Lewis Nkosi’s novel Mating Birds is set in apartheid South Africa against the backdrop of a segregated beach in Durban. Published in 1986, Nkosi’s Mating Birds is told from the perspective of Ndi Sibiya – a young black man charged with rape and awaiting execution. Sibiya reassembles history and his encounters with a white woman, Veronica Slater. He is haunted by memory and grapples with whether the encounter was in fact consensual. The locality of the novel becomes important when considering the contrast between the attractiveness of Durban beaches (revered due to agreeable weather and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean) against the harshness and ugliness of segregation as told through the protagonist’s eyes. This is the same harshness and ugliness that has crossed over the boundaries of apartheid into the new democracy through the continued questioning and exclusion of the black body (evidenced by the Penny Sparrow case —the racist who compared black people on a beach in Durban to monkeys a little over three years ago.)
Mating Birds takes on a new life at the KZNSA Gallery through an exhibition presented as a curatorial essay: ‘Mating Birds Vol.2’. The exhibition is assembled and categorised by curators Gabi Ngcobo, Sumayya Menezes and Zinhle Khumalo, in an attempt to visualize the troublesome histories associated with the Immorality Acts of the parliament of colonial and apartheid South Africa (Act No.5 of 1927, Act No. 23 of 1957, Act No. 57 of 1969).
For nearly six decades, the law reached into the bedrooms of citizens through the Immorality Act, banning mixed marriages as well as interracial casual sex, a single piece of legislation split into millions of narratives and touching millions of lives.
‘Mating Birds Vol.2’ draws on reference material from literature, philosophical texts, legal documents, newspaper clippings as well as original artworks created between 1995 to 2017 by visual artists Billie Zangewa, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Lady Skollie, Sabelo Mlangeni, Simnikiwe Buhlungu, Tracey Rose and Trevor Makhoba.
The exhibition probes our traditional perceptions of interracial relationships and positions them in the broader context of a sloping axis between intimacy, power, violence and class. It acts as a place of contemplation, critical analysis and education, stretching the possibilities of what a gallery can achieve while also becoming a place where knowledge can be created and actuated. Curator Gabi Ngcobo describes the process:
We have invited artists through their existing work as well as commissioned a site specific work to highlight this. We have been inspired by the questions posed by the artists in order to allow references and footnotes that have shaped the artist’s practices to also occupy the gallery space. In this way, we hope, the curatorial essay does much more than what a regular exhibition can do; it activates questions, inspires discussions and makes us all personally responsible for creating frameworks that will shape more enabling future narratives.
Relationships between white women and black men have always been perilous – with the construction of the black man as savage and the white woman as the delicate flower, a victim of the patriarchy and beneficiary of whiteness, equally bound by gendered oppression as is rescued by white supremacy. This results in a white fragility complex, which perverts all the ways in which true intimacy is possible and acts as a barrier to that intimacy. Race, class and violence are inextricably linked in a setting governed by distorted and perverse societal attitudes around sexuality and power. Domination and objectification of womxn’s bodies and gender non-conforming people, a lack of understanding of consent and the acceptability of rape culture are behaviours contributing to a toxic culture of sexual violence that South Africa is still grappling with.
Interracial relationships are typically framed as those between white people and black people. This is an incomplete historical narrative that plays into the absurdity of racial hierarchies designed by the architects of apartheid. The Immorality Act dived deep into the pockets of society, punishing all sexual relationships between different races and reaching further to include same sex relationships. ‘Mating Birds Vol.2’ addresses this by including a diverse range of artists who are thinking through intimacy from different vantage points and personal experiences – works by Lady Skollie and references to works by artist and activist Zanele Muholi, for instance, broaden the scope of the exhibition to include narratives around queerness that might otherwise be forgotten.
‘Mating Birds Vol.2’ brings to the fore questions around how power is negotiated within intimate sexual relationships – a key footnote of the exhibition: Zakes Mda’s Madonna of Excelsior vividly conveys the events that took place in Excelsior, a small farming town in the Free State in 1971, where a group of white men and black women were charged with breaking the Immorality Act. Mda’s novel prods: what boundaries and barriers need to be crossed for the sake of love, what price has to be paid for the sake of intimacy and who bears the cost of that ‘crime’?
Sumayya Menezes describes this negotiation: ‘Intimacy cannot flourish without trust and security, and in a situation where power is institutionalised and can’t be challenged, the arena will never allow for both parties to maintain an equal footing, one will always keep the upper hand.’
The complexities of interracial relationships go beyond a celebration of new found freedoms. As with other aspects of our existences embroiled with intergenerational trauma, healing will require a bridge through time, one that is far more solid than a rainbow. ‘Mating Birds Vol.2’ creates a space for protest and acts as a reminder of the ways in which we can begin to resist categorisation based on constructed ideas and limitations of our humanity and the ways in which we can choose to love and be loved – allowing ourselves to fully explore the edges of the human experience.