I hope readers will forgive me for answering the question posed by this conference with another, that is, retorting to the rhetorical question posed, that of museum practice in the 21st century, with an attendant query regarding decolonization, or what it means to decolonize and why decolonize in the 21st century. During the course of this paper, I will make an argument for decolonization as an activity, mode and vigilant attitude to be adopted when engaging with museums, archives and cultural institutions in the 21st century. By decolonizing, I posit, we not only acknowledge the deep roots these institutions hold in the Enlightenment project and its attendant world of colonial divisions, violences and violations, silencings, deletions and omissions, but by undertaking this endeavor of colonial undoing, we will interrupt the museum’s unjust and problematic occupation, particularly in places like South Africa.
Museums and-as archives are storehouses, temples, vaults, mausoleums or «centres of art detention» (Reed, 1996) – whichever image you prefer – that have been populated and made – be it directly, through the artifacts themselves, or indirectly, by way of funding – through the results of colonial exploits and incursions into the «heart of Africa» and other «dark» continents. Together with the institution’s remaining legitimate possessions, these illegitimate trophies of conquest have been subject to a layered rhetoric and semiotics, which over time, have overtly and covertly been set up and employed to disavow and veil the museum’s original colonial sin (read theft), upholding European/white/settler dominance and a Western purview of history. Through taxonomies of inclusion (validation) vis-a-vis exclusion (phantoming), the «subaltern» world is kept in the shadows of the museum, as visual artist Fred Wilson has consistently shown us, in projects such as Mining the Museum (1992). The «barbarians» contribution to knowledge, culture and history is in this way ghosted. These contributions-made-invisible can be traced in the conceptual and real holes, absences, veiling and silencings within the museum and-as archive and its narrative, which the decolonial (read de-racial and de-patriarchal) researcher, on entering, senses as soon as she encounters the encompassing, overwhelming, pre-ordained, pre-ordered and co-opting deposit, which presents itself as an abyss to anyone desiring to undertake some form of restorative justice. If the world (and museum and-as archive) we intend on producing in the 21st century is to come about – a post-abyssal world, as Boaventura Sousa Santos would have it – we need to ensure that spaces of haunting such as the museum and-as archive become places of co-presence, co-visibility and co-acknowledgement.
For many unwittingly colonially-minded Portuguese, decolonization is synonymous with an independence moment that lies in a not so distant, traumatic past. Decolonization thus seen is something that has been done to one’s parents, acquaintances or a previous generation. From this subjective, self-centered and somewhat myopic perspective, it is a discrete moment of incomprehensible material undoing and illegitimate loss, one that belongs to a familial melancholic past, compellingly evoked in nostalgic readers of the novel Another day of Life and its image of Luanda as a city of crates, created by a desperate and affluent exiting Portuguese; a «wronged» group of defenseless folk, desperate to hold onto its possessions and dare I say it, exploits. Or decolonization imaged later, as an indexical scar, a blemish in the landscape, as suggested in the photographic renderings of Jo Ractliffe.
I would like to begin by tackling this conception, which renders decolonization an anachronism, a product of the past, a wound and a misgiving. Decolonization cannot be a moment and is not a metaphor (Tuck and Yang, 2012) but is rather a process, a becoming and a fundamental stirring that shakes up global, epistemological and «abyssal lines» (Santos, 2007, p. 4) at distinct moments, freeing us from the grips of modernity-cum-capitalism-cum-neo-liberalism, with its intertwining epistemes of rationalism and attendant practices of appropriation, violation and extraction, initiated and progressively refined by our European forebears, the so-called «discoverers». A paradigm, it should be said, that dictates our position – which is either one of visibility or invisibility along an epistemic line initially designed by those in command of those intrepid Portuguese cartographers and navigators, and built upon by the West over at least five centuries through the work of philosophers, scientists, librarians, archivists, exhibition commissioners, traders and collectors.
