Miscast

20 November 2021, 10:40 am

(Review of the Miscast exhibition/installation by Pippa Skotnes; originally published in Southern African Review of Books, Issue 44, July/August 1996, alongside reviews of same by Carmel Schrire and Yvette Abrahams. Reproduced here unedited.)

I catch a train into Cape Town and walk to the South African National Gallery to view the Miscast exhibition. Ungraced by deodorant, I will later smell like those children of my youth whom my father, among others, called boesman, hotnot. Lazy hotnots who wanted to do nothing but sit in the sun and suck marrow from bones, teachers called us all. To a South African child, one of the harshest whips language wields: stupid/ lazy boesman/ hotnot; whips we too used on our peers.


I have been following the Miscast story: Pippa Skotnes’s discovery of Khoisan skulls in the British Museum; itself in the wake of the Griqua National Conference’s attempts to retrieve Saartjie Baartman’s preserved brains and genitals from a French museum; and, from an acquaintance involved in Miscast, the surrounding controversy. She couldn’t name the organisations, but mentioned their objections to whites once again re-presenting the Khoisan.

I dismissed these reported criticisms as knee-jerk reactions. Who, my academic training cautioned me, can claim the authority of authenticity? Who can really speak for the Khoisan? Who is Khoisan?

My first visit to the gallery, I hesitate at the main entrance, take a wrong turn, try again, and finally enter the Miscast exhibition.

I start at what must be the frame of the exhibition: cabinets of material culture below panels of photographs. My imagination cants, as it always does when I see the utensils and clothing of ancient peoples. I wonder at the challenge of environment overcome in the implement, and by the imagination.

My mind wanders to the collection of Native American artefacts in the Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis. An insignificant, young museum, but my first encounter of the Native American exhibited. And in that museum I saw them too in photo-realist paintings: romanticised Injuns; fantastic yearnings for absolution from the guilt of genocidal silence. But this is Cape Town, South Africa.

Spanning the material culture are photographs of the Khoisan, in loincloths, in Victorian dress. Young adults fettered by their necks. Group hangings, the attendant white commandant or veldkornet striking the obligatory pioneer’s pose, one foot on a block. A pose I often jokingly strike whenever someone aims a camera at me. A pale-skinned woman in Victorian dress, a touch of Khoi in her cheeks. Lucy Lloyd.

Then I recognise faces: my acquaintance who helped with the project; an academic whose views I respect. And more. Somewhere must be a photograph of Skotnes. I cannot remember what she looks like.

These photographs recall Skotnes’s implied agenda of questioning past representations of the Khoisan (Mail & Guardian, 16-22 Feb. 1996). But the contemporary faces gaze from their actual role of mediators. Here but for our grace, they say. Or do they claim authority? Ancestry? Who aimed the lens at the exhibitors. (For the sake of brevity, I refer to all the contemporary faces as ‘exhibitors’.)

Ask photographers whether one can take a shot of them and they respond as if one wants to train their own guns on them. After enough nagging, the photographer might hand over the instrument. But it always returns to the original owner’s hands and the order of power that the wielded camera expresses is restored.

So, while photographs of the exhibitors among those of the exhibited ironise the former’s power as exhibitor, the structures of that power remain intact. Who, for instance, and in what context, trained the camera on the exhibitors? One photograph comes from an exhibitor’s book jacket: a photograph willingly agreed to, in a professional context perhaps. Certainly the face smiles at the lens with confidence.

In no way is the exhibitor-photographer relationship even close to the exhibited-photographer one. In no way does the exhibitor as exhibited even approximate a subject position close to that of the exhibited Khoisan. Isn’t the outstanding feature of the history of representation of the Khoisan their subjugation? So that a starting point in any project challenging this history would, for one, interrogate the representational politics of, say, the photographer’s colonising gaze?

In Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, the film maker’s futile quest to interview the chairman of General Motors places Moore in a position far less powerful than normally associated with the one behind the camera. The film sides with retrenched workers, and Moore goes further to reinvent even this partisan mode of documentary film: in his quest he is denied the documenter’s conventional access to power and knowledge. In Miscast, no such gesture obtains. The photographs of the exhibitors do not raise even an oblique challenge to the history of the relationship of power underlying representations of the Khoisan.

