[The following is an adapted version of a talk presented at the ‘Decolonial Arts Practices from Cape Town to Palestine’ panel discussion at the District Six Homecoming Centre on Saturday, 14 April 2018]
‘Epidemiology’ is a branch of medical studies which focuses on the causation, proliferation and potential curative measures for a disease. Literally translating to “the study of what is upon the people”, it is a cornerstone of contemporary medical practice and seminal in developing approaches to combating aggressive disease proliferation among groups of peoples.
In the world at present there is a pathology that weighs heavy “upon the people”. Its proliferation extends from the political domain; the practice of city planning; the current, aggressive capitalist economic order; institutional practice and structure, to our everyday social interactions: who is cared for, who is not; who lives, who dies. The nature of this disease is amorphous in form and has been difficult to give adequate language to. Offers such as ‘white, capitalist patriarchy’; ‘white, heteropatriarchy’ and ‘neo-colonialism’ have been coined in an attempt to make manifest in language this pathology. For the purposes of this conversation and to incorporate the dual focus of the global context as well as the local context necessary to trace this phenomena beyond and within our context I would like to posit that we simply name this pathology ‘whiteness’.
What does this offer us in the way of talking about whiteness? Firstly, it subverts our fixation on the mechanistic attributes of whiteness to a focus on whiteness the organism. The implications of speaking of whiteness as an organic entity with the same makeup as, say, a virus implies that whiteness has the ability to adapt and morph its compositional structure to adapt to its environment, in the same way as multiple drug resistant tuberculosis for example. What it implies, secondly, is that a categorical necessity for whiteness to achieve the proliferation we witness in the present day – much like other pathologies of pandemic proportions – are carriers and hosts.
In epidemiological discourse ‘carriers’ are understood to be those entities that have the necessary makeup to facilitate the transportation and, in some cases, the incubation of a virus, disease or infection but do not necessarily experience the effects or develop a deterioration in their overall organism as a consequence of the virus. ‘Hosts’ are understood to be entities that the virus, disease or infection require in order to undergo the necessary stages for development and continued infection to other hosts or carriers. If we accept the hypothesis that whiteness represents a kind of pathology, disease or virus then I would like to posit that one of its most susceptible and utilised hosts is the black body. And in the context of today’s conversation, the black artist.
What does this offer in the conversation about the A4 Arts Foundation and black artists? I would like to imagine the incidence of A4 and its links to Zionist funding formulations in the context of an aggressively and subversively racist postcolonial post – apartheid South Africa as a case study for the pathology of institutional whiteness. I would like to posit that the A4 foundation through its practice of institutional whiteness (the opaqueness around which it has approached the conversation of its Zionist funding links while at the same time happily housing the work and practices of black artists) and its liberal politic of encouraging private dialogue around this issue with no public accountability all form characteristic, symptomatic whiteness.
To contextualise, after I approached A4 for an interview late last year soon after they contacted us (I co-run a publication about dance, movement and embodied politics called ANY BODY ZINE) with the intention of collaborating on their upcoming exhibition ‘Less for More’. As an independent artist the opportunity to work with an organisation that appeared to be providing space for black artists and other artists doing important, non-commercial work was a hugely exciting prospect. It was only upon discussion with another friend and colleague where they revealed to me the links A4 had with the Kirsch Foundation and its links with the Magal Security Systems company, an Israeli company involved in the securitisation and militarisation of Palestine, that my excitement turned to disbelief.
Thereafter, I approached the director, Josh Ginsburg, to enquire after this to find that this was indeed the case. I was astounded by the audacious and sinister implications. A4 was happy to allow black artists to unknowingly implicate themselves by association with the current Palestinian Apartheid in the context of an international appeal for academic and cultural boycott.This, with our own traumatic history of Apartheid so close in our national consciousness. This, with the historical context of the same boycotting strategy being such an important component in applying material pressure on the South African government to abolish Apartheid here at home. It is not a stretch of the imagination to wonder if A4 would have also not heeded the call for boycott should it have been located elsewhere in the world during the South African Apartheid regime.
What becomes clear is that for white liberal institutions black bodies are mobilised as a tactic to perform a politic of transformational reform. It is no accident that institutions are hungry for the work of young, black artists of a progressive and/or radical political position to create the image of their institution being committed to the project of racial transformation. Why this is so ingenius is that whiteness affords itself the opportunity to remain undetectable as a contributor to the overall context of oppression because its visible appearance is one of reform. However, under the most superficial investigation it becomes clear that this is a facade. A facade that is meant to allow for the continued proliferation and survival of whiteness.
It is important to assert that the call for cultural boycott is not merely a symbolic appeal but an appeal that has the propensity for material consequences. What the boycott offers is a mechanism of prognosis against the aggressive proliferation of whiteness. What this offers is a material strategy to engage with the work that it is to decolonise. Here I would like to posit that decolonisation, contrary to its appropriation by carriers of whiteness such as white institutions, is not an aesthetic but a practice. In the Cape Town art community there has been an appropriation of the decolonial aesthetic whereby artists of marginalised identity are subsumed by a gallery, a theatre, an institution and by virtue of the work they make making reference to subjects in the realm of blackness, protest, femininity, revolution and other ideas coined radical the institution can utilise that aesthetic to promote an image of itself as supporting the decolonial agenda.
It needs to be clear that, in the same way that oppression is not an aesthetic, neither is decolonisation. If we are not in the doing of capital restitution and redistribution, dismantling and decentralising of concentrations of power, the structural empowerment and centralising of indigenous peoples, the protection of those bodies most beholden to violence both physical and metaphysical and solidarity that extends beyond our colonially constructed national borders, then we are not in the doing of decolonisation. To appropriate the bodies of black people, to make use of the fallen bodies of the oppressed in a profane necromantic display in the service of propelling the image of whiteness is a peak display of the level of virulence the pathology of whiteness extends to. We must be clear that the prognosis is justice. That justice is not using secrecy to fool practitioners into collaborating under false pretenses. It is not encouraging private conversations to discuss what is an issue of global proportions
What I am interested in? I am interested in the practice of solidarity. How do we as a creative community move into a practice of decoloniality? How do we take on mandates and structures that facilitate the practice of justice? How do we move into a practice of communal accountability? How do we build a culture away from disposability culture? How do we work through our prognosis of whiteness? How do we revolutionise our practice as artists away from a reduction to aesthetics but an integrated praxis that sees the politics of how we make our art as just as important as what we make? How do we move away from a politic of polite violence into a brave space of radical accountability? As the organiser and writer Miski Noor says, “How are we living out the liberation we are trying to create?
A4 Arts Foundation were approached by ArtThrob for a reply, but have declined to comment at this time.