As Boaventura de Sousa Santos has described, over the past sixty years, our planet has witnessed at least two tectonical shifts of the deep, abyssal line that cuts through modern thinking and modern reality and its institutions. The first coincided with the anti-colonial struggle and processes of independence. For the first time in history, the abyssal distinction between the modern world or metropolitan societies and former invisible colonial territories seemed somewhat hopefully abridged, if only temporarily. The second shift, this second upheaval of the lines that once demarcated the Old from the New World, corresponds to the processes of migration witnessed today, where the return of the colonial is seen in reverse trajectories, along the paths once delineated by the caravels, to the point that the colonial is no longer «just (to be found) on the former colonial territories,» in distant, far-off places, «but also in the metropolitan societies» (Santos, p. 6). The «colonized» lives in the metropolis and its suburbs, whilst the colonizer takes every measure to keep the colonized out. For the West, the colonial, as Sousa Santos has written, returns today with three forms, «the terrorist, the undocumented migrant worker and the refugee» (p. 6). In a setting like the one we are currently living, former clear demarcations become «messy» (Santos, p. 7), and decolonization of the metropolis – which the «colonized» now inhabits, as opposed to the distant, inaccessible continents of the south and east – becomes imperative. If we choose not to decolonize, we risk falling into the deepest of abysses.
But what is decolonization about? For Tuck and Yang, it is about land and the repatriation of it. You may ask yourselves, and rightly so, how it is that we decolonize the contemporary metropolis? In addition to de-colonial town planning, which puts co-presence, co-visibility and co-acknowledgement into relief in neo-colonial cities such as Cape Town, I would argue that museums and archives afford a range of opportunities to contribute to this process, to eventually arrive at the desired place of co-presence. When we have achieved this, both worlds will not have disappeared, but the formerly invisible will have full presence and occupation of the museum and polis.
In my own research, I have taken on this challenge. I am fully cognizant that my position risks becoming a «move to innocence» or a «strategy to remove (my) involvement in and culpability for systems of domination» (Mawhinney, 1998, p. 17). I hold that this danger, this possibility keeps me in check. And so I stop to ask myself, constantly, and at every turn, am I not the oppressor, and who is my work potentially silencing? This admittedly makes my work slow. But these are the questions I urge curators in training, but also seasoned researchers, to ask. I do not wish to deny or deflect that I have benefitted from settler colonialism. I was born the very year students in Orlando, Soweto gathered to strike against the exclusionary introduction of Afrikaans as a language of instruction, with fatal consequences. I admittedly work within South African institutions that are slow to change and eradicate the pervasive culture of settler colonialism...
As a PhD candidate undertaking research into South Africa’s representations at the Venice and São Paulo biennials, I have found myself buried under the language and pronouncements of what I term the colonial and racist arch-archive, struggling for air as I try to unearth the story of the late Leonard Tshela Mohapi Matsoso, an obscured exponent of South African modernism, hidden under this dust pile of Apartheid history. Although allegorical, the feelings of asphyxiation and dehydration in the archive are real. No fresh air reaches these dungeons – the clunky turbines of the 1970s brutalist building where SAAA archive is housed operate to circulate the same heavy air, over and over again. I dread to think, as I delve into the deep cardboard boxes containing an array of manila folders produced over more than a century, that not only these yellowing, torn and telling records, but the air too that I am breathing, has somehow come to me from the 1970s, the archive becoming a contaminated time capsule of sorts, a Pandora’s box which I have intentionally tampered. I am often frightened by the thought that this pod contains a particular strain of archive fever, which like others, brings researchers under its spell, engulfing the naïve and distracted researcher, welcoming and eventually leading her into its garden of forking paths. The Apartheid effluvium I have been diving into contains the flotsam and jetsam, but also the lagan of the South African Association of the Arts which organized national and international exhibitions, including the biennials of São Paulo (which it superintended from 1957 to 1994) and Venice (from 1958 to 1995).
The history of this association echoes a long tradition of exclusion and disenfranchisement of black artists in South Africa, from its inception in 1871 as the South African Fine Arts Association through to the early 1990s, that is, over 120 years of greater or lesser marginalization. Although it has had several name changes over time, from the South African Fine Arts Association to the South African Association of the Arts in 1944, to the current South African National Association for the Visual Arts (or SANAVA as of 1998), its roots are amateuristic and racialist. It is these origins that the archival system, through the work of the archons (Steedman, 2001) and their notions of compliance, and activities of normalization and naturalization, ultimately work to conceal or camouflage.
