National Arts Festival
There is something strange and acute about our current condition of embeddedness within time that has all the constituents of a “historical moment”.
So I have been thinking about history and biography and about storage space, about the capacity performance may have for holding departed souls and old stories, and about whether souls should be held like this at all, or whether there’s some other way we should learn to be with them – to be with history. In the warping zones of this pandemic-time, marked perhaps only really by a deepened texture of the reproducing status-quo, I’m finding a noisiness in the frequency of acts of historical production online.
I’m looking at two National Arts Festival projects, each using their own strategies of unfixing historical time, historical figures. The first is a series of provocations curated by Jay Pather, which orbit and converse with the drawings and biography of Dumile Feni. The second, The Wretched, is a “sonic conceptual/ theoretical project”, realising itself in loose reflections on Fanon’s 1961 text. I believe that these productions – in their structural approaches, at least – are attempts at placing history under the healthy duress of reading, finding something beneath the text, or on top of the biography.
this is not shade (repeats)
someone has to say this:
how many times should black women sing the praises of her dead black brothers? (repeats)
never speak ill of the dead – never (repeats)
I am stuck with, and struck by these introductory remarks of a bizarre video performance by nora chipaumire. (another) township manifesto rolls itself out as one of the provocations from the Dumile project, a digital collage of shot footage of chipaumire, as well as two others (Elvis Sibeko and Monishia) performing masked, moving, dancing, and doing all kinds of obscure things. The opening words imply the project’s disobedience, a rebellion against the given authority of dead men, focused, perhaps less on Dumile in particular, and more on the conflation of history with textures of this nebulous activity, ‘masculinity’. In other words, chipaumire gently provokes ill-speak of the dead, despite contrary instruction, and herein opens up a tiny screen space for a series of improvised refusals to play the designated Black womens’ role: performing and re-performing our own inadequacy as sacrificial offering in the project of upholding the legendary status of normative Black men, who produce good things.
Dumile, through chipaumire, comes alive, reckoning with his ongoing positioning in the South African™ art historical imagination. But here it becomes crucial to point out that while he is conceptually granted a position amongst the most iconic of Black artist figures (men), he materially inherits nothing, his estate continuing to be exploited beyond the grave, with his surviving family living in poverty.1Why legendary artist Dumile Feni’s family is living in poverty | Citypress These kinds of material realities for Black cultural workers are a systemic problem in South Africa. (Please donate to help build Mam’ Madosini a home.) Contemporary cultural institutions act as mine management or landlords over Black intellectual labour, unsustainably exporting and alienating this wealth of resources, without pressure to protect and build Black familial wealth and the possibility of inheritance.2It can be of no surprise that there has been silence from private art galleries and museums on this instance of gross exploitation of Dumile Feni – this central profit mechanism must be protected if these institutions are to continue their basic functionality. And so, in this reading, ‘Black genius’ is a conceptual accolade, rather than a material one. In opening this intervention the way she does, chipaumire situates Feni within a complex web of coloniality, as both perpetually celebrated in a historical universe of invisible Black Queers and Black women,3This includes cisgendered women. and simultaneously undermined and impoverished by apartheid structures. Working through the notion of exile, in a performed manifesto that unfolds way beyond its opening lines, into histories of Black insurgency and the price of leaving home, the performer is well-placed to deal in recognition of such contradictions; Black ‘freedom’ at the cost of alienation, canonical inclusion that surfaces in continued material exploitation, the notion of oppressed existence as systemically conditional.
In finding its explorations through a collection of living (weird, visceral) performances, like this from chipaumire, as well as from Chuma Sopotela, Nadia Beugré, and Dorothée Munyaneza, Pather’s series implicates Dumile Feni’s history as a restless character – a twitching and lonesome being in need of some fearless company and uncompromising dialogue.
