Sunday, 26 June 2011

On Art, Race and Being Presumptuous

When I decided to start this blog, I had a long list of topics I wanted to get through. It's still pretty long. And the issue of art (in the broad sense) and identity was not on it. But three recent, ostensibly unrelated, exchanges in the Mail and Guardian have made me think that this is an interesting one to tackle. [Links to articles are at the end of this piece]. As with some of the other issues, I don't claim any special expertise, only a particular (and I think largely unrepresented) perspective.


The first exchange that caught my eye was a pair of reviews of journalism professor Anton Harber's book, Diepsloot, one of which was by Andile Mngxitama. Although with different emphasis, style and tone, both reviews came to the conclusion that the story Harber had written would be best told by an(/the) inhabitant(s) of Diepsloot. It is relevant to mention that both reviews were by black males and that Harber is a white male. Harber responds to this sort of criticism indirectly in a separate interview, where he says that "I would ask you to read the book and judge it by its content...I offer just one perspective, and I hope it is a sympathetic and insightful one".

The second exchange was about a set of works by the artist Brett Murray (white male), going under the exhibition title Hail to the Thief. The majority of those works are anti-apartheid posters that Murray has altered to, in his words, "expose the new pigs at the trough". The main article is by one of the makers of those posters, Judy Seidman (white female). She argues that Murray's posters constitute 'bad art' for all sorts of reasons, but particularly because he sullies the content of the originals (including actual individual anti-apartheid activists) and only addresses the issue of corruption of the struggle's principles in a crude and superficial way. Murray's response is to gesture at his own role in making anti-apartheid posters - though not any of those represented - and to argue that he is in fact trying to show-up the inheritors of the struggle mantle as "effectively pissing on the graves of the struggle heroes".

The final exchange involved a critical comment on Zapiro's use of the rape metaphor in his cartoons, which claims that Zapiro "dehumanises...the pain of rape survivors" and that his (excessive) use of the metaphor is an affront to the author as a rape survivor. In addition, some have suggested that Zapiro's rape cartoons are racist in as much as he is portraying only black men in this fashion. [Here is a slideshow of relevant images put together by Zapiro:]

 To save you the suspense, let me state the conclusion of my argument here. I think all the writers have some valid points. However, to the extent that I come down on any particular side it is on those of Seidman (the critic of Murray), Harber and Solomon (Zapiro's critic), but not primarily for the reasons they explicitly provide. I think this is an interesting combination, since the more common opinions will be either for Seidman, Mngxitama and Solomon, or for Murray, Zapiro and Harber. I hope that my argument will also shed some light implicitly on why that is the case. 

Telling other people's stories

The two reviews of Anton Harber's book almost take it for granted that stories are best told by those who have taken, or continue to take, part in the processes and events described. In as much as stories are intertwined with identities, and identities are inextricably associated with individuals, this view is understandable. More specifically, there is a long and problematic history of writing by white outsiders about the lives of black people and their communities. This goes from the original Western 'explorers', to 19th and 20th century missionaries, right up to today's well-meaning aid workers. This is certainly an important background to Mngxitama's contribution. Mngxitama, with unrepressed glee, made the primary subject of his 4th edition of New Frank Talk a piece by (white) intellectual and activist Heinrich Bohmke. Bohmke argues that many white people in the present day who are supposedly agitating on black people's behalf are really behaving not unlike the missionaries of old. (And this is a common refrain in Mngxitama's writing - 'there are no good whites').

Mngxitama deserves a post all of his own, but for now let's tackle these particular arguments. Leaving race entirely aside, the basic claim - stories should only be told by their actors - is clearly flawed. Consider the more simple case of an individual. Do we think that an individual's story should only be told by themselves? That the biographer should move aside for autobiographies? Surely not. There are hundreds of excellent biographies - critical and complimentary (usually both), written with and without the subject's cooperation - that provide evidence against such a claim. Excellent autobiographies are the exception rather than the rule, for good reasons, including: the ability of an 'outsider' to better present the individual whose life is being written about to an audience, superior writing ability, and willingness to do a fair amount of research. For example, it is far from clear to me that a black man per se would have written a better biography of Thabo Mbeki than Mark Gevisser; in fact, there are two other quasi-biographies of Mbeki (by Ronald Suresh Roberts and William Gumede, who are both black by the broad definition) which are generally agreed to be inferior. Someone with a deeper knowledge of the ANC might have done a better job, but race per se is not the issue.

While it is not always wise to carry individual-level analogies to society at large, in this case I think we are safe in carrying over the individual-level argument to the level of communities and societies. As with a biography, what matters most in writing about a community is arguably a sympathetic ear, a willingness to keep an open mind, an attempt to see matters as members of the community might see them (which includes a lot of thought, but also a lot of research) and a large dose of self-reflection in the research and writing process. 