When combing the records of the archive, I decided that I would make an effort to not be overwhelmed by the predominantly male, commanding Afrikaans and English voices, setting myself the task and determining my own personal archival duty to be that of remaining attentive to the silences within the archive, and my ethics to be one of listening. Like my feminist forebears, I see my task to be that of recovering, articulating and elaborating the stories and contributions of black artists with the biennial archive whose work has been «aborted, deferred or denied – hidden» (Olsen, 2003, p. 8). It was in this spirit that I launched myself into the choppy and treacherous archival waters of the SAAA archive. When taking initial tally of all of the artists who had represented South Africa, I was struck by the fact that Leonard Tshela Mohapi Matsoso, a budding twenty-four-year-old painter, had been awarded a Bienal de São Paulo international award, sponsored by Metalúrgica Matarazzo in 1973, for the three works on view, listed in the biennial catalogue as follows: Dança Tribal Africana, Agonia e a Besta and O Mareiro (or O Colono). Six year later, in 1979, Matsoso was to represent South Africa again, given this was to be a «biennial of prizes». According to official correspondence found in the archive, the South African participation in 1979 was cancelled due to «political reasons». This happened shortly before the exhibition was to be held. The information service of South Africa was contacted soon thereafter to assist in finding other overseas venues where these works could be shown over the course of 1980. On paging though the official catalogue, I was struck by the absence of any substantial entry on Matsoso, a biennial awardee. Since then, this has become the (impossible) lacuna I have chosen to address, and Matsoso, the ghost I wish to channel.
As my research is ongoing, I am still hoping to clarify the reason why it was decided that Marguerite Weavind and Judith Mason were chosen to represent South Africa in addition to Matsoso at the São Paulo Biennial of 1979. I can only speculate that for the Apartheid government, having a black artist as the sole representative of South Africa to be an imponderable, unthinkable, perhaps even unspeakable thing. This episode is particularly revealing and tells of the many injustices borne by Matsoso and other black artists in similar positions, and is an archival haunting that lingers over the history of curatorship in South Africa. To give an example, could a parallel not be drawn between Matsoso and Mohau Modisakeng – also born in Soweto, aged thirty-one – and his shared representation of the South African pavilion at the Venice biennale with a white, female artist in 2017? He too, I imagine, sees himself having to share a moment of personal glory and artistic achievement with former oppressors. I would argue for the case that unaddressed lacunae allow for slippages, unjust reiterations and archival apparitions of this nature.
But let us return to 1979. The SAAA, with the possible complicity of dealers, hijacked and stole what would have been Matsoso’s moment in true Apartheid style. Adding insult to injury, records show that the organization had submitted a budget of R3,000 to produce the Weavind tapestry (for wages, warp, etc.), as opposed to a meagre R300 for costs associated with paper, mounting and framing of Matsoso’s five drawings, together with an additional R5 for a professional portrait. The ten-fold difference between the two allocations exemplifies the extreme disparity perpetrated by the regime and its doling of violence, cruelty and undermining practices. It should be noted that the commissioner, Larry Scully, was also set to receive R1,641 for travel and two weeks accommodation in São Paulo. This information would have undoubtedly been kept from Matsoso. The astute man and formidable mathematician which Patrick Mautloa, one of Matsoso’s peers, co-workers and life-long friends described to me, would have surely picked up on the discrepancy between what he was receiving and what others were spending.
In order to understand the events of 1979, which impacted South Africa and the exclusion of Matsoso, it is important to go back in time in Brazilian history, particularly to the country’s recent history, which was one of authoritarianism and repression. A military dictatorship, Brazilian authorities wished to project an image of a happy, docile, miscegenated, and progressively whitened nation. Brazil’s embracing of miscegenation would certainly have been a problem for the racially segregated South Africa and its leaders, together with their vicious propounding of the virtues of separate development. Both nations nonetheless, had been occupied, albeit differently, by totalitarian forces, yet both communed in an ideal of white supremacy. If South Africa’s overt racism inconvenienced Brazil, the Brazilian nation’s «unrestrained» libido was certainly inconvenient to South Africa.
