Viva Singularity

Charting a way in the world with the lodestar of art

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Art has the power to liberate people from the murderous prison-house of identity politics into the ever-evolving singularity of being—but first, they must learn how to negotiate with complexity and other themselves, argues Ashraf Jamal in a wide-ranging conversation that covers Fallism, land expropriation, the education crisis and much more.

What are the origins of your forthcoming book, In The World?

It started last year, borne out of my frustrations with the collapse of the educational system and the demands of Fallism. While I could recognise the need to challenge the incumbent infrastructures, I felt the project of Fallism was doomed. The very name itself inhabits a sort of death instinct. It basically captured a reactive sort of approach to a transforming the educational system. In What Are Universities For, Stefan Collini championed independence of the mind, freedom of thought and the development of autonomy. Now, for me, independence of mind, freedom of thought and autonomy are precisely the things that are destroyed by herd notions of identitarian political allegiance; people become terrorised into aligning themselves with certain pressure groups; and this interferes with what matters most to me, which is singularity. Even though, arguably, one is defined by one’s gender, one’s sexual orientation, one’s colour, one’s history, one’s caste, one’s nation, these remain mere facets of a far more complex, singular being—which I feel is being destroyed in the name of constructing political identikits. I try to nurture that singularity amongst my students; so using art as the basis for this book, I decided to look at individual artists and their work and how they approach the complexities of our world, be they regional, national, continental or global.

How does the title unpack?

It’s from Repetition, an essay by Kierkegaard that I read in one of the School of Life series of self-help books that Alain de Botton brought out. I grabbed the one on Kierkegaard with the lemon-yellow cover, sat down at the Book Lounge and read it and at about the fourth page into it, I came across the fascinating quotation, which, for me, is something indisputably relevant to all of us: How do we live in the world? How did we get to be in this world? What world? How does acculturation operate? How do we define one’s relationship to the land, to the soil, to culture? You know, Kierkegaard is famous for radical doubt: despite being a theologian, despite believing irrationally in the leap of faith, he was also a deeply, deeply sceptical being. I’m intrigued by that paradox and wanted to inhabit it in my own way by examining the way I live in this world. I teach my students to inhabit five core areas of being: they must understand the local, the regional, the national, the continental, and the global, and all these facets have to play a part in their construction of their being because, otherwise, they will always define themselves according to the ghettos of an inculcated and historically structured imagination.

How do the students respond?

Yesterday, I had my fourth-year Journalism class and—shock horror—when I entered the class, they started clapping because I was basically challenging the strictures of identity politics, trying to embrace the greater complexities of their individual being, denouncing or refusing the fetishisation of the object, the subject as the object, which is the plague of racism, the plague of Apartheid and then also, more importantly, while talking about the inviolability of the white body and seeing it as a construct produced through history, through empire, realising it is not essentially inviolable: it is constructed as such and can, therefore, be deconstructed, rethought and reappraised—not at the expense of the individual white person: the problem is that people see people according to types and they cannot see people according to singularities—racism is the root of that misunderstanding and that is a global problem. As Pankaj Mishra says, we live in the age of anger, we live in a space of radical divisiveness, absolutism, aggression and hatred; it’s important to inculcate the importance of love or compassion or empathy as fundamental to negotiate one’s being in the world, and that’s what I have to teach my students.

It sounds as though “the inviolability of the white body” is almost a tenet of a kind of orthodoxy that you are pushing against?

It is absolutely an orthodoxy manufactured, for example, by entertainment industries like Hollywood, which are being changed, for example, with the major call for diversity and greater complexity in the treatment and representation of women in cinema. These things are changing, but slowly. However, it’s interesting that they’re changing at precisely the point when the world is becoming much more intolerant, much more racist and much more divisive. I explain to my students that yes, absolutely, we’re moving into much more aggressive times, much more hateful times, therefore, all the more we must counter-intuitively think against the grain and against a systemic cruelty, which is actually in place at every level in every infrastructure in every system in society worldwide.

Fallism could be said to be a reaction to the systemic cruelty inherent in the very spaces students inhabit, yet it seems to also reproduce that cruelty?

Absolutely, it is a mirror of a pre-existent cruelty, this is the key thing. My essay White Art, on Kemang Wa Lehulere, focuses on this particularly and the nature of violence—not only the violence of students, but the violence or violation built into the system itself. You’ve got to see what they’re fighting against, which is a priori violent system. I spotted it immediately in 1990 when I started teaching at UCT; since then, I’ve been complaining against what I see as the complacency and the dangers and threats of English liberalism; I’ve been saying this system is unworkable because built into it are systemic exclusions and a failure of compassion. You can’t, for example, expect students who come from entirely different economies, cultures, castes and colours, to automatically integrate into systems, which make no effort to alter what they are. That’s where the complacency of power lies; its damnation was inevitable as a consequence of that.

In opposition to such things, you advocate singularity?

