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.”


Peter Horn on Censorship, 1979

23 November 2011, 2:39 pm

Peter Horn, 1979, “The right of the people to censor the arts”,  In National Union of South African Students (Ed.), Dead in One’s Lifetime, Cape Town: NUSAS (1979) pp.92-105

The state which does not censor the arts, does not take the arts seriously. The state which does censor the arts, regards its citizens as minors, incapable of making rational choices. Any discussion of censorship and the relation of the state to the arts, which does not deal with both horns of this dilemma, will not come to grips with the complexity of the subject, and will end up with the irreconcilable dichotomy between the liberal stance of laissez faire and the authoritarian imposition of censorship.

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Peter Horn on Censorship, 1989

23 November 2011, 2:25 pm

Peter Horn, 1989, “Censorship: Creating pockets of ignorance”, in South, 22 June 1989, p.18

(South [Weekly] was an independent newspaper generally aligned with the UDF and ANC, edited by Moegsien Williams, 1988-1991.)

Any form of censorship assumes that there is one group – usually a minority – which is wiser, more intelligent, more moral than another, which protects another group which is prone to be seduced, led astray, outraged or insulted by some form of writing, painting, music or other form of self-expression. Any form of censorship therefore denies the full equality of all the members of a society. The censors depict themselves as adult and responsible, and insinuate patronisingly that the rest of humanity, the majority, is in a childlike state of irresponsibility.

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Waar die kranse antwoord gee

11 April 2010, 2:06 pm

Following is the English version of a column published in Rapport today, 11 April. This is a translation of the submitted original, thus prior to sub-editing. There are minor variations in expression and a few editorial additions (for the sake of nuance or precision) to the English translation.

Every now and then I fall down a rabbit hole on the internet. A few months ago, I wandered through a maze of broadly white right-wing South African blogs and forums. Some present a dry, professional political image with historical and constitutional analyses, seeking legal precedent and constitutional justification for a white Afrikaans volkstaat. Some factions seek an all-white volkstaat, other factions feel anyone who speaks Afrikaans as mother tongue might be welcome.

There are many factions amongst this broad movement of white dissatisfaction with the New South Africa. Some talk about armed resistance, while others caution against such ‘irresponsible’ talk. Some blogs focus on recording violent crime statistics, especially where crime victims are white. However, some blogs have now started to include all violent crime, irrespective of the victim’s race, so as to avoid accusations of racism.

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Review: Notes from the Middle World, Breyten Breytenbach

17 March 2010, 10:45 am

[Original in Afrikaans at Rapport.]

Breyten Breytenbach, Notes From the Middle World, Haymarket Books, 2009, 978-1-931859-91-2

Once gathered into English liberal bosoms for his cultural and armed opposition to the ideology of his tribe, Breytenbach has of late received controversial coverage, especially in the English press. (But I do remember a cartoon in the Afrikaans press – was it in Vrye Weekblad? -, which showed Breytenbach standing in Paris and pissing on SA.) In 2008, a lot of this centred around A Veil of Footsteps (see the coverage at BookSA). His new book of essays, Notes From the Middle World (it includes two beautiful but scorching poems), has now already received a critical review at the Sunday Independent.

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The Literature Police

24 March 2009, 1:17 pm

THE LITERATURE Police is an interesting website that accompanies Peter D. McDonald’s book, The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences (2009, reviewed by Michael Titlestad at the Times). The site contains all manner of material related to the history of censorship in apartheid South Africa and is worth a visit.

Update: A good review of the book by Shaun de Waal over at the M&G. I’m hoping to get my grubby paws on a review copy.


Dagga- Part Four

13 December 2008, 10:07 am

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

I did start smoking dagga. Details evade me, but the first time would have been on that large veld where die dam was, the farmhouse now abandoned. It would have been at some point during the last three years of high school, with Bokkie, Hare and MC, who had all already tried dope a few times.