If these photographs alert us to, ironise and thematise the fact of representation, why not use them too as a site where the history of the present exhibitors’ power to represent may be displayed. All the variables: childhood, hard work, education, funding, artistic vision, collaboration, friendships. How, in other words, does a particular contemporary face come to be there, on the wall, mediating to us? How, I want to know, does Miscast otherwise challenge past and (its own) present representations of the Khoisan. How does it say, This is how we looked at the Khoisan; here is a new way to look? At best, the photographs appear as faddish lip service to post-modern notions of self-aware representations.

Another site where Skotnes miscasts a prime opportunity to dislocate conventional subject-object relationships of representation is the cabinet of ‘face masks’. These are pieces cut (by Skotnes)* from old Khoisan facial casts, cut in such a way that the pieces look like masks; some, in fact, with glass fibre tufts left at the edges, like a fancy mask one would wear to a masquerade ball, say when the Cape was still Dutch. Surely masks present a fine moment for playing with representation. Why not facial masks cast from the exhibitors’ faces? Or the exhibitors’ names placed under the existing masks? Or would that be misrepresentation?

My parents trace lines to exotic origins: Turkey, Indonesia, Wales. They never mention the kink in our hair. In age though, their cheekbones speak silenced lineages.

But I am not Khoisan. I know not the ways of Karretjiemense. Nor do I speak the Afrikaans of the Northern Cape, or in clicks. Similarly am I not Turkish, Welsh, Indonesian. Nor white – not semiotically, not economically. Neither am I black, unless intentionally, rhetorically.

But the whips of language have left their weals on me: hotnot, kaffer, kerrienaat (curry-arse); traces of who I could/ should have been. And I view the first chamber of Miscast more and more now in agreement with Khoisan activists; more and more as the exhibited. How the structures remain intact.

For many minutes the boxes piled high – the colonial collection and codification of artefact and body – wrench at me. Then I circle the lit body casts, linger self-consciously at the cast of a naked woman, and pass through into the other two chambers.

I spend some moments on the media floor and ignore the questions that rise to me here. But I do wonder whether the miscast caption under a photograph of a man smoking (‘Roy Sesana making a fence for his garden’) does not reveal the casual, inattentive treatment of the subject matter. How can an artist (vision and imagination?) who has spent time researching the Khoisan overlook prime moments where her ironisation of representation could have been politically interesting and not fashion-driven, surface gesture without motion?

At the slide show, I sit down and think about the above as the projector loops through its ironisation of representation: slides of other representations; of the conventional Bushman coffee table book; of white children staring at Bushmen; of graffiti over rock paintings. How do these quotations of quotations necessarily invent a new mode of representation?

Homi Bhabha writes:

The Other is cited, quoted, framed, illuminated, encased in the shot/ reverse-shot strategy of a serial enlightenment. … The Other loses its power to signify, to negate, to initiate its historic desire, to establish its own institutional and oppositional discourse. However impeccably the content of an ‘other’ culture may be known, however anti-ethnocentrically it is represented, it is … the demand that … it be always the good object of knowledge, the docile body of difference, that reproduces a relation of domination …. (The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994) p.31)

How things remain intact.

The show ends. Behind the screen, the projector clacks unendingly, like train wheels over rail joints. Like a train bound for a death camp. Boegoenwald.

Also behind the screen, English spoken with a heavy Afrikaans accent. The confluence of other histories of concentration camps.

The white owners of the voices emerge and leave the room. Almost immediately, a black attendant enters and restarts the show. Moments later, three black men huff and puff as, guided by a white man, they carry-drag a big crate behind the screen. How things hang together, I think and leave.

On my way to the station, I stop for coffee at the Off Moroka Cafe Africaine, Adderley Street. A white woman serves me. The wall to my left sports a naive watercolour of a Bushman hunter. In the kitchen, black women. On another wall, graffiti – Albie Sachs: ‘Viva the lekkerness of life’. Outside, black workers walk past, oblivious to this Cafe Africaine. A woman appears from the kitchen, Khoisan cheekbones. Her name tag reads ‘Catherine’. Our eyes meet momentarily. I feel like a voyeur who has seen Catherine’s genitals. I want to drink myself to death. Someone screams outside. My back to the door, I imagine a taxi war breaking out in Adderley Street. I fear any moment now AK47 slugs will rip into my back. How things hang together. It is time to go home.