I think it’s important, in the midst of systemic cruelty, to see people on a one-on-one basis. This is the thing that people fail to do. Even if systemic cruelty is inescapable, that does not mean one cannot engage differently with individuals. This is how teachers must operate, this is how students must operate. We need to ask how we negotiate the environments we work in and look at them in a much more micrological way. And then we could find smaller solutions, yes, but at least some solutions to our lives. Teachers need to stop being afraid, change the way they think and feel and be able to become the others of themselves; they need to learn compassion, stop using teaching or education as a terroristic tool, and find it as a means to actually engage and make it possible to share and negotiate knowledge on behalf of autonomy, relative autonomy, which is what we need to encourage in educational systems.

Under present circumstance, how do teachers they find their own autonomy from within which to teach?

They don’t. I’ve looked, for example, at the test or exam questions set up in certain tertiary institutions—they’re PC, they’re ideological. It’s an appeasement and when education merely tries to appease what is seen to be the prevailing opinions and concerns at the time—say, #BlackLivesMatter or the #Metoo Movement—without dealing with the complexities of the history of feminism or the complexities of the black body, then all you’re doing is repeating and reproducing the pathology. As a result, liberation merely becomes a reactive space, rather than a space where intricate problems are examined and dealt with. That lack of intricacy is what I think is shaping education, which is becoming increasingly more stunted as a consequence. In fact, universities are becoming increasingly bankrupt—they have no role anymore because they no longer cherish autonomy.

So, your strategy to subvert these tendencies is to publish a book on contemporary South African art?

Well, it’s boom time for the art world in Africa at the moment, so it’s probably a very economically viable place for me to interact. If I were to write a book on literary analysis, I don’t think it would have the same traction globally as art is having at the moment. And because I have been working in the art world for a very, very long time, for decades, have been increasingly writing within an international arena, and this book is going to be published internationally, I just felt I needed to play that game out—but against what I see, again, as the commodification of Africa, and even the banality of a term like “contemporary”, which I use, which I’ve turned on its head in the introduction. I’m going against the spirit of the new commodification of Africa but in the interests of a far deeper concern, which has been with me for a very long time. The fundamental intuition is that Africa occupies a critical role on the earth right now: it is Africa that will give the world a global face, a human face. Africa is compelling a new ethical system into being. Again, this is a counter-intuitive argument against an increasingly oppositional world but I do think Africa will give us the greatest lessons in the next few decades, and that’s one of the reasons I think there’s a major interest in the continent, not only economically but also culturally. I suppose, in that sense, the book can be considered timely, not merely strategic but timely. At the same time, I have no grand illusions in terms of what it is I’m trying to achieve; I don’t write with any hope of even being understood. I’m not trying to convert people, I’m trying to be alive in the moment of thinking in a dead time. I want to manifest that I am a living organism in a zomboid moment in history and my writing has to animate that complexity and, therefore, refuse false certainties at every turn.

How did you choose which artists to include?

I decided to be as eclectic in my choices as possible, so I make a nod to the history of painting, I make a nod to performance arts and to conceptual art and sculpture, in an attempt to give a spectrum of the various forms and how they operate and, through individual artists, manifest the broader concerns. I’m not interested in writing hagiography or writing the life story of individual artists; I’m not a historian.

I am a conceptual artist myself in the way I think and I try to situate the people that I write about in a greater context, so the beings are layered, caught in a complex historical archaeology, and they’re part of time—past, present and future. All I’m trying to do is locate that artist within the given set of churnings. So, for example, in the case of Paul Edmunds, I barely reference the history of the South African impression; it does, to some degree, inform his work but that is not the major focus, which is geology, climate change—subjects which that particular artist allows me to write about.

Do audiences still want to inscribe contemporary South African art within struggle history?

Yes, they do, but this is an anti-canonical book. I was guilty of writing the canonical study, Art South Africa: The Future Present, and since then, I’ve spent the entirety of my life trying to negate that position because I think it falsely constructed value in a country, as canons tend to do. So does resistance art, for example, as an aesthetic and as a mindset. I think it’s because people love to pigeonhole themselves and pigeonhole others and frame history in neatly sequential movements, but again, if you look at Kimone’s reflection on the history of liberation in this country, he says it cannot be portioned off and structured sequentially. This is the problem with the way in which people think: they are cursed by sequence, they’re cursed by outcomes, they’re doomed by theological drives, and they fail, consequently, to understand the immanence of thinking, the immanence of being and, in that condition, the immanence of valuing other human beings or, in this case, valuing art.

For some people, the history of oppression runs from 1652 right until the present moment. Is this really the case?

No, on the contrary. What people forget, and this is the point I’ve always made, is that port cities like Cape Town are fundamentally heterogeneous places. Prior to 1652, we had the Khoisan but after that moment, Cape Town became a hybrid space.

Jeremy Cronin talks about the creolisation process that began in Cape Town…

… Which is what makes it such an exciting city. Today, though, people cannot stand hybridisation and creolisation, they yearn so desperately for cultural purity; it’s the curse of eugenics, the fetish and the mistake of it; but if we understand our hybridity, we will stop trying to fixate upon any notion of purity. I find it interesting when people talk about land expropriation but never bring up the role of Christianity; the Bible was exchanged for land, but because the church is sacred it cannot be questioned, cannot be challenged, yet it is an imperial mechanism, deeply rooted in the expropriation of land. How can people not mentally engage with that aspect?

