Originally, South Africa was discovered by the Portuguese in 1488, but this was not permanent, just like the Dutch settlement in 1652 that is generally viewed as the birth date of the country. In 1795 the Cape Colony fell under British rule again; it reverted back to Dutch rule in 1803; and again to the British in 1806. From the onset of colonisation, the transatlantic slave trade was immense and especially South-East Africa was a main source of slaves. The colonisation of Southern Africa had as main purposes the setting up of refreshment posts where food and other essential stock could be collected, as well as the trading of slaves. The indigenous nations were subject to the whims and fancies of the colonisers, and they were sexually and labour-wise exploited; families were broken up and those who resisted were punished and often killed by whipping, shackling, hanging, beating, burning, mutilation, branding and rape. In many cases the slave ships themselves were killer machines since the slaves were packed into the haul like sardines with little attention to hygiene.
In addition, South Africa is extraordinarily rich in mineral resources and gold, which has brought about massive wealth, but also instability. Johannesburg was established in 1886, due to the so-called gold rush, with fortune seekers and diggers flooding to it from all over the world to the country. Since then the gold mines have attracted an influx of locals as workers, which contributed to much nomadism, but especially since 1948 during apartheid, such mine workers were ironically allowed to work underground but once aboveground they had to return to townships outside the large city.
Since 1948 when the country became locally governed by the Afrikaner-dominated right-wing National Party, whilst still regarding Queen Elizabeth II as head of state as a relic of British imperialism, attempts were made to throw off the colonial yoke permanently, and on 5 October 1960 the country became an independent Republic. At all times there have been resistance to the ruling governments by groups of all cultural origin, but especially during the 1980s and early 1990s there was severe resistance to the ruling policy of segregation: a period that saw much abuse, violence and many incarcerations. In 1990 Nelson Mandela as leader of the oppositionist African National Party was released from prison and in 1994, as part of a peaceful handover, he was inaugurated as the new president of the country with the ANC as government.
It is clear that, as a country, South Africa has been torn apart by politics, and especially by the impact of colonisation. The postcolonial impulse is therefore inordinately robust in this part of the world. The notion of the postcolonial is closely linked to that of the postmodern, and according to Gen Doy (2000:204), author of Black Visual Culture: Modernity and Postmodernity, much of current art practice is “often relating to issues discussed in postcolonial theory such as identity, displacement, mixing of cultures and peoples (hybridity) and indeterminancy.” Post-colonialism could be viewed as a response as well as a resistance to colonialism, whereby issues such as historical events, beliefs, traditions, conventions and languages are evaluated and critiqued in an attempt to uncover the superiority and centrality of certain systems of thinking. Ideas of superiority and power relations play a core role in postcolonial investigations, but a main problem in much postcolonial theory is to nurture the idea of static black culture, which in reality is constantly changing and adapting to new developments and ideas. Decoloniality or decolonialism originated as a Latin American movement which focuses on understanding modernity in the context of a form of critical theory applied to ethnic studies. Similarly it is a response to colonialism. It seems to be more radically critical than postcolonialism which indicates more of a general resistance. Coloniality is generally understood as the sentiment and logic essential to the evolvement of Western civilisation from the Renaissance to today. Foundational to decoloniality is the deconstruction or decoding of the coloniality of power. This logic is commonly referred to as the colonial matrix of power and has its own set of theories and methodologies.
Since the 1980s, the work of internationally renowned South African artist William Kentridge (b. 1955, Johannesburg) has mainly served the purpose of commenting on socio-political issues in the country. He is best known for his prints, drawings, operas and animated films. A work of special interest is his The refusal of time of 2012 (hereafter referred to as ‘TRT’), since it presents a clear image of postcolonial legacies and decolonial sentiments that have resulted in an eclectic mélange of narratives, experiences and events. Particularly interesting is also how the artist mixes various kinds of technologies in sophisticated way.
