Black Portraiture[s] Conference, Johannesburg
17.11.16 – 19.11.16
The cultural expression and sheer magnitude of black voices is paramount and important in shaping the cultural landscape of not only South Africa but of the world. ‘Black Portraiture[s] III: Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures’ offered a forum for the discussion the imaging the black body and black experience. The conference was accompanied by the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) and Goodman Gallery’s exhibition, ‘In Context: Africans in America’, curated by curated by Liza Essers and Hank Willis Thomas as part of the ongoing ‘In Context series.’ Dense with parallel sessions, the conference’s multidisciplinary approach failed to truly interrogate South Africa’s contemporary, local and creative expressions and experiences of blackness by constantly interrogating Western ideological dominance and the African American experience.
The collaborative project between Wits University, New York University, Harvard University and the Goodman Gallery took place at the Turbine Hall in Johannesburg. The change of venue from Wits University to Turbine Hall, in light of the ongoing #FeesMustFall student protests, was the first indicator of the conference’s distancing and isolation from the landscape in which it was hosted. As a coming together of black academics, artists and cultural practitioners, ‘Black Portraiture’ had high ambitions and many expected it to, in its unpacking of the black experience, to be in solidarity with #FeesMustFall protests and the ongoing tensions black South African are experiencing. The idea of a Universal Blackness and solidarity between African Americans and black Africans spoke to impasse in identity politics that runs the risk of being divisive and prescribing how difference black identities should be performed.
The flight to Turbine Hall was interrogated in the panel, #BlackLivesMatter: Interrogating Representations of Black Bodies in Pain, moderated by Sharlene Khan. This discussion focused on black pain and the extreme distress of black student. The panel that included artist, arts administrator and writer Same Mduli, artist and academic Nomusa Makhubu, curator and writer Khwezi Gule and independent editor Fouad Asfour, highlighted the conference’s silence and lack of solidarity with the student’s emotional, educational, physical and financial needs and challenges, despite its claim of untangling and working through the black experience. It began with a critique of Achille Mbembe’s simplistic comments likening the student movement to Boko Haram. This visceral chastisement of the student movement reduced the efforts of the students to narcissism and showed the acute betrayal of academics and their refusal to hear, acknowledge and grapple with black pain. This seminar highlighted the isolation of the conference’s proceeding from what is happening inside our universities and more broadly in our society.
By far the most poignant and engaged seminar was Universal Blackness: The Black Diaspora Experience in the 21st Century presented by ARTNOIR. Moderated by writer, blogger and Mail and Guardian Arts and Culture editor, Milisuthando “Milli” Bongela, this presentation brought together a global collective of creatives for a discussion about the inclusion and equality in the industry, particularly related to the Johannesburg experience. Alongside photographer, Fhatuwani Mukheli of I See a Different You, musician Itani Thalefi of The Brother Moves On, visual artist and painter Lina Iris Viktor, and visual artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti, the seminar spoke to the idea of home and the longing for identity and the things that anchor the self in black communities. Viktor spoke of how the idea of home is not necessarily tied to a locale, but is rather a transient and temporal space, created by emotional and mental experience. In addition, Thalefi spoke to the duality of language and the transitions from rural life to urban life that permeates the tensions home, identity and the coming of home. This seminar was one of the few, if not only moments that gave truth to and highlighted the experience of South Africans in the ‘Black Portraitures’ conference. It allowed for audience to express and relate their experiences to what the black experience in a nuanced way.
Bongela highlighted the words of a close friend, who expressed, that ‘We want our city back!’ These words resonated with me and a lot of the South African participants. What does it mean that African Americans comfortably spoke in isolation of their own experiences of blackness and took over a space with little to no inclusion of the people that live and experience blackness in this context? How does the reclaiming of blackness and freedom occur when blackness is a constructed and divisive tool created to subjugate
To quote Bongela, ‘we are all still students of this black culture,’ and ‘Black Portraitures’ managed to like no other conference, bring together artists, scholars, writers, activists, art institutions and cultural practitioners from the US, Africa, and the African diaspora to dialogue and engage with what the black experience is today. Despite its shortcoming in including and facilitating and intercultural conversation between Africans and Americans, the conference allowed for black academics to work through the tangled mess of reclaiming and loving a previously divisive identity of blackness. It was the first step in taking the initiative to teach, learn and acknowledge the varying experiences and identities of blackness and towards building bridges over the frictions and frustrations being felt by South Africans with the implosion of African American culture and academia. This was the beginning of a more inclusive and representative academic conversation and exchange of knowledge and experiences and hopefully a carving of more spaces and academic conversations of the black experience, in all it nuanced and complex forms.