Yvette Greslé in conversation with Standard Bank Young Artist Visual Arts 2015 winner, Kemang Wa Lehulere

Yvette Greslé introduces Kemang Wa Lehulere’s exhibition

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Recorded conversations or interviews with artists are an important aspect of my research on South African contemporary art. I focus on how artists grapple with history and memory through the particularities of their practice. This conversation with Kemang Wa Lehulere, which forms part of my research archive, took place on 23 September 2015 at the Gasworks in London where Wa Lehulere’s solo exhibition Sincerely yours, was then taking place (24 September-8 November 2015).

The exhibition imagined an encounter between the artist and the South African intellectual Sol Plaatje (1976-1932). Plaatje was the first secretary-general of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), which was formed in 1912 and became the African National Congress (ANC). The Land Act (1913), which anticipated apartheid, restricted the rights of African people to freely occupy and own land and was opposed by the SANNC. Plaatje, together with a deputation, travelled to England to appeal it without success, and he remained there until 1917 writing, lecturing and working as a language assistant at London University. Plaatje wrote three books while in England including Native Life in South Africa (1917) which focuses on the Land Act, its impact and the resistance to it.

Sol Plaatje, author of Native Life in South Africa and Mhudi

In Wa Lehulere’s exhibition, at the Gasworks in London, I look into worn, old-fashioned suitcases and see green grass and earth. I feel the uneasy sensations of displacement, exile, migration and the desire to belong. I experience the disorientation of dreams, and their associated re-arrangement of the relations between objects, places and human and non-human animals. Mass produced porcelain dogs, guard the suitcases of lawn or perhaps they are waiting for something or someone. It is not clear whether this waiting, which I imagine allegorically, is marked by benevolence or threat. I imagine historical, social and political waiting. Who is waiting and what for? Wa Lehulere transforms the statues, which function, in my imagination, as theatrical props, through paint, visual juxtapositions or performance. One was smashed to pieces in a live performance. The head of another is separated from its body, it lies on its side, watched by three others, their bodies intact.

South African historical and archival practices, formulated in resistance to the apartheid state, seek out and document histories and narratives omitted from grand narratives and official accounts. Historical processes and methods are continuously subject to contestation. A major philosophical and ethical question, threaded across South African historical work and visual production, relates to the politics and ethics of representation: who speaks for whom; how does this speaking take place; where does it take place and for whom? I speak as a historical, social and political subject classified white in apartheid South Africa. This informs my relationship to the present, and my conversations and social and intellectual encounters with subjects whose histories are differently constituted. I am prompted to engage actively in history as living matter that affects and touches me in ways that are not necessarily predictable and that always produce questions and emotions of an existential nature.

At the Gasworks, London, in 2015, Wa Lehulere and I spoke about the forms that education took in apartheid South Africa. This dialogue was initiated by the old-fashioned, wooden school desks disassembled and re-arranged into new configurations within the exhibition space. The surfaces of the desks carry the traces of the anonymous learners who once sat at them (names, dates, messages and images are scratched into the wood). Structures that invoke blackboards are suspended on the walls of the gallery. These are inscribed with images, musical notation, and lettering in white chalk, some of it smudged out. In one of Wa Lehulere’s wall installations, a chalked falling man is an ephemeral memorial to the South African journalist and writer Nathaniel “Nat” Ndazana Nakasa (1937-1965); exiled from South Africa in 1964, he fell to his death from a high-rise building in 1965. In 2013 Wa Lehulere visited Nakasa’s grave in Ferncliff cemetery in New York, staging a private performance there. Nakasa’s remains were repatriated to South Africa in August 2014. Fragments, given material form in Wa Lehulere’s work, speak to unfinished stories and experiences that may be private, unseen, unvoiced and unwritten.

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At this historical and political juncture in South Africa, as students demonstrate for free and decolonised education in universities across the country, this conversation with Wa Lehulere, has particular significance. It speaks to the particular capacities of art to elicit knowledge about the meaning and memory of apartheid, its sustained project of racial violence, and its brutality made ordinary and banal. It brings the political capacities of memory into the contemporary moment as South African students, particularly those with an immediate historical and cross-generational relationship to racism and violence, articulate the limitations of democracy in the decades after the official transition from apartheid in 1994.

