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.”


For W.

30 December 2014, 8:22 am

For W.

1. Ohio, 1994

When the shutter clicked, you jumped back
and hated me for that one moment
you had glanced into my camera,
as if my shutter had fallen
like a guillotine
through parts of you.

I should have known. Weeks before,
smoking outside after class,
we both mauled Gary Snyder
for playing the vegetarian
shaman astride the turtle back
of his American mountain.

Somewhere down a parent’s line,
you said and looked earthwards
at your toecaps pawing grey
Midwestern gravel. Somewhere
down the line, native blood pushes
at your insides. As if you had said

too much, you looked over my shoulder,
shook your head and blew smoke
through pursed lips at the stars and stripes,
its rope sounding the flagpole.
Native, you said again and reached back
to smooth your ponytail.

Then you lifted your sleeve
and showed me the tattoo:
inked thickly inside a circle,
a brave’s head; and dangling
from his stiffly banded ponytail,
two feathers breaching the ring.

2. Cape Town, 1995

Now, reading again of Wounded Knee,
the Trail of Tears, I test
names by my tongue: Oglala Sioux,
Lakota Sioux, many Sioux;
difficult ones: Wampanoag,
Kwakiutl; the easier Mohawk,

Iroquois, Shawnee. And I measure
the distance and proximity
from Choctaw to Xhosa, Arawak
to Hawequas; probe velum and palate,
wondering how names here might sound
if you curled your tongue

around Goringhaiqua, Khoi-Khoi
and tasted the many trails of tears
of all of us, the salt lick of wounds,
the many long lines that lead,
always, from pox to romance,
from colony to the encircling museum.

 

(from This Carting Life, Kwelabooks/Snailpress)


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