Vision, sight, seeing, looking – these seemingly simple words contain how we humans move through the world and experience it. Sight is by no means the most important of the senses and yet our relationship to it influences how we make the world. From architecture, art, science, technology and engineering, the world privileges the agenda of the eye over other ways of sensing. For better or worse, this is a seeing world!
Currently on view at the Michaelis Galleries is an online film and video exhibition, ‘on sight: looking does not mean seeing’. The exhibition, curated by Luvuyo Equiano Nyawose, traces visual and structural complexities of sight, meditating on the political and cultural conditions of seeing and being seen.
The title of the exhibition suggests the existence of a gap between looking and seeing. To me, ‘to look’ is simply to gaze while ‘to see’ is to perceive and discern. This suggests that seeing requires more intensity compared to looking and can only be achieved through closeness and depth – where deep, as instructed by American composer Pauline Oliveros, has to do with complexity, boundaries or edges beyond ordinary or habitual understanding. To see deeply, therefore, is to see beyond that which is obvious. Seeing deeply involves a time-lapse and requires attention, interpretation and reinterpretation.
In isiZulu, recognition and acknowledgement of one’s humanity is closely linked to the language of sight. The phrase “sawubona” (the equivalent of hello or namaste) performs various functions. It operates as a salutation and greeting while also touching on the deeper connotations of recognition and acknowledgement. The literal translation of sawubona, is “we see you”. The greeting is often offered by one individual to another where the plurality (we not I) evokes the ancestral lineage on both ends. I and my ancestors confirm your presence and welcome you and your ancestors – a powerful reminder that we do not walk alone.
You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty. – Ocean Vuong
Vuong’s words above encompass so much of what this exhibition engages. The articulation of the symbiotic relationship between seeing and looking begins with the technical aspect of the eye as a tool for sight and reaches towards the more philosophical and psychological aspects of loneliness and recognition in relation to the eye. This contemplation of the eye conjures up difficult questions such as; what does it feel like to be truly seen and why is it so important to us? Among the many theorists attempting to comprehend human motivation was, of course, Abraham Maslow (through his theory modelling the hierarchy of human needs) who proposed that, nestled between feelings of accomplishment and feelings of safety and security is a deep psychological desire for belonging. In the same sense, to speak of being seen is to speak of belonging, companionship and recognition. This theme of belonging and recognition is expressed in Naoserati X Zoe Modiga – Me (2019) through a meditation on care, choice and self-acceptance. We see it again in Skaap (2019) where a young woman in the role of care grapples with the power dynamics between herself as a caregiver and the person receiving the care. The caregiver is mute throughout the entire film but through studying her eyes we sense tension and frustration – emotions that will never touch the tongue, are so clearly visible in the eye.
Although the exhibition is well-curated, it does stretch itself in terms of its scope. The compilation of twelve films (with a combined viewing time of over seventy-one minutes) results in ‘rushing through’ very important and powerful inquiries brought forward by each of the works. One can only seriously engage with any of the considerations by watching one or two films at a time. This is more so the case because it is not only the content of the film the viewer has to consider but its mode as well. From animation (Pied Pipers Voyage, 2014 ), narrative-based (Hush 2019 and Skaap 2019), documentary (Fall Into The Sky 2019 and Visiting gayle 2018 ) essayistic (Booked 2017) as well as the experimental (Oodles of Noodles 2020 and Existentialism 2020) each film encourages close looking and deep witnessing.
Like any other powerful tool, the eye can serve conflicting masters. Although being seen can be linked to feelings of recognition and belonging, it is also true that we don’t always want to be seen. At certain times, being seen implies being placed under scrutiny and surveillance. Being looked at and being seen can feel like an infringement of our very sense of self. This feeling is best portrayed by the main character in Janet Frame’s short story Prizes, who sours at her music teacher’s gaze: ‘[…]from that day on I no longer enjoyed my music lessons, I was weary of being spied upon! How dare she see me?’
In these moments, being looked at can leave us feeling derivative and incomplete and this can lead us to crave opacity. This tension between seeing and opacity is best encapsulated by one of the films in the exhibition, Visiting gayle (2018), which outlines the linguistic practice originating in the hair salon scene of Cape Town’s District Six in the 1960s. Gayle not only allowed hairdressers to share gossip among each other but it also allowed members of the LGBTQ+ community to communicate freely while claiming a sense of privacy and safety for themselves.
If read linearly, Bineshtarigh’s three-minute video, Pilgrims (2019) is a fitting end to the exhibition. This deeply affecting work captures the politics of looking, sensing and belonging with an emphasis on collectivity. In it, we see two types of congregations working towards structural conduciveness. The right frame shows a community of believers converging at Hajj in Saudi Arabia while the left shows pigeons huddling together to keep warm in the Antarctic – an orchestrated dance with singular units self-directing a unified movement towards a shared goal – to keep warm, to worship, to survive.
‘on sight: looking does not mean seeing’ is able to hold varying degrees of complexity. As an exhibition, it offers space to engage various modes of seeing and most importantly, opens up a potential for viewers to consider seeing as a form of feeling.