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

Maureen De Jager: Aberrant Light and Colour (After the Rainbow)

TOP Graphic showing Isaac Newton’s splitting of white light into a rainbow
of colours using a prism
BOTTOM “Youth makes a difference” sticker
This paper considers the intersection of three definitions of the word colour: firstly, colour as a visual phenomenon which depends on the wavelengths of light; secondly, colour as a marker of racial identity – what we refer to as skin colour; and thirdly, colour as a verb relating to influence, as in “anger coloured her judgement”. I attempt to map overlaps between these definitions by invoking rainbows, in particular the well-worn motif of the “rainbow nation” which defines the post-apartheid dream of democratic South Africa. Made famous by Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech as president of South Africa in 1994, the rainbow nation metaphor performs a neat operation in terms of the colour definitions listed above. As a colourful visual spectacle (first definition), the rainbow signals – in principle – the peaceful coexistence of South Africans of all colours and races (second definition), and an end to prejudice coloured by apartheid practices (third definition).
Map indicating Bantustan territories
in South Africa during the apartheid era. Courtesy Encyclopædia Britannica

My argument seizes upon this metaphor, if only to tease out the assumptions of its neat operations. Like poet and activist Jeremy Cronin (amongst many others), I suspect that “there is something far too smug about rainbowism”.1 The following discussion attempts to unpick the metaphor – or, in Keats’s words, to “unweave a rainbow” – three times over, in relation to the colour definitions cited above. In Color for philosophers, Larry Hardin2 suggests that colour vision depends on the “light-transforming properties”(p.1) of objects, in conjunction with “the biological makeup of the animal that perceives them” (p.7). So what blue things have in common resides “not in the physical microstructure of those things, but rather in their disposition to radiate light of a particular character from their surfaces”. These properties are neither constant nor predictable: colour perception may be influenced by innumerable factors making it impossible to arrive at “absolute colour judgements” (p.xxiii).

Hardin assumes a “subjectivist” stance, which challenges the commonplace assumption that colours belong to the objects we see – “glued as it were to their surfaces” (p.81). Instead he maintains that colour is largely in the eye of the beholder. There is “more than one way to see a colour”, he claims (p.91-92), citing “electrical stimulation of the cortex”; “the onset of migraine headaches” and “the ingestion of certain drugs” as examples. These are commonly referred to as “subjective colours” or “colour illusions” but, for Hardin, it is not unreasonable to suggest that all colour vision is subjective, relational and bound up in appearance. “Coloured objects are illusions,” he says, “but not unfounded illusions” (p.111).

The idea of colour as illusory and spectral is certainly not new. The word spectrum – by which we denote the full colour range of visible light – derives etymologically from the Latin for “appearance, image, apparition”. Possibly the most influential spectrum was the one generated by Sir Isaac Newton in the 1660s, when he split light by passing a sunbeam through a prism. Isobel Armstrong explains it thus: “A slit in a shutter and a darkened room, a beam of light, a lens, prism or aperture, a screen, rainbow colour. Newton was ‘expecting to see the image of the sun, after refraction, still round. To his astonishment, it was drawn out into an image with a length five times its breadth,’… Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet…”3

Dispersion happens when light passes from one medium to another of a different density and its speed of propagation changes. Visible light which pulsates slowest (red) is deflected less from its course whereas light with the highest vibration (violet) is deflected most. Dispersion accounts for the rainbow effect produced in a number of contexts – from rainbows in the sky (where the spherical water droplets disperse light in the manner of a prism) to certain photographs (where the camera lens acts as an agent of dispersion).

Newton’s splitting of light in the latter part of the seventeenth century heralded a paradigmatic shift in our understanding of light and colour. It demonstrated that light could be “disunited”, and that what appeared to be a unitary light beam was actually fragmented and multiple, comprised of so many waves or steams flowing at different rates of vibration. As Armstrong suggests, colour waves “model a universe whose constituents move at different rates, reaching locations at different times” (pp.267-8).

Central to this ‘new’ understanding was a recognition of the relationship between perception and the speed of light. Astronomer John Herschel, who repeated Newton’s prism experiment in the early nineteenth century, noted: “Light requires time for its propagation. Two spectators at different distances from a luminous object suddenly disclosed, will not begin to see it at the same mathematical instant in time”.4 Moreover, because the relationship between observer and observed is constantly changing and variable, there is “an unstable misalignment” between the two.

What became apparent, in the wake of the Newton’s experiments – themselves refracted through the spatio-temporal sublime in the nineteenth century – was, as Armstrong describes it, “the ungroundedness existing at the core of perception” (p.271). Light itself was deemed aberrant, showing us things as they are not; colour was revealed as appearance, unstable and non-intrinsic; the feeling was, writes Armstrong, that “we exist in a universe plotted by shifting relations” (p.270) rather than a place of stable and determinate givens.

