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Verne Harris’ address at the launch of ‘The Visual Century: South African Art in Context 1907- 2007’

‘VISUAL CENTURY’ AND A DECOLONISED POST-APARTHEID

Address delivered by Verne Harris, of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, at the Johannesburg launch of the Visual Century, 10 November 2011.

Three disclaimers before I start:

  • As I’m sure many of you know, I was the third choice for this role.  But I will be striving not to give a third-rate talk.
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  • Secondly, in preparing for this evening I have been mindful of one of Nelson Mandela’s favourite provocations, namely, “why take ten minutes to say what could be said in one?”  My own provocation will be aimed at saying in ten minutes what really needs thirty.
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  • Thirdly, I know very little about artistic endeavour.  But I love art and I know a little about historiography and archivy.
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    Visual Century is a monumental work.  And an ambitious work.  One of its lines of reach, of ambit, is quite explicitly archival.  In the words of its own blurb, “Visual Century makes a major contribution towards the construction of an inclusive national archive.”  Not surprisingly, then, it looks always for a registering of meaning and significance in the contexts of artistic production.  One of its great strengths; but at the same time a locus, unavoidably, of potential vulnerability.  For its own meaning and significance, and value, will ultimately become located in the contexts of its own production, and in the contexts within which it will be read and used.  So, what are these contexts?  These contexts of the archive?

    Archive, in South Africa, I would argue, is still far from decolonised.  A truly ‘post-apartheid’ archive and its implicit corollary, ‘the post-colonial’, have scarcely been imagined, and even less, practised.  In a context where, it could be argued, archival work, in a formal sense, and memory work, in the broadest sense, are exploding.  Exploding very specifically in what we can now call the post-Mbeki, or post-Polokwane, era.  You see the explosion in a rush of new heritage projects and of new institutions more or less dedicated to memory (the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the OR and Adelaide Tambo Foundation, the Luthuli Foundation, the Ahmed Timol Foundation, the Joe Slovo Foundation, and so on – it is almost a case, now, of one comrade one foundation); you see the explosion in a rash of new autobiographies and biographies; in an obsession with anything Nelson Mandela-related; in a feverish marking of anniversaries.  (God help us in 2012.)  Obviously a lot is going on here and there can be no single explanation.  But note how this work is being deployed.  By those, on the one hand, determined to co-opt post-apartheid metanarratives to new forces and agendas.  By those, on the other hand, determined to protect and preserve ‘the legacy’ against co-option.  Such deployment, the one or the other, I would suggest, raises new obstacles to any process of decolonisation.

    So how will we measure whether Visual Century contributes or not to the realisation of what I’m calling a ‘decolonised post-apartheid’?  Let me very briefly suggest four fundamental measures.

    One.  Does it escape the totalising instinct of metanarrative construction?  Is it challenging old metanarratives only by reproducing them or by generating equally claustrophobic new ones?  How will we know?  By applying – and here I’m using shorthand - the deconstruction test.  Does Visual Century open its own unavoidable metanarrativization to the energies of deconstruction?  Does it welcome the loose threads in any apparently seamless weaving of a tapestry?  Does it create space for the play of sub-narratives and counter-narratives?  Does it eschew ‘deployment’ and reach instead for ‘ploys’ and ‘plays’ and ‘folds’ and ‘seams’?  You be the judge.

    Secondly.  Does Visual Century resist – for it can never fully escape – the old colonial habit of relying on experts to ensure that learning takes place for non-experts?  The knowledge of experts, whether historians or archivists, curators or art historians, is a source of significant power, and they exert an almost unavoidably paternalist influence over when and how memory is constructed.  Memory itself, of course, has developed as a field of expert knowledge and is often appropriated by its own emerging cohort of experts.  They tend to remember for non-experts, decide on behalf of non-experts.  Paternalism.  Does Visual Century to a great extent, or to some extent, escape it?

    Thirdly.  What we call ‘post-apartheid South Africa’ has been shaped by commitment to concepts and values like ‘transparency’, ‘freedom of information’, ‘truth-recovery’, ‘full disclosure’, and so on.  And yet.  And yet South Africa in the era of democracy has proved to be a less than fertile environment for these concepts and values.  Cultures of opacity remain resilient.  Our memory work is hampered by secrets, taboos, disavowals and lies.  The silences are often deafening.  They are, I want to suggest, fundamentally, ‘colonial’ silences.  And they mark what I call ‘bruised places’.  A test, then, for Visual Century – to what extent does it tend the bruised places?  How successful has it been at declining any dictate to turn away from these places, to pretend that they are not there?  How courageous has it been in going to where it is painful, and where it is painful to go?

    Finally.  The discourses of modernity, and therefore of colonialisms, too readily assume that constructions of the past are about learning from the ‘mistakes’ of that past.  This is a common assumption, even a dominant one, in South Africa.  I’ve been studying history all my adult life, and the one sure thing I’ve learned is that societies hardly ever learn from the mistakes of their pasts.  Societies, I believe, and individuals possibly as well, learn most readily not from the past but from the future.  What we perceive to be the future opening to us - what we experience as our participation in the making of that future, what we feel as our smaller journeys joining with larger journeys of collectivity, nation and humankind – determine in fundamental ways our embrace of narratives and pasts.  What we learn from the past, I am suggesting, is shaped indelibly by what we are learning from the future.  When we feel alienated from the future, then mistakes of the past become a foreign country to us.  Equally – and this is another form of alienation – when we feel overly at home with the future, then the mistakes of the past become a foreign country to us.  The mistakes of colonial pasts, I would submit, have become a foreign country to far too many in our world.  More specifically, the mistakes of South Africa’s pasts have become a foreign country to far too many South Africans.  A final test, then, for Visual Century – to what extent does it enable readers, at one and the same time, not to be alienated from the future and not to be overly at home with it?

    May Visual Century fare well in these tests.  May it become a resource to those busy making post-colonial futures.  May it contribute to the securing of the archives of artists and community art projects.  And may those whose responsibility it is to get the work out of stores and into people’s hands be successful in challenging times.

    Thank you.

    Verne Harris is the Head of the Memory Programme at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory

    See also Thokozani Mhlambi’s post on this event.

    For more information about the Visual Century: South African Art In Context 1907 - 2007,  Edited by: Gavin Jantjes, Jillian Carman, Lize van Robbroeck, Mandisi Majavu, Mario Pissarra and Thembinkosi Goniwe with contributions by Andries Oliphant, Christine Eyene, Colin Richards, Elizabeth Rankin, Emile Maurice, Federico Freschi, Gabeba Baderoon, Gavin Jantjes, Hayden Proud, Hazel Friedman, Jillian Carman, Judy Seidman, Juliette Leeb-du Toit, Kathryn Smith, Lize van Robbroeck, M. Mduduzi Xakaza, Mandisi Majavu, Mario Pissarra, Melanie Hillebrand, Mgcineni Sobopha, Nessa Leibhammer, Rasheed Araeen, Roger van Wyk, Ruth Simbao, Sandra Klopper, Sarat Maharaj, Sipho Mdanda, Thembinkosi Goniwe, Uche Okeke, Vonani Bila, Z.P. Jordan and Zayd Minty, see the Wits University Press website.

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