|Brent Meistre, Blind, 2001, colour print, 40 x 40cm|
This essay not only asks why this is so, but why given the seeming inevitability of our slumber,we have largely failed to access the colours of wakefulness. Crudely, the problem lies in the way in which we have elected to understand our sense of location. Here the orientation proves contradictory: we have elected either to embrace the body of Africa, and so doing, imagined that Africa as either earth bound or defined by a cosmology which, while elemental, nevertheless returns us to the earth. Or, alienated within Africa, we have chosen to define ourselves as in no way able to belong to this earth and, as a consequence, have developed a vicarious relation to a world elsewhere. Whether driven by a keen sense of belonging or by an acute sense of our rudimentary and un-accommodated relation to this continent, our sense of connection has been either fantastical or abstracted. And yet,despite this imaginary or vicarious relation to place,we have persisted in believing the connection or elective affinity to be real. This earth, we say, is indisputable, or, this relation to this earth must necessarily be disputed. The first elective affinity is a romantic one, the second is existential. Both,however, stem from an insuperable and negative turn, for, after all, affirmation too can be seen as a kind of negation. Senghor’s cult of negritude, for instance, reminds us not only of the desire for a return to an originary or natal point of origin, but also of the wish-fulfilment and unrequited longing at its root. Similarly, a disaffected sense of place, of non-belonging, reminds us that the very idea of a natal origin – say a Europe long departed yet willed nevertheless – cannot but remind us of an existential impasse.
South African art, it seems to me, has played out both of these paradoxes. In recent history, Cecil Skotnes embodies the nostalgia and conviction that Africa as a cradle could not only be realised but inhabited, while William Kentridge has conveyed the nostalgic yet disaffected relation to a Europe at once courted yet lost – though, of course,the loss, as in Freud’s game, fort/da, assures the more an eventual re-gain. What strikes me in both these orientations is the lacklustre, muted or disingenuous nature of the visual dialogue. Skotnes’s Africa is earth, but an earth wrung dry, reduced to dust, a thing ashen, dun-coloured, droughtstricken;austere in its romantic-yet-modernist recall or reconfiguration. Kentridge, on the other hand, eschewing Africa as earth, preferring Africa as idea, has elected to read the local through the optic of the west; an optic strikingly Eastern European, modernist, and monochromatic. Both,in short, have chosen a palette or medium which is intrinsically dry, desiccated, conceptual; both,in other words, are moved by an idea. Therefore,while their works may possess a degree of beauty – a beauty distinctively informed by style – their works,nevertheless, prove utterly lifeless. Neither artist,in my view, has remotely accessed what Foucault terms the colours of wakefulness. The reason for this limitation is not surprising, for both artists were impelled in the first place by an insurmountable distance – a distance Skotnes believed he could leap over; a distance which Kentridge scrupulously maintained, the better to capture the prey he so avidly sought. Both, in other words, produce works that are asymptotic.
The idea of the asymptote is one familiar to the South African imagination, for an asymptote is a limit, margin or annulus, which divides us from the sublime, a margin which ceaselessly returns us to the limits we prefer to cherish. South Africans, it seems, have never desired to cross the Rubicon,never sought worlds beyond those already over determined; worlds invested in and commodified the better to reinforce identities which, despite their insufficiency, could nevertheless dissimulate the affect of power, of know-how, of a certain postcolonial worldliness. It is this very worldliness which, I think, proves to be our greatest decoy or ruse, because what it hides is not only our insecurity,our unfinishedness – our secret mutterings – but also our pathological inability to accept these enabling weaknesses. Hubris is the key to understanding our limits; limits which have severely impacted on our ability to invent with the freshness, fullness and vulnerability so necessary if we are to access the muttering of this world, the murmurs unheard, the images unseen,the truths untold, the phantasmal colours which belong not to a domain repressed – rather like the unconscious – but a domain utterly immanent, to which we have proved blind and unable to see.
Our task, after Foucault, is therefore to turn these states which are not in fact hidden but visible, into poetry. My point is not to declare that individual artists have not achieved this – such a statement would indeed be a form of hubris. Rather, by provoking the question, upping the ante as it were, it is my hope that each one of us might reflect on artists who may have achieved it. My guess, however, is that it is not these artists that have been largely feted. Those who have been feted, in my view, are those which Kazimir Malevich challenges when he states: “Only dull and impotent artists screen their work with sincerity. In art there is need
for truth, not sincerity” (quoted in Derek Jarman’s Chroma, p.3).
The problem of course is that South Africans have never been big on the truth. As Mike Nicol reminds us in his moving and prematurely pulped work, The Waiting Country: A South African Witness: “We lie to one another. We lie to accommodate. We lie because we believe it does not matter. We lie because we think that in the face of so many years of misery,a lie that is for the good is not a lie at all. And we lie because we have no self-respect. We lie because we are victims. We lie because we cannot imagine ourselves in any other way” (p.33).
