Disturbing the Stereotypes

Art goes beyond mere entertainment – it is an ancient way of expressing who we are and what we stand for that goes back to the first time that humans left their marks on the walls of caves or fashioned forms out of the earth. Art captures and expresses different ways of living and being, both challenging and negating attempts to fix certain stereotypes.

That people labelled ‘coloured’ through apartheid social engineering have been excelling in art, sports, music, academics (in fact, in every arena possible) throughout our history, is nothing new. What is of note is that almost three decades after the first democratic elections, we have yet to rid ourselves of the negative stereotypes associated with this labelling.

Apartheid policy has its roots in racial slavery, the violent process of othering, that ultimately led to the dehumanisation of people based on the colour of their skin. During apartheid the oppressive regime attempted to silence people, and art became a weapon for political expression, reflecting the injustices and repressive nature of the times. In spite of museums and galleries actively preventing participation by people of colour, they were able to communicate and express the injustices of the day, telling the stories that the world needed to hear. Their work so disrupted and threatened the apartheid hegemony that many were arrested, banned, or forced into exile.

British-Jamaican sociologist and cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, urged ordinary people to regain control of an image-dominated world and to challenge the stereotypes that are propagated by introducing new ideas, new knowledge and new dimensions of meaning, thus exposing and destroying stereotypes.

This is exactly what the artists involved with the KWAAI exhibition are doing – reshaping and reimagining an identity, and reconnecting with a culture in ways that aren’t necessarily the same as their parents experienced. Perhaps most indicative of the times we now find ourselves in, I met some of the artists via an online meeting platform. It was inevitable that the discussion would touch on how their creative processes were being affected by the national lockdown as a result of COVID-19. The enforced social distancing has encouraged deep self-reflection and the limited access to materials has led them to discover different ways of expressing themselves.  It seems serendipitous, this process of examining, reshaping and reimagining, not only their output, but the very essence of what they want to portray to the outside world.

While some of the artists have lived through apartheid, others grew up in a post-apartheid society. However, all of them have been shaped socially, personally and culturally by the experiences of their own generation and the one that came before them. They bear the collective trauma through stories, images and the behaviour of the people they grew up with and those who raised them. They carry the responsibility, the sense of loss and the desire to make sure that their own narratives may be heard to prevent the past from continuing to make an indelible mark on the present and the future.

All these artists are taking charge of the narrative, each in their own unique way, of how they want to be viewed, drawing on the experiences of the generation that came before them.

Jabu Newman, explores the issues of coloured identity through her photographs, drawing on a personal family history, that speaks to the apartheid legacy of forced removals, racial classification and group areas, that continues to inform the present.

Jared Leite uses printmaking and sculpture to deconstruct issues of representation and belonging, and the ambiguity that surrounds a community that continues to dwell on the periphery of a post-apartheid space.

Urban Khoi engages with ancient practices such as cave drawings coupled with contemporary dance and graffiti to examine human consciousness and collective wisdom.

The KWAAI exhibition provides the platform to support the re-presentation of their individual stories. It invites conversation and engagement with these new narratives while challenging us to make up our own minds. These artists very clearly assert who they are and where they come from. They defy and resist the memories of apartheid and speak to what it means to be human.

This piece appears in the latest edition of SA Art Times and the exhibition may be viewed online on the gallery website. Thank you to Christina Fortune for inviting me to be a small part of this project. Featured image courtesy of KWAAI Vol 3/eclectica contemporary.

Read a review of the show here 

Let’s Ensure Slaves are more than Footnotes to History

Museums play a profound role both in preserving culture and educating the public. Ideally they should bring to life the stories of distant times and convey the humanity of the individuals who lived in those times. They should foster pride in our cultural diversities and correct stereotypes in their representation of those cultures. Especially in South Africa, our museums have a vital role to play in correcting the misrepresentations of the past and encouraging discussion on the way forward.

Sandwiched between the Daddy Longlegs Hotel and a hardware store on Long Street, is the SA Sendinggestig Museum, also known as the Slave Church. It is the oldest existing mission building in South Africa and the third oldest church in the country. The gabled cream and white façade with Corinthian pilasters, cornices and mouldings, mimics that of the Slave Lodge at the top of Adderley Street.

The property was acquired by the South African Society for the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom in 1801 and the building was probably constructed by slaves and free blacks for general religious activities. It initially prepared converts for membership of established churches but became a separate congregation of the SA Missionary Society in 1819 and part of the Dutch Reformed Church in 1937. It was in use as a church until 1971 when dwindling numbers as a result of forced removals led to its closure. In 1975 a special memorial service was held during which the congregation bid farewell to the church building. A new church in Belhar, a ‘coloured’ area in the northern suburbs, was inaugurated in 1978. The museum was established in 1979 with the intention of preserving the building and the legacy of Christian evangelism amongst the slaves and indigenous people.

The double front entrance door to the church, made of Burmese teak, leads into a yellowwood and American pine lobby, which was known as the “wind lobby” – doors could be open or shut depending on the direction of the wind to prevent dust blowing in or disheveling those inside. The Robben Island slate stone at the front door is the only remnant of the original floor. Teak columns support the main gallery and the two side galleries are supported by yellowwood columns painted to produce a marbled effect. The 750mm thick walls rest on a window-height base of broken stone (Malmesbury shale) from the quarry on the slopes of Signal Hill and soar up more than 10 metres to meet the curved ceiling of American pine.

It’s a handsome building but, sadly, all this was lost on us as we entered the church to be confronted by a market being set up. The furniture and exhibits had been pushed to the sides or front of the church behind the pulpit and we tried to navigate our way around screens, boxes and goods for sale. There was a sense of chaos and disrespect for the space as a place of worship. While I can understand that renting out the space brings in revenue, it seems like desecration of a spiritual space to use it for retail purposes. Moreover, I cannot understand why this is done on a day when the museum is open to the public. I cringed every time I saw a tourist enter the building, stare around bewilderedly and then turn and walk out. I was there with a group of university students hoping to learn a bit more about our slave history.

I had expected to enter the space with a sense of reverence, to hear the gentle creak of the floorboards whisper the names of the first four slaves baptised here – Domingo…Job…Arend…Durenda. I wanted to sit quietly on one of the oak pews, and trace my finger along the carved wood pattern and think about Rosina…Dina…Spasie Helena…Frederik Johan Hendrik, the second group of candidates to become members of the community. I wanted to imagine their voices lifted up in songs of worship as a gust of southeaster blew in among the congregation and ruffled their hair or upset a hat. I wanted to hear the mutterings of a congregation broken up by forced removals, saying goodbye to their spiritual home. I wanted to pause and reflect on where we it was we have come from.

At the very least, one should leave a museum with a sense of what happened, to whom it happened and what that meant then and now. I walked out without any sense of the congregants of the mission church, without any sense of the significance of a period in our history which has fundamentally shaped who we are. Slavery was a central element of the Dutch colonial conquest and part of the emergence of Afrikaner political and social ideas. While it was glossed over in our history books and presented as benign and minor, it is up to us to make sure that the lives of slaves are more than footnotes in history, that they were more than just possessions. It is up to us to present the counter-narrative of individuals and to create spaces that allow a glimpse of their humanity. Chinua Achebe, the prominent Nigerian novelist and essayist, in a 1994 interview said that storytelling “is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions.”

This article was published in the Cape Times  6 March 2018