Blackness and whiteness
By Yvette Greslé
South African Art critic and writer
This text was written as a presentation for a panel discussion at the Ben Uri Gallery on Monday evening, 17 March 2014. The panel and the conversation with the audience accompanied the exhibition ‘Still Fighting Ignorance and Intellectual Perfidy: Video Art from Africa’; curated by Kisito Assangni. The panel was hosted by David Glasser (Ben Uri Chair) and included Kisito Assangni, Dr Marie Rodet (Lecturer in African History, Convenor Film and History, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and myself, Yvette Greslé. A catalogue was published by Ben Uri, and is available from the gallery.
Blackness and whiteness. One screen separated into two, and the slow tempo of a piano score: Claude Debussy’s ‘Clair de lune’ (originally titled ‘Promenade Sentimentale’, and renamed after Paul Verlaine’s 1869 poem ‘Clair de lune). The place made visible to us, in the two screens, is identical. Without context this place could, in fact, be many possible places. In the background an apartment building is visible. I see trees, iron railings and a walkway: significations of the urban. Some motorbikes are chained to the railings. On the right hand side, in each of the screens, is a wall. The wall in ‘screen 1’ (on the left hand side) is empty except for shadows cast. But in ‘screen 2’ (on the right hand side) three white plaster moulds of human faces appear. Eyes are closed, and there is no way of knowing the subjects to which these inanimate objects refer. They remind me of death masks or the masks that functioned during colonialism as part of a scientific discourse of racial types. I see a woman, the artist Michèle Magema. In ‘screen 1′, she is wearing a white dress and her face is painted white. I resist the language of race: Why should I refer to her as a black woman, or even think of her as black? Already the sedimented violence of blackness and whiteness begins to creep up on me insidiously. Now the woman comes closer, disappears and re-emerges in the opposite screen: she has turned around and I see the back of her head, her shoulders, and the sleeves of her white dress. Her movements are slow and deliberate: she turns to face the three white masks suspended on the wall. Her face is no longer obscured by white pigment, and in this disjuncture I register subtle displacements of time. She faces the masks, then she envelops one of them in her hands: in a gesture of love she leans forward to kiss its immobile mouth. She appears frozen in time while on the screen opposite she once again begins her walk, her promenade. She stops, and faces us, again masked by the white substance, and then, simultaneously, on the screen opposite she pulls away from her kiss, and walks away from us. The work, a performed, self-conscious promenade, is titled ‘Interiority-Fresco IV: The Kiss of Narcisse(e)’, (2010). The myth of Narcissus and Echo is familiar: a tale of unrequited love and eternal punishment. In Ovid Echo was condemned by the goddess Juno to repeat only the last words that were spoken to her. Narcissus, punished for not returning Echo’s love was compelled to fall in love with his own reflection. He died unable to detach himself from his reflection in a pool of water. In Magema’s video where are Narcissus and Echo? Are their presences registered, ambiguously, in the gestures, and repetitions we see? In watching this work, I am drawn back to one of the texts, that for me, is foundational to a discourse on race and trauma: Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks (first published in French in 1952). The text searched for a ‘new humanism’ as it sought to comprehend the violence of race: ‘The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness. We shall seek to ascertain the directions of this dual narcissism and the motivations that inspire it’. (Fanon, English translation, 1967: 9-10). I watch Magema’s video: focusing on its cinematic registering of blackness and whiteness; its Debussy soundtrack; its imagery; the performances it stages, its visual strategies of doubling and repetition. As I watch, the work opens up spaces that cross time, geography and space. It resists a singular, absolute narrative. It is opaque while we may associatively begin to imagine our interpretations. Art’s poetic imagining produces in me a porous sense of history, geography, space and place. Fanon cites Sartre’s Orphée Noir: ‘sometimes the poetic impulse coincides with the revolutionary impulse, and sometimes they take different courses’. (Fanon, English transl. 1967: 134).
When Kisito Assangni asked me to write for this exhibition I was first of all compelled by the title he chose: STILL FIGHTING IGNORANCE AND INTELLECTUAL PERFIDY. My text is a conversation with this title. It is also a dialogue with this idea of video art that is African. What does this all mean?
I looked up ‘Perfidy’ in my Roget’s Thesaurus and it generates a vocabulary of betrayal: ‘faithlessness, unfaithfulness, infidelity, and unfaith’. Dropping it into Google generates all kinds of synonyms: ‘treachery, duplicity, deceit, disloyalty, falsity, double-dealing, dishonesty’. It has a 16th century origin, according to Google, perhaps why it sounds to me as though it belongs in another time. Kisito’s use of the word suggests, in my imagination, a relationship to time and a relationship to history. It made me think of the artist Kara Walker, who showed recently at the Camden Arts Centre, and how she stages her exhibitions via a language associated with other times and places – but now in the present. Her work speaks to the violence of race and histories of slavery. But these histories are not simply of the past. They live on in traumatic residues, and in contemporary forms of prejudice, violence and relations of power.
