THE ART of a na­tion

At the re­cent open­ing of SA: The Art of the Na­tion at the Bri­tish Mu­seum, Njabulo S Nde­bele talked about how his sense of be­ing a South African was ac­cen­tu­ated in a spe­cial way

CityPress - - Voices -

I, as do many South Africans, of­ten won­der if the idea of be­ing a na­tion mea­sures up to the re­al­ity of ac­tu­ally be­ing one. I re­mem­ber how, soon af­ter we adopted our four lan­guage na­tional an­them, we be­gan to sing it with hes­i­ta­tion and a large mea­sure of em­bar­rass­ment, par­tic­u­larly when it came to hav­ing to sing in lan­guages we ei­ther didn’t know or didn’t like. Now, 22 years later, when we sing the an­them, our lips have been trained not to be­tray us as we look around dis­cretely, mak­ing sure that any­one watching as we take on each lan­guage will see confident lips shap­ing our song. A seem­ingly small sign of to­geth­er­ness is nev­er­the­less an emo­tional build­ing block I have come to ap­pre­ci­ate.

At the South Africa: The Art of the Na­tion ex­hi­bi­tion, I have been able to glean a more pro­found as­pect of this to­geth­er­ness. The ex­hi­bi­tion has made me ex­pe­ri­ence the real pos­si­bil­ity of South Africa ex­pe­ri­enc­ing na­tion­hood from a per­spec­tive that may not be eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble to most South Africans. This per­spec­tive prom­ises a sense of na­tion­hood that can pro­foundly take South Africans beyond the night­mare of racism that has been a dom­i­nant fea­ture of South African his­tory, par­tic­u­larly in the past 150 years or so. Hope­fully, as with the na­tional an­them, we will achieve a more grounded sense of iden­tity as we in­creas­ingly share a broader per­spec­tive of it.

Few things other than the pas­sage of time can of­fer a salu­tary per­spec­tive to our un­der­stand­ing of the present against its precedent his­tory. Equally so is the abil­ity to look for and ap­pre­ci­ate de­tail that of­fers an im­me­di­ate sense of not only how his­tory came to be, but also how de­tail con­sti­tutes the present con­tin­u­ously. The de­tail of his­tory is in what peo­ple ac­tu­ally do. Most re­mark­able about this ex­hi­bi­tion is how the per­spec­tive of his­tory and the emerg­ing present come to­gether in most il­lu­mi­nat­ing ways.

To be­gin with, to be in the pres­ence of an ob­ject made by peo­ple and said to be about 3 mil­lion years old, is to be­gin in earnest the jour­ney of per­spec­tive. I am of course re­fer­ring to the Maka­pans­gat Peb­ble of Many Faces. This small ob­ject is the bearer of a mes­sage of pro­found sig­nif­i­cance. It tells us that peo­ple in my part of the world – pre­sum­ably from whom I and South Africans present at the ex­hi­bi­tion may be de­scen­dent – have been cre­at­ing cul­ture and art for at least 3 mil­lion years.

In the course of do­ing so, they have cre­ated var­i­ous kinds of so­cial for­ma­tions that have come and gone, leav­ing be­hind ev­i­dence of their ef­forts, ex­am­ples of which have been care­fully and lov­ingly pro­filed in this ex­hi­bi­tion. I have in mind the Kathu Pan hand axe, the San rock paint­ings, the Ly­den­burg Heads and the Ma­pun­gubwe gold sculp­tures dis­played here against a fas­ci­nat­ing river of time.

The long per­spec­tive of time and the de­tail of arte­facts come to­gether to un­der­score an im­por­tant his­toric re­al­ity that un­der­scores a crit­i­cal mes­sage of self­hood and iden­tity. They tell us that the vast ma­jor­ity of South Africa’s peo­ple, oth­er­wise known as “black”, have been the hu­man norm in this part of the world for mil­lions of years. Through that river of time, their con­tacts with other peo­ples in the world who have come from the Arab Mid­dle East, In­dia, China and Europe are re­veal­ingly on dis­play at this ex­hi­bi­tion.

But it is the con­tact with Euro­peans that has left deep scars on the self­hood and iden­tity of in­hab­i­tants who have lived in South Africa for mil­len­ni­ums. At first in­ter­mit­tent through early sea voy­ages of dis­cov­ery. Then ag­gres­sively in the 19th cen­tury through wars of con­quest, land dis­pos­ses­sions, dis­mem­ber­ment of the so­cial or­der of con­quered peo­ples and their re­duc­tion to be­ing hu­man tools of labour. Re­la­tion­ships with Europe con­tin­ued to evolve un­til April 27 1994, when the spell of the night­mare of Euro­pean racism was at least for­mally bro­ken.