On my walk home from the station, I buy a bag of avocados. I grip the plastic netting and feel my fingers negotiate history. I wonder how past (ancestral?) hands felt clasping a net of leather thongs, such as a nomad might use to carry his possessions; such as the one I saw at the gallery.

In my kitchen, the bag tears and the fruit roll all over the floor. I am too tired to bend and pick them up. I have walked a lot today. And, ungraced by deodorant, I smell like a hotnot, as my father would say.

* Pippa Skotnes’s correction as an aside in her response to mainly Yvette Abrahams’s review: “Rustum Kozain is also mistaken in thinking that I cut out pieces of the casts. The eyes which remind him of masks were cast separately later to be slotted into the heads, as part of the original casting project.”


Port Nolloth, 00:01

31 March 2017, 9:06 am

From the archive, a short piece of fiction written for a Sunday Times special, set in South Africa, 2030.

“Fifty dollar!” the tuk-tuk driver yelled over the noise of helicopters chopping air over heavy loads at the docks nearby and revellers in the streets banging drums and setting off fireworks. The Atlantic was black as oil, the outlines of two abandoned diamond dredgers visible in the light spilling from the perimeter of the United Northern States of America naval depot. Out in deeper water blinked the lights of a hospital ship.

Lionel Powell wasn’t in the mood for haggling; he paid and crossed the road to Hunan Joys, a resto overlooking the docks. He was jumpy and winced at a loud bang from a large cracker. It was Freedom Day, the holiday celebrating the peaceful settlement reached between colonial settlers and native peoples back in 1913, but all he cared about was some rutting and recreation after the major fubar three weeks ago at Cuito Canaveral.

The resto was noisy with troops either back and battered from Cuito or fresh-faced and anxious on their way there. The kitchen was down to serving seal steaks and rice and salt fish. On special were PRC ratpacks, pilfered from bases after China’s withdrawal from the People’s Republic of Xaoteng. Hunan’s hosts and hostesses were struggling against waves of groping hands by troops who couldn’t afford them. But the simbays were full and the staff had to keep the hope of sex alive.

“Beer?” Hunanje, the owner, asked him.

Early skirmishes with Southern African troops had emboldened UNSA and Brazil, who poured more troops and equipment into a massive push north, the front stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. But behind this canon fodder, well-bunkered in Ximbabwe, Xambia and central Angola, were the PRC’s 6th, 7th and 3rd armies. The UNSA advance had stalled under a series of fire storms for which its troops were ill-prepared. Old hands like Lionel were veterans only of suppressing civilian uprisings in Canada, a last-gasp land grab as UNSA influence dwindled elsewhere, and they were shaken by the PRC armies’ ferocity.

Sechuana was scorched earth, its network of frack wells and pipelines, extending from the Carew in the south, had been set alight during the PRC retreat and was now a toxic no-go area. After the setback at Cuito, UNSA was consolidating, allowing troops who had been on long tours back as far south as Port Nolloth, its major base on the west coast from which it hoped to advance a prong through Namibia in order to encircle the PRC 6th and 7th armies in Ximbabwe, while its allies, lead by Germany, battled through the east coast and interior.

“Susy or Sean tonight? Or both?” Hunanje winked at him.

Lionel wasn’t in the mood.

“Simbay? I’ll put you on the short list.”

Most of the troops distrusted Hunanje, but Lionel liked the old man. At least he knew a bit of the history of the place. Historical South Africa.

The PRC had been driven north, but its allies, India and Indonesia, still ruled a third of the place, their respective territories stretching along the east coast. And the Republic of Xaoteng – the part that China had occupied – was a mire of ever-shifting allegiances among the Africans and the 50 million Chinese settlers. Things were precarious.

“Happy Freedom Day!”

