In The Democratic Paradox (2000), the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe introduced her concept of “agonistic democracy” – a refutation of the idea that true democracy is where “experts” resolve conflicts through rational consensus. Mouffe suggests instead that the very idea of disinterested rational solutions is inherently oppressive. She takes the continued existence of conflicting positions as a sign of a healthy, pluralistic democracy, viewing the political as a site of “agonistic struggle between adversaries” rather than a war between antagonistic enemies.
In a later text entitled Artistic Activism and Agonistic Spaces, Mouffe goes on to assert the crucial role of critical art in perpetuating agonistic debate, defining critical art in this context as:
[A]rt that foments dissensus, that makes visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate. It is constituted by a manifold of artistic practices aiming at giving a voice to those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony.
These ideas are useful when considering the practice of Cape Town-based collective Burning Museum. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to think of a clearer definition of the collective’s work than Mouffe’s suggestion of “counter-hegemonic interventions whose objective is to occupy the public space in order to disrupt the smooth image that corporate capitalism is trying to spread”. In Burning Museum’s case the “smooth” site of capitalistic repression is primarily exemplified by the ongoing gentrification of Woodstock and the underlying subtexts of amnesia and erasure inherent in a lack of redress.
Another area of interest which is important to Burning Museum is the conflicting politics of the District Six story. Here they highlight the plurality of narratives which converge upon it, from the legacy of the apartheid government and the 1913 Land Act, to the DA-administered city of Cape Town and the current historical revisionism of ANC-led narratives (among others). That being said, Burning Museum’s project is by no means limited to District Six. The collective aims to challenge any narrative which serves to overwrite or re-write the injustices of the past in the interests of serving a specific agenda.
Although the collective are most well known for their interventions in the streets of Cape Town, their multifaceted practice has also spread to Johannesburg and Benin in addition to various gallery installations and video works. The people-centric and image-based nature of their project makes them distinct from the spate of socially conscious “street art” collectives which have emerged in Cape Town over the last two years (including Xcollektiv and the ever- controversial Tokolos Stensils)[i]. In place of logos and slogans, the collective emphasise the actual people who have been displaced both physically and from narrative discourse. Their work ensures that while these individuals may remain nameless, they are at the very least no longer faceless.
Another area of distinction from these other collectives is that, rather than remaining anonymous, Burning Museum’s members are transparent about their involvement and therefore present themselves as accountable for the work. It is an intensely personal project for its collaborators: Justin Davy, Jarrett Erasmus, Tazneem Wentzel, Grant Jurius and Scott Williams who were united and inspired to begin to collaborate on work by similar experiences of marginalisation as artists of colour in Cape Town. Certainly what brought them together was a common desire to question the dominant narratives which lie unchallenged in South Africa in general and their locality in particular.
Another point of commonality amongst the collective was the archives of the Van Kalker Photography Studio, which would prove to be something which they would appropriate from. The Studio, which was founded in 1937 and originally operated from Woodstock Main Road, turned out to be one that each member of the collective had a direct historical link to, as all had family photographed by Van Kalker at some point. The archive itself serves as an invaluable documentary resource of the diversity of cultures in Cape Town prior to and beyond the forced removals of the late 1960s and 1970s. With these two facts in mind Burning Museum began to draw on images from the archive, placing them into their street-art interventions.
As a result of their history, these photographs have a strong contextual resonance when placed in District Six. The understated nature of Burning Museum’s materials (wheat paste and enlarged photocopies) ensures that the imagery is never overshadowed by its medium. In other words, when an image is stencilled onto a wall, the medium pushes forward and the resultant image is unavoidably read first and foremost as graphic icon. Working directly from enlarged photographic portraits of the former District Six community, Burning Museum’s images stare directly at the viewer, forcing them to respond on an empathetic, human level.
However, as these images are undeniably poetic and dignified, the interventions run the risk of being co-opted into the Woodstock beautification project which they oppose. Conscious of this, the collective routinely pair the wheat pasted portraits with reproductions of the 1913 Land Act; drawing a visual parallel between the forced removals that the act resulted in and the communities being displaced by gentrification. It is in this way that the project becomes agonistic, disrupting the façade of dominant narratives while asserting the marginalised.
A similar negotiation of co-option and critique is evident with the collective’s work in gallery spaces. The 2014 group exhibition ‘Do it!’ at the Michaelis Galleries (curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist), invited artists and collectives to respond to an instruction provided by a renowned artist. Burning Museum responded to their instruction from Yoko Ono to “make a wish and write it down on a piece of paper” by pasting a (fictitious) posthumous honorary doctorate to Peter Clarke on the wall of the gallery. Taking a tongue in cheek approach, the enlarged certificate asserts that the fictitious gesture by the University of Cape Town was “the least we could do!” Here the overarching hegemony of UCT as an institution is critiqued from a position of participation in one of its programs for having failed to recognise the substantial achievements of an individual who, against all odds, had taken classes at the institution.
Showing in spaces such as the Michaelis Galleries and the Centre for African Studies gallery — spaces fundamentally tied to academic institutions — is one thing. Exhibiting in a commercial gallery space provides its own set of institutional structures, something which Burning Museum faced head-on when they partook in the ‘Plakkers’ group exhibition at Brundyn+ in 2014 (curated by Burning Museum member Justin Davy) . It seems that whenever so-called street artists display their work within the commercial gallery system, accusations of “selling out” are inevitable. If the hegemony of this system is tied to the translation of art solely into capital (and the imperatives which this may place on an artist’s mode of production) then Burning Museum maintained their critique through a distinct lack of pandering to the market in the way in which they approached their gallery work.
Certainly in ‘Plakkers’ there was no attempt to make this work overtly “sellable” and the collective retained their low-fi materials (wheat paste, collage of photocopied/greyscale imagery, adding linoleum table cloths to the list) while opting for installations over easily dispersed, smaller artworks. The result, a work entitled New Metro, very successfully fused the visual vocabulary of their street work with the installation potential offered by the gallery space. Cropping the portraits to only the eyes, the perpetual stare of the collage maintained an extremely unnerving sense of observation which appeared to be judging the viewer. While still engaging with the intentions of the exhibition’s curatorial framework, the work extended its critique through a subtle but effective interrogation of the audience of a “bourgeois gallery” (to quote Tokolos Stensils outright antagonistic critique in the same exhibition).
The visual motif of a Metrorail train in the installation is a pervasive one in Burning Museum’s recent work and represents — in geographic, historical and political terms — a site of the working class’s negotiation of centre and periphery. Within an agonistic system, this centre is never fixed but shifts according to the peripheries which push forward. For Chantal Mouffe, flux is tied to the acknowledgement that the struggle between agonistic adversaries is a continuous process that must be enacted over and over whenever one particular narrative assumes the position of hegemony. The task is to “mobilise dissenting passions towards democratic designs”. By visualising voices of dissent and marginalisation, Burning Museum have taken this challenge to heart.
[i] This is not to suggest that their approach is preferable to that of other collectives, merely to highlight the distinctions in their focus. The various projects work in tandem to flesh out a discourse of resistance.