TRT premiered at Documenta 13 (2012) in Kassel, Germany, specially commissioned by the curator of Documenta 13, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and since then it has been exhibited at various other venues in Japan, Italy, Australia, the United States, Brazil, Holland and Finland. The work was produced in the artist’s studio in the Maboneng district in downtown Johannesburg and as a prelude to Documenta 13, a series of notebooks entitled 100 notes – 100 thoughts was published by Hanje Katz in 2011. In South Africa, the artistic production was shown first from November to December 2014 at the Johannesburg Art Gallery and then at the National Gallery in Cape Town in 2015. A collaborative piece, the artwork entails teamwork with Peter L. Galison, Philip Miller and Catherine Meyburgh. The chamber opera, Refuse the Hour (made in collaboration with Miller, Meyburgh, Dada Masilo and Galison) - with an international cast of eleven, including dancers, musicians, performers and vocalists - is the theatrical accompaniment that laid the groundwork for the artwork and is also an independent production. Prominent in the production is the artist presenting a lecture-performance on productive procrastination, myth, entropy, empire, black holes, the ancient Greek myth of Perseus and Einstein, surrounded by animations, swirling dancers, singers with megaphones, instrumentalists and a solitary physicist (BAM | Refuse the hour 2015).
As an installation, TRT comprises five digital film projections on thirty-minute loops and a large automaton, occupying the entire space of a single, large hall. In the dark enclosed space of TRT, a hive of moving figures and intersecting stop-frame imagery ensues in the five film projections, creating an impression of vibrating energy. The complex imagery includes the artist as one of the performers, walking, reading and performing acts such as changing hats; a female figure, dancing and producing ‘wagon wheels’ and other acts; figures in comical scenes in colonial rooms à la George Méliès; figures in a laboratory-like space, maybe busy with experiments; dispersing and flying anamorphic fragments becoming human figures, representing a kind of chaos rendering; a rhinoceros; silhouettes; ticking metronomes and clocks; and imagery of inter alia megaphones, starry skies, stop-frame animations and drawings. On the other hand, chaotic time is presented as humanly, existentially and imaginatively inferred. Mortal conceptions of the physical body appear in the form of chaos imagery of disintegrating matter; and swirling moving figures, transgressed boundaries, and fleeting script and words render an awareness of temporality and transience in order to defy conceptions of certainty and fixed systems. The moving human agents in TRT ‘transgress’ the confines of the delineated boundaries of each projection by walking across the edges, and by so doing become displaced and emplaced in in-between, liminal zones.
Kentridge positions the human body centrally in TRT. Technically, his scientific and conceptual method levies each projection that transforms intermittently from the graphic, more abstract imagery into the stop-frame animations to human figures (including the artist himself performing), clothed idiosyncratically in contemporary as well as traditional outfits. Other transmutations include a turn to colonial comical scenes with actors performing in rooms with historical architecture; walking and dancing figures; and figures in shadow procession, recalling some of Kentridge’s well-known earlier works. The sculptural automaton and ticking metronomes are given equal presence in the five film projections, which generates the comment that technological development has shown progress from elementary, handmade technologies to advanced digital technologies, but that the embedded techniques and processes are equally relevant.
In TRT, preference is given to a conceptual engagement with the human technological condition instead of a lofty statement about science itself. Kentridge ‘relegates' science to technology and succeeds in generating comment and meaning through the very processes of the techniques used. In the five ancillary virtual ‘rooms’, an artificial environment has been created, entrenched in the technologies of the digital age, which has borne witness to emerging engineerings such as electronic communications, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Symbolically comment is generated in terms of politics as ‘experimentation’ and human beings as the victims thereof. Set in virtual reality, the rooms in the Méliès-type comical scenes in TRT resemble colonial architecture, but notably these are graphically hand-drawn. Through very technique of the linear and expressive sketching of doors, windows and other paraphernalia, heterotopic ‘frames’ are created that resonate with the racial and gender regimes of the histories of colonial culture in South Africa. Several spaces are represented in the work, but in a dualistic sense they are both material and immaterial, and ambivalently premised.
The flying particles in TRT subtly reveal thin red lines, crossing and indicating geographical points of intersection, but without explanation of what they represent. Metaphorically they could function as boundaries, relational reference points, historical markers, psychographical moments or points of reference wherefrom the ‘walk’ into time takes place or even the liminal ‘place’ where life and death meet. The particles become chaotic and finally disintegrate, almost in reflection of the processes of memory and how everything fades in time.
Doy, G. 2000. Black Visual Culture: Modernity and Postmodernity. Gen Doy London: I.B. Tauris.
About the artist
William Kentridge (born 28 April 1955) is a South African artist best known for his prints, drawings, and animated films. His political perspective is expressed in his opera directions, which involves different layers: stage direction, animation movies, influences of the puppet world. He has staged Il retorno d’Ulisse in patria (Monteverdi), Die Zauberflöte (Mozart) and The nose (Shostakovich). Berg's Lulu premièred at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and in 2017 Wozzeck (Alban Berg) premiered at the Salzburg Festival.
published February 2020