A civilian had burst through the door and set off a cracker. As Lionel winced, there was a much louder bang outside. Lights and machinery clicked off. The hush lasted a few seconds, then the sirens began wailing…


Alan Paton, The Hero of Currie Road

25 August 2008, 10:29 am

The Hero of Currie Road: Complete Short Pieces, by Alan Paton (Umuzi, 2008)

[Review originally published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 24 August 2008]

The Hero of Currie Road collects a variety of short pieces by Alan Paton: short stories, biographical pieces and the odd miscellania, all from Debbie Go Home/ Tales from a Troubled Land (1961) and Knocking on the Door (1975). In short, all Paton’s short pieces are now available in one volume. The end pages include brief notes about either a story’s print publication date or when it was read first by Paton, and so the volume is a convenient source for literary historians.

Not having been a fan of Cry, the Beloved Country when I was a university student, and therefore not having read any Paton beyond that, I nevertheless approached the volume with a degree of openness. Youth, after all, can be blind in its passions. Read the rest of this entry »


Update: Archive extended

24 July 2008, 3:25 pm

I have been cleaning up some folders and came across some youthful miscellaneous pieces I thought I’d add to my archive.

There’s a trio of articles on, respectively, coffee, fish and chips, and samoosas that I wrote for Student Life in 1997 (now called SL). And there’s one on smoking, published at the now defunct World Online (Tiscali, South Africa). The Student Life articles never appeared online, while the World Online piece has disappeared, obviously due to databases suffering the vagaries of time and corporate acquisition (see http://worldonline.co.za).

Read the rest of this entry »


Dear Comrade: Letter to Mandela

13 July 2008, 10:52 am

Following is the English version of a letter to Nelson Mandela, commissioned by the books editor of Rapport in celebration of his 90th birthday. The Afrikaans version appeared in Rapport, 13 July 2008, with minor cuts and variations of meaning:

Dear Comrade

Firstly, even as I have never been a member of the ANC (or any political party), allow me to address you as “Comrade”. After all, growing up into a politicized young adult during the 1980s in this heart-breaking country, I shared (and still do) many of the broad visions of the future that the ANC then held.

You are now 90, and I wonder, when you look at everything around you, what goes through your head? We are a long way from the heady days of my own politicisation, and, of course, a long way from your own birth, from your eventual entanglement with and incarceration by the Pretoria regime of old. Your life has been remarkable, but you don’t need a snotkop writer to point this out. So I won’t go into detail about your achievements and credentials. Neither will I engage in my normal anti-hagiographic critique of which my friends have heard enough.

Read the rest of this entry »


Archive

3 October 2007, 2:17 pm

I thought it a good idea to start archiving the scattered reviews and miscellaneous prose I have written for various publications over the years. I will provide a link to online versions where they exist. Items in the archive will also be time-stamped according to their publication date, so they won’t appear on the landing page; but I put them in the Archive for easy perusal. So, a personal archive, as opposed to the blog archive.

Some reviews appear in Afrikaans publications and I will provide English versions to these.


Rachel Holmes, The Hottentot Venus

14 September 2007, 11:49 am

The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman, Born 1789 – Buried 2002, by Rachel Holmes (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

[Published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 14 September 2007]

The story of Saartjie Baartman is both fascinating and tragic. Smuggled from the Cape when barely an adult in 1810, she became an exhibit in an England obsessed with freak shows. Eventually freed from this indignity by abolitionists, Baartman ended up in France, modeling for French scientists. She died in 1814, of a combination of illness and alcoholism, and, I am sure, the psychological effects of the past four years of her life.

I first came across her story in Stephen Gray’s volume of poetry, Hottentot Venus and Other Poems (1979), and her story has filtered through into more literature and art in more recent times. Newspaper readers will also remember the struggle over having her remains returned to South African soil from France, and her eventual interment in Hankey, near the Gamtoos, in August 2002. Read the rest of this entry »


Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns

16 August 2007, 1:59 pm

Bloomsbury, 2007

[Published in Afrikaans in Rapport, 16 August 2007]

This novel is a quick, easy read and introduces readers to images and lives from Afghanistan not easily found in mainstream media. In this way it reminded me of Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (1995), a novel set among the desperately poor of India and a novel far more accessible than Salman Rushdie’s over-written Midnight’s Children. In economic, realist prose, Mistry nevertheless achieves a rich and evocative texture. Read the rest of this entry »


