Monday, July 21, 2014

A festival of contradictions: NAF 2014

Baker's Wrecking at Private Siding 661 (2010-2011) pic by Paul Greenway

In the dark and damp underbelly of the Settler’s Monument, an austere face-brick landmark set in the mountain overlooking Grahamstown, the artist Bridget Baker installed a reproduction of a basket used in the 19th century to “land” colonials on a boat that would take them to shore.
With the ropes suspending it breaking through the ceiling of this makeshift basement gallery, it was easy to believe that this faux artefact had somehow been lodged in this building since the colonial era, though the edifice only dates back to the mid-’70s, coinciding with the advent of the National Arts Festival, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. A handwritten letter by Baker’s father dealing with the family's history is pinned to the basket, weaving another time period into it, but you can only read it if you step through a small opening in a wall of bricks behind which the basket is located.
Baker allows the viewer to choose from what distance they are willing to view the object and thus history itself, which in this installation appears to have been hidden from view and has only recently been 'rediscovered'.

More important, this complex twisting or collapsing of time-periods that Baker’s exhibition, A Temporary Admission, evokes, continuously echoed throughout this year’s festival – from remarks by the new Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa to the vast array of period pieces, from Ubu and the Truth Commission, The Bram Fischer Waltz to Princess Zinzi Mhlongo’s Dinner with Alisa, which revisits a master-servant black-white dynamic in Argentina in the 19th century. With historical works seen through a contemporary lens, or this multitude of histories seen in juxtaposition, the festival operates as this time machine that takes you back and forth, serving as the means for makers and consumers of these cultural products to grasp how the past impacts on the present or the constant presence of our history – in much the same way that Baker’s basket appears to be set into the monument, as if it has been there since before the advent of the building itself.
Baker's Wrecking at Private Siding 661 (2010-2011)
pic by Paul Greenway

Perhaps it is the nature of cultural production, which opens up this ambiguous temporal space where multiple histories can be intertwined, or is it our unfinished history that prompts this condition?
Could it be Grahamstown itself and its vexed past, which encompasses the annihilation of the Xhosa who were settled in the environs? It always seems as if small towns wear their histories more brazenly on their metaphorical sleeves.

The latter condition tends to present a red flag for politicians and artists (who are more alike than either party would care to admit) as they tend to always charge head-on into the territory of history, kicking up the sand that covers it as they lay down their own tracks. Mthethwa probably had no intention of raising any dust from the annals of history when he arrived in Grahamstown on the day of the opening.
His carefully scripted speech to the media seemed to be guided by a forward-looking sentiment; engaging with the festival’s present-day role as a “nucleus for social building. There is no doubt that the festival continues to bring together artists from different backgrounds, races, classes and cultures to express and celebrate our unity and diversity. This has taken the country forward”.

Nevertheless, there were contradictions in his rhetoric, as different time periods became jumbled: while he suggested the festival was born from “the shameful historical pages of our conflicted colonial and racist past”, he also said that the last four decades of the festival had laid the foundation for our “non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society”, implying this had already been achieved.

Many in the room wondered whether the former minister for Safety and Security had any knowledge of the festival, past or present. The chief executive officer of the festival, Tony Lankester, was quick to step in and point out that the festival was established to celebrate the works of Shakespeare, as if to defend it's "shameful past."
Shakespeare is not a neutral topic and evokes clear colonial ties, but nonetheless, in its day, it would have been in opposition to the National Party’s policies, where Afrikaans was prized above all other languages, including English. In the hands of many local theatre-makers Shakespeare’s works have functioned as the foundation for plays that have interrogated hegemonic rule, corruption (moral and political) and racism. Nevertheless, this history of the festival has shaped its present bias for English Language productions, though this could be said to characterise all our cultural platforms.

These dated works, like Baker’s faux 19th century basket, provide the ideal vehicle to address history, peel back some of the layers of time.  At the festival this year this phenomenon came almost full circle with Marthinus Basson’s macbeth.slapeloos, an Afrikaans translation, which zones in on the theme of guilt.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When visuals fail: Marikana and art

JUST as the Marikana Commission has presented a long process of unearthing what took place during the massacre of striking miners in Marikana, artists have also taken time to respond to it.

Perhaps it is the magnitude of the massacre and its effects on our collective psyche, or its reflection of the state of our nation, that have contributed to the time delay. Among this year’s National Arts Festival’s more contentious works are some centred on this tragedy, such as Aryan Kaganof’s Night is Coming: Threnody for the Victims of Marikana. These are not the first works to do so; Rehad Desai’s documentary, Miners Shot Down, has garnered attention, as did Ayanda Mabulu’s contentious artwork, Yakhali’inkomo – Black Man’s Cry, at the Joburg Art Fair last year, which depicted Jacob Zuma crushing the body of a striking miner under his feet.

Artist Mary Wafer weighed in, too, in Mine, an exhibition presenting a quasi-abstract engagement with the predominant motifs associated with the tragedy that emerged via the media – such as the landscape and the workers assembled on the koppie.

The approach to the massacre that Kaganof embraces in his unconventional film (has Kaganof ever made a conventional one?) is probably best described as an abstract documentary. He achieves this by splicing footage not only from the day of the massacre, but from an academic conference and encounters with impoverished people at a dumpsite to create an abstract engagement with it, which seems engineered to get beyond the surface. This desire has much in common with Wafer’s approach; her quasi-abstract paintings showed an attempt to dismantle the images of the massacre that appeared in the media.

Kaganof attempts to do the same. However, he is a bit bolder; he advances the idea that this tragic event and what it signifies for our society cannot be visualised, or at least perhaps to do so would be to ignore what cannot be seen. This idea is driven home with a quote that reads: “Images see with the eyes of those that see them.”

The film is peppered with many insightful and philosophical quotes and other texts, as if confirming this theme regarding the limits of the visual and, of course, challenging the film medium itself.

Further exploring this motif are episodes meditating on a blind woman, who is advanced as this sensitive and paradoxically, “all seeing” being because she can’t be taken in by the world of appearances. It is not so much that sight is unreliable. It is probably just the form of visual fixation it facilitates that works at dulling our perception of all the invisible forces that might shape occurrences. Particularly violent ones that have ramifications that far exceed the moment in which they take place.

As a result parts of this multilayered film inevitably deal with memory and the landscape. In one such episode an academic observes that “landscape is a site of non-revelation”. Simply put, the landscape cannot relay the events that have occurred on it. This idea isn’t new; artists from William Kentridge to Jo Ratcliffe have all made work that meditates on or challenges this, though always in relation to our apartheid history. It is interesting, therefore, that this theme might re-emerge in relation to a post-apartheid event.

At first, it is the sounds of the massacre – the rat-a-tat-tat of quick gunfire – that is “depicted” (or heard) in the film, before we see the horror unfold in the footage. These haunting aural phrases are repeated throughout the film as a reminder that the effects of the massacre go beyond the present. In this way he suspends this act of violence, detaching it from reason or cause or effect, so that it looms as something that cannot be harnessed or processed. It is a way of holding on to the horror without it becoming acceptable.

This is partly because he wants to make a film about Marikana without representing it, or he must reconcile with the difficulties inherent in doing so. This may explain why he opts for an aural representation of it and also chooses to extend his gaze towards an academic conference and impoverished people, such as some men foraging on a dumpsite. By juxtaposing these two contradictory settings and communities of people; he delves not only into the differences between the haves and the have-nots but exposes the gap in the space between theory and reality. Not a predictable chasm, but the place between the visible and the invisible; the academics are completely absorbed by this invisible world of ideas and theory; they look so far beyond the world of appearances. They do not know what it is to live off the land.