Through conversation with Wa Lehulere, I was invited into a personal space of memory and resistance. It taught me about the presence of individual agency in historical conditions of extreme violence. It also taught me about the creative possibilities and personal transformations possible in the feelings and sensations that live on in historical and political anger.

In conversation with Wa Lehulere

Yvette Greslé: What is the impetus for your interest in the idea of history?

Kemang Wa Lehulere: I like this phrase from James Joyce’s Ulysses: “History … is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”. History can be a nightmare but there can also be pleasant histories. I don’t think all history should be devastating and traumatic and about violence. There can also be histories of love. These are things that I’m beginning to think about in terms of going forward with my work. Initially, my interest in history came from personal experiences. One of my aunts had this obsession with recording events with VHS cassettes and she still has all these recordings – a huge amount of tapes. She recorded things on the news that she deemed historical. For lack of a better word she was creating an archive with VHS tapes. Of course, as a kid, I saw her doing this and sometimes I would be involved in the act of recording. She would sometimes leave me responsible for the recordings, and I would change the tapes when they finished, and press record. At the time, I was a teenager. I didn’t understand what it was she was doing conceptually. Over time, I went to high school and we only had two years of history, which made me terribly sad. In fact, I considered changing schools because my high school only did history in what is now grade 8 and grade 9. I wanted to continue but I couldn’t. I had to go out and find history myself but this wasn’t part of a curriculum. I had these questions: “Why stop history? What kind of school is this?”

YG: What do you think made you so compelled by history, and the desire to engage it?

 KWL: Partly my aunt and her recordings. For example, I remember that when Oliver Tambo died my aunt made it a point to record the funeral event, which was broadcast on TV. She recorded this and Mandela coming out of Robben Island. She recorded these events and also fragments from the news. This was before the Internet and the storing of information online in an accessible way. There was this constant process of recording. I had a neighbour who was a dancer and watched all these political films. He’s older than me probably by ten years or more. He lives here in England. He is a choreographer now. When I was about nine or ten I would go and sit with him at his house and watch these films. The films had a big impact on me and, as a kid, I had all these questions.

I would go to my mother and ask her questions about race politics and race history – “Why this? Why that?” – Kemang Wa Lehulere

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CFP ‘Six Mountains on her back’: (Re) thinking African Feminisms Colloquium 2017 (South Africa)

‘Six Mountains on her back’ (Re) thinking
African Feminisms Colloquium 2017

Rhodes University
21-22 July 2017

https://findingafricaseminar.wordpress.com

African feminisms have, since their inception over a century ago, been grounded in inclusive and intersectional discourses which seek to challenge and unravel patriarchal, political, existential, and philosophical imbalances in society. As such they have been instrumental in bringing into question some of the ‘blind spots’ and prejudices embedded in Western feminisms. In light of current debates on decolonisation and the continued interest in intersectional politics in the global sphere, Finding Africa invites researchers to propose papers which centre on the theme of African feminisms in any field of the humanities.

All submissions should be 250 word abstracts Word formatted document which can be emailed to afrifems17@gmail.com by 15 May 2017.

Areas of interest include (but are not limited to):

Intersectionality
Womanism
The Future of African Feminisms
Human Rights
Curricula
Black-African-postcolonial feminist creative theorisation and methodologies
Visual Culture Productions and Histories
Visual Arts Praxis and Theories
African Feminist Manifestos
The Psychology of African Feminisms
Literature
Disability
The Uses of the Erotic
Sexuality
Performance Art
Eco-feminisms

This event is a collaborative effort between the Rhodes University Fine Art and English Departments, together with Finding Africa. The co-organisers are Dr Sharlene Khan, Thando Njovane, and Dr Lynda Spencer.

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Womanism in Contemporary African Feminism

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The next seminar paper in our African Feminisms series will be delivered by Joanita Mireme Lwanga and is entitled “Womanism in Contemporary African Feminism”. The seminar will take place on 06 April at the LHRI seminar room 1 at 5pm. The event is free and open to all.

