BY Ian Bourland in Reviews | 02 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 183

The Quiet Violence of Dreams

Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town & Johannesburg, and blank projects, Cape Town, South Africa

BY Ian Bourland in Reviews | 02 SEP 16

In 2001, the young Capetonian K. ‘Sello’ Duiker released his visceral Bildungsroman, titled The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which is now regarded as a classic. While the story is told from multiple perspectives, it centres on the life of a young student named Tshepo. Orphaned and recently released from a mental hospital, he is adrift in a landscape that is, by turns, harrowing and beautiful. Like the immigrant families, male hustlers and gangsters that surround him, Tshepo seeks out brief moments of purchase and catharsis in a dislocated society. Duiker’s book was powerful at the time of its release because it provided a lyrical but relentless account of life in a post-apartheid gilded city, revealing the shadowlands amidst the shimmer. But it remains relevant in light of both Duiker’s suicide in 2005 at the age of 30, and its own uncanniness. 15 years on, it still speaks to unrealized dreams and lingering trauma that, for millions, still animate the South African present.

Zanele Muholi, Hate crime survivor I, 2004, gelatin silver print, 25 x 39 cm. Courtesy: Stevenson Cape Town and Johannesburg © Zanele Muholi  

Curator Joost Bosland of Stevenson and artist Moshekwa Langa presented a group exhibition, ‘The Quiet Violence of Dreams’, across both locations of Bosland’s gallery and in the smaller blank projects in Woodstock, Cape Town, which it included the work of 23 artists (17 from South Africa and six from Lebanon, Nigeria, the US and Zimbabwe). Like Duiker’s text, the show is sprawling and uneven but, overall, it boldly engages with currents in quotidian life that might otherwise remain invisible.

At times, ‘The Quiet Violence of Dreams’ does not seem to commit to being either a fully regional or more unabashedly global show. The already broad rubric of the book is stretched thin to accommodate the artists from the US and Lebanon: Glenn Ligon’s neon sculpture Untitled (Bruise/Blues) (2014), for example, is stirring but out of place here, conflating nuanced and distinct racial contexts. Similarly, Bosland and Langa highlights younger artists or early work, undercutting the general high finish of the show. For instance, Bronwyn Katz’s video projection Wees Gegroet (Hail Mary, 2016) is rich in coded references but registers nonetheless as collegiate, while Robin Rhode’s eight drawings of pistols Gun Drawings (2004) are Basquiat-lite. The latter refer to notorious Cape Flats gangs that populate the book, but their inclusion hints at a commercial, rather than conceptual, cohesion at work.

Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi, To be born again, 2014–15, oil on canvas, 96 x 136 cm. Courtesy: Everard Read, Johannesburg  © Mmakgoba Helen Sebidi 

 ‘The Quiet Violence of Dreams’ is more arresting when it taps into the resonant and often ineffable emotional currents of the book, creating visual traces of psychogeographic spaces. For instance, Buhlebezwe Siwani’s Ithongo (Ghost, 2015) is an update of 1960s-era performance and conceptual impulses. The artist imprinted her face sequentially on 14 pieces of paper in sanguinary vermillion, tracking her disturbances over 17 hours of sleep; beneath these wall-mounted anthropometries lie rows of stolen bed sheets, printed with the name of a local hospital interspersed with drifts of red pigment. As a result, the work conveys the fevered clip and visceral isolation that hum through Duiker’s pages. In other passages of the book, Tshepo finds brief moments of salvation in the hidden nocturnal spaces of queer life and the dancefloor. Bosland and Langwa channel this with a sample of vintage Lyle Ashton Harris pictures from the Ektaarchive (1989–92); they echo a four-minute film and text installation by Evan Ifekoya, who likens queerness to a beautiful, necessary glitch in our collective code. Together, they reiterate how generative and vital queer spaces remain in Europe and Africa alike.

Lyle Ashton Harris, M. Lamar, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, 1993, 2015, c-type print, 38 x 52cm. © Lyle Ashton Harris 

Ultimately, ‘The Quiet Violence of Dreams’ does powerful cross-temporal work. Like its source material, it draws into focus blindspots and elisions and charts throughlines from the structural violence of apartheid to an unreconciled present. This is implicit in the recent inclusions, and also in pairings with now-celebrated meditations on violence, both state-sponsored (such as 1980s-era Jane Alexander) and sexual: a series of black and white photographs by Zanele Muholi, ‘Only Half the Picture’ (2003–05), depict the somatic and forensic aftermath of rape. In a time of fresh political upheaval on college campuses and at the ballot box, this is a timely show and, in a country with few official contemporary art institutions, an ambitious and crucial one.

Ian Bourland is a critic and associate professor of art history at Georgetown University, USA. He writes widely on art, pop culture and aesthetics, and has published two books, Bloodflowers (Duke University Press, 2019) and Blue Lines (Bloomsbury, 2019).