HONDERD JAAR LATER – Ter viering van die publikasie van Eugène N. Marais se “Winternag” op 23 Junie 1905

20 November 2006, 2:00 pm

[One Hundred Years Later: In Celebration of the Publication of Eugene Marais’ “Winternag” on 23 June 1905]

compiled and edited by Johann Lodewyk Marais. Praag, Dainfern, 2006. (Hardcover, xi + 58, 1-920059-04-0)

Published in Die Burger, 20 November 2006

As with any crazy genius-cum-Renaissance man, Eugène Marais’ place in South African history and culture remains contested. Dependent on one’s perspective, he is either proto-Nationalist or eccentric rebel – and a host of other things in between, including a depressed suicide. But that Marais (1871-1936) has a place is certain, and his story remains fascinating: among other things, largely Afrikaans poet who grew up in an English home, editor prodigy, scientist, law scholar, drug addict, loner in search of the unnameable, and, of course, writer of those immortal lines: ‘O koud is die windjie en skraal…’ [How cold is the wind and sharp]. Read the rest of this entry »


Ziauddin Sardar, Desperately Seeking Paradise

25 November 2005, 5:39 pm

Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, Granta Books, 2004/2005

[Published in the Mail&Guardian, 25 November 2005]

BORN IN 1951 in Pakistan and raised in London, Ziauddin Sardar is a prolific 21st century universal man. His Google hits amount to thousands, referring the googler not only to Sardar’s own writing, but to writing about him. His own topics range from information technology to scientific futures, from literary reviews to Islam.

As columnist, he is interpreter and critic of Islam to the West, while understanding the role of colonialism in the decline of Islamic culture. In short, his project is to show and emphasize a strain of scepticism in Islam. This provokes the ire of both American patriots and less sceptical Muslims. To the former, he is an apologist for Islam; to the latter, a traitor (there are some scary blogs out there).

Desperately Seeking Paradise continues this project, tracing the writer’s journey from his youth as a Muslim student activist in the 1970s to his role in various Muslim think-tanks. From his hurtful breaks with dogmatic former comrades to reconciliation with them post-9/11. Throughout, Sardar traces the history of humanism and scepticism in Islam, using it as antidote to various forms of bigotry he encounters as he himself searches for some Islamic movement or think-tank in which he can play a role.

And the book is a hoot, cultural criticism as comedy. Frequently, Sardar is approached by a pair of characters who either want to ‘help’ him find ‘true’ Islam, or who seek his help in matters religious or political. Having identified himself as a seeker (‘Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave’ is an oft-quoted saying of the Prophet Muhammad), Sardar readily falls in tow with whomever knocks on his door.

Sooner or later, though, he discovers his companions to be absolutist and unforgiving in religion. The comedy is created by the way in which Sardar caricatures these characters and his conversations with them, throwing the naïve simplicity of their belief into sharp relief. Sometimes, this verges on uncomfortable stereotype, and one wonders about Sardar’s less explicit motives. But he redeems himself by his own, witty self-effacements.

Desperately Seeking Paradise is a must read for the way in which its extended argument against absolutism is interwoven with a history of scepticism in Islam. It also contains a wealth of information around the history of interpretation of the Koran, early Islamic jurisprudence, literature and culture and so on. So, for instance, the book explains how Shariah (Islamic Law) started out as jurisprudence in action, as a method of interpretation after the prophet’s death. But it is the interpretations of ‘eighth century, classical jurists’ themselves that then become codified as Shariah, making their historical interpretations an unchanging Law.

And, underneath the comedy and scepticism and frustration at absolutism, the book is also a paean to the history of Islam. This is evident in the chapter on Sardar’s time in Mecca, establishing the Hajj Research Centre. The aim was to study human movement during the pilgrimage and to use such analysis in town-planning so that Mecca could be developed without losing its history. At some point Sardar reenacts the pilgrimage on foot, and the reader encounters the voice of a sceptic filled with the passion of a believer. The voice of someone who understands the importance of history and culture and ritual, who understands the spirit of Islam and believes in it far more passionately than any of his dogmatic opponents.


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