Black Portraiture[s]: Day II

Stan Douglas
Kung – Fu Fighting, 1975, 2012
Digital C-print mounted on Dibond Aluminium
Courtesy Goodman Gallery

Day II

The second day of Black Portraitures began with a bang at 9:15 am and the room was crammed, everyone gathered to listen to a group of slam poets, edgy musos, performance artists. The talk was run by Mili Bongela, M&G’s Arts and Culture editor. Set up by Artnoir, a global collective focussed on ‘Universal Blackness’ – a blackness that surpasses the limits of nationhood, indigeneity, and the specifics of a given culture – the conversation, designed to be inclusive, focused on ‘black pain with a heart’ – the heart, here, concerning how one embraces one’s home in a hyper-connected online world.

Fhatuwani Mukheli spoke of connecting Sowetan life with the world and becoming ‘a global citizen’, Nontsikelelo Mutiti spoke of ‘moving out of the essentialising Shona narrative and becoming more fluid’ and how, through global migration, through thrusting oneself into the ‘outside’ one becomes more oneself’, Mpumelelo Mcata, formerly of the BLK JKS, refused the fetish of elsewhere as cooler or more on trend. ‘We can connect with the Northern Hemisphere from where we live’, he said, ‘art centres are everywhere’. Listening to the net-fuelled hyper-local talk my mind flashed back to the words of the mystic monk Hugh of St Victor (1096-1141):

The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner;

he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong,

but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land.

The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world;

the strong man has extended his love to all places;

the perfect man has extinguished his.

All of us are caught up somewhere in Hugh of St Victor’s spectrum. The question is where and why? Talk segued into the values of the regional, traditional, parochial. As the poet’s grandmother said, ‘When you take off the school blazer so do you take off the language’, for South Africa’s cultures remained opposed, bi-polar, essential yet in transit. Gazing at the beautiful young crowd – extras for a lite-beer commercial – I realised that custom and style is an armoury, an attitude, and there was a lot of that in evidence in a fashion-saturated room. I wondered whether these were more aptly Gaspard’s ‘brilliant blessing’, creatures young, vibrant, talented, opinionated, for whom blackness was not a thing but a mobilising and hybrid vernacular.

But then, for all the giddy talk of a black universalism, BP (Black Portraitures) arrived and along with it an army of African Americans ‘talking to us’. This was Bongela talking. The 3 day event was all about ‘building bridges’ she said, and Hilary Clinton’s brave smile caught in the woods the day after the end of the world sprang to mind.

The meeting of African Americans and Africans was like a ‘first date’ Bongela resumed. Having hooked up online, and then meeting each other in person, is both thrilling and very awkward. Everyone laughed at what was doubtless a strained, urgent, and confusing event – given the shit that went down in the US, and the shit flying all around in our soulless state – and yet there was no doubt that that ‘first date’ was proving very very promising. There was talk of a black collectivity, of ‘solidarity’ with the Fallists – for me a dreaded notion at the best of times – and of a ‘universal blackness’ that allowed for ‘plurality’ and ‘resisted the pressure to agree’. As Mcata reminded us, in this aggrieved, aggravated, and confusing moment what was need is ‘a soul conversation’.

As I left the packed room to meet the thinning crowd outside I thought of what Ntone Edjabe – acolyte of Sun Ra, radical Pan-Africanist, muso, icon, and editor of Chimurenga and Chronic – would have made of the crowd, the ideas, and the tenuous interface between globalisation and the local, generic style and a very peculiar African self-fashioning – but more on this tomorrow. Needing a break from the nominality of blackness I ducked into the Cinema Nouveau near my hotel to watch an adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel Indignation. Alone in the theatre I wallowed in an existential sadness. A tub of yoghurt, CNN, and a swim followed, before readying myself for Fourth Wall’s book fest at 44 on Stanley then the show and after-party at Gallery Momo.

The show, a mix of familiar photographic works by Ayana V. Jackson, Maurice Mbikayi, and Mary Sibande, presented one TKO – paintings on meter-squared sheets of aluminium by Joel Mpah Dooh. In the midst of endless chatter and bucket-loads of gin it was heartening to stumble upon this glittering prize. Mpah Dooh describes himself as ‘the flaneur who observes the worldly behaviour of the people of Johannesburg’, while in my case it’s the description of those brought together through the confection of Black Portraitures. What made the encounter with Mpah Dooh’s paintings particularly special is that they did not insist upon a raced idea or category but gave us flickering glittering lived worlds. His vision of Jozi is inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, a darker mystic, who in his story ‘The Man of the Crowd’ writes:

At first my observations took an abstract and generalising turn.

I looked at the passengers in masses and thought of them in their aggregate relations.

Soon, however, I descended to details, and regarded with minute interest the innumerable

varieties of figure, air, gait, visage, and expression of countenance.

If Poe pulls the focus while St Victor goes for the big picture, both know that life can only be understood in its infinitesimal singularity. Their visions are lessons to those who would reduce being to a nominal idea and thing. Blackness is a question, an abstraction, a detailing of the infinite. Its complexity and its simplicity is brilliantly captured in Mpah Dooh’s shimmering aluminium works – works refracted, bouncing the light of the earth and sky.

Not only is Momo the only major black-owned art dealership in South Africa, run by Monna and Lee Mokoena, it also runs a residency. I was also there to meet up with my friend Khaya Witbooi who recently quit Cape Town to knuckle down in Jozi for his first solo show in the city. He was opening ‘a different door’. In quitting Cape Town he’d also quit every resource and material that had inspired him – to ‘enter a desert’. Here the mystic monk returned, begging the question: How relevant is a material place really, a nation, an identity, a colour, a sex? What about the soul conversation? As the mystic monk observed:

It is therefore, a great source of virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit,

first to change about in visible and transitory things, so that afterwards

it might be possible to leave them behind altogether.

Fat chance! The art world, the world of politics, is a world in which ideas are things. Everything is a commodity. But then some commodities are better than others. I ask Momo’s operations manager, Odysseus Shirindza whose playing the awesome music. It’s DJ Kenzero, he says, ‘Black Experience Volume 1’. And then, as if reading my mind, Shirindza tells me it’s ‘the music from Africa and the diaspora, the music of universal blackness’.

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