Abstract

In most African fables, oral literature, culture and tradition an African woman is highly revered and respected. A mother in the community one dares not talk back or upset her.
Most African cultures believe being disrespectful to the African woman, equates to being cursed for life. African women have always spoken out and their stories have been passed on. This message is reinforced by Ogundipe- Leslie who decries simplistic false images and depiction of the African woman. She maintains that the problem is the refusal of scholars to search for African women’s voices.

The African woman on a contemporary platform is faced with a wider dilemma of justifying herself to the world as she is, as opposed to the historical image on her. In the diaspora she faces an even more complex relationship with regard to identification, imagery and projection. Diasporan feminism is rooted in the historical experience of enslavement and racism. Conflicting images of assimilation in the diaspora have led many an African woman to alter their image to an exterior superficiality using appendages such as fake hair, skin lighteners, accents and fashion sense. Outwardly the African woman objectively alters her image, whilst battling the truth of ‘self’ on the inside; lost in a world that has rules and parameters already conscripted to exclude, unless one assimilates. This paper explores a journey of the definition of African feminism in the diaspora, whether one can afford to be African and feminist whilst towing the intricate line of assimilation and conformism.

About Joanita Mirembe Lwanga

imageA mother, daughter, sister and friend, holds a Master’s degree in Globalization, Development and Transition from the University of Westminster UK and a Bachelor’s degree in Literature, Psychology and Linguistics from Makerere University Uganda. Founded and currently the president of the Fight Against AIDS (FAA) Society now a fully registered company limited by guarantee in the UK, with global partners in Africa, Europe and America, bringing together university students plus various partners all over the world to help curb and prevent HIV/AIDS. Highly experienced and involved in volunteering for minority and youth related initiatives in the UK and East Africa. Experienced executive and an expert on the Uganda private non-state health sector; served as Uganda Healthcare Federation (UHF) Executive Director a USAID funded project between October 2013 – December 2014. Currently working on a historical compilation of experiences as an African woman, from journals dating twenty years back on both sides of the hemisphere.

To Have Seven Thousand Vaginas and None at All: Bessie Head’s Radical Visions of Sex and Gender

bessie_head_-_picture_credit_-_george_hallettThe next seminar in our African Feminisms series will be a paper entitled “To Have Seven Thousand Vaginas and None at All: Bessie Head’s Radical Visions of Sex and Gender” to be delivered by Elinor Rooks on 23 March 2017 at 5pm in the LHRI Seminar Room 1.

The seminar will be chaired by Prof Jane Plastow and it is both free and open to all.

Abstract

Bessie Head is the author of several texts which, for their interrogation of gender relations, might be taken as epitomes of African feminist writing. Head, however, repeatedly insisted that she was not a feminist and that hers were not feminist texts. “Writing is not a male/female occupation,” she explained. “I do not have to be a feminist. The world of the intellect is impersonal, sexless.” In this paper, I will explore this apparent contradiction, showing the ways in which Head’s work exposes the problems of African feminism, while anticipating later developments towards womanism and intersectional feminism.

Not only does Head move beyond the fundamentally white articulations of gender offered by feminism of the time, creating a concretely, particularly African perspective on sex and gender, she also goes much further, towards a fundamental questioning not only of gender but of sex.

In A Question of Power, Head takes the gender binary to its extremes, presenting monstrous exaggerations not only of masculinity and femininity, but also of sex: from the towering phallus to the seven thousand molten vaginas, she presents genitals as almost disembodied grotesques. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is said not to have a vagina at all. It is in this context, I will argue, that we can glimpse the truly radical and queer implications of Head’s “sexless” writing. Exploring both the homophobia and queer desire within this text, I will demonstrate the ways in which Head’s writing not only drives towards an African feminism, but also gestures towards a queer and genderqueer African feminism.

About Elinor Rooks

Photo on 25-09-2015 at 13.12 #3Elinor Rooks is an indepedent researcher in African literature, history and culture. She completed her PhD at the University of Leeds with her dissertation, “Vernacular Critique, Deleuzo-Guattarian Theory and Cultural Historicism in West African and Southern African Literatures,” focussing on the novels of Bessie Head and Amos Tutuola. She is currently researching responses to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and is authoring a book on Tutuola. She also serves as the reviews editor for Red Pepper Magazine and works as a freelance editor.