The biggest problem with a lot of writing by 'outsiders' of various sorts is often a lack of critical self-reflection. In earlier times this took the - now obvious - form of presuming oneself superior to the subjects. Then it became more the presumption of an inherently better understanding of various aspects of the societies than their inhabitants. More recently (and subtly) it takes the form of presuming to be sufficiently knowledgeable to make statements about, or in relation to, others without adequate understanding or self-reflection. To the extent that some of these statements may use terms or imagery offensive to the group being mentioned.

By this classification, and from what I have seen and read, there is little indication that Harber is guilty of making presumptuous claims about Diepsloot. 

On being presumptuous

By now you may be impatiently wondering when I am going to move on to a similarly lengthy analysis of the other examples. But i'm not. Presumptuousness is the point that cuts across all these examples.

 In contrast to Harber, Brett Murray is blatantly culpable of presuming to be sufficiently close to the anti-apartheid struggle, along with anti-apartheid activists and the black people who were oppressed by the apartheid system, to effectively deface some its iconic images. Similarly, Zapiro is presumptuous in assuming that he has engaged sufficiently with issues of rape, gender and race to not only use the metaphor of rape regularly, but to use it only in association with black African men. George W Bush, even while having people waterboarded and killed by drone strikes, was merely a bumbling fool in Zapiro cartoons (and Tony Blair also), but Jacob Zuma in trying to escape corruption charges or pass some dubious legislation is represented with the gut-wrenching imagery of rape (along with his black male allies as accomplices).

Possibly the most nauseating examples of this kind of presumptuousness I have had the misfortune to come across was Anton Kannemeyer's exhibition Pappa in Afrika. [See the link to Khwezi Gule's M&G piece at the end, which has examples of Kannemeyer's work]. Kannemeyer uses Tintin, golliwog-style characters to supposedly pass acerbic comment on the colonial history in Africa. Some positive commentary suggests that he is presenting a critical perspective on white people's attitudes to race, but in other cases this claim morphs into a rather different suggestion: that his emphasis is as much on representation as criticism. Apparently it doesn't make much of a difference. 

Except presumably it would be problematic if Kannemeyer was representing black people as golliwogs because that's how he sees them? But so long as he recognises the image is racist he can use it? I think the latter view reflects a symbiotic sycophancy between artist and narrator/commentator/critic, which is reinforced by the similarities between artist and reviewer. Of course a white reviewer who has never deeply interrogated their own attitude to, and understanding of, race is going to defend a racially presumptuous white artist. It seems so obvious when you say it.

Let me, however, be clear what I am not saying. Some critics have blurred the very particular line I am trying to draw by suggesting that symbols of the struggle are out of bounds, that people of one race have no business criticising people of another race, that Zapiro-style cartoons should be legislated against and so forth. I do not hold to any of those views. The argument I am making is targeted at what I would call second stage self-reflection. As regards race, the first stage - I am thinking particularly of white people here - involves recognising what are now seen as obvious facts: racism is `bad', there is no scientific basis to claims of generally significant differences between races, white people oppressed black people through colonialism and apartheid, etc. Seeing and acknowledging the evils committed by one's predecessors. To the more progressive these seem so self-evident as to barely merit mention. However, I think it is fair to say that for many white South Africans, these remain somewhat contested or subject to many caveats.   

That matters for two reasons: 1. It possibly contributes to these artists feeling that they are sufficiently 'enlightened' to produce the kind of work they have; 2. Because white South Africa is their first target market (followed by foreign white people). I very much doubt there are many, if any, people - white or black - who invested deeply in the fights against colonialism and apartheid who would hang a Pappa in Afrika painting on their wall. Kannemeyer and his praise singers would have us believe this is because of a brittle and uncritical attachment to certain views and values. How very ironic.

As professional artists, these individuals typically claim some level of depth to their work that an amateur scribbler would not. But in fact their work is fundamentally shallow; it reflects the mindset of people who have never really taken a critical look at themselves, but like to think they don't need to. As Khwezi Gule says, "I am the last person to advocate that an artist’s creativity ought to be stifled in favour of political correctness, but that is not to say one ought to celebrate the cynicism of arrogant and intransigent products of racial privilege." [In fact, rereading Gule's piece I realise I am producing a number of arguments parallel to his - it is a piece definitely worth reading.]

Beyond art

It is important to point out that one does not find examples of this kind of thing only in art. Far from it; art is one place where the problem manifests most publicly. I have seen the same problem manifest regularly in social settings. One example was English public (i.e. private) school boys who thought it was funny to tell racist jokes because it was just 'banter'. Or the extremely well-educated white private sector consultant at a scholarship interview who thought it was amusing to use the word 'k****r' and then grill me on why her doing that should make me uncomfortable, since after all she was just using it in a discussion about the word. And that's really the nub of the matter; it's not the uneducated crass racists who behave in this way, but the educated children of the privileged who think that they are beyond needing to question their attitudes and motivations.   