Maybe I could admit that the far-out abstractions inherent in the sonic and in the wordless-performative, work me out of a certain aesthetic comfort-zone, but that I’m hoping that they work me into another zone, one appropriately warped (for the times). Maybe The Wretched is a zone like this, unfurling in an hour long soundscape that moves in and beyond, then backwards and over Gabi Motuba’s utterances, pronouncements and yells of Fanon’s diagnoses of the Black psyche. Motuba at times, is with the cadence of a revolutionary leader, the rhythms of her voice seeming to create allusions of the megaphone that precedes chaos, atop Van Wyk’s diverse sample diary and noisy guitar – the crowd! the terrorists! the mob! – with these placed in between Mogorosi’s walks of gentle percussion and then full-kitted madness. The Wretched(s) themselves are holed up in a kind of stylish garage, “the decisive moment” here abstracted and found in that which is enclosed and protected, necessarily, maybe. Musician-readers produce here as subjects both displaced and located through Fanon’s text, quoting, in the video’s introduction:
“The unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.” (1963: 148)
And herein is the ultimate bourgeoisie tendency, an intellectual mechanism in which the practical solution is made symbolic, the material, poetic, and the revolution, given over to performed avant-garde-isms, over violence…
“vile women! monstrous men!…We live in the background!””
– Gabisile Motuba, The Wretched
“In Algeria there is not simply the domination but the decision to the letter not to occupy anything more than the sum total of the land. The Algerians, the veiled women, the palm trees and the camels make up the landscape, the natural background to the human presence of the French.” (1963: 250)
But whilst Fanon warns of the “tragic mishaps” inevitable in revolution, his descriptions of the colonial conditions that produce revolution itself, betray a treatment of the figure he frames as ‘woman’ in unthinkable terms, far beyond the possibility of inclusion in revolutionary hope or liberation.4 …but which we might acknowledge in more detail as subjects that have been gendered, queered, or are Queer. This may refer to trans people, as well as cisgendered ones. If we are to see colonial violence as he does, then we note a reality in which white humanity is contingent on the settler claim to a “natural background” of native people, undifferentiated from the stolen landscape. And thus it follows that we must also see how frequently women’s suffering is objectified similarly, functioning only as diagnostic detail – as background – in Fanon’s grapplings with his subject’s impairments (1963: 250).5In Fanon’s description, “The Algerian” (my emphasis), is clearly differentiated from (“the veiled”) woman, whose violation under settler force, serves only as a function to render more visible a reading of the Black man’s pathology. In the chapter entitled Colonial War and Mental Disorders, Fanon describes an Algerian man driven to impotency by the ‘dishonor’ of his wife’s rape by French soldiers, her very violatedness becoming the causal object of her husband’s disgust with her and ‘their’ child (1963: 254).
For Fanon’s Algerian man (could be South African), is not only differentiated from “the veiled woman”, or the “vile woman”, but is sustained by the relative mundanity of her ongoing, violent undoing; a backgrounded fact neither influenced nor slowed by the colonial status-quo, by states of insurgency or “historical moments”, like now. The Wretched’s dissonant, unfinished Nkosi Sikelel’ – layers and layers of voice in rainy, noisy unison – is democracy’s rendition of this underbelly of unspectacular violence against the gendered, raced, perhaps Queer, always queered, subject, stuck in a bloody nightmare. This subject, the revolutionary denied revolution, is the very opposite of what constitutes the ‘historical’ figure in the first instance. Hers, theirs, his, is a prolonged physical and spiritual warfare under men, that fails to break its routine of gendered labour in service of those very instigators of warfare. Hers, theirs, his, is the consistent relation, care and familial maintenance performed before and after revolution, during violation, and regardless of suffering. Something Queer beneath: a maternal life, where mothering and being mothered (as humanity, care, critique, reciprocal growth, without gender) are the operative ethics of existence, the primary decisive commitment, uncontainable in any one given moment, but without which all others are impossible. An ongoing commitment exceeding the mundanity of its own violation.
I want to read Fanon in this mundanity, with a maternal imperative somehow, a hierarchy of emphasis conducted through recognition of the most invisible, most implausible, most unsaid – most gaslit and dishonourable – aspects of the racial-capitalist formation. The Wretched’s journeying “through the lens of a shriek, a scream, a moment at the end of the limit of struggle” leans, in its outward presentation, towards that which is spectacular, that which is ‘historical’. But I’m trying to listen to that background where a vile woman lives, emerging and submerging, breathless, removed and removed again. The performance, this sounding, and The Wretched of the Earth itself, give me over to an increased interest in what occurs in readings of Black wretchedness that take place in the committed non-historical, in shrieks of frequencies too high to hear but that eventually cause headache or internal rupture.
These two things are encounters that take place somewhere between the problem of history and the promise (or problem, again) of some present-unfolding listening with it. In the interventions, working text as an infinitely readable record of noise and absence, we can only try to avoid the spectacularity of that overbearing and relentless historical.
Fanon, F. 1963, The wretched of the earth, New York: Grove Press