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Art and Activism
The other night, the KZN Society of the Arts Gallery invited me to share a panel with Thembinkosi Goniwe -- one of the foremost leading art curators in the country, to discuss art and activism in South Africa. It was an exciting exchange.
Below are some of the points that I argued around that night.
As we celebrate 10 years of democracy in South Africa, mainstream intellectuals and critics constantly reminds everyone that we now need to move away from the race question. We are told class analysis is the useful intellectual tool if one is serious about understanding South African society.
In the “art-world”, as Goniwe has argued somewhere, critics dismiss black artist’s work as predictable, monotonous, exhausted, and that black artists are accused of not wanting to go beyond the “comfort zone” of what they have explored over the past ten years.
What is it that makes economists and white critics who can be categorized as progressive not want to acknowledge, and therefore, give legitimacy to the continuing and the necessary race struggle in South Africa?
bell books, an African-American feminist, has this to say about this phenomenon: “Critics who passively absorb white supremacist thinking, and therefore never notice or look at black people on the streets, at their jobs, who render us invisible with their gaze in all areas of daily life, are not likely to produce liberatory theory that will challenge racist domination, or to promote a breakdown in traditional ways of seeing and thinking about reality.”
What bell hooks is saying is that it is silly of us black people to expect white critics to compliment us on “subject-matters” we decide to explore. Instead, we should expect the kind of debilitating criticism that white critics are ever ready to dish out every time we mention race.
If one looks at the South African social movements today, one finds that the word racism to the people in these movements is a taboo. There are a lot of reasons behind this. One reason is ideology. Another reason is the factor of donors. In most cases, donors and ideology tend to go hand-in-hand.
The same logic applies to artists. Artists find themselves compelled to produce what sells. Economic pressure is real for artists, especially black artists in South Africa. As a result of these economic pressures, most artists are forced to make sure that their way of looking at reality corresponds with market forces. And right now the market forces do not really appreciate anything that explores the social construction of race in the new South Africa. This is why we have to applaud those artists who continue to explore this terrain in spite of economic pressures.
In the South African context, it would be foolish of us to ignore race. Given our economic present situation which is informed and shaped by race, it is only honest and it is necessary to address race issues.