In starting to write this piece I was reminded of an example of my own presumptuousness which bears narrating. Despite being extremely progressive compared to many (sufficiently so that I don't feel the need to mention it except in impersonal, context-less spaces like this), I have always been proportionally cautious on issues of race, continually reflecting on my own perspectives, assumptions and behaviour; so while I may have made some mistakes on that dimension, they have usually been small and not for lack of trying. (Incidentally, in my experience being more, rather than less, cautious as you reflect more on your social position is an excellent way of avoiding the Kannemeyer-Murray-Zapiro problem).  

However, on other dimensions I have not always been so reflective. One example is when I once drew an analogy between plagiarism - specifically, theft of another's work - and rape. As someone who is deeply invested in my ideas and work this seemed an apt analogy; for someone to steal an idea and represent it as their own would be a rending violation. My female partner argued, however, that the analogy was inappropriate; I was undermining the brutality and extent of the violation associated with rape. I got on my high horse and disagreed vehemently. She clearly didn't understand how strongly I felt about my ideas. And surely she wasn't suggesting that I, a vocal supporter of gender equality, etc, etc, would understate the nature of rape.

Sometime later, I realised she was right. I hadn't thought deeply about rape, despite joining in with condemnation of it ('obviously rape is bad'). The remark was glib, largely thoughtless and more than a little self-serving. Thank goodness I wasn't stupid or presumptuous enough to turn it into an expensive and supposedly 'deep' work of art and thrust it into the faces of people who really knew what the violation of rape felt like.        


Main pieces referenced:

Andile Mngxitama's review:

[The second review is not up on the M&G website yet; i'll either post the link when it's up or scan it if necessary].

An interview with Anton Harber where he addresses the question of his legitimacy in writing the book:

The piece by Judy Seidman on Brett Murray, with response from Murray at the bottom:

The comment on Zapiro by Masters student and (self-identified) rape survivor Michelle Solomon:
Zapiro's most recent cartoon of this kind

A critical review of Pappa in Afrika by Khwezi Gule with which I largely agree (I remember appreciating this piece at the time):

Some additional stuff:

Some letters in response to the reviews of Harber's book:

A response to Gule's review which suffers from possibly an even greater lack of self-reflection than the artist's:

A long, lucid and very interesting blog post about Diepsloot which refers to the book and Mngxitama's review:


  1. I'm not going to comment on the piece's argument, but rather recount something I've struggled with. I think words like "k*****" and others provide a very difficult area for a white male to discuss, specifically in the context of being overseas in non-commonwealth countries where people are less likely to know about or to understand South Africa's history. For example, I have had to use the word in explaining the problems of its use to Italians when we encountered someone together who used it and they didn't understand it or its attendant meanings. I couldn't really work around using the word itself and I've since concluded that in similar situations I just need to use it to explain it. It doesn't mean that I'm comfortable with it or not self-reflective though.

    Also, I have to endorse your comments on Kannemeyer. Amy and I saw a show in Vienna where he was exhibited and it felt like his work was propagating a certain form of representation rather than problematising and interrogating it, what made it worse was that there wasn't sufficient background to help people to understand the work or the problems surrounding it. Consequently, I had conflicting feelings - enjoyment of seeing SA work abroad that could get people discussing SA and its history, but frustration that the debate would be shallow because his work is simply shallow.

    Anyway, enjoyable as always Sean - I look forward to chatting about this and more soon.

  2. Thanks Simon. I agree that actually having a discussion about offensive terms is sometimes difficult without uttering the term; not everyone is likely to know what you mean by 'the k-word' or 'the n-word'. Nevertheless, I can only count two occasions where I felt I had little option, and in both cases I was distinctly uncomfortable - the words themselves do make me cringe, instinctively.

    My problem with said consultant was two-fold. First, it was a staged challenge. The conversation didn't naturally arise, she created it. Second, it was clear that she positively relished rolling the word off her tongue. Interestingly, all her black colleagues were noticeably uncomfortable. Of course, as per my characterisation, this did not bother her in the slightest.

    Back to Kannemeyer et al. One obvious question that comes to mind is: "Really? You couldn't come-up with anything better than this?". Is Kannemeyer artistically incapable of coming up with something that doesn't require racist imagery? Can't Brett Murray come up with something that doesn't look like a Grade 10 joke: "Hey okes, let's take this poster and replace 'freedom' with 'Chivas Regal'. HA HA." Ja, nee. I suppose at least Zapiro has the excuse of a deadline to meet.