Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pacifism is NOT "Passive," and other thoughts

OK, time to play catch-up. Saturday there was free admission to all Ikizo Museums in Cape Town, so I gleefully wandered through the National Gallery. My first stop was a collection called “Neither Man Nor Stone,” which had works from all media that commented on humankind's relationship with animals in South Africa. That theme wouldn’t usually appeal to me, but it was brilliantly done. I hadn’t considered the striking difference between, “the braai, the hunt and the apartheid-era police dog” before, and seeing representations of these phenomena in the same space drove the point home.

I was intrigued by photos by James Webb in a collection called “There’s No Place like Home.” The photos captured the scenes of an art installation project launched at different cities all over the world. Songs of extinct, endangered, or not indigenous songbirds from other regions of the world were played where they were never, or could never be, heard before.  (For example, sounds of songbirds native to France might be played in Johannesburg.) Speakers were placed in trees, and I wonder if people were aware of the unusual birdcalls…

The photos got me thinking about stewardship for the local environment, and how that fits into a globalized world.

But respect for biodiversity and a passion for conservation efforts can only come after a certain amount of privilege is enjoyed. Alf Khumalo’s “Women and Police Dogs” made this abundantly clear: if nature is being turned against you by people with more power (in the forms of forced removal from neighbourhood, relocation to hostile environments and houses that lack even running water, and the threat of police dogs in the face of dissent), it’s impossible to try to negotiate your responsibility to the natural world. It also demonstrated the perversity of making guard dogs the violent servants of apartheid.

Next at the National Gallery I walked through Frances Goodman’s photo installation “No Ordinary Love.” SOMEONE next to me called it, “a gallery of useless and bad photographs,” but I disagree. I saw more than out-of-focus, poorly framed snapshots. Yes, the photos were taken at bad angles and the subjects were debris like plastic combs, broken Tupperware, wrinkled shirts, filled-up litter boxes, and half-eaten dog food in a dirty dish. But there I saw the potential for rebellion. There’s a very artsy way to capture still life images, in ways that look good in lifestyle magazines or framed on a bedroom wall. But Goodman captured truly ordinary things, the way they look to us in our ordinary lives. It was comforting to behold, somehow.

I really enjoyed “Ever Young,” a photo exhibit of the works of James Barnor. (The title comes from Barnor's Ever Young Studio.)

Barnor is a Ghanaian photographer, and the collection was an interesting mix of posed portraits (of families, of political events with speakers like Kwame Nkrumah, of cover girls for Drum Magazine) and snapshots from public events (like rallies in Accra in 1956). He was inspired by South Africa’s launch of Drum Magazine, and highlighted scenes from societies in transition from the 1940s-1970s.

I was impressed with his portraits the most—it seemed to me that even though the photos were staged, Barnor could still convey a sense intimacy with the subjects. I couldn’t help but smile at shots of Nkrumah playing football, or the photos of the Drum Magazine models at a beach party. (PJ tried to convince me that the beach party probably wasn’t as fun as the prints made it out to be. Well maybe I’m just duped, but I was seriously envious of the glamorous '60s sun dresses and sunglasses!)

From there, Peej and I went to the South African Museum (natural science museum) for a lecture by one of PJ’s colleagues, apropos to Heritage Day. Kylie Thomas spoke about images of revolutionaries, the meaning of the archive, and the meaning of “icon.”

The lecture focused on Steve Biko as an example of a revolutionary and an icon. The main premise (which originated in a passage by Lenin) was that iconization of a revolutionary after their death is a tactic used by an oppressor to soothe the oppressed. During the life of a revolutionary, an oppressive regime will do everything in its power to discredit and persecute a revolutionary, but once the revolutionary is dead, inconization is employed to render that revolutionary harmless.

I’ve grappled with this thought before. I greatly admire M.K. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and have studied their lives and work on my own. The more I learned about them, the more I came to see them as complicated people—they may have been shrewd negotiators or flawed human beings, and this made me identify with them even more. But in formal schooling, I was taught to revere these people as saints. This is actually counter-productive to their aims! It’s a message that these people were somehow super-human, and mere mortals (like my peers and I) couldn’t make similar efforts. Nonviolence and peaceful protest were for saints, so how could we even attempt to emulate our idols? To take a cynical view, revering MLK might actually prevent people from trying to act like he did.

Thomas spoke of iconization as a way to neutralize the more radical aspects of a revolutionary, which hit home for me, too. I remembered an interesting study I did as a Journalism undergrad. Every time MLK is introduced in contemporary American media, he’s described as an advocate for peace. This is true, obviously, but that sounds a little bland. Who ISN’T for peace in the abstract? But some of King’s more controversial positions aren’t mentioned. Did you know he was outspoken in opposing the Vietnam War? (Or that he got called a Commie for that?) Also absent from most one-line bios of MLK is his very concrete and specific application of nonviolence: overturning US segregation laws and practices. King wasn’t about abstract, general peace, and I think every American (or citizen of this world) needs to read and reread Letters from a Birmingham Jail on an annual basis.

Images of icons is always a fascinating topic for me. If an image of a revolutionary is co-opted by an oppressor, this commodified image becomes, in the words of Angela Davis, “a nostalgic surrogate for historical memory.” (The image of Che Guevara on t-shirts is a great example of this.)

But Biko’s image has been used as a successful counter-example, I would say. Some of the most common images of him produced, even still today, are of his corpse. This image, though gruesome, continues to bear witness to an atrocity. In Thomas’ words, “Photos of corpses indict a system that does not value life… Biko was buried, but his corpse remains visible.” And because of this, Biko has not been forgotten today. (Though I am open to arguments that there needs to be more visibility still, more memory-sharing.)

There is an interesting tension in the art world of South Africa. On one side there is the argument that South Africa’s time for protest art is over—democracy is here, and while it isn’t perfect, the old regime is gone. On the other hand, Thomas asked, “Are there traumatic events so powerful that they refuse to be laid to rest?” Does South Africa need more visibility of photos of Biko alive, which affirms his personhood; or of his mutilated corpse, as a testament to a case where justice has still not been served; or some balance of both?

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