But as we know, the lin­ger­ing ef­fects of an in­ten­sive 150 years or so of of­ten hor­ren­dous op­pres­sion of Africans by Euro­peans are far from resid­ual. They re­tain a re­silient pres­ence that re­quires the great­est wis­dom and re­source­ful­ness to over­come.

It is also dur­ing that very mo­ment of Euro­pean colo­nial in­cur­sion and set­tle­ment that the ex­hi­bi­tion ac­cen­tu­ates an­other drama of South African his­tory: hu­man move­ment. We learn that the Maka­pans­gat Peb­ble of Many Faces was found at a place of some dis­tance from where it was in all like­li­hood made. This tells us that hu­man move­ments across the south­ern African sub­con­ti­nent have had a long his­tory. When Euro­pean coloni­sa­tion of that part of Africa be­gan to con­sol­i­date, it found a sub­con­ti­nent still reel­ing from the ex­pan­sions and dis­place­ments of the Zulu em­pire that had been spread­ing across the sub­con­ti­nent. Any move­ments of peo­ple flee­ing in domino ef­fect north­wards were re­versed some­what sig­nif­i­cantly by the sud­den and mas­sive de­mand for min­ing and in­dus­trial labour in the south. The re­sult­ing hu­man move­ments were so mas­sive that this pe­riod can be con­sid­ered pro­foundly for­ma­tive of hu­man con­fig­u­ra­tions that char­ac­terise South Africa to­day.

Peo­ple from as far north as mod­ern-day Zam­bia and Malawi, as well as Zim­babwe, Botswana, Le­sotho, Swazi­land, Namibia and Mozam­bique – and across the en­tire land­scape of South Africa it­self – grav­i­tated to­wards Jo­han­nes­burg, Kimberley and other emerg­ing in­dus­trial cities of the coun­try. In the process they be­came new peo­ple who shared lan­guages, in­ter­mar­ried and ex­pe­ri­enced in­creas­ingly blurred cul­tural bound­aries. The es­tab­lish­ment of the African Na­tional Congress in 1912 gave that com­ing to­gether a co­he­sive po­lit­i­cal ori­en­ta­tion that was to last for close to a cen­tury.

Through the dom­i­nance of their po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic and in­sti­tu­tional in­fra­struc­ture, South Africa’s white peo­ple re­mained firmly in charge of a hu­man evo­lu­tion to­wards which they chose to be at­ti­tu­di­nally aloof. There­fore, when they came to lose power in 1994, they were sig­nif­i­cantly ig­no­rant of the hu­man world they had sup­pressed and op­pressed. In the singing of the na­tional an­them they have had, in part, to con­front the im­per­a­tive of hav­ing to shed that ig­no­rance. In­deed, driven un­der­ground, the black pres­ence of mil­lions of years may have been sup­pressed by their white coin­hab­i­tants in a com­par­a­tively short span of his­tory, but it was never elim­i­nated. Thus, what the ex­hi­bi­tion also dis­plays qui­etly, yet pro­foundly, is the ir­re­versible resur­gence of a hu­man pres­ence that has al­ways been there, but now faces the chal­lenge to re­dis­cover and un­der­stand it­self far more pur­pose­fully and more ur­gently than ever be­fore as they be­gin an­other jour­ney in their mil­len­ni­ums of pres­ence.

Con­quests al­ways in­volve the sub­mer­gence of the per­son­hood and iden­tity of the con­quered. The con­quered are then made to be­come what the con­queror wishes them to be. Then they live the life of seem­ing to be what they are not. They have a rep­re­sen­ta­tive in this ex­hi­bi­tion. He is Amos Ntuli, who led a life of seem­ing to be a night watch­man. Yet, in his real life, he was an artist who, ac­cord­ing to the ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logue, made bas­kets out of “coloured wire used in tele­phone junc­tion boxes”. You may eas­ily miss him if you don’t look out for him.

I have known of oth­ers like him who, as re­li­gious lead­ers, some even bish­ops, com­manded huge au­thor­ity over hun­dreds of their fol­low­ers. Dur­ing the day, they were anony­mous clean­ers, called “tea boys” in white peo­ple’s shops or “gar­den boys” in white peo­ple’s homes. April 27 1994 af­firmed them all. Many have emerged to have their works dis­played in this ex­hi­bi­tion. Yet, they were al­ways there, wait­ing for a time they would re-emerge into who they re­ally were and had al­ways been in the shad­ows they were forced to live in. Now they are in the open.

