Stories against historical erasure - Tell Freedom. 15 South African artists

Issue no6
Dec-Jan 2018/1
Het jaar in 7 karakters & Nieuwe collectie 2018

As part of Kunsthal Kade’s ongoing series of country-based exhibitions, Tell Freedom. 15 South African artists focuses on South Africa. A country that has been colonised by the Dutch followed by the English, and on gaining their independence started the Apartheid regime. For many years white supremacy has been repressing the black majority through a system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination. It is only relatively recent, in 1994, that South Africa became a democracy. A mere twenty-four years have passed and the country is still in the transition phase. It has not fully healed from its violent past and the injustice is still fresh. Inequality and racism are part of everyday life. Transition to change has proven to be a slow and complicated process.

In the exhibition fifteen South African artists each present a number of their works to give insight into their practices. A collection of video works, sculptures, installations, paintings and photographs are spread out between the three floors, interweaving family history, collective memory and personal narrative into larger sociopolitical debates. Even though they all come from the same national background, each artist is influenced differently by that context.

One thing that Kunsthal Kade makes clear in all forms of information surrounding Tell Freedom is that the exhibition is not meant to be a retelling of the nation’s history nor does it want to give an overview of contemporary South African art. Instead, it is highlighting fifteen socially engaged artists who give their own view on the situation in the country. In a wider sense, the aim of the exhibition is to open up dialogue about social inequality by using South Africa as a starting point to contribute to the global discourse on inclusion. The exhibition is accompanied with a program of events, a symposium and a catalogue that puts the artworks into context.

The participating artists all grew up post-apartheid, and might not have lived through the horrors their parents and grandparents lived through, but collectively carry the injustice with them. Kunsthal Kade seems to be placing these artists in a position of knowing the past, wanting to change the present and looking to the future. It is an exhibition of hope by looking toward new beginnings, while envisioning what the change could mean and should mean for the country. The fifteen artists contribute to the discussion on a variety of levels reaching back to the start of the country’s colonial past, to intimate personal family histories and the present aftermath of the colonization, and the more contemporary debates around inclusion.

Buhlebezwe Siwani, an initiated sangoma (a traditional healer), presents work that focuses on healing and the rituals that surround it. Her installation Batsho bancama (and they gave up) (2017) consist of sculptures made of green soap. This soap is not only used for cleaning one’s clothes but one’s body as well. The installation represents an act of cleansing during the passage of black females into adulthood. Her work questions concepts of purity, in an interplay between its romantic notion and the process itself. For the exhibition she was commissioned to create new work during a residency at Het Vijfde Seizoen in Den Holder. Here she explores the Dutch colonial past and the effects that it has had on the country, which she describes as: “A socio-political epidemic that the nation is suffering from as a whole and the illness that were brought to South Africa from the West.”

Kemang Wa Lehulere’s practice explores black history by re-examining events that bring together individual biography and official historiography. He shows how injustices and racism are often erased or blurred from history. The messenger or The knife eats home (2016) , an installation of tyres, crushes and ceramic dogs alludes to the student uprising in 1976. The tyres symbolise an innocent township game played by children, and the violent act of necklacing, tortious act of execution carried out in black communities to those perceived to be collaborating with the apartheid government. It also links to the more contemporary student uprising #RhodesMustFall protest to ‘decolonise’ education throughout South Africa. His work explores past events to contest historical erasure.

Francois Knoetze and Mawande Ka Zenzile works tap into a wider contemporary debate by including America. Veraaier (2016-), translates to ‘traitor’ from Afrikaans, is a video-work filmed in both South Africa and the USA, the central character is a disfigured creature that dons numerous skins and masks: an embodiment of veraaier, treachery and deception.

Mawande Ka Zenzile’s work Goals (2017) a painting on large canvas, directly quotes from a memo written by former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that internally circulated on 25 August 1967. The assassination of various black political leaders was later traced back to this Counterintelligence Programme. His other work, an equally large canvas White (after Amy Edgington) (2017) directly quotes the poem “White” by Amy Edgington from the essay Moving Beyond White Guilt which discusses white people and white responsibility. Through his work and material choice Ka Zenzile questions the norm, deconstructing the ideologies and limitations imposed on him by others and the world.

The question is: how effective is Tell Freedom in starting a discussion about inequality? On the one hand it reveals histories unknown in the Netherlands, the effects of Dutch colonisation on former colonies. But are the works centered around the Netherlands VOC past, however violent, too far back to have an impact on people today? Or do they place contemporary issues into perspective by revealing that they have been present from the start of colonialism? The exhibition and the works themselves range from monumental to smaller and more intimate works. In almost every space a booklet with background information on the artworks can be found; providing a short summary of the artists’ practice as well as a short description of their works on display. Some of the works are clearly dealing with larger political issues, while others are more personal and intimately interweaving of sociopolitical issues. Personal narrative infused in many of the works make these issues more digestible, relatable and more real, but do they also make it more foreign? Much of the imagery and symbolism used is specific to the South African context. For example Kemang Wa Lehulere tires, alluding to children's games in township and the violent act of necklacing, or the green soap used by Buhlebezwe Siwani, and the black and white photographs depicting typical South African settings in the countryside. Do these more personal works become more alien when presented in a foreign country? Background information becomes of vital importance, as while moving from room to room, trying to find connections, relationships or dialogue between works, sometimes becomes nearly impossible. The exhibition itself has an almost overwhelming amount of works, all dealing with intensely personal or highly political subject matter which makes it impossible to take it all in at once.

Tell Freedom is an exhibition that provides the breadcrumbs that lead to opening up the discussion around inequality by providing case studies. Supported by the catalogue which delves into the issue of inclusion and exclusion in more depth through a number of essays that are thought provoking, challenging the norm, connecting personal history with historiography, and so gives a larger, more comprehensible overview of the issues surrounding inequality. The exhibition and the works on display are only one part of Tell Freedom. It is the information that surrounds it, the context and the potential to provoke discussion that makes it whole. It is an exhibition that is thought provoking, and if even just one artist or artwork stays with you after visiting the exhibition it has succeeded in opening up a discussion or contemplation about inequality.

Tell Freedom. 15 South African artists, t/m 06.05.2018, Kunsthal Kade, Amersfoort

Nicole Sciarone
is intern at Metropolis M

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 6 — 2018/1