The expectation, given the supposed establishment and progressive maturation of post-1994 democratic structures and systems in South Africa, is that grotesque violence should not be possible on the scale that we are currently experiencing. Since 2004, South Africa has witnessed a series of fairly harrowing manifestations of racism, ones which we are regularly confronted with in the media. Rather than becoming progressively less pronounced since 1994, crime, racism and all its violent manifestations [of which xenophobic violence is a symptom] appear to be disconcertingly overt in contemporary South Africa. This is not only evidence of a failure to create a robust public sphere but also — as is argued by Garth Stevens (et al 2010) — ‘because of the consistent elision or denial of the racism of the past, that we have seen the re-emergence in recent years of some of the vilest expressions of racism, not at all unlike that which characterized the old order.”.
The absurdity of the violence lends itself to the fictional gratuitous violence of a Nollywood blockbuster; horror suddenly made real. Shock at the image, the crime, and the perpetrator but not enough of a critical response to derail the violence as one sits in shock of what appears to be near indifference. The artist Mawande Ka Zenzile processes these everyday images and their moment to form a suggestive response. These images he references and their ties to moments of the past are packed like layers in the present. To understand the psychological motivation of this present society one must unpack, as Ka Zenzile does, the historical legacy that the current democratic politic denies, hides, and at will, forcefully represses.
An image from ‘Experimentation: All Hell Break Loose’ (Ka Zenzile’s 2014 exhibition at Stevenson, Cape Town) draws on the controversy of “the Hooded Man” in 2004. Ka Zenzile’s paintings of hooded and masked figures recall the images of Abu Ghraib. The scarecrow is a recurring motifs in Ka Zenzile’s work, “with its associations of both power and vulnerability,” it becomes an idiom through which his work draws attention to institutional ideological and physical violence historically, and at present.
In the Abu Griab case, the images revealed the internal procedures of imperial democracy’s violent incarnation, its founding violence that has been turned into a rubber stamp to be transposed on any context that the United States demands should ‘democratize’ or perish.
The reappearance of the mask across Ka Zenzile’s practice alludes to the recurring and cyclical manifestations of violence and defeat throughout history against black bodies. The recent xenophobic attacks have awakened the 2008 image of the burning man, and in much the same vain that such pronounced bouts of violence produce ghosts, we are haunted by the on camera murder of Emmanuel Sithole. In the news images we were shown the faces of neighbours and community members looking on as assailants take turns at desecrating their scarecrow.
Through the use of images sourced from the Internet, Ka Zenzile’s work is based on ‘observations’ of ‘reality’, and draws from poignant historical and contemporary political moments occurring in world history, which have influenced our perception of everyday life. His work can be read as possible extensions of Slavoj Zizek’s contention that ideology is at its most dangerous and pervasive when we don’t even realize we are subject to it, or when we perform it without realizing we are doing so.
His restaging of the image imagines the first violence and transposes it onto his own body, and becomes a subject in his own work thereby playing at differing roles of the persecuted body. His reenacting [whether through performance, painting, etc.] of the violence that has befallen and continues to befall black bodies in democratic and nondemocratic contexts, lays bare the unmitigated violence meted on the poor and in the case of economic colonialism, on the unsuspecting.
Ka Zenzile’s practice grapples with particularly unpleasant topics that ‘reveal’ how the past is translated into the present moment. In jostling with the violence of history, and how it reoccurs in the present, he points at the ‘truth’ and precipitates the illusionary rapture of a neutral history and the past is shown for its falsehood. Historical images are treated as text because written history is not used only to document historical events but also, as Sean O’Toole has suggested, to maintain, propagate, and or to problematize the present.
By sweeping across history he tries to use his materials not just to define himself, but to challenge ideologies, stereotypes associated with being black by appealing to the viewer’s imagination and experience of the social. Ka Zenzile wills us to not only lengthen the span of our memory, but also to never forget each image and its making of the present. It is our responsibility to reflect and fight against the systematic erasure, against self and systematically imposed death, against sanctioned forgetting.