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Art, Culture

A Response to Pessimism

by Lindokuhle Nkosi / 23.05.2012

A large Zanele Muholi installation makes up the back wall in an annex of Mandela Rhodes. Eyes. Lips. Different shades of brown. Blinking. Twitching. The slightest of movements. Next to it, a Photo XP exhibition executed by members of Free Gender titled “Ikhaya”. Facilitated by photographer Lindeka Qampi and Zanele Muholi, it is a collection produced by seven, young lesbian women who photographed their lives in around the Khayelitsha. In a piece like this, a big part of the art is the process. Empowering threatened women, in a community that is increasingly violent towards them.

Rael Salley, senior lecturer at the Michealis School of Art convened The Exuberance Project (together with Jay Pather of GIPCA) as a follow-up to The Names We Give, a symposium held over a weekend in 2011. When Rael Salley began his post at Michealis, it became evident to him how little interaction there was amongst members of the art community, students and lecturers. “Students kept coming to me, telling me that they needed more opportunities to express themselves. To engage actively with the space. So instead of trying to address each student individually, I thought about making a space where these issues could be dealt with.”

The Names We Give symposium became a creative and intellectual project. Relevant groups met once a week to talk about art and interact with other members of the community. From there they decided to hold an event, over a weekend, that would interrogate the triangulation of art, culture and society. “It was a much smaller event. We held screenings, performances and round table discussions where everyone who was interested, was involved. I saw Names We Give as platform for facilitating comfortable, dynamic conversation.”

Still from Teboho Mahlatsi’s Meokgo and the Stickfighter which screened at The Exuberance Project.

So they retained the framework and set about producing on The Exuberance Project. The variables were more erratic. The movable parts; the people and the performances, all swivelled around the pivot point of Names We Give. The Exuberance Project was a two-part operation: A more traditional exhibition held in Mandela Rhodes, and also a way of engaging the space around the museum. With the assistance of Memory Biwa, they added a walking tour to the project. The idea was to project images into spaces to make them accessible to both interested participants, and also to passer-bys. “And we did not want it to be random locations and random images. We selected places of significance, historical significance and activated the history by use of still images and moving performances.”

Exuberance is not a word one would associate with an exhibition of this nature. It speaks of over-the-top, over-much, more-than-neccesary. But exuberance is not all camp, pink-feather boa’s and sequins. There are shades to it. Negatives.

“I was exploring the creative and scholarly thoughts around Africa. They are overwhelmingly negative portrayals, both from outside Africa and within. It’s all very depressing. This is what has shaped the perception and the reality. Afro-pessimism. I wanted to re-imagine this. How do we rethink Africa? I focused on scholars and creatives because we have the responsibility to imagine the world differently. This imagination is crucial to our existence. To ensure that we are growing and not just perpetuating.”

Center for Historical  Reenactments
Taken from Na Ku Randza by the Center for Historical Reenactments.

And so exuberance has become a response to pessimism. Because the things that are dark, that are depressing draw a lot of attention; to counter them, we have to be loud in our happiness and our normalcy. In shifting the perceptions from starving kids and happy darkie coons, the art world must be considered and thoughtful about their realities.

Rael Salley is American. He arrived in South Africa at the tail-end of World-Cup waka-waka mania. I ask him if he thinks it’s up to him to question how the world views Africa. If his notions are informed enough to challenge. “What right does anyone have?” He responds. “ It is my job and my nature to question. It is everyone’s responsibility. Where you have to cautious is in how you frame your questions. I have no answers. I am not pretending to. I am just asking people to think with me.”

*Opening image credit © Zanele Muholi: Katiego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg 2007

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