Michaelis Galleries, Cape Town
23.05 – 16.06.2017
Decoloniality as aesthetic?
Decoloniality as praxis?
Decoloniality as infrastructural reconfiguration?
Decoloniality as an urgent plea?
Decoloniality as a cry from a tired and conquered people; a people so magic and holy?
Decoloniality as a way out, or through?
Decoloniality as saying “I am tired but there is work to do”?
As a post-colony we exist in precarious relations of dependency on colonial modalities. Whether in the form of institutions, frameworks of references or the progeny/inheritors of the colonial legacy, we exist in a relationship of continual, contested contact. Maybe even contamination. I have been trying to think critically about the difference between contamination, contact and syncretism- the process by which things come together to make an entirely new whole. This process of thought was initiated by the academic and creative, Malik Ntone Edjabe. Conversations with Edjabe on the fallacious representation of colonialism as an isolated and self-contained historical moment have spurred me to push my thinking beyond conceptual linearities (arguably a philosophical vestment of colonialism itself). If we are to accept that the conditions under which colonialism was erected and the institutions by which it entrenched itself are still in effect today then it follows that we still live under a colonial administration, albeit a reconfigured colonialism, a neo-colonialism.
The argument goes that the mechanisms by which colonialism was first instituted have merely been reconfigured through the advent of neo-liberalism. Conceptually, what this means is that overtly oppressive systems (such as Apartheid in South Africa) have been replaced with democracy and a legal culture that makes extensive recourse to constitutionality and human rights discourse but still works to uphold the foundations of colonial domination, namely: the subjugation and exploitation of indigenous people and mass resource expropriation.
On December 10, 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A non-legally binding collection of thirty articles that became a central document in defining universal, fundamental human rights. South Africa was a signatory on this document. In the same year that Apartheid was adopted as legal doctrine. The irony would be laughable if the implications were not so sickening.
If we push our thinking outside of prescriptive and linear historical frameworks it becomes easier for us to think about colonialism not as a fixed period in history but as a project. A project of expansion and conquest that expands further than land and resources but into hearts and minds as well. Decolonization can be understood to be the process by which the work of colonialism of the past and neo-colonialism of the present can be undone. As Katharine M. Heeden puts it in their paper “Decolonizing Culture: Visual Arts, Development Narratives and Performance in the Americas”:
This process, as post-colonial theorists explain, exposes and dismantles colonialism in all its forms, including “the hidden aspects of those institutional and cultural forces that had maintained the colonialist power and that remain even after political independence is achieved” (Ashcroft et al., 63).
Insofar as decolonization and the visual arts are concerned ‘Looking After Freedom’, curated by Nkule Mabaso and Raél Jero Salley, presents work from various artists of colour (established and emerging) working in multiple mediums/medias that look beyond the static moment of freedom/emancipation and into potential futures, trajectories and practices. Potentialities that not only investigate representations of a colonial past and its ramifications but look to create space for a decolonial discourse that is not only singular and reflective but multiplicitous in its possibilities.
The importance of an exhibition engaging with ideas around decolonization comprised solely of artists of colour cannot be over-stipulated. Identity politics in a lot of public discourse surrounding issues of race, class and gender is often ill received; most probably due to the heady concoction of neo-liberal and rainbowist rhetoric that pervades much of South African socio-political discourse. It is believed that to privilege or highlight any individual based on their identity is akin to oppressive discriminatory practice. However, identity politics gives us a useful framework for thinking outside of a hyper-individualist and neoliberal framework and, instead, in reference to collectivities. This is useful because colonialism specifically oppressed specific collectivities of people and not individuals. Though these collectivities themselves were arbitrarily constructed through colonial conquest via the scramble for Africa – the creation of racial categorization, the construction of the nation state etc – they still have very direct effects on the ways in which people live and how different people are affected by colonialism.
This is not to say, however, that identity politics without critical application is useful. Alone this acts as a superficial engagement with a multi-layered issue. By the same token it is important to note that the use of a hyper-individualist rhetoric only serves to benefit the dominant social class as they alone have the ability to navigate the world as individuals, unmarked by their social categorization. For marginalised people, colonial subjects, this is not possible. The importance of having the voices of subjects of colonial conquest spotlighted is that it bestows an authority onto marginalised people about how the discourse surrounding decoloniality will be shaped. This is important as the project of reclamation cannot only happen on the level of land and resources but must happen in the psycho-spiritual and emotional spheres of indigenous people as well. Indigenous people living in a post-colony who have been directly oppressed by a colonial administration have the right to determine the conditions for their emancipation. In fact, it is essential. As Assata Shakur says in her autobiography Assata: An Autobiography, “Nobody in the world, nobody in history, has ever gotten their freedom by appealing to the moral sense of people who were oppressing them.”
Furthermore, indigenous people have a greater vantage point to consider potential trajectories outside of coloniality. The colonial imaginary does not have the scope to imagine decolonial trajectories as this would entail its necessary obliteration, an existential contradiction.
The scope of the decolonial imaginary is evidenced not only in the variety of forms and mediums applied by the various artists who participated in the exhibition but the content of their contributions. Each contribution represents an intricate, self-contained constellation within a galaxy held together by the gravitational attraction of the central theme: what lies beyond the horizon of freedom? What are the memories (rememories) that can inform how we get there?
In the work of Kitso Lynn Lelliot we are presented with the black, femme-presenting body projected into space. Divesting herself of the clothly raiments that attach her to the earthly realm (and its history) we see the artist become a human constellation stalked by shadow projections of her other selves. An afrofuturist haunting wherein which the ghost of colonialism stalks the mammalian disrepair of indigenous people thirsty for an astral revolution. In the offering by MADEYOULOOK columns made of cardboard of a colonial design stand imperiously, and somewhat satirically due to how clearly flimsy they are compared to traditional architectural structures, with multiple voices emanating from within them like ghosts that still whisper their stories long after they are gone. This harkens to how memories can become fastened into structures but how these structures and monuments have the ability to silence particular narratives. In South Africa specifically, where we are still assaulted by the sight of colonial and apartheid monuments, this has a lot of resonance, particularly in the context of the Rhodes Must Fall protests at the University of Cape Town of 2015. These are just two examples of work that traverses time and (literal) space, jumping seamlessly between timescapes and mediums.
‘Looking After Freedom’ is definitely a thought provoking and consciously crafted offering to the conversation around decoloniality and the visual arts. One can only hope that these conversations do not remain in the confines of the white cube but continue to reconfigure ideas around space, representation, deconstruction and decolonial futures.
‘Looking After Freedom’ will move to GUS (Gallery University Stellenbosch) on Thursday, 7 September.
 The second time I went to see the exhibition the voices coming from within the columns had gone silent. I assume because of a technical fault. However, the implication of how these monuments can silence the narratives of indigenous people given long enough haunts me to this day.