The Quite Violence of Dreams exhibition pays tribute to the eponymous 2001 book written by K Sello Duiker. Taking place at both Stevenson galleries (in Cape Town and Johannesburg) and blank projects it is an ambitious project following the story’s focus race, gender, mental-illness, site and sexuality. The exhibition is equally dynamic and multilayered, following many narratives and connections that are rich and conceptually engaging.
In the book, the first time we hear the title is when the protagonist Tshepo returns to Valkenburg mental hospital after escaping and wakes up realizing he is back in the place he wanted to run away from: ‘The smell of tea wakes me up from the quiet violence of a dream.’ In this short chapter, Tshepo acknowledges his presence as a black man within the institution. He is aware of his solitary mind in an institution that is causing him psychological pain. He is alone.
Buhlebezwe Siwani’s Umthakati Akalali focuses on Tsepho’s awakening. Spending seventeen hours in the gallery, she wakes up every three hours and prints a part of her body using umKhando (a red pigmented material used for healing) on a piece of paper. She uses a ritual to understand the psychological strain Tshepo had to endure. Like Tshepo drinking tea to wake him up, Siwani’s umKhando is used in this sense to awaken her, to be aware of her solitude and body with this same gift/guidance/help that was given to Tshepo. What makes this work so powerful is the fact that Siwani performed this work directly in the gallery and for that time the gallery was substituted as a mental institution.
A sense of solitary confinement is not only seen in Siwani’s performance but also in Abdulrazaq Awofeso Constellation of Rights and Wrongs and Unathi Sigenu’s Untitled paintings. Both examine the struggles of being alone and in anguish. Although Tshepo has friends to return to, he is still very much alone in his path of life.
Tshepo’s sexuality in the book is ambiguous and often questioned not only by himself but also his friend Mmabatho and his father. However, half of the book explores Tsepho’s vivid experiences working in gay massage parlour and falling in love with men. Queerness is an enduring theme in the exhibition.
The video How I Love You by Akram Zaatar follows gay men in Lebanon talking about what parts of their bodies they like, the men they have met, how they met them, their sexual experiences with them and then focuses on the longing they have to endure for loving someone of the same sex in a country that condemns gay-rights. A part of the film, where one of the men says over and over, ‘How I love you, if only you knew,’ is a heartbreaking
statement. The video lights up their bodies and blurs their faces. These men are unidentifiable and it highlights how unsafe it is to identify as a homosexual in Lebanon. It is almost uncomfortable to watch this video of men unable to openly show their affection. This reminds me of when Tshepo starts to look at Chris with loving eyes. ‘He is so beautiful,’ he explains, ‘so furiously attractive, it breaks my heart that I can’t say anything to him.’
Evan Ifekoya’s installation titled Ebi Flo (Flex) and video work Ebi Flo (We Are Family) gives us a glitchy, iridescent reflections and texts about family and belonging, a welcoming for black queer people. Ifekoya’s installation, referencing a gay club as a site, is critical in terms of talking about violence in that space. In this work I am reminded of the first time that Tshepo is in a gay club but also when he later experiences racism embedded within the gay community. The music is not fast paced, but rather melancholic. I am reminded of loss in this work, of experiences and hopes and dreams queer people believe in, want and have never had. This is the glitch, or distortion, that queer people experience in a heteronomative society.
Across the road in blank projects, a selection of Zanele Muholi’s works are exhibited. The Closer to My Heart Series captures two women embracing one another represented only by their shadows. It is a painful, yet playful reminder of lives that once existed, of love that is fleeting. Case Study and Aftermath directly examine the abuse that happened and happens to black lesbians in townships and other communities. Revisiting Muholi’s images was a beautiful act, as we also revisited the book, adding to the nostalgia and revival of queer and gender rights currently taking place. Case Number was photographed a few months before Duiker’s death; the proximity of the two is heartbreaking.
I was particularly excited to see Lyle Ashton Harris’ Ektachrome Archive. This body of work, photographed through the 80’s and early 00’s captures people such as Nan Goldin, Glen Ligon, Essex Hemphill, places, objects, lovers, self-portraits, clubs. The work is nostalgic and beautifully melancholic. Having been shot through the AIDS crisis in America, it acts as a heavily political reminder of queer history and lives that have gone. My favourite photograph Lyle, Gay Pride Parade, San Francisco, 1989 shows Lyle holding a yellow balloon at gay pride. I find myself longing for a part of queer life which never existed, a queer community that wasn’t distorted – that embraced love and acceptance of everyone. Lyle’s smile in the photograph is bliss. Harris’ photographs reveal the beauty of black queer people in a period of gay-rights activism, which has been often white-washed.
Jody Brand’s large print, Presently, here standing, Ntombi… has a similar ephemeral quality to Harris’. In the image, a black woman stands shirtless in a bathroom holding a chandelier. It is an image of power and liberation. Brand’s installation, #SAYHERNAME, welcomes you up the ramp at Stevenson, with rose petals on the floor and roses hanging upside-down from the ceiling, remembering the death of a sex worker. Death is persistent subject throughout the exhibition and here it looms over us. It is a reminder of life that was once lived, of violence and of love lost. Similarly, Jacket by Sigenu, represented here by documentation, hangs over in the streets of Johannesburg. The jacket, which belonged to his brother who passed away whilst working with the police, interacts with audiences via walkie-talkie. Again the absence and the lifting of death is a commemoration of black voices and deaths forgotten and unheard.
The Quiet Violence of Dreams holds it’s significance of being an exhibition based on sex, madness, queerness and racial violence within institutions – an exhibition for the present and future generations. The works come together to create a poetic reminder of a book that focuses on a multitude of themes and subjects. Within the chaos and overwhelming amount of references, i found myself constantly returning to every single artwork in the show. Just like the book itself, you need to pause and listen. Stevenson has offered a beautiful experience about the power of the tribute, how deeply entwined the lives of the past reflect the lives of today.