18.12 - 02.05.2021
“What does it look like, entail, and mean to attend to, care for, comfort, and defend, those already dead?”
-Christina Sharpe, In The Wake: On Blackness and Being1Sharpe, C. 2016. In The Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press.
What sets apart Sarah Baartman (Saartjie Bartman), setting apart Theodorah Mthetyane, and by extension, setting apart Gebane Hlongwane, is what sets apart Black people from everyone; the capacity to be accumulated and rendered fungible. This tragic affinity between Blackness and fungibility is at the centre of Baartman’s experience from the point of capture, to being exhibited in Europe, and violated by Georges Curvier. This grand and gratuitous violence structures and positions not only Baartman but all Black women in the collective imaginary of civil society.2Zine Magubane, in her brilliant essay WHICH BODIES MATTER?, argues that our understanding of the “Hottentot Venus” is central to our understanding of Black women subalternity.
It troubles and precipitates a crisis in all conceptions of suffering that are tethered to exploitation as a constitutive element of what it means to suffer, further exposing the conceptual inadequacy of major Marxian categories such as ‘labour’, ‘work’, and its compensatory gesture, ‘wage’. (Surely?) it would sound silly to deploy these categories in narrating (or re-membering) Baartman’s experience (read Slaveness) and death; both social and corporeal. If Slaveness is a relational dynamic rather than an event, as Frank Wilderson III has argued,3See Frank Wilderson III’s Red, White and Black (2010) and Afropessimism (2020) why does it not sound silly when these categories are deployed by political commentators who dirty their hands with investigating the lived experience of Black people in the world today?
Senzeni Mthwakazi Marasela’s reflective solo show at Zeitz MOCAA, ‘Waiting for Gebane’, wrestles with this thorny task of narrating and caring for this history (and memorying) of Sarah Baartman and deploying it as foundational to our understanding of the racial-gendered nature and ubiquity of suffering, care as praxis, loss and longing, time and (intergenerational) trauma, loving-Black and romantic (im)possibilities under the yoke of White colonialist conquest.
Through mixed-medium installations of photography, painting, textile, and embroidery, Marasela stitches together stories of three Black women, Sarah, Theodorah, Senzeni, bound together by the innumerable uses of their bodies/flesh and their shared and collective positionality. The (mainly) red thread stitching (on kaffir sheet/Umbhaco, wool blanket/Ityali, house linen) is dexterous and indicative of multiple possibilities. The work stitches together impossible Black narratives without a narrative arc – there is no recognisable classical equilibrium-disequilibrium-equilibrium narration triad – stitching (together) the little left of a life marked by a disruption of kinship ties:
Waiting operates as a leitmotif in the show evoking the complicated relationship Black people have with time. Time permeates the exhibition. It is visually represented by a clock in Waiting for Gebane. It encompasses the time spent waiting by Sarah Baartman’s community, is seen or hinted at in Departure, from the Covering Sarah series. It pervades the long wait by Theodorah and the community of Black women holding her before and after she leaves for the city. The time of waiting cuts across the show in quite productive ways that allow for a deep meditation on the violence of this settler arrangement, what has been lost since the colonial encounter.
Marasela’s poetic photomontages of imagined joy against pixelated monochrome backgrounds draw our attention to her memory of places she’s never seen, they serve as imaginative fugitive “fantasies of flight,”5Wilderson III, F. 2010. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Duke University Press. as radical reproduction of an Otherwise. This loss, hardly accounted for through the rigid Marxist analytic for instance, is borne of White theft, not only of ‘labour’ but extraction of life, passions and desires and romantic possibilities. Put differently, theft of and interdiction against Black social life.
Furthermore, if extractionist tendencies are internal to – and constitutive elements of – the colonial expansionist project, Marasela seems to suggest that radical modalities of care are internal to Black traditions of resistance and possibly “deconstructing difference”.6Magubane, Z. 2001. WHICH BODIES MATTER?: Feminism, Poststructuralism, Race, and the Curious Theoretical Odyssey of the “Hottentot Venus”. Sage Publications. She mobilises these moments of feminist closeness among Black women in quite generative ways that highlight their “political and transformative force,”7Denise Ferreira da Silva, “Reading the Dea A Black Feminist Poethical Reading of Global Capital”, from Otherwise Worlds: Against Settler Colonialism and Anti-Blackness by King, T.L et al (2020) an (aesthetical) radical praxis whose priorities are the needs (emotional, aspirational) of the living and those living in the always already immanent social death. An unflinching (aesthetical) critique that demands – because there’s nothing else to do – to remember and mourn them, to weaponise our memory of them against the death-machine that is patriarchal white supremacy. An (aesthetical) radical praxis of the everyday and radical reproduction of insurgency from the gallery or art museum, towards and against the world.