is something early 20th century about the images of the group of pre-teenage boys, skin covered in paint, standing naked for the camera. There is another invasive picture of several of the boys asleep.
The third room of the exhibition, featuring work from the 1830s by French caricaturist Honoré-Victorin Daumier, is jolting. Without question, these copies of lithographs in which an Algerian man – the very Algerian who comes back to haunt the French dream when, in November 1954, he declares war against the mother country – are clearly problematic.
In two of the images, the Algerian is surrounded by astonished Europeans who are looking at him as if he is some strange specimen to be examined. (Parisians were admiring of the Algerians, who helped the French defeat the Austrians, and yet it’s never clear in these images if in the eye is admiration, bewilderment or scorn). The bewildered faces recall the Fanonian cry, “Look mother, a Negro!”
As a contrapuntal device to address this and other outrages (I refuse to engage with Anton Kannemeyer, whose work fits the category now called in popular argot “trolls”), Gule has set up a kind of Third World library that features books including Njabulo Ndebele’s Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, The Famished Road by Ben Okri, Cornel West’s Race Matters, Okwui Enwezor’s Trade Routes: History and Geography, Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, Panashe Chigumadzi’s Sweet Medicine, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Toni Morrison’s Paradise.
The Phillips Gallery, the space you enter when you use the institution’s southern entrance, is where artists such as photographer Pieter Hugo, Sue Williamson and Lisa Brice have pride of place.
Over the past decade or so, Hugo has made a name for himself with his photographs documenting oddities and exotica on the African continent. He appears in this show with his images of bodies from the Rwandan genocide.
The images of the dead are disturbing and frightening. The photographs – one depicting a ghoulish, mummified figure in the foetal position, another with hands touching as if cuffed and yet another of a head facing towards the heavens in a scowl – are what make death such a forbidding eventuality. Their depiction seems to suspend them in a kind of dying that happens without the finality of death.
This leads to the question, isn’t the gory memorialising project by Rwandan military strongman Paul Kagame a sacrilege? These poor people are props used to sustain a dictatorship that needs their bare bones and mummified corpses to prolong itself.
(In some African cultures, among the Shona for instance, the need for closure and burial is urgent. When someone has died far from home or lies in an unknown grave, in a powerful semiotic gesture, a goat is buried in place of the disappeared human in an ancient ritual known as chimombe mumbwa.)
Although they occupy separate rooms, Paul Stopforth could have occupied the same space as Hugo. His series on Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko depicts a dismembered arm, a hand, two feet, a foot. It is a bewildering work because, as far as we know, Biko’s body was never dismembered.
Fortunately, adjacent to his work, Sontag has a response to Stopforth: “It seems that the appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show the body naked.”
‘Blind spots and failures’
Kentridge, generally known for his progressive politics, which permeate his celebrated art, must have been uppermost in Gule’s mind when he penned this line in his statement: “The fact that some of the artworks in this exhibition are intended as anticolonial statements does not mean they are exempt from blind spots and failures of articulation and imagination.”
Kentridge has a work from 1989 called Casspirs Full of Love that depicts dismembered heads, which could be read as his bemoaning of state violence and the deaths of activists and ordinary people. But at this time, it seems to point to victimhood rather than the struggle that would soon result in the unbanning of the ANC and other organisations, and the release of political prisoners.
Given South Africa’s story – dismembered heads, the fate of Biko and thousands upon thousands others, the country’s exploitative history of labour, centuries of dispossession policies and more – you can understand why, in Gule’s words, “there is a kind of an impulse that the slate has to be wiped clean, so that you can have a new beginning, a tabula rasa. Whether or not that is possible is another debate altogether.”
To use American novelist William Faulkner’s words, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” So those entrusted with running institutions inherited from colonists have to find ways of working with difficult and painful legacies.
“In terms of history, the visual landscape and its consequence for the imagination, it is important to think critically about how we commemorate,” says Gule.
In All Your Faves Are Problematic, it’s clear Gule has started to think critically and with a clear head about this “visual landscape”, ways of thinking that other administrators and bureaucrats could borrow.