AVA Gallery, Cape Town
17.01 – 21.02.2019
To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never to forget.
― Arundhati Roy, The Cost of Living
I have just finished watching a series on Netflix, Black Earth Rising, featuring Michaela Coel of Chewing Gum fame. In it, Coel plays a survivor of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, since adopted by a British prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. It would appear that more and more critical and creative remembrances of the consequences of colonialism in the contemporary moment are proliferating the public sphere. A long overdue, protracted memorial for a mourning that can have no conceivable end. To these memorials, Patrick Bongoy offers us ‘Remains’, Bongoy’s second solo exhibition in South Africa presented at the Association for Visual arts in Cape Town. Equal parts magical and macabre, ‘Remains’ offers a shattering kind of silence that counters in equal measure the heartrending nature of its content.
The first confrontation that meets us at the entrance to the exhibition are individual cutouts of letters suspended from the ceiling. The letters are made of rubber, the material for which the Congo was colonized by the Belgians and a material motif that runs throughout Bongoy’s oeuvre. Perhaps the letters spell out the names of those lost to the violence espoused in the name of empire and the then Belgian overlord, Leopold II. They dance in a phantom breeze like some ghostly wind chime as one ducks under the sign of the exhibition (a piece of wood that covers half the doorway to the main exhibition hall). This kind of dramaturgical intervention is, for me, when visual art and performance come together in the most effective kind of curatorial proposition.
The labour one has to undergo, the discomfort, in order to merely enter the main exhibition space triggers a sense of unease while at the same time ritualizing the act of entering the exhibition. One cannot merely enter a memorial space. One needs to ready themselves, pay tribute, humble themselves before the fallen and in this action, the act of almost having to get on one’s hands and knees, instantly catalyzes a sense of reverence and humility without any instruction, making the exhibition goers a part of the exhibition in a way that supersedes mere viewing. We are implicated in the exhibition. Our presence is a necessary element in what aids the exhibition to come ‘alive’ and give it a particular quality. There can be no remembering without the rememberers.
From before entering the space one can hear a disembodied voice echoing throughout the exhibition hall, the source of which is unknown. This voice is the singular sonic element in the space. Intermittently it beckons the listener in song to, “Take your time”. A welcome invitation as one wonders through the the collection of rubber humanoid sculptures that we are met with as we enter the main exhibition space. In single file they march, four figures constructed out of rubber in a tableaux reminiscent of an alternative reimagining of the evolution of man. Each figure less recognizably human than the last until we arrive at the final figure: an angel of death with antlers for wings and a globe of the Earth for a head. The symbolism here is probably the quintessence of the macabre, magical phantasmagoria of ‘Remains’, echoed in the pieces hung from the walls: tapestried rubber with black, rubber hands clawing their way out of them, observable only when one comes quite close to the work. Once again the inherent dramaturgy of the work is incredibly effective in utilizing the viewer’s curiosity as a device to further implicate them in the work. Almost as if to say, “Look at your own peril”. Here, the words of Arundhati Roy from The Cost of Living in the quote above ring loud in my ears, “To never look away”. With the kind of curation and dramaturgy applied here, looking away is near impossible.
Upon passing through the main exhibition space, following the voice beckoning us to take our time, we find ourselves in a viewing room with a recording of Patrice Lumumba’s seminal, Congolese Independence Day speech in 1960 as the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo after being reclaimed from Belgium. The speech is interspersed with the voice and poetry of Malika Ndlovu, who has been beckoning us since we entered the exhibition space. Excerpts such as “Where the picture is missing,/ the voice remains./ Where the voice is missing,/ the text remains” are placed throughout the video work with visuals of what appears to be the process Bongoy undergoes in preparing the recycled rubber used in the pieces we have seen throughout the exhibition. We see hands washing, cutting, cross hatching and manipulating rubber in ways one wouldn’t necessarily think possible.
The video work is entitled, RE WORKING, and throughout we see how the rubber – with its embedded associations of unspeakable violence and expropriation of the people of the Congo – becomes an avatar for memory. Something to be cared for and reappropriated to form an elaborate and complex tapestry that maintains the original integrity of the material, but can also be used to catalyze something completely different. We are not merely beholden to our history and what it is we have survived but we are also agents in the determination of how that history serves us, how we honor it and how we allow it to become something completely different without removing or omitting any of its original qualities.
I’m not entirely sure whether we will ever recover from our history. Nor am I sure whether we will learn from it and be able to honour it without omission in the way that Bongoy entreats us to. I am sure, however, that we can take our time. That we can allow what hurts to hurt for as long as it must hurt and in that pain, possibly, find ways to make it magical, to make it true, to try and understand and to never, never forget.