Looking After Freedom?

Did freedom come to South Africa in 1994? Should it be marked and set in time, or is it a fragile process, an ambition and a becoming? Do we see ourselves coming closer to this ideal, or desperately receding from it as an invisible rip current pulls us away? To think of freedom as a given, a day in the year or a landmark on the horizon is to neglect that liberty from bondage and oppression, in all its disastrous and fatidic forms requires vigilance, nurturing and a spirit of insatiable demand. When our freedom becomes commodified, transformed into a mark on annual calendars, a mere commemoration; something we think have obtained and cannot possibly stand to loose, we are all in for trouble.

Adopting polysemy as its mode, the title Looking after Freedom sets the tone for the exhibition, prompting viewers to consider what it means to look after freedom. Does it mean to care for freedom, to look after something fragile and vulnerable, perceived as freedom, or is this perhaps an evaluation, a reflection after the fact, to look at freedom in retrospect?  The idea of freedom as a point of arrival – an accomplishment that lies behind us, materialized and monumentalized; freedom as a ballot, a single gesture hinged to a turning point; freedom carved in stone, set on a hill, allegorized in a recognizable form; freedom as a lofty place we ascend to, is one that can be counterpoised to freedom as departure, as work and process; an immaterial, contingent ideal; an ambition and responsibility which escapes and evades one’s grasp, but to which one continuously commits. From the site of this particular exhibition - a small, underfunded university gallery – to which the reading of this selection of works is inextricably bound and cast in dialogue, we find ourselves compelled to ask: what do we see when we look after freedom, after 1994? Where is this particular “liberal” university twenty-three years after the nation’s first democratic elections? How hospitable is it to the Black African scholar? Why did it take so long for the contentious Rhodes effigy, so neatly and defiantly tucked at the entrance to this haughty place of learning, set on the lower slopes of Devil’s Peak, to be removed? What has happened since? Whose interests is the university serving – those of foreign funders or those of a should-be majority of Black learners - and how emancipated is the institution from the grip of the global, neo-liberal, capitalist force that threatens to slowly dismantle its edifice, starting with the probing humanities, as students take to the streets to demand access to free quality education.  These are the interrogations and concerns too few of us seem to carry as our daily moral load. To traverse this exhibition is to look at the pathos of our time squarely and be faced with the truth of our precarious situation and predicament. Should the exhibition cause affect and effect, which I posit it does, then part of this comprises the acknowledgement that we cannot sit back; that the work of undoing the shackles which have bound the African body and mind, and the continent to which this being is inextricably bound - the work of decolonization - is still not done. It is to be reminded at every turn that freedom is not given; it is wrestled for in an unending battle, mostly by the young, insatiable, and one would hope, indefatigable. Despite its guise of permanence, lady freedom can certainly be taken, polluted and corrupted, insidiously, slowly.

Aptly, to look after freedom is to look outside and encounter the spurious red and yellow flag, hoisted in act of defiance, occupation and resistance at the entrance to the otherwise unremarkable and decidedly indistinguishable colonial-cum-heritage site that houses Michaelis Gallery. This is not the first yellow sign to occupy “Hiddingh Campus.” It has almost been half a year since Umhlangano, a fluid group of students, arranged as a Temporary Autonomous Zone1, occupied what is still know as Hiddingh Campus. Under the vigilant eye of undercover police, and the constant threat of violence, occupying students hoisted an impromptu yellow banner with black print, calling fellow students, staff and arguably society at large to the sites’ inhospitable and reactionary environment.  On close inspection of the collective known as Sugar-Free///Pungwe’s flag, the depicted icon suggest the inversion of “natural” norms and the staging of a coup, with a female ewe dominating the male ram, seemingly prompting viewers and passers-by to imagine and envision a temporary republic where roles are shifted, where the master becomes servant, the teacher the pupil and the individual genius the collective.

