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Issue 222

South African Artists Keep Histories Alive Without Bricks and Mortar

After a recent fire at the University of Cape Town’s library destroyed irreplaceable books and archival documents, South African artists consider how to redefine the meaning of the archive

BY Portia Malatjie in Features , Thematic Essays | 01 NOV 21

The fires that ravaged the University of Cape Town’s upper campus in April – most notably the Jagger Reading Room, a library that housed the priceless and irreplaceable African Studies Collection – have inspired debate about the preservation of history and the protection of archives in the global south. The loss of the African Studies Collection saw the destruction of centuries of knowledge, history and heritage from across the continent, including films, documents and manuscripts that provided different historical perspectives from the oft one-sided colonial accounts. The importance of the African Studies Collection as a space that offered physical and material-based accounts of a rich and bountiful history can never be overstated: its loss will be felt for generations to come.

Yet, it is also worth acknowledging that these imperative archives existed alongside other valid and diverse ways of producing, preserving and accessing knowledge, theory and history. A look at some South African artistic practices indicates that, while it is useful to think about the archive through materiality and possession, there is an opportunity to account for different forms of knowledge-production, conservation and dissemination. It becomes generative to employ radical imagination and speculative forms of archival practice to assist us in centring different ways of knowing. If, as Siseko Kumalo writes in 'Curriculating from the Archive – Marginality as Novelty' (2020), ‘decolonization facilitates epistemic access’, where epistemic access is the way in which we encounter and absorb knowledge and information, then radical imagination can do the same.

Woman in performance outfit
University of Cape Town removes statue of Cecil Rhodes, 2015. Courtesy and photograph: Charlie Shoemaker/Getty Images

In ‘The Power of the Archive and its Limits’ (2002), Achille Mbembe offers a candid understanding of the concept of the archive: ‘The term “archives” first refers to a building, a symbol of a public institution, which is one of the organs of a constituted state. However, by “archives” is also understood a collection of documents – normally written documents – kept in this building.’ In other words: the brick-and-mortar archive involves a particular approach to codification and cataloguing that is driven by canonical forms of knowledge. These canons are in danger of disallowing key Black and Indigenous practices from being read as forming an integral part of how knowledge is preserved. By paying attention to alternative insights through speculative and imaginative engagement, we begin to discern what is left out of the more ‘formal’ archival process.

Insisting only on physical archives risks the erasure of spiritual and cosmological archival processes. In Dwala Lam’ (My Rock, 2021), South African artist Sethembile Msezane considers spiritual and ancestral archival engagements by drawing attention to the omnipresence of ancestors who guide us through life with the assistance of centuries of information stored in the spiritual realm. In the video, Msezane is seen and heard reflecting on her existence while being reassured, by a bold and captivating voice, that her ancestors are equipped with centuries of data that can help her navigate difficulties she encounters in life. At the crux of Msezane’s proposition is the insistence that we are often unaware there is information to be received from the spiritual realm, and what is uses might be. Ancestors communicate this spiritual archival material in the form of whispers or dreams, giving us access to that which we did not even consider knowing. By enlisting the services of dingaka or izangoma – spiritual/traditional healers or herbalists who act as archival interpreters – we are able to decode this cosmic information.

Msezane devised Dwala Lam’ soon after learning that she was named after her great-grandmother, Sethembile, to ruminate proudly on the legacy she carries as someone who was entrusted with the name – and therefore being – of an ancestor. By this naming process, Msezane becomes a vessel through which family history and information is relayed from generation to generation, which in the video is signified through a doubling, tripling then quadrupling effect, wherein Msezane’s body separates, departs and returns, astutely attesting to the cyclical nature of spiritual and ancestral processing of data.

In Falling (2017), a short film based on country-wide student protests that erupted in 2015 with a call to remove the Cecil John Rhodes sculpture from UCT’s upper campus, Msezane uses archival news footage to report on the Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements. Reflecting on the sacred Zimbabwean Chapungu stone statue that can still be found at Rhodes’s residence in Cape Town, the artist looks at the political history of Southern Africa and the impact of failing to repatriate spiritual objects of national significance. Msezane compels us to think critically about how national archives are sometimes built on objects that have been stolen from other places. This theft leaves a spiritual debt and void at the site of the looting: unrest prevails until the objects are returned. By signalling to these moments, Msezane forces us to face the harsh realities of some dubious archival practices.