How does “the fetishisation of the black body” fit in here?

This is intriguing to me. If you were to look at Frantz Fanon’s examination of the history of oppression, his basic argument very crudely restated is as follows: the black body is not being merely oppressed physically, it’s being oppressed psychically, it’s being denied its physical but also its mental, moral and spiritual agency. The affect of the black body has effectively been voided through slavery and what has followed. As a consequence, there’s an understandable need to reassert a sense of substance against the void. The problem is that the substantive becomes too concrete. My argument is that a person doesn’t become a person simply because they claim themselves to be more substantive; a person can be a person precisely by cherishing that which is most evasive, most gnomic, most cryptic, most voided within them. It’s denial of the mystery of the body that I feel is problematic; so, the black body becomes a type, a figuration, a programme, rather than a mystique in the complexity. This is what I examine through, for example, SA’s own Zanele Muholi and Mohau Modisakeng; I’m trying to examine the richness within the void, rather than see the void merely as inherently pathological.

In the case of Zanele Muholi, I am not particularly interested in her Faces and Phases series of work on lesbianism, but I am intrigued by her most recent work, Hail the Lioness, which I think is the first work she’s ever done of any great significance, though she’s been feted for a very long time. I find this last series of work has been the one that provoked me to write about her for the first time.

Why that particular work?

Because it has a greater richness, a greater complexity. It’s not didactic, it’s not representative, it’s not figurative in an iconic way, it’s about reinventing yourself on a day-by-day basis, it’s about playing in the dark—and that reinvention, curiosity and innovation are what I think we need to cherish. “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson; I hate consistency, I like people who experiment, and people who are daring, who dare to be the others of themselves, and I think that mystery does finally take hold of Zanele Muhole in this most recent series of work.

Is this a good moment to be a non-canonical artist in South Africa?

I doubt it, it’s never a good moment to be what one wants to be. I don’t care about whether it’s appropriate or not, it’s what must be written and felt by me individually.

Art has to be called up in that space but artists are also terrorised by system, they’re also forced into types—in fact, artists are cursed by it, not necessarily through their own work but cursed by their dealerships. I feel pity for artists in that regard and then I also have great admiration for those that truly manage to overcome. Somebody like Kate Gottgens, for example, whom I find an astonishing painter, who is able to deal with a census of displacement, what they call an aboriginal blankness, at the core of her being, in ways that are so intuitive and so intelligent but so aesthetically beautiful and compelling. I cannot but admire her for the way she approaches the question of being, and that’s the key thing.

These are artists working in their specific mediums, trying to deal with the conundrum that embraces them, that shape-shifts them, and our job as viewers and thinkers is to try to find a way to understand what it is that they’re doing and to recognise that purpose. In striving towards singularity and autonomy, artists are, in a way, giving everybody a gift by showing a way out.

Is the value of a work of art something that has to be discovered by the person who is encountering it?

Absolutely. A classic example of misunderstanding in our country is the total blatant and patent misunderstanding of The Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander. This sculpture is taught in school as the representation of political resistance. For me, when that happens, you damage not only the work but also the mind of the student, because then they cannot see the work as anything other than symbolic of a representation of protest. But the work is an allegorical work; it occupies a system without becoming determinant; it is an enigmatic space, and that’s the power of great art, it’s enigmatic, it’s suggestive, it evokes, but it doesn’t tell.

In The Life and Times of Michael K., which is the greatest, most allegorical and gnomic South African novel ever written, J.M. Coetzee defines an allegory as something or someone that occupies a system without becoming a term in it; it’s this refusal of being termed, of being over-determined, that I think gives that novel its incredible radicality and freedom. To me, that’s what politics at its best should be. It’s like guerrilla warfare—you don’t need to have head-on encounters, you see things askance, you do things in an oblique way, as I think Jane Alexander has done.

Only when we look at the world more obliquely will we see the surprises built into it, but if you look at things head-on, with the presupposition that understanding is inherent in the work, hermeneutics comes into play. Hermeneutics supposes that death exists in a work. Death only exists in the point of interaction—that’s where death is made, in that momentary understanding of what it is one is encountering. The crucial thing to also remember here is that these moments and these encounters shape-shift all the time; one’s engagement with one’s wife, for example, is not an act of consistency, one changes that relationship because one is encountering a different person all the time. It’s the same thing with art: one sees it differently depending on one’s mood, one’s temperament and whether one’s suffering at that moment from irritable bowel syndrome or being distracted by somebody speaking too loudly in one’s ear while one is trying to actually look and engage with something else. That’s why I read and re-read and look and relook at works over and over and over because I have not made my decisions and final judgments on anything. That applies to my relationships to human beings as well. With that openness, you can cherish people for all their complexities, rather than fix them in a formulated phrase.

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