Newton’s prism experiments may prompt us to think about rainbows as optically unstable, but what of their symbolic capital, especially in the context of post-apartheid South Africa? Three related rainbow quotes come immediately to mind:

“We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” Nelson Mandela, from his presidential inauguration address, May 10, 1994. “At home in South Africa I have sometimes said in big meetings where you have found black and white together: ‘Raise your hands!’ Then I’ve said: ‘Move your hands.’ And I’ve said: ‘Look at your hands – different colours representing different people. You are the rainbow people of God.’” Archbishop Desmond Tutu, from The Rainbow People of God, 1994.

“And God said [to Noah], ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth… Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life…” Genesis 9:12-15, New International Version. The association of rainbows with covenants, and new beginnings, and the type of “never again” rhetoric that signals a definitive break from tumultuous pasts, is as old as the bible itself: it has significant pedigree. As an emblem of South African nation building, the rainbow’s ‘message’ is unambiguous: it calls for unity in difference – or, to cite the theme of Mandela’s inauguration: “One nation, many cultures.” The 1994 ANC campaign document, ‘A Better Life for All’, referred to “a nation built by developing our different cultures, beliefs and languages as a source of our common strength”.4

Ironically, the recognition of everyone’s right to be different was once a prime justification for separate development in apartheid South Africa. M. C. de Wet Nel, one time chair of the Native Affairs Commission, proclaimed the following in 1959: “The lesson we have learnt from history during the past 300 years is that these ethnic groups, the whites as well as the Bantu, sought their greatest fulfilment, their greatest happiness and the best mutual relations on the basis of separate and individual development.”5

Included in de Wet Nel’s 300-year ‘lesson’ were the bantustans (or “homelands”) established by the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 and dotted around South Africa. The bantustan policy linked ethnicity to geography: it delineated supposedly cohesive societies and carved up the land accordingly. Meagre parcels were allotted to South Africa’s various black ethnic groups and local tribal leaders were co-opted to run each homeland’s affairs.

Presented as a policy that actually respected and recognised diversity, the Bantu Authorities Act was covertly a means of ensuring white dominance – initially, by denying black South Africans urban residential rights; and later, by removing their rights as South African citizens. At the same time, forced removals during the 1960s to 1980s uprooted thousands of South Africans, and many were relocated to the bantustans where they ostensibly belonged.

Separate development epitomised the nationalists’ fears of drowning, as D.F. Malan phrased it, “in the sea of barbarism”,[6] even though repeated efforts were made to cast separation as natural and for the good of all. Not surprisingly, the apartheid government’s obsession with separation also resulted in a plethora of maps intended to demarcate the territories of South Africa’s various ethnic groups. One of these maps, according to a Rand Daily Mail reporter, “contain[ed] more bright colours that a van Gogh landscape, show[ing] all the different tribes and sub-tribes into which … Africans… can be divided”.7 Perhaps one could argue, in the light of this, that apartheid’s politicians were never opposed to rainbows, so long as the different colours ran alongside each other in neatly delineated bands and with minimal intermixing. Under apartheid, the spectrum (as it were) had to be carved up like the land itself and redrawn as a caricature: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet – a place for each and each in its place. All-too-ironically, literal depictions of the rainbow nation invariably follow this problematic formula, depicting the rainbow as made up of clearly differentiated bands.

Candice Breitz, Rainbow Series #3, 1996, cibrachrome photograph,
152.5 x 101.5cm
In reality, one portion of a rainbow blends continuously into the next. Colour theorists recognise this indeterminacy, and with it the difficulty that most people experience in fixing boundaries between colours as opposed to fixing foci (which is where a colour is assumed to be at its purest). Determining where blue is ‘unique blue’ (or blue untainted by any other chromatic component) is, in the mean, far easier than deciding where green ends and blue begins, as various studies and trials have shown.8 Arguably, the problem of fixing category boundaries between chromatic hues is not, in the end, dissimilar to the problem of fixing category boundaries between peoples of different skin colour. The Population Registration Act of 1950 – which sought to classify all South Africans according to race – was followed in 1951 by an internal memorandum from the Department of Coloured Affairs. This memo aimed to alleviate any “potential for ambiguity and confusion” by providing definitions for the category bands of “White”, “Native”, “Asian”, “Coloured” and “Malay”. “Unless this is done,” claimed the memo, “it is conceivable… that a person could live in a Coloured area, appear on the White voter’s list, but pay tax as a Native!”9

