In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rat Western: Prologue

“One describes a tale best by telling the tale. You see? The way one describes a story, to oneself or to the world, is by telling the story. It is a balancing act and it is a dream. The more accurate  the map, the more it resembles the territory. The most accurate map possible would be the territory, and thus would be perfectly accurate and perfectly useless.”
— Neil Gaiman, American Gods (2001)

Installation view of the Colour Exhibition
Some stuff happened. It involved many things: several discussions, multiple emails, epic travel arrangements and rearrangements, and an entire exhibition of Eastern Cape artists. It included comments, references and quests for such abstracts within contemporary artistic practice such as ‘The Now’, human experience, authenticity and sincerity vs. visually neat, theoretical illustration. It incorporated how we might, and do package our pathologies and spilt over into matters of national identity and nation building.But that’s not the beginning of the story.

Vodka. A conversation. One of those late night, state-of-the-nation grizzles between friends about what we think is wrong with the particular, parochial, jargonized system in which we invest so much of our time and passion. The dialogue dominated by questions verging on the petulant: Why is so much of the art written about in this country and canonised for school level so monochromatic? Why is so much art criticism written in such a desaturated way? Why in this current context, does the word colour still persistently more often mean race, (a skin tone and no more of its complexities) than a hue denoting a chromatic representation of emotion or experience?

A conversation, which later, may have simply been a whinge with a hangover tinge.  But then we thought that other people should join this conversation, from other places and that they should come here, to the middle of nowhere to discuss our provocation. Colour.
Here. Where’s here? Oh, I didn’t mention that bit. Ashraf and I, recently appointed lecturers at Rhodes Fine Arts, had come to find ourselves living permanently in this small, out of the way town. Grahamstown, an area dubbed in a questionable marketing endeavour by Eastern Cape Tourism – “Frontier Country”.

We could have taken the conversation elsewhere, some place more metropolitan, but there’s something about here. That’s not just the once yearly National Festival for those who have only experienced the place as a 10-day rushing from exhibition, to play, to show finally stumbling home past painted-face, statueurchins trying to earn a buck and who look like extras from a Brett Bailey production. The space is recognised nationally for arts and culture. Less famously for its economic and geographic disadvantage and has so few opportunities to host or showcase its potential. How is it that a town with a population of just under 140,000 can command so
much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? One just has to watch the line of cars pouring
into town during fest time, like so much water on a prayer wheel, to realise that many feel it worth the pilgrimage. And indeed several of those who came for our colloquium experienced such a pilgrimage, from
misadventure with missed flights to a rerouted flight to East London and a four hour, Thelma and Louise epic
drive in a rental through the dark, stormy countryside.

Well… ‘then’ is what comes next, in part, as much as a map is the territory. More conversation on colour, colour as emotion, colour as technical process, colour as optic or political illusion, colour and sound and writing as synaesthesia, colour and how it transfers from the visual experience to the black and white word. There are parts left out, an argument about the whereabouts of the mushroom soup, the playfulness and constructive debate which is so often absent from larger conferences in bigger spaces with more ‘cultural’ things to do, the gentle jibing of a diverse group of makers, writers, teachers and researchers who, as Sean commented during the closing of the event, do not often get the chance to meet in person and thrash out ideas.
These are some of the colourful bits not entirely included. This is a map but it blurs; I do not wish nor is it possible to delineate like Maureen’s example of the former Homelands map. Here, if we can not tell the
complete tale we can show some of the map and the map of things we would like to continue.

A conversation, and a subsequent potential series of conversations in ‘Frontier Country’. Frontier, Border,
at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.

Rat Western is an artist and digital arts lecturer in the Department of Fine Art at Rhodes University.

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