Mossane and Djanta: Intersections of Feminism with Ethnic Identity

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The next seminar in our African Feminisms series is entitled “Mossane (Safi Faye, 1997) and Djanta (Tahirou Tasséré Ouédraogo, 2006): Intersections of Feminism with Ethnic Identity” and will be presented by Monika Kukolova on 09 March 2017 at 5pm in LHRI Seminar Room 1. Entrance is free and all are welcome.

 

Abstract

In this paper, I would like to acknowledge why it is important to discuss intersections of ethnic identity and feminism in the films, Mossane (Safi Faye, 1997) and Djanta (Tahirou Tasséré Ouédraogo, 2006). Some films set within the ethnic groups of West Africa may show somewhat oppressive environments that rely on patriarchal values and female protagonists are often limited in their life choices by the community’s perception of marriage as a woman’s ultimate purpose. Even when they get married, the role of authority in women’s lives passes from their father to their husband. Although there is definitely a case to be made about the oppression of women among some ethnic groups, it would be unfair to summarise all ethnic identities as inherently patriarchal. More contextual analysis is needed to clarify the motivations behind what appears to be a system skewed towards the benefit of men rather than women. Furthermore, the generalisation of these ethnic groups as entirely patriarchal risks putting the women of the group into a position of resigned subservience. The female characters are, mostly, far from subservient but they also have respect for ethnic culture, their elders and the well-being of their community. This leads to inevitable clashes within the community but also within women themselves. I will offer a close analysis of the two films, in order to find out how these two films consolidate ethnic cultures with African feminisms and whether they succeed in doing so.

About Monika Kukolova

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Monika Kukolova is a third year PhD student at the University of Manchester. Her thesis focuses on representations of ethnic identity in contemporary West African cinema with special attention paid to the roles of kinship, religion and patriarchal attitudes in these representations. Other research interests include representations of race and ethnicity in mainstream cinema and cinematic adaptations of novels about race and ethnicity.

The Birth of ‘New’ Materialism? Abortion and Southern African Women’s Writing

UntitledThe next seminar in our African Feminisms series will be a paper by Caitlin Stobie entitled “The Birth of ‘New’ Materialism? Abortion and Southern African Women’s Writing”. The seminar will take place on 27 February 2017 in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute (LHRI)  seminar room 1 at 5pm. Entrance is free and all are welcome.

Abstract

In her preface to Opening Spaces: Contemporary African Women’s Writing (1999), Zimbabwean author Yvonne Vera recalls a scene from Haile Gerima’s Sankofa wherein a pregnant woman’s corpse mysteriously gives birth after she is whipped to death (1). At the conclusion of her commentary, she returns to the theme of fertility by proclaiming that the authors of the collected stories are “witnesses, in that seemingly impossible birth” of African feminist fiction (5). Yet throughout Opening Spaces, it is the fear of maternity which recurs for those living in rural and urban environments previously colonised by the British ‘motherland’. Tracing tropes of abortion through selected stories written during the ‘birth’ of postcolonial southern African nations in the late twentieth century, this paper considers feminist responses to the shifting relationship between corporeal embodiment and political agency. The writers in this study focus on environments not as essentialised settings, but rather as interconnected and organic systems; creative forms which manifest in these stories include human, animal, vegetal, elemental or textual participants in ecosystems. In this respect, the writers appear to anticipate new materialist theories – particularly the concept of trans-corporeality, which states that human and more-than-human bodies are all enmeshed actors that constitute the environment (Alaimo 2010: 2). Paradoxically, however, they also trouble such purportedly ‘new’ theories by complicating the long history of environmental health and reproductive rights in post/colonial contexts. Illustrating how natural symbolism interacts with the artifice of narrative form, such fictions create spaces for complex, ambivalent perspectives on women’s agency to emerge.

About Caitlin Stobie

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Caitlin Stobie is a PhD candidate at the University of Leeds, where she is co-director of the Leeds Animal Studies Network. Her research interests include postcolonial ecocriticism, posthumanism and critical animal studies. She has been published, or has work forthcoming, in Green Letters (2017), Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (2017) and scrutiny2 (2016).