Now they have names: Es­ther Mahlangu, Jo­hannes Phokela, Jack­son Hlung­wane, Santu Mo­fo­keng, Owen and Gold­win Ndou, He­len Mmak­gabo Se­bidi, John Muafangejo, Sam Nh­langethwa, Wil­lie Bester, Lionel Davis, Nox­olo Dy­obiso and Marry Sibande. They are ac­com­pa­nied by those also forced to be­long to the dom­i­nant white pop­u­la­tion, but who never ac­cepted the ar­ti­fi­cial bound­aries of racism, and have al­ways felt and re­sponded to the hu­man essence in the op­pressed other, an essence they felt had pow­er­ful im­pli­ca­tions for their own hu­man­ity: Penny Siopis, An­ton Momberg, Wil­liam Ken­dridge, He­lena Hugo, Jonathan Shapiro, Jane Alexan­der, David Gold­blatt, Willem Boshoff, and Candice Bre­itz. To­gether in this ex­hi­bi­tion, all these artists make a pro­found hu­man state­ment: the as­pi­ra­tion to be hu­man is ir­re­press­ible.

In a huge leap of the imag­i­na­tion they re­turn us through this ex­hi­bi­tion to the hu­man base that would never be ex­tin­guished by 150 years of in­ten­sive racial op­pres­sion. Sud­denly that pe­riod looks like a drop in the ocean of time. Sud­denly, a greater sig­nif­i­cance of be­ing in the world re-emerges as far more for­ma­tive of hu­man char­ac­ter than the 150 years or so of driven hu­man pain.

This month’s cover story of Na­tional Geo­graphic car­ries the ti­tle: The New Euro­peans: How Waves of Im­mi­grants are Re­shap­ing a Con­ti­nent. Well, Africa and other so-called “Third World” coun­tries, which con­sti­tute some two-thirds of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, were sig­nif­i­cantly re­shaped by Europe. But such re­shap­ing in some parts of the world could never be per­fect. It is such im­per­fec­tions that rear their heads to haunt Europe to­day. Mov­ing in waves, they are “here” in Europe be­cause Euro­peans were “over there” where the im­mi­grants come from. But as we have learnt in South Africa, there is no longer any room in the world for “them over there” and “us over here”.

The ex­hi­bi­tion con­cen­trates the mind and chal­lenges the imag­i­na­tion. Where are the av­enues of global aware­ness and co­her­ence that cel­e­brate the re­silience of time­less world civil­i­sa­tions and the ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ven­tive­ness of mod­ern ones?

The im­pli­ca­tions of such seis­mic pop­u­la­tion shifts in world his­tory will be faced, dis­cussed and ne­go­ti­ated for a long pe­riod of time. Hope­fully, they will yield ac­com­mo­da­tions what will en­able mod­ern hu­man­ity to agree on and work to­wards a more in­clu­sive and co­he­sive global or­der of ethics and moral­ity that build on the gift of the legacy of hu­man rights now firmly at the heart of our global or­der since the end of World War 2.

And so, we end with South Africa. I have come all the way to be re­minded of these un­der­stand­ings and be con­fronted by them by the power of an ex­hi­bi­tion that tells a story of South Africa that I be­lieve still car­ries deep mean­ings for world his­tory at this time. Against the his­tory of time, we are con­fronted in South African right now by the ac­tivism of the mo­ment. The young peo­ple of South Africa des­per­ately want to en­hance their chances in the world, as they should. They are call­ing on the con­sti­tu­tional or­der that was agreed to af­ter 1994 to be en­acted by a democ­racy that pro­claimed its com­mit­ments. But 22 years af­ter 1994, the de­mands on the state have be­come far too many and com­plex. This sit­u­a­tion car­ries im­por­tant learn­ings for young peo­ple on how best to pro­ceed.

The de­sire for to­tal vic­tory in any ma­jor dis­agree­ment or con­flict is an im­pos­si­ble one to meet. Against the river of time, vic­to­ries of prin­ci­ple al­ways come be­fore their prac­ti­cal ef­fects. Oth­er­wise, as we could see lead­ing to South Africa’s ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment, everyone stands to lose. It is this re­al­i­sa­tion that got Nel­son Man­dela to ob­serve that once you have reached the sum­mit of a moun­tain, you see other sum­mits over there in the distant vista that call on you to climb up to them.

This is an edited ver­sion of Nde­bele’s speech at the ex­hi­bi­tion

POW­ER­FUL A sculp­tural in­stal­la­tion by Mary Sibande at SA: The Art of a Na­tion

HIS­TORIC The fa­mous golden rhino of Ma­pun­gubwe

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