By Std. 9 or 10, an obligatory drinking culture had developed among many of our peers, some of them friends. At an older friend’s flat or in Orleans Park with friends who were already at university, and who thus had bursary money to burn and were of legal age, some of my friends drank away their weekends. ‘n Kis biere, ‘n bottel hardehout (hard tack). Four people. One evening’s drinking. Or these were friends from school who were now already at university (I failed Std 8 in 1981 and thus had old class mates a year ahead of me). I didn’t drink. While I may have been intrigued by alcohol (advertising, or from seeing an uncle from my mother’s side lean on a fence on a hot day, a chilled can of Black Label in hand), as a good Muslim boy I stayed away from it, having developed the appropriate distaste towards it and its consumers. Even had I had the interest, I would not have been able to disappear from home for two days, which was needed for my drinking friends, ‘sleeping over’ at an older, independent friend, drinking, passing out, sobering up. Read the rest of this entry »


Dagga – Part Three

6 December 2008, 2:48 pm

Part One

Part Two

Mervin Morkel, a classmate, introduced me to reggae at some point during the long months that we were out on national school boycotts in 1980. Deep in winter, and bored with the ‘alternative education’ programme – listening to speeches, singing ‘freedom songs’ that were mostly old spirituals or hymns – or wary that police action may be imminent, we stayed home. Mervin would visit, carrying his sought-after army knapsack brimming with vinyl records: Linton Kwesi Johnson’s Forces of Victory, Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights, Jimmy Cliff’s Follow my Mind, “Remake the world” from the latter featuring as a freedom song sung at ‘mass meetings’ at school:

Too many people are suffering
Too many people are sad
Too little people got everything
While too many people got nothing

Remake the world
With love and happiness
Remake the world
Put your conscience to the test…

Bob Marley in there also, of course. Kaya, Natty Dread, Rastaman Vibration, Zimbabwe, later Uprising. Read the rest of this entry »


The muezzin and I

4 December 2008, 4:28 pm

The following are two excerpts from “The Muezzin and I”, forthcoming in a collection of essays, Kitaab of the World: Writing Islam in South Africa, edited by Gabeba Baderoon and Louise Green.

The piece is written in the form of an autobiographical lexicon and entries range from the earnest to the quirky. It has no pretensions towards the encyclopedic and is based rather on the fragmentary, the idiosyncratic, the half-assimilated and half-understood. Some are purely autobiographical, others are about versions (South African, Paarl’s, my father’s) of the Islamic.

Muezzin

The male voice in Islam finds its apotheosis in the muezzin (mu’atthin, also bilal) – the person who performs the call to prayer and who interacts in a loose call-and-response format with the imam during Friday’s sermon – or in recognised recitors who have turned recitation from the Quran into an art form by following a set of rules both aesthetic and spiritual, and known as Tajwid. One such legend was Abdul Basit (1927-1988), an Egyptian who had apparently memorised the Quran by age ten. Basit made recordings of his work commercially available, and he garnered a huge following, pulling large crowds at recitals. Video recordings of his work may now even be found on the web.

While there were several muezzins in my hometown, one of them had a sublime voice which could draw tears from the men in mosque. He was a lanky, gentle, and unassuming man, often dressed in a light blue robe, which complemented eyes that were either light grey or light blue. Quiet, and a loner not typically drawn to stand and chat and joke in groups outside the mosque after evening prayers in Ramadan, he had the manner of an ascetic. Read the rest of this entry »


Dagga – Part Two

2 December 2008, 4:18 pm

Part One

Chewing a handful of raw peanuts now, I find only the faintest smell, and not quite of dagga. Perhaps the peanuts are stale.

The first time I tasted raw peanuts was when I was four. My family were on a road trip that took us along the east coast up to Durban, from there to Johannesburg and then back through the Karoo to Paarl. In Durban we stayed for a few weeks with family friends, a Hindu household that had bought new pots and stocked their fridge with Halaal meat; and a wife, mother and cook who was very happy to indulge my four-year old’s love of curry, a dish not frequently cooked in our own household. But perhaps they also indulged my taste for curry for the benefit of collective comedy. At four years old (and until I was twelve or so), my tongue struggled to find the English middle-ground between a rhotic R and palatal L, so curry and rootie, my favourite dish, became cully and loottie. One of my childhood nicknames was Cully-and-loottie, much to my growing irritation a few years later, when I cussed and threw a knife at another family friend for persisting in teasing me with this. Adults delighted in asking me what I wanted for lunch or supper. In Durban, I was asked this for breakfast too. Cully. Durban was a magical place where one could get curry for breakfast as well.

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