Repression in Brazil was neither linear or uniform, and has been seen to have manifested in three distinct waves. In her thesis on the Bienais Nacionais, Renata Cristina de Oliveira Maia Zago cites Marcos Nascimento’s description of these waves, the first having manifest between 1964 to 1967 – a period when the military sought to dismantle the connections between leftist culture and social movements and political organizations. It was during this wave that the national student union was dismantled, together with the Higher Institute for Brazilian Studies and movements for basic education. During this stage, a relatively moderate censor’s hand was felt by artists. As a matter of fact, it was public administration that came to feel the force of repression. A case in point, cited by Zago, is Tulio Magnaine’s forced retirement from functions as director of the Pinacoteca de São Paulo in 1964, after being interrogated with regards to the political inclinations of his staff (p. 32). The second wave took hold between 1968 and 1979 and features organized censorship with a greater focus on the arts and culture. The third moment, which Nascimento identifies as taking place between 1979 and 1985, attempted to control the process of political disintegration, establishing boundaries as to what artists could say and how.
For the western world, and North America in particular, the coup of 1964 put a stop to the advance of communism in the south. In the eyes of the occupying Brazilian military officials, it implied their defense of democracy, and a determination to set the country back on course, to its original horizon of preordained glory. Researcher Caroline Saut Schroeder tell us that after 31 March 1964, the Brazilian political elite and public watched, stupefied as arbitrary acts of repression increased, with the military controlling any and all perceived acts of divergence (p. 17). Within the arts, the State promoted an aestheticized version of the nation, purged of all negativity. Its repertoire included images of a harmonious, joyful, cordial, festive people as a symbol of true democracy, as well as tropes relating to Brazil’s natural and tropical exuberance.
For their part, artists and intellectuals linked to the Brazilian avant-garde defended a more critical nationalism, denouncing the state’s authoritarianism and exposing Brazil’s true condition. Instances of this can be found in the cinema of Glauber Rocha and his «aesthetics of hunger». Rocha produced films that were officially seen as unfavorable, highlighting Brazilian poverty, misery and conflict. Whilst Rocha received international accolades, his films were forbidden from being projected in his home country. In the music industry, resistance song and the movement otherwise known as Tropicalismo gathered momentum in an effort to upset the cycle of bourgeois «good taste» or bom gosto that had gripped Brazil. Visual artists were engaging in participatory practice and institutional critique, questioning not only the appearance of art, but the concept of art itself and its attendant systems. The implementation of the so-called Institutional Act or Ato Institucional nº 5 on 13 December 1968 put an end to all of these utopian dreams and the shared sentiment of a Brazilian revolution through its implementation of so-called moral reform and state propaganda.
Brazil was steeped in censorship and repression. At the Propostas 65 exhibition, for instance, several works were censored. In response, artists Wesley Duke Lee, Nelson Leirner, Geraldo de Barros and others withdrew from the show in sign of protest (Schroeder, 2011, p. 30). Two years later, the 4th Salon of National Contemporary Art held in Brasília also fell under the hands of censors. In this instance, Claudio Tozzi’s triptych Guevara Vivo ou Morto (Guevara Dead or Alive) fell victim to right-wing vandals. At the IX Bienal de São Paulo, held in 1967, not only did the awarding body of Itamaraty refuse to impart awards to artworks deemed to be of an erotic or political inclination, but several artworks were withdrawn by the military government. These included O Presente (The Gift) by Cybele Varela and a series of flags by Quissak Júnior, who was subsequently accused of disrespecting a national symbol. Ironically, this was the same biennial that awarded a prize to Jasper Johns for his series of Flags (Schroeder, 2011, p. 31). The heavy hand of censors was also felt at the Bienal da Bahia, a local biennial created by artists to promote the integration of producers living and working beyond the central São Paulo-Rio axis. The biennial took place after the AI-5 was implemented, under a climate of enormous repression, to such an effect that a truck a headed to Bahia’s Academy of Letters was stopped by the Federal Police. According to one of the organizers, Juarez Paraíso, before the opening of the exhibition, functionaries of the Education Department had issued orders for certain «subversive» works to be removed. Choosing to ignore the warning, the exhibition opened in December of 1968 with all works on view, but was summarily shut down by the political police. This incident, according to Schroeder, was attributed to the governor’s opening speech and his use of certain prohibited statements such as «all emerging art should be revolutionary» and «freedom defines art». For Paraíso though, it was not the police that closed the biennial, but the government for fear of reprisals (Schroeder, p. 33).
