Terminal Conditionsby Zoe Henry / 14.07.2009
Terminal, Brett Bailey’s new, haunting attempt to shed light on the elephant in the corner of our national psyche was exhibited at this year’s National Art’s Festival. It explores the racial divide in Grahamstown. The glaring segregation that seems to be deemed more acceptable because it’s English speaking white people that are living above the breadline, the fine-dining upper crust. This exhibition can easily be used, and was probably meant to be used, as a metaphor for the festival. Middle class whities swarm the streets willing to pay top dollar to be entertained. Students call mommy, crying for more cash, on the second day of festival. The air in one part of Grahamstown is thick with this sort of privilege while the rest of the town tries to see how they can exploit the fest to put food on their table.
You enter the abandoned Grahamstown train station Terminal, get given a playing card, and are told to wait. “No talking”, the woman handing out the cards barks. When your number and suit are called out, you are ushered from the waiting room to the unknown. Once on the platform, a black child comes and takes your hand. You walk around the platform observing the installations. Hmmm. Installations. Do you still call them that when they are real people? Fruit sellers in cages. Domestic workers with stockings over their heads rendering them faceless. People rummaging through a pile of trash in the hopes of finding something worth eating or selling. We are lead into a graveyard. This is for some reason not nearly as haunting as the abandoned train terminal with it’s apartheid era signs still fastened to the walls. All the while you’re not allowed to talk. My child looks scandalised when he sneezes and I say, “Bless you”. When we get to the end my child bids farewell in Xhosa and leaves. A lump begins to rise in my throat and I’m scarily close to tears. My white guilt suddenly at the front of my mind and pounding in my heart. Why is the world so fucked up? And why, when there are so many people trying to make it better, does it feel like it’s getting worse. After the exhibition, Grahamstown is a different, less friendly place. You resent being able to afford cappuccinos. The shows feel like frivolous self indulgence. As a member of the privileged society, festival time is thoroughly enjoyable. On the other hand the National Arts Festival is necessary. Careers are made here. People are given opportunities that they would never otherwise have. It’s such good art because it causes you to interrogate the rest of the festival and question the validity and the import of the cultural expression. Does our art address our problems or is it just frivolity in the face of oppression? And while you’re rushing from show to gig to show, frustrated that you don’t have time to eat, Bailey’s exhibition functions as a voice for the voiceless. A stark reminder that just around the corner there are people who don’t have food to eat.
*Pic Credit – Suzy Bernstein