Sugar-Free Pungwe, Sugar Free A Movement in a Five Part Disharmony, 2017, flag Photo courtesy Carlos Marzia Studio Sugar-Free Pungwe, Sugar Free A Movement in a Five Part Disharmony, 2017, flag Photo courtesy Carlos Marzia Studio If Sugar-Free///Pungwe offers an overture, the curtain raises with Gabrielle Goliath’s 5-channel video installation. The tone shifts from one of mutiny and defiance, to one of subdued melancholy. Each screen, placed at eye-level so as to detain and engage the viewer directly, offers an almost unbearable close-up of the bare, interpellating face of an ordinary South African woman. Rarely do we look at strangers this closely or for so long. This Levinasian moment engages and binds viewers to the edited narrative of their abuse. Goliath perceptively and caringly removes the detailed oral account of the domestic violence done to these women by men, partners, husbands, colleagues… to only include, as Sandra Young writes, “the pauses, the breathwork, the gathering of the self.” Trauma becomes intelligible in the interstice, the inaudible; in the quivering lip, the deep sigh, the mark on the skin, and the profound dark gaze, directed beyond the frame, beyond our understanding. Opposite Goliath’s ‘Personal Accounts,’ the tone of melancholy is reinforced by a large green enamel bowl, placed on the ground, ready to be garnished with a hot, shared meal. The empty vessel, one of Mawande Ka Zenzile’s contributions to the exhibition, evokes a collective ceremony, most likely of mourning; a moment of sharing during a wake, yet the meal has clearly been deferred. The theme of rite, ritual and void is further carried with Sikhumbuzo Makhandula’s ‘Isigidimi (The messanger),’ filmed at the dilapidated national monument Ntaba kaNdoda in the former Ciskei.

Sikhumbuzo Makhandula, Isigidimi (The Messenger), 2016, 06’02’ Photo courtesy Carlos Marzia StudioSikhumbuzo Makhandula, Isigidimi (The Messenger), 2016, 06’02’ Photo courtesy Carlos Marzia Studio Over the course of this six-minute video, the artist traverses the indoor and outdoor spaces of this hauntingly deserted monument, providing views of this nationalist and fracturing ruin. Throughout, Makhandula, who personifies a messenger from another world, performs what to Catholics would appear to be a cleansing ritual. Dressed as The Messenger in a long tunic and conical-looking hat, Makhandula treads carefully, burning incense in a thurible as he moves methodically and rhythmically through the space. The monument, erected by Chief Lennox Sebe in 1981, celebrates the Ciskei nation, a Bantustan or homeland created and enforced by Apartheid South Africa. Its carcass, like those of other monuments of division, still occupies the landscape, and the Eastern Cape’s visual horizon, despite the fact that Sebe’s bust has been dethroned. These are the persistent physical marks, etched into the landscape, of a past with no immediate undoing.


MADEYOULOOK, Non-Monuments Programme Against Forgetting Edition, 2017, installation, sound. Photo courtesy Carlos Marzia StudioMADEYOULOOK, Non-Monuments Programme Against Forgetting Edition, 2017, installation, sound. Photo courtesy Carlos Marzia StudioThe tinkling of Makhandula’s piece, caused by the incessant motion of the incense burner, melds with the incantation of Dineo Seshee Bopape’s words that transports viewers into the main gallery. The litany “now I know I can, in the past I didn’t,” rendered in Bopape’s soft, hypnotic voice, tells of the unrelenting violence done to the Black body and Black mother and child, by way of Apartheid and its systems, particularly Bantu education, to the point of rupture and the taking up of arms. The disciplining of Black pupils, forced to learn the languages of the colonizer, finds its allegory too in Kemang Wa Lehulere’s ‘Dog Sleeping.’ Together, these works remind us that although colonialism may be formally in the past, its legacies of suppression (of indigenous languages) and exploitation of local knowledges and material resources, continues in the present, albeit under a different guise. As a matter of fact, the ionic columns of imperial education, those planned and erected by Joseph Solomon, still stand tall, most impressively doubled and brilliantly sculpted in cardboard, yet decisively hollowed by the collaborative MADEYOULOOK in the last and final room of this exceptionally considered and poignant show.


  • 1. According to Nickolas Calabrese in his text The Invisible Community: Disappearance and Community in TAZ, the basic tenet of a TAZ is that it is “momentary utopian space, either physical of virtual, where a band of individuals can operate freely and autonomously without a hierarchy of rule-makers, in support of each other and where they can essentially become invisible to a governing body” (see https://www.afterall.org/online/the-invisible-community-disappearance-an... for more). I have forwarded in another text that Unhlangano morphed from a Bey-like Temporary Autonomous Zone into an instance of what art historian and theoretician Claire Bishop terms “relational antagonism,” which highlights exclusion as opposed to inclusion. Unlike relational aesthetics, Umhlangano was not predicated on social harmony, but on, and here I use Bishop’s words “exposing that which is repressed (in the school) in sustaining a semblance of harmony.”

by Nancy Dantas
Vou lá visitar | 8 June 2017 | freedom, Looking After Freedom?, South Africa