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.”


It has been such a long road – Alfred T. Qabula

6 November 2012, 8:31 am

This poem is one of the last pieces composed by Alfred T. Qabula (1942-2002), a poet from the trade union movement in Durban in the 1970s and early 1980s, famous for “Praise poem to FOSATU” and as one of the poets of Black Mamba Rising (1986). “It has been such a long road” was published in World Literature Today in 1996 and it is thus interesting to note this early critique of former comrades, now become moneyed government functionaries, from a worker and trade unionist’s perspective. (Here is an obituary and commemoration of Qabula by Ari Sitas.)

It has been such a long road

It has been a long road here
with me, marking the same rhythms
everyday.
Gentlemen, pass me by
Ladies, pass me by
Each one greets me, “eita!”
and adds:
“comrade, I will see you on my return
as you see I am in a hurry
but do not fear, I am with you and
understand your plight.”

“Do not worry
no harm will greet you
as long as I am alive.
We shall make plans with the guys
and we for sure will solve your problems.
You trust me don’t you?
I remember how hard you struggled
and your contribution is prized.
In fact everyone knows how hard it all had turned
when you were fighting for workers and for the community’s emancipation.”

Nothing lasts forever
and our friends now show us their backs
and they avoid eye-contact
pretending they never saw us.
Even those whom by chance our eyes did meet
would rush and promise and leave behind
a “see you later.”

“What is your phone number comrade?
I will call you after I finish with the planning
committee on this or that of the legislature
and then we shall work something out for you, be calm.”
Days have passed, weeks have passed
years have also passed
with us waiting like the ten virgins in the bible.

I remember the old days
when we had become used to calling them
from the other side of the river.
Some of them were in the caves and crevices
hiding when we called
but we hollered loud
until they heard and they responded to our voices.
As they came to us dust sprang up
and spiralled high all the way up to the sky.
When the dust of our struggle settled, there was no one there.
The dust covered my body
it cursed me into a pathetic fate
disguising me, making me unrecognisable
and whoever recognises me
is judged to be deluded, deceived
because the dust of their feet still covers my body.

And now we, the abominations, spook them
as the dust of their feet covers our bodies.
And they run away
each one of them saying: “hold up the sun
dear friend, doesn’t the fog cover each and every mountain?”

Although you don’t know us, we know ourselves:
we are the movable ladders
that take people up towards the skies,
left out in the open for the rain
left with the memories of teargas, panting for breath.

Winter and summer come and go and leave us the same.
The wind or the breeze has not changed us. Here is a summary of our praises –
the iron that doesn’t bend, even
Geneva has failed to bend it,
the small piece of bath-soap about which
meetings and conspiracies were hatched
to catch and destroy it.
It still continues to clean men and women
who desire to be cleaned.

It has been a long road here
see you again my friends
when you really need us
when the sun clears the fog from your eyes.

Alfred T Qabula, 1942-2002


Manning Marable

3 April 2011, 6:19 am

13 May 1950 – 1 April 2011

Intellectual giant. During the mid- to late-1990s, I learned a lot about post-Civil Rights politics in the USA from his pen. I was researching race and representation in the USA as I was developing an unhealthy obsession with early Spike Lee. This was post-1994, and so a lot of Marable’s analyses of the Civil Rights Movement, its victories and its massive shortfalls, were becoming apparent in the newly post-apartheid South Africa. Most specifically was his analysis of how organising along a politics of identity will only bring victories in representation. Without the actual transformation of institutions and society, it will only ever amount to representation without authority. Window dressing, in short.

Obituaries at New York Times and Racialicious.

Wikipedia page.


Vincent Kolbe

6 September 2010, 10:21 am

Griot of District 6, 1933 – 3 September 2010.

Obituary, by John Edward Mason.

Short documentary by Rio Allen, aka The Filmo.

Google search.


Civil Society statement on POI Bill

19 August 2010, 6:59 pm

Note: The following is a statement drawn up, I understand, by Civil Society organisations, mainly for such organisations, but also for individuals, to endorse. The Institute for Security Studies is administering/organising it. According to http://writingrights.org the deadline has been extended to 20 August. Contact details are at the end of the document.

I wish to add my name to the statement.

Let the Truth be Told – Stop the Secrecy Bill!

A responsive and accountable democracy that can meet the basic needs of our people is built upon transparency and the free flow of information. The gains of South Africans’ struggle for freedom are threatened by the Protection of Information Bill (the Secrecy Bill) currently before Parliament. We accept the need to replace apartheid- era secrecy legislation. However, this Bill extends the veil of secrecy in a manner reminiscent of that same apartheid past. This Bill fundamentally undermines the struggle for whistleblower protection and access to information. It is one of a number of proposed measures which could have the combined effect of fundamentally undermining the right to access information and the freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution.

Read the rest of this entry »


What’s the time?

31 March 2010, 1:35 pm

Brandon Edmonds knows what time it is.

He’s just published a comprehensive take-down of the political sensibilities that underpin figures like Gareth Cliff (radio ‘personality’, self-proclaimed libertarian) and David Bullard (columnist), most pithily expressed as in: “Well, fuck you, Gareth Cliff, and David Bullard, and the ‘courtesy cars’ you drove in on. Fuck your racist, self-serving alternative-scenario porn.”

It’s a brilliant piece, full of verve (his other pieces at Mahala are too). It shimmers and slithers, and prickles, like the skin of some rough beast awakened, but the rage just in control and never allowed to get the better of the analysis. And it gives voice to something that I am sure many people think and feel.

Check it.

More articles by Brandon Edmonds at Mahala.


The Talented Mr. Poplak

25 March 2010, 9:12 am

“Ag nee, man, fok” – Sven Eick

(for Sven)

Despite the length and eloquence of Mr. Poplak’s response, it should be clear to anyone willing to resubmit to reading his original piece and my long comment on it, that he has not read my original comment with the required perspicacity, such as one would rightly expect of someone who writes with such an eloquent and bravura mixture of discourse that flits quite comfortably from informal ‘street’ rhetoric to high art to arch-postmodern anthropology, even if the latter appears in “lite” aphoristic reference. The to and fro of such long and eloquent disquisition says at least one thing: Die Antwoord is a cultural product of some worth. Had it been otherwise, individuals would not be investing so much time in spilling ink, real or virtual.

But it seems that saying something like “a cultural product of some worth” – in this style of archaic charm that I adopt here, for I am easily charmed – may not be evidence enough of a critic’s viewpoint, or his or her likes and dislikes. Mr. Poplak, it seems, would prefer that one either celebrate something in absolute carnivalesque abandon or not raise one critical squeak.

Read the rest of this entry »


SpeakZA: Blogs for a Free Press

24 March 2010, 8:14 am

Last week, shocking revelations concerning the activities of the ANC Youth League spokesperson, Nyiko Floyd Shivambu, came to the fore. According to a letter published in various news outlets, a complaint was laid by 19 political journalists with the Secretary General of the ANC, against Shivambu. This complaint letter detailed attempts by Shivambu to leak a dossier to certain journalists, purporting to expose the money laundering practices of Dumisani Lubisi, a journalist at the City Press. The letter also detailed the intimidation that followed when these journalists refused to publish these revelations.

Read the rest of this entry »


Blogs 4 Free Press

22 March 2010, 9:11 pm

Sipho Hlongwane, who writes at ThoughtLeader, is calling on bloggers to join him on Wednesday, 24 March, in publishing a message to the ANC and the ANC Youth League. Email him at sipho.hlongwane@gmail.com to get further details.

Here is his appeal, grabbed from Chris Roper’s blog:

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


%d bloggers like this: