Black Portraiture[s]: Day I

First let me speak of uncomfortable alliances – Zanele Muholi and Mary Sibande on the podium rallying the audience to sing the national anthem. Behind them, forlornly drooping – is it half-mast or half-assed – the American and South African flags. National anthems are a bad idea at the best of times, but when we have Trump in waiting and Zuma propped up by a morally bankrupt party it is very hard to find the will to drag your vocal cords through a multilingual medley which no one is certain will be holding on to its rainbow coloured tongue in the future. The other uncomfortable alliance was Hank Willis Thomas’ bizarre map – ‘A place to call home’ – in which South America is casually removed from the US and the African continent put in its place. Now I get it – we’re highlighting the special connection between a country and a continent – often mistaken for a country – but what about South America’s obscene connection with Africa and the slave trade?


At the Goodman Gallery launch of ‘Africans in America’ at the close of a day fraught with challenging conflations. I bumped into Haroon Gunn-Sallie, recently returned from Brazil. We both agreed that its wanna-be-white middle class was neurotically fascist, that blacks were treated appallingly. Like every other wishful idiot on the planet I too was under the misconception that Brazil was this fabulous inter-racial utopia. Three days into my stay in Sao Paolo I’d grown bilious with disgust, desperate to get on the plane and head home. But that was three years ago and ‘home’ – i.e. South Africa – is pretty much as fascist, as morally toxic.

Alliances are fraught affairs, and Black Portraitures – a collaboration between NYU, Harvard, the Tisch School of Arts, the Hutchins Center for African American Research, Wits, and the Goodman Gallery – was just that. It was nevertheless a revealing and invigorating affair. Patrick Gaspard, the American ambassador to South Africa, gave a very smart opening speech that placed the mix of African and American art in his residence centre-stage. Quoting Gwendolen Brookes – ‘the whirlwind is your commonwealth’ – Gaspard deftly worked his way through the complexity of the American-African alliance. Not surprisingly the spectre of Trump loomed large, and while the proceedings were convivial, melancholy ran deep. America and South Africa face uncertain futures. Stripped of our core precepts and beliefs, how must we move forward?


Liza Essers placed the horror of world-wide migration at the centre of her opening speech, the better to remind us that any move forward must acknowledge a critical ‘passage from unity to multiplicity’. There are no sure bonds these days. Any alliance must embrace constitutive differences – all the more so as we abandon generosity and openness in favour of ill-conceived and misbegotten certainties regarding race as an essence. However, despite the fascistic rise of absolutisms – the Alt Right, the Black Consciousness movement domestically and abroad – it was heartening to listen to Gaspard’s love song to Santu Mafokeng whose ‘metaphorical biography’ pits a ‘black intimate domesticity’ against the rabid aggression, divisiveness, and absolutism that threatens to destroy the little we still possess that makes us human. That Gaspard championed our ‘post-school, untrained millenials’ suggested, however, that the ambassador was far more optimistic than myself, then again he is a diplomat – for now.

Gaspard’s spirit was bodied forth by David Discoll, an American academic and artist who, in the 1970s, found himself in South Africa. His entry was based on an optical illusion – the government decree that he was an ‘honorary white’. Driscoll, a tremulous yet still spry 85 year old, regaled us with the absurdity of this title, and moved us with his recollections. It was however his paintings – his fusions of an African-American and African identity in particular – which best illuminated the core thrust of Black Portraitures – the splice of cultural difference, the interface of enslaved and colonised histories, the search for connection within a psychic, epistemic, cultural rupture.

And it is this difficulty in particular which stayed with me. Seated on the shuttle that ferried us between hotel and seminar room and speaking to fellow panelists from the US it was this psychic pain – of a black body defied, abused, obliterated – which was most palpable. After it dawned on America that Trump was winning Canada’s immigration website crashed, Samuel L. Jackson vowed to move to South Africa. As for the two black American women I spoke to, they were happy for the momentary reprieve of physically being elsewhere – singing the praises of Cape Town’s physical beauty – while knowing that escape was impossible.

We are all bonded to nation’s we detest, forced to live with identities that are not of our own making. At the close of the first day, with unsettlement and despair running deep, I found myself at the reception desk of the Goodman Gallery, needing to ease the weight of books. Matthew Krouse had foisted glittering tomes upon me, one of which was dedicated to the Goodman Gallery’s first 50 years. I paged through the early years, the nostalgia aching, then settled upon a shot from the 1990s. Subtitled ‘Lift Off’’, the image with its buoyant smiling artists was a terrible reminder of all the promise gone horribly wrong.

For while the art world is more connected now, South Africa finding a way to reconcile itself with the continent as a whole, and, in the case of this event, deepening cultural ties with the US, still there remained a bitter taste which, at the close of Age of Iron J.M. Coetzee calls the taste of ‘gall’. Nothing feels good right now, nothing is wholesome, equitable, reasonable, or honest. Self-hatred and the hatred of others is omnipresent worldwide. Paul Gilroy’s notion of a ‘planetary humanism’ is bankrupt, even as his ‘black Atlantic’ chugs along. It was then, in the midst of my musings, that I saw the photograph of Wole Soyinka on the reception desk. His signature white afro restored in me a modicum of calm, but then my eye dropped to meet the playwright’s words – ‘The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism’. These days I’m not so sure.

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