Gallery MOMO, Cape Town
13.09 – 21.10.2017
In person, I’m a great proponent of exaggeration. ‘Ghastly!’, ‘revolutionary!’, ‘heartbreaking!’ you’ll catch me emoting on my way out of a show. But the title of ‘A Continent Beyond’ tempered my response because of its own vaulting hyperbole. The gallery handout confirmed that it is a phrase deployed without irony. It reads: ‘This is a moment beyond republics and invisible borders drafted by men who exist now as mere ghosts of the past – this is a continent beyond.’ A bold statement.
As its evidence, the write-up references Achille Mbembe’s essay, Africa In The New Century. It is a lengthy survey of Africa’s place in various fields, with emphasis on its potential to be of greater global importance in the face of enduring racist tropes, looting and political instability. It makes the point that Africa is not a hopeless place. Real GDP, life expectancy and school enrollment are up. Infant mortality is down and urban centres are prospering. Mbembe claims that Africa will play the largest part in the global economy in the future but is scathing about the capitalistic machinery that drives it.
The gallery handout frames this text as consolatory and positive and while Mbembe scatters optimistic statistics like confetti, he ultimately does little to dispel the smothering pessimism that he re-articulates in a later article, The Age of Humanism is Ending.
The thrust is that a bifurcation of capitalism and democracy leads us towards a world in which people are valued by their buying power and Capitalistic success is augmented in our morality. We are consumers first and citizens second and the ravages and rifts that characterized 2016 are, he argues, likely to worsen:
[S]ocial conflicts will increasingly take the form of racism, ultra nationalism, sexism, ethnic and religious rivalries, xenophobia, homophobia and other deadly passions.
The denigration of virtues such as care, compassion and kindness will go hand in hand with the belief, especially among the poor, that winning is all that matters and who wins – by whatever means necessary – is ultimately right.
Achille Mbembe isn’t saying that it’s all good, or all bad, but he certainly doesn’t claim that ours is a continent beyond. And nor do the works presented here. Many of which deal sensitively with redress and re-appropriation.
A series of photographic portraits by American artist Ayana V Jackson shows restaged archival imagery, recognizable by their hand tinted appearance and the sitters’ period costume. In these works, black women recline in poses typical of the canon but for their blackness – the likes of which are fresh in our collective memory from Beyonce’s Formation music video. These works present a subversive nostalgia for a different history, a beautiful fiction. The woman and their linens are isolated by inky black backgrounds, obstinately aside from the history of black women in slave owning times.
If one of the enduring tenets of Post-modernism is skepticism towards dogmatic meta-narratives, then we are primed to engage with the concept of the ‘useful fiction’. In response to the question of an overarching narrative for our time, sci-fi author Bruce Sterling titles our period ‘atemporality,’ where linear ideas of history have been fragmented by cyberspace.
When there is no monopoly on ‘truth,’ that space ready to be filled with stories. The mass appreciation for Afrofuturism (most notably by the African diaspora) is an example of literature and imagination comprising part of a prevailing zeitgeist. Afrofuturism does much to oppose the historical myth of Africans as the ‘contemporary ancestor’ – a quaint prehistoric vestige. After all, there is a dearth of stories to attest to the history of Africans. Speaking to the particular example of Africans taken as slaves, Edouard Glissant noted that ‘the only thing written on slave ships was the account book listing [their] exchange value.’
Stephane E Conradie’s alluring sculptural works begin with the idea that communities define themselves through a material culture; by owning and displaying items and by aspiring to an aesthetic. Conradie hones in on the coloured neighborhood of Cloetersville (outside Stellenbosch) and absorbs their trinkets and tzatzkes. Her printer’s-tray paraphernalia includes pearlescent charms, glazed jugs, porcelain kittens, silver spoons, figurines, trophies, thimbles and clogs.
She crowds these into garlands that bring to mind bacterial blooms. They are pathologically hyper-adorned and hint at the forced removals that lurk in their past. The materialistic and aesthetic being areas of agency for communities deprived of geographic wealth. In fact, the largest of these sculptures is titled Agency. These works are essentially assembled from ornamentation placed over the site of a giant wound.
Other works speak more blatantly to the violence of the past. Roger Ballen’s scopophilic photographs are housed in a ghetto delineated by rolls of defaced wallpaper. Scrawled heads with pointy teeth guard surreal dystopias. His subjects are pitiful and abject. A road-kill powder puff, drooling and disfigured brothers and spaces scoured with ash and mutilated toys show the stuff of nightmares. The kind you can’t quite remember when you wake up, but that haunt you throughout the day.
And then there is Machete Mandala in Black by Coby Kennedy: an unambiguous statement about the way forward. Six street signs hewn into arm-length shivs are arranged in the form of a sigil or a coat of arms. Five of the signs read ‘Kitchener’, ‘Voorhoud’ and the like. These have been crossed out in red. At the centre, another announces ‘Albertina Sisulu,’ and above that, a circular no U-turn sign.
This work refreshes the violence of everyday objects, making that violence patently more understandable through the vocabulary of weaponry – capable of jagged, bloody incisions.
The alert, informative register of the street signs in their succinct Highway Gothic asserts: to what we are beyond, we wish never to return.
Many more of the artworks in ‘A Continent Beyond’ feature the wounding or subversion of the picture plane itself. Pedro Pires Facing #1 and Turning #2 are seared to create pointillist silhouettes of men and Kimathi Donkor’s Resist shows a woman trapped in the back of a canvas, caged by its wooden stretcher.
These are works that attest to multiple relationships with a wounded space that is by no means beyond a legacy of western imposition or inter-tribal conflicts. Achille Mbembe’s essays articulate the position Africa holds today. He explains the reproduction of colonial mores through finance capital, that Africa is vulnerable to climate change and in need of stable governance. They also look to Africa’s impressive resources and resolve. But they aren’t delusional.
We aren’t beyond just yet, but maybe we’re getting there. I’m skeptical of anyone who tells you that we are with too much certainty.