Artwork installed on wall Igshaan Adams
Igshaan Adams, Die grot en die grou vensters (The Cave and the Golden Windows), 2021, wood, plastic, stone beads, polyester and nylon rope, chain, cotton twine, 2.6x2.3m. Courtesy: the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York; photograph: Jason Wyche

Ostensibly inconsequential, yet existing in the same spiritual, ancestral and cosmological forms of producing, disseminating and accessing what we might refer to as archival material, is the material of dust. South African artist Igshaan Adams mobilizes dust as a container of history and meditates on its form as an archive capable of holding memory and narrating stories. In exhibitions such as ‘When Dust Settles’ (2018) at Johannesburg's Standard Bank Gallery, and, recently, ‘Kicking Dust’ (2021) at London's Hayward Gallery, Adams evokes his longstanding tradition of seeking histories and heritage in obscure territories of information.

The immediate association of dust that is kicked and later settles might be one of disruption and discontent, with particles stirred into the air as a result of turmoil. Here, the Southern African toyi-toyi dance – often used in South Africa during protest, where feet methodically and synchronously stomp the colonized ground that was violently looted from those who are protesting – comes vividly to mind. However, Adams’s contemplation of the relationship between dance and dust brings with it a completely different tone, where the artist propositions the disruption of dust as a generative act.

Adams conjures the awakening of dust through the indigenous riel dance of the Nama people of Southern Africa. The artist’s grandparents are Nama, and he recalls the dance typically being performed after a hunt. When we spoke this summer, he described it as ‘storytelling through dance and movement’. The riel dance is characterized by the act of energetically kicking dust as a form of celebration or courtship. The act and its resulting effects of dust clouds amidst laughter inspire ecstasy. In ‘Kicking Dust’, Adams’s use of the dance and of dust as metaphor becomes that which connects him to his history, and that with which he remembers and preserves heritage.

Kumalo makes a proposition for accessing and disseminating different forms of information – specifically, Black/Indigenous knowledge systems. He reminds us that, in order to arrive at justice – for the systemic erasure of pre-colonial information – we need to recall and employ abstract knowledge systems that have suffered obliteration.

Adams’s recurring proposal of dust as archive is, however, not only rooted in the abstract, speculative and imaginative. It is also rooted in some semblance of what would be classified as scientific evidence. As the artist told me:

Dust is about residue. It is about what gets left behind after time has passed [] And one imagines that, within the dust itself, if you were to have a forensic examination of the particles, what kind of stories would it tell, what kind of information does it hold? And so, it is a little bit of an archive, too.

In the eponymous instillation Kicking Dust (2021) – which is made with beads, rope, cotton twine, wire and fabric and takes over most of the gallery floor – Adams leaves a void in the middle of the piece, allowing viewers to walk through the space unencumbered and experience the emotive nature of the work as though from inside it. This pathway, which presents like a void or an absence of material, is itself a container of symbolism and meaning, reflecting Adams’s interest in desire lines or desire paths: informal routes created through perpetual and insistent erosion by people or animals. The desire line represented in Kicking Dust is imbued with socio-political tension as a consequence of segregation imposed by the apartheid regime: Jakes Gerwel Drive serves as a physical barrier between Cape Town’s Coloured community of Bonteheuwel and the Black community of Langa. Adams renders Kicking Dust yet more powerful with his reference to what he calls domestic pathways that are created within a home as archives in and of themselves: these domestic pathways include areas that wear down and deteriorate from constant use. This is a continuation of Adam’s practice of borrowing objects – including repurposed prayer mats and vinyl flooring in works such as 69 (2013) and Antie se voorkamer tapyt (My Auntie's Living Room Carpet, 2010) – from the homes of the many people he has engaged with throughout his life, and then incorporating them into his art.

Installation view of Kicking Dust at Hayward Gallery
Igshaan Adams, 'Kicking Dust', 2021, exhibition view, Hayward Gallery. © Igshaan Adams and Hayward Gallery, London; photograph: Mark Blower

The floor piece is accompanied by beaded wires suspended in the space above. This symbolizes the dust that has been disrupted through the continuous and insistent movement of people between Langa and Bonteheuwel, as well as the energetic awakening of the dust during the riel dance. The history and memories that the dust contains have not yet settled onto the ground, as if to suggest that more information and history remains to be recorded and decoded.

Like Adams, who visits homes from his childhood neighbourhood in search of material to work with, Santu Mofokeng’s Black Photo Album: Look at Me, 1890–1950 (1997) also relies on objects – specifically photographs – found in homes in Soweto, a Black township in South Africa. Mofokeng leans in on the Black archive as a form of participation and usage. He engages with the Black archive as a form of participation and usage, facilitating new modes of knowledge production. The work brings back the notion of the archive of bricks, mortar and documents – albeit not in the conventional manner.

Mofokeng went to the homes of a number of families in Soweto, searching through albums, cupboards and cardboard boxes – often harbouring mouldy and damaged objects – to excavate a curious form of self-fashioning and self-determination. The artist unearthed images of working- and middle-class men, women and children clad in ‘European’ clothes in poses reminiscent of Victorian photography. What was compelling was how these depictions stood in opposition to the then-customary ethnographic and anthropological photographs of Black subjects. In the images discovered by Mofokeng, the subjects seemed to sit for the photographer uncoerced, according to their own rules, as the artist indicated in an article published in the Spring 1996 issue of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art.

Mofokeng’s engagement with the Black archives that were found in the homes of these families indicates an archival interest that, while reliant on some form of codification and cataloguing – the items were stored according to carefully thought-out systems – also exists outside of it. He meticulously compiled and curated these works – sometimes incorporating an element of speculation as a result of the families no longer knowing the identities’ subjects – into a comprehensive slide show that reveals magnitudes about the political climate in which the images were made, the nature of Black photography at that time, and the conditions and aspirations of Blackness in South Africa.

Archival photograph of 2 south african women
What was the occasion? Who is gazing?

Santu Mofokeng, Black Photo Album: Look at Me, 1890-1950, 1997, black and white slides. Courtesy: © Santu Mofokeng Foundation and Lunetta Bartz/MAKER, Johannesburg

If we return to Mbembe’s assertion that there cannot ‘be a definition of “archives” that does not encompass both the building itself and the documents stored in there’, are we to abandon the conception of the history that dust carries or the imagining of the land as that which remembers? Are we to call these different forms of archival documentation, storage and dissemination, which are sustained by speculation and imagination, by a different name altogether?

The methodologies employed by Msezane, Adams and Mofokeng in considering generative mobilizations of archives help us arrive at the land that which remembers and tells stories, as we begin to think about spiritual practices as forms of archival production and distribution. This proposition is not meant to discount the object-based, bricks-and-mortar archives that we rely on so heavily. Rather, it makes us think differently about how other forms of knowledge can work in tandem with these practices to help record histories that we might not consider worthy of preserving. To rely solely on the archive of brick, mortar and paper can be limiting, requiring all forms of archival practice to fit neatly into a canonical framework. When abstract forms are also accepted, ‘the inescapable materiality of the archive’ that Mbembe references is open to reimagination. As such, in the event that an archival building, hosting irreplaceable documents and objects, devastatingly burns down, we should not think of this as a complete loss of history and heritage.

Main image and thumbnail: Santu Mofokeng, Chief More's Funeral, GaMogopa, 1989, gelatin silver print, 38x58cm. Courtesy: © Santu Mofokeng Foundation and Lunetta Bartz/MAKER, Johannesburg 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 222 with the headline ‘Archive Panic'

Dr. Portia Malatjie is a curator and senior lecturer in visual cultures at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, South Africa. She is adjunct curator of Africa and African Diaspora at the Hyundai Tate Research Centre: Transnational at Tate Modern, London, UK, and adjunct curator at Norval Foundation, Cape Town. She lives in Cape Town.