If anyone on either side, be it in South Africa or Brazil, happened to emerge arguing for the exhibition of Matsoso’s suite of drawings, they were prone to be silenced and shut down. On the Brazilian end, potential advocates of his presence – seeing in him a figure of continued silent resistance – were likely to have been seen by military officials as problematically vocal, what censors call «troublemakers». On the South African end, there is little evidence to show that such a figure could have even existed. And so Matsoso – who had chosen to present a suite of related works on the haunting and poignant myth of Nonquase at the biennial of 1979 – was silenced, becoming an exhibitionary spectre for both nations. We all know that something haunted never disappears; rather it produces systems, sites and modes that offer themselves to critical enquiry.
To save face from the political embarrassment caused by South Africa’s exclusion from the São Paulo Biennial, the South African Information Service swiftly responded, remitting letters to consuls and counselors around the United States, including New York, Washington and Texas, where it inquired about the possibility of works selected for São Paulo to travel to these and other locations. Freight and insurance would be paid by the Department of Education, and the works would have been returned to South Africa by November of 1980 as they were to be on permanent display in Pretoria’s State Theatre.
The suite Matsoso produced included the Nonquase triptych, a spectre in and of itself that Matsoso too seemed desirous to channel and interpret. For Apartheid South Africa, the story of Nongqawuse was dismissed as mere folk tale, but for many today, and I would speculate Matsoso too, this real-life event bespeaks of the dogged and selfless resistance of the Xhosa people and the tragedy of colonial expansion. It was in 1856, three years after bovine pleuropneumonia arrived in the Cape aboard a ship carrying Friesian bulls to Mossel Bay (Peires, 1987, p. 45), with the additional aggravation of a severe drought that Nongqawuse, a young Xhosa girl, had a vision in which a «new people» from overseas announced to her that the ancestors were preparing themselves to return to life with new cattle (Ashford, 1991, p. 581). In order to prepare for their coming, Nongqawuse was told, all the Xhosa must burn their crops and slaughter their cattle. Despite reluctance in some quarters, when the ancestors failed to arrive by the prescribed date, most Xhosas had decided to destroy their livelihoods. With this, catastrophe ensued. An estimated 40.000 people starved to death (Peirce, 1987, p. 43). The survivors, forced to seek assistance in the British Cape Colony, were driven into the service of the colonialists. The colonial administration, under the leadership of Governor Sir George Grey, brutally exploited and capitalized on the situation. «The power of the Chiefs was broken and their lands seized for European settlement» (Ashford, p. 581). Although there is much to be said of this complex event, which has served different agendas over time, I would argue that Nongqawuse’s vision was not located in the past, but in the future-present, creating a compelling haunting amongst her people – an intertwined dream of becoming, return and regeneration – a decolonial desire – which Matsoso, with his «Brazilian» suite, wished to tap into and possibly share with his Portuguese-speaking counterparts.
Each of Matsoso’s panels portrays a monumental Nongqawuse, a seer and liminal being and daughter of Mhlakaza, associated with the Xhosa cattle killing in different scenes. In the first, Nongqawuse addresses a group of four crouched, grimacing figures, attentively listening and drawing on her words under a crimson, apocalyptic, African sun. A long cloud of grey stretches across the sky, possibly caused by burning fields. Nongqawuse’s right arm is raised, her fist clenched in Apartheid defiance and leadership as she addresses her hungry, broken people. Like others included in the scene, the exposure of the lines of her thoracic cage are exacerbated, alluding not only to the draught of the summer of 1855-6 (Peires, 1987, p. 45), which would have reduced the food supply available to local peoples, but also, and more importantly, to the diseased cattle and loss of land brought about by English colonizers. The scene encapsulates the emotion and despair of a people whose entire well-being rested with its cattle, and who, as Peirce writes, «loved each beast individually.» Thanks to colonial settlers, cattle owners and shepherds were forced to watch their animals putrefy from the inside out. Moving on to the second scene, Nongqawuse stands erect with another figure, their conjoined bodies indissociable. At their feet lies the carcass of a dead animal. There would have been many more corpses, but Matsoso, I would argue, chose to represent the familial unit and its individual connection to each animal. Nongqawuse touches and is connected to both earth and sky. In this scene, she holds the sun in her hand. In the third and last panel of the triptych, Nongqawuse rests atop of a living Nguni bull. Her back is bent from exhaustion. The skies have cleared and she is again one with animal. Her partner however, is represented divorced from her, in the background, pleading to an absent, possibly Christian God. Still near to her, not all has been lost.