Candice Breitz, Rainbow Series #14, 1996,
cibrachrome photograph, 152.5 x 101.5cm
In 1996, two years after the rainbow nation was supposedly born, Candice Breitz upset a few sensibilities with her controversial Rainbow Series. These montages, made by cutting and grafting fragmented images of black and white bodies – the former, from tourist postcards; the latter, from porn magazines – suggest the dystopian face of Archbishop Tutu’s “rainbow people of God”. Breitz’s rainbow people are disconcerting amalgams, hand-cut with a surgeon’s scalpel and crudely spliced together. According to Marcella Beccaria, Breitz’s Rainbow Series evokes “the scarring that accompanies the formation of a hybrid identity, responding in particular to the trauma of nation-building in postapartheid South Africa”.10 The idea of nation-building as a “trauma” suggests that the mythic rainbow-inthe- making will not be an effortless process, if only because there is an “unstable misalignment” at the seams (to quote the nineteenth century astronomers, out of context). In simple terms, apartheid was founded on, and perpetuated, a fundamental lack of fit between the country’s inhabitants, and this is a difficult legacy to shake.

In many ways, Breitz’s process – of cutting with a scalpel along some ‘real’ or imagined line and gluing together the mismatched bits – is eerily resonant of the grand-scale cut-and-paste operation that apartheid undertook in the name of separate development. In the crudity of both cut and fit, Breitz’s montages thus underscore a particularly South African compulsion: to think in boundaries and colour lines; to imagine rainbow colours in unadulterated bands.

That the collective South African psyche thinks in outlines is not at all surprising, given our historic fixation with boundaries, their upkeep and transgression. The boundaries between races were invariably sites of potential volatility, unbroken on maps but broken repeatedly by “the imperfections of everyday life”, not to mention those in contravention of the tellingly named Immorality Act of 1927 (which forbade intercourse and marriage across the colour line).

In relation to Breitz’s Rainbow Series, I would argue that what unsettles is not the source imagery (pornography or tourist postcards) but the graft – not the foci but the category boundary – the site of suture, point of contact, and unstable border between. As a figure for the blurry space between myself and other, between green and blue, and blue and indigo, it is here that the potential for dissonance, but also for change, exists.

Influence bleeds across literal and psychic boundaries, such that my experience colours yours as yours colours mine. But perhaps we should entertain the thought that it bleeds across time as well. Too often, the “post” in “post-apartheid” is seen as yet another inviolable border rather than a line in the sand. It is imperative to remember that the past colours the present, for better or for worse, even as the present conditions how we access and process the past. It is imperative also to recognise, as the nineteenth-century astronomers did, that emanating light takes time to traverse the gap between observed and observer – in effect, that it takes time to see.

If we keep these things in mind then that metaphoric rainbow – not the colouring-book caricature but the complex apparition: an after-effect of aberrant light, belated, bent and precariously refracted – may yet lead us to peace.

Maureen de Jager is a senior lecturer in the department Art History and Visual Culture, Rhodes University

1. Jeremy Cronin, ‘Over the rainbow – by way of a reply to Okwui Enwezor’, in Grey areas: representation, identity and politics in contemporary South African art, edited by Brenda Atkinson and Candice Breitz (Johannesburg: Chalkham Hill Press, 1999), p.95. 
2. Larry Hardin, Colour for philosophers (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1988), p.1. 
3. Isobel Armstrong, ‘The lens, light, and the virtual world’, in Victorian glass worlds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p.266. 
4. Jacklyn Cock and Alison R. Bernstein, Melting pots and rainbow nations: conversations about difference in the United States and South Africa (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002), p.47. 
5. Kathryn Manzo, Creating boundaries: the politics of race and nation (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1996), p.83. 6. Ibid., p.82. 
7. Jennifer Beningfield, The frightened land: land, landscape, and politics in South Africa in the twentieth century (London: Routledge, 2006), p.133. 
8. Hardin, op. cit., pp.169-170. 
9. Beningfield, op. cit., p.131. 
10. Marcella Beccaria, ‘Process and meaning in the art of Candice Breitz’, in Candice Breitz, edited by Marcella Beccaria (Milano: Skira Editore, 2005), p.20. 

Brenda Atkinson and Candice Breitz (eds.), Grey areas: representation, identity and politics in contemporary South African art (Johannesburg: Chalkham Hill Press, 1999). 
Ulrike Ernst, From anti-Apartheid to African renaissance: interviews with South African writers and critics on cultural politics beyond the cultural struggle (Münster: Lit Verlag, 2002). 
D. Godwin, ‘Origin of the Title’, in Folk tales from the rainbow nation, edited by D. Godwin (Pretoria: Van Schaik, 2000) 
Colin Richards, ‘Graft’, in Trade Routes: history and geography (Johannesburg: Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council and Prince Clause Fund, 1997). 
Anthony Stidolph, Over the rainbow: the first ten years of South Africa’s democracy

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