Time and history seem, to me, to be embedded in how Kisito staged this exhibition. Time and History are embedded in its title. When Kisito says STILL FIGHTING IGNORANCE AND INTELLECTUAL PERFIDY do I know what he means, historically speaking? I confess that at the time of writing I assumed that I knew what he meant. We both know that ‘Africa’ – which is far from homogeneous – is the site of innumerable contested narratives about what it is ‘it’ means. We refer to
Kisito’s title produced emotion in me. It produced anger. It informs how I relate to the continent from which I come. It informs how I relate to race, prejudice, and violence. In South Africa this was, historically, stretched to its absolute limits. It still exists traumatically and concretely in the present. In the UK I see familiar narratives constellating around particular figures: the figure of the immigrant, the foreigner, and the figure of the black man. On Friday I listened to a panel at Tate Britain, staged around John Akomfrah’s ‘The Unfinished Conversation’: his three-screen exploration of the personal archive of Stuart Hall. The conversation is unfinished not only in Hall’s sense of the ever-shifting identities and ethnicities always in a process ‘of becoming’. The work of figures such as Hall and indeed the work of those relegated to the category post-colonial is unfinished. The world is moving forward. New political challenges emerge: the relationship to advanced capitalism and technologies generate new struggles and again transform our relationship to the world. But many struggles look the same. The curator and scholar David Dibosa, who was in the audience, at the John Akomfrah event, referred to ‘political affect’. We are still fighting. We are still feeling. Although who the ‘we’ is, and how the fight takes place, and where, does not appear to be that certain. In the world I occupy the fight takes place through art, through writing, through scholarship, through finding ways to make that art, writing, scholarship legible and visible. As a curator Kisito is doing something important. He is provoking me (us) to ask questions, and he is enabling me (us) to think about a body of artists all of whom have relationships to multiple places, geographies, histories, languages, political conditions. It is not possible to think of the world in terms of fixity or homogeneity which is why current discourses on the immigrant and the foreigner are so peculiar. Historical colonialism, and related patterns of migration both to and from the continent; the resistance to colonialism; and the way in which it is imprinted on European-African relations (broadly speaking) changed everything. It and its aftermath and its legacy fundamentally shifted relationships to language, to thought, to economies, to social and political relations, to cultural practices, to identity-formation and so forth. It produced fights which are still going on today.
Kisito locates this exhibition in relation to a geography, and in relation to art objects that exist in relation to a continent. I thought I cannot speak on behalf of Kisito or the artists or anyone here tonight. One of the greatest lessons to be learnt from the texts and theoretical positions relegated to the category post-colonial is the question of who speaks, how one speaks and for whom. Great violence has been enacted in the process of speaking for an Other. Great violence is still enacted in the speaking for and on behalf of an Other. There is no greater trauma then the obliteration of the voices of human beings. This obliteration can happen, again as post-colonial texts have demonstrated, via language, via representation, via ephemeral, apparently innocuous gestures in everyday encounters. I thought I cannot speak on behalf of a vast, heterogeneous continent but I can speak from myself, from my own subjectivity, and my own relationship to three places: South Africa, the Indian Ocean and the United Kingdom. One of the most striking aspects of the post-colonial is the practice of writing from the self, the practice of writing about tangible, political and social experiences not as theoretical abstractions removed and detached from everyday life. No one who emerges out of apartheid South Africa can ever again close their eyes to race and violence. In South Africa the violence of self/other relations was stretched to its absolute limits. The trauma, historical and personal; social and political, cannot simply be swept under the carpet. After that migrating to London does not mean you escape race and prejudice. It is right here now as we speak.
And then I thought, why are we now in the 21st century speaking about fighting ignorance and intellectual betrayal while we are looking at video art made in relation to the African continent. Why? To quote from the text I wrote for Kisito: ‘Why is it that – in the wake of prolific work by twentieth century scholars, curators, artists, writers, and critics – we need to draw attention to the category African video art as if it is something unusual, idiosyncratic and unexpected?’. If we have indeed moved into a space after the post-colonial then why are having this conversation at all?
There is the dialogue staged by Kisito, by my text and by Marie Rodet’s text. Marie’s text draws attention to another fundamental issue the relationship of art and capital so powerfully staged by Isaac Julien’s multi-screen video installation PLAYTIME screened recently at Victoria Miro. But aside from these dialogues there are those generated by the artworks all of which have the capacity to make us think about things in ways that we may not have necessarily anticipated. What are the particular capacities of video art? Does the category African do necessary work right now, at this moment? It doesn’t matter to me where an artist is from. I am interested in art’s capacity to complicate theory, to make us aware of the assumptions we make. Art can test, question, scrutinise, and make us think. But art also functions in the more amorphous territories of affect, emotion, memory and this is it power. It makes us feel, and what happens when feeling enters politics?
Akomfrah, J. ‘Stuart Hall: The Unfinished Conversation’ at Tate Britain (26 October 2013 – 23 March 2014) http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/display/bp-spotlight-john-akomfrah-unfinished-conversation Last accessed 19 March 2014.
Hall, J. (Introduced by Clark, K). Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects & Symbols in Art. London: John Murray, 1974 (my edition is a 1992 reprint), p. 219.
Fanon, F. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press, 1967, pp.9-10 and p. 134. Originally published in French under the title Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, Paris: Editions Du Seuil, 1952.
Smith, A. (ed.). Still Fighting Ignorance and Intellectual Perfidy: Video Art from Africa (Exhibition curated by Kisito Assangni: Exhibition Catalogue), London: Ben Uri Gallery, 2014, p.4.