In addition to the above triptych, two other works around the veiled theme of Apartheid resistance were included. In the vertical, almost life-size work Man and Beast, a man, possibly Xhosa, wrestles a giant, toothed monster with a poised, diminutive spear. One might argue that the giant crocodile depicted in this battle alludes to Die Groot Krokodil (Afrikaans for The Big Crocodile), a nickname used for P.W. Botha, the prime minister of South Africa from 1978 to 1984 and the first executive state president from 1984 to 1989. In the other horizontal panel, titled Mabalele (Whilst They Were Asleep) the crocodile has almost dominated his human prey. Although pinned down and trapped by the reptile’s heavy grey body, the warrior portrayed looks death – read the Apartheid oppressor – squarely in the face.
It should be noted that Matsoso’s technique was eximious for an artist working under dire conditions shared by most black artists under Apartheid. Living and working mostly from Soweto, he did not have access to electricity. Nonetheless, his draughtsmanship, detail and exceptional blending of tones and palette rendered bodies as perennial and monumentally three-dimensional as sculptural forms. If South Africa was void of monuments to the black man, Matsoso was erecting primordial figures on two-dimensional surfaces, which looked and suggested that they had been carved from stone.
Returning back to the museum-and-as-archive, and in form of conclusion, I propose that we continue to think of museums-and-as-archives as autonomous zones, or perhaps as Foucault would have it, heterotopias – laboratories where we are constantly aware and isolating coloniality – where curators single out, dismantle, subvert, dethrone, deconstruct, debunk and détourne the material and immaterial places that coloniality (read whiteness) and colonial relations have occupied for far too long, allowing for their invisibilities, their omissions and their repressions to finally become visible. To gently and respectfully heed to the museum and-as archive’s many ghosts.
This paper is based on research supported by the South African Research Chairs Initiative of the Department of Science and Technology and National Research Foundation of South Africa (Grant No 98768).
ASHFORD, A. (1991). «The Xhosa Killing and the Politics of Memory». Sociological Forum. 3, pp. 581-592.
BRADFORD, H. and QOTOLE, M. (2008]. «Ingxoxo enkulu ngoNonqqawuse’s» (A Great Debate about Nongqawuse’s Era). Kronos. 34, pp. 66-105.
KAPUSCINSKI, R. (2001). Another Day of Life. London: Penguin.
MAWHINNEY, J. (1998). Giving up the ghost: Disrupting the (re)production of white privilege in anti-racist pedagogy and organizational change. Masters Thesis, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.
OLSEN, T. (2003). Silences. New York: The Feminist Press at the University of New York.
REED, I. (1996). Mumbo Jumbo. New York: Scribner Paperback Fictions.
SANTOS, B. (2007). «Beyond Abyssal Thinking: From Global Lines to Ecologies of Knowledges». Eurozine. Accessed: 13 February 2017. http://carleton.ca/mds/wp-content/uploads/santos-Abyssal-thinking.pdf
SCHROEDER, C. S. (2011). X Bienal de São Paulo: sob os efeitos da contestação. Masters Thesis, Escola de Comunicação e Artes/USP.
STEEDMAN, C. (2001). Dust: the archive and cultural history. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Terror in Brazil: The Laws of Repression. [Online]. Accessed: 22 February 2017. http://library.brown.edu/wecannotremainsilent/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Terror-in-Brazil-A-Dossier.pdf
TUCK, E. and YANG K.W. (2012). «Decolonization is not a metaphor.», Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. 1(1), pp. 1-40.
ZAGO, R.C.O.M. (2013). As Bienais Nacionais de São Paulo 1970-76. Masters Thesis, Universidade Estadual de Campinas.