First published in 1995, The Waiting Country proved a bracing introduction to a putative democracy. Its relevance here lies in the final statement of this excerpt: We lie because we cannot imagine ourselves in any other way. From the vantage point of 2010 the question is: Have we learnt to imagine ourselves in another way? Have our arts made the crucial shift that could free us not only from somnambulism but also from the addictive return to the ATM of guilt,shame, and punishment – in short, ressentiment – which has characterized so much of our arts? In short, have we allowed for a certain liteness or play,a certain ease? One could of course rightly say – yes. The question however is whether this ease, this liteness and play, stems from the coaxing of our own mutterings, or whether they have merely proved a form of pastiche, a play – fast and loose – with global trends? Where, one might wonder, does truth lie? Are our best artists merely sincere copycats, or have they accessed Malevich’s motherlode of truth,or Foucault’s colours of wakefulness?
Of course, one could justly say that what I court is merely another idea, another ideal – perhaps. The question we should, I think, ask ourselves is whether we have in fact moved beyond dullness and impotency; whether we have sought to overreach ourselves – in Nietzsche’s sense – or whether we have chosen to reiterate, while varying all the while, the fantasy of a (postcolonial) Africanity or the casual insouciance of the transnational, global or worldly? Nietzsche’s idea of an overcoming – mistakenly seen as a crazed egotism – was as I understand it the will to power; a will which sought to bypass the pathological and the comforting embrace which that pathology proved to be. In Foucault’s sense, what drove Nietzsche was precisely the desire to strain one’s ears and bend down toward the mutterings of the world. That world is of course never one restricted by the idea of a nation – a limit which I’ve unduly placed on this cogitation. This essay is, therefore, a patently restricted register through which to read the contemporary arts. That said, there remains nevertheless a certain purchase in so doing, for there remains, despite the global melding of world cultures, a certain distinctiveness borne of location. After Mike Nicol, there remains the urgency to imagine ourselves in some other way. That way is not, of course, one which I can or would even wish to over determine. Here Raymond Williams provides a healthy corrective: “A culture,while it is being lived, is always in part unknown, in part unrealised. The making of a community is always an exploration, for consciousness cannot precede creation, and there is no formula for unknown experience. A good community, a living culture, will, because of this, not only make room for but actively encourage all and any who can contribute to the advance in consciousness which is the common need… We need to consider every attachment, every value, with our whole attention; for we do not know the future, we may never be certain of what may enrich it” (quoted from Terry Eagleton’s The Idea of Culture, p.118).
While we cannot know the future, we certainly have some idea of the past – certainly an idea of how the past has been constructed and the role which the visual arts have played therein. Moreover, we have some idea of how the present, or contemporary, has set itself up. My point is whether or not that present – the ever shifting now – has allowed itself to inhabit the residual unknown; whether we can in truth declare that this present – the fallout of the post-apartheid moment – is in fact generating “a good community”, “a living culture”, “a common need”, or whether this present is in fact running on empty. Has post-resistance proved a failed arrival? Is this moment one which is truly sourcing the hidden yearnings and mutterings of a living world?
Here I am reminded of the opening sequence in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (1987). The camera swoops, falls from the clouds, then hovers over Berlin. The camera proves the surrogate for an angel, one who can dip into the lonely peripatetic thoughts of the common citizenry. Fragments of thoughts are plucked randomly from the minds of people. We, as viewers and listeners, are privy to their mutterings. The film conveys the longing of an angel who seeks to fall, become one with a wounded mortal realm. When this eventually happens, when the angel – Bruno Ganz – finally does fall before that once great divide – the Berlin Wall – the film suddenly shifts to colour. The shift is visually startling, for with the shift to colour we enter the human realm; a realm of love and yearning and possibility. A strikingly similar shift occurs in Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (1982), except here the sequence is reversed. If the second half of the film, in black and white,is devoted to the miserabalism of a Lutheran orthodoxy, the former celebrates the bacchanalian zest of a life devoted to pleasure. What both films reveal to us is just how stark, prohibitive and dour the monochromatic world in fact is; how vital, affirmative, promising the realm of colour. While the strategies of Wenders and Bergman might seem heavy-handed to some, they nevertheless attest to a simple truth: nothing good can possibly stem from a world that is desaturated, strained, abstracted. A colour bar has, consciously or unconsciously, been placed on the South African palette. The question is no longer why – this bleaching or emptying of colour stems from an age-old denial – rather, the question is what can, and have, we done about it? If we remain split on this matter, unable to reconcile ourselves to ourselves, the question is: do we have a chance to make a break and fall into the colours of wakefulness?
Ashraf Jamal is an author, critic, essayist and a senior lecturer in the department Art History and Visual Culture, Rhodes University
Brett Bailey, The Plays of Miracle & Wonder (Cape Town:Double Storey, 2004).
Derek Jarman, Chroma: A Book of Colour (London: Overlook TP, 1996).
Mike Nicol, The Waiting Country: a South African Witness(London: Gollancz, 1995).
Terry Eagleton,The Idea of Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell,2000).