Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Opening Remarks by Garth Stevens: Tension Torsion: 20 Years On

Opening Remarks 

at the Tension Torsion: 20 Years On group art exhibition of new works 
by Farieda Nazier, Gordon Froud, Avitha Sooful and Oupa V. Mokwena - 
curated by Farieda Nazier, 
Ithuba Art Gallery, 
100 Juta Street, 
Johannesburg, South Africa.

Prof. Garth Stevens (Assistant Dean: Humanities Research)
Department of Psychology, School of Human & Community Development, University of the Witwatersrand

Thank you Farieda, Gordon, Avitha and Oupa, for inviting me to make a few remarks at the opening of your exhibition this evening.

I am here this evening not as an artist, but as a social scientist whose work intersects with much of what you see here tonight, and that work is located in an initiative called the Apartheid Archive Project – a project that explores the enduring effects of our racialised past on contemporary South Africa, but through the lens of the everyday, the ordinary and the quotidian.

When I saw the exhibition title, I immediately thought that this was such an apt description of the complex and often contradictory effects of our past and the ways in which we are trying to live with and through this legacy in the current period. This period is of course one that is marked by racialised flashpoints in higher education, in communities in which the threat of xenophobic or Afrophobic violence looms large, and in the everyday mutations of racialised social interactions; by service delivery protests; by rolling strikes in the mining sector across the Platinum Belt; by growing inequality between the wealthiest and poorest sectors of South Africa; by violence that has become endemic; by recalcitrant forms of gender discrimination; and by reduced confidence in the structures of governance in South Africa. But to mention only this would be Afro-pessimistic at least, and so we have to recognise the increased access to basic services since 1994, genuine attempts at community integration, changing subjectivities, and the emergence of a new layer of youth who are relatively untainted by the explicit and overt institutional manifestations of racism and racialisation.

This is therefore a timely exhibition that contributes to us reflecting on the gains and challenges facing South African society some 20 years after our transition to an enfranchised, democratic dispensation, but it is also a time of reckoning for the political leadership and for ordinary South Africans, the latter who have perhaps too easily relinquished and ceded the rights of citizens in the face of this new found freedom.

And so the question that arises is:  How do we live with and through this legacy, or stated differently, how do we ‘do’ or perform freedom today? The answer of course is simple: in complicated ways! There are no doubt tensions and distortions associated with this past in South Africa today, but there are also genuine attempts at rapprochement and refiguring South African society, as illustrations of this complicatedness.

Over the last 20 years, the discourse of reconciliation has perhaps become such a lofty ideal that it has in many ways become a free-floating signifier that now encapsulates so many meanings, interests and agendas, that it is hard to discern what we actually mean by it, let alone how to attain it. Perhaps the idea of entanglement as spoken about by writers such as Mbembe, Nuttall and Straker is one way to think about this complicated present. Entanglement refers to the complex ways in which our histories, our past and present, our subjectivities, and indeed our lives, are so intertwined that that disentanglement leading to a ‘clean slate’ amongst South Africans is perhaps not possible, nor necessarily desirable. As an entry point into the complicated nature of our present, maybe an acknowledgement of these complex relationships, leading to an understanding and mutual recognition, is perhaps a less lofty ideal to pursue, as it compels us to not only live with this complexity, but also to recognise that this complexity is not necessarily only a problem but also has a range of future possibilities. It can indeed open up moments of dialogue, intercommunal spaces of participation, alternative subjectivities, and also the possibilities of a critically engaged citizenry, who if necessary, may act in insurgent ways to hold those in power accountable.

Tension Torsion: 20 Years On offers one such space for promoting and provoking dialogue. As a social scientist, and not an artist, let me briefly add that in my humble view, art offers us a different medium through which to articulate, contest and express experiences in the world. It cuts across the intellectual, cultural, academic and public realms in ways that can often not be accomplished through the traditional, formal registers and formats associated with the academy today. The arts open up spaces for a performative social science that can promote a truly public-intellectual engagement, making it as important, if not more important to the project of cultural revitalisation and renewal that is central to the social transformation project.
So as you enjoy each other’s company, but most importantly the installations that are part of this exhibition tonight, I hope that you will be provoked into dialogue about the continued impact of our past on our present, the complexities and challenges of this present, but also the possibilities of a future that is yet to be imagined and is yet to unfold.
Thank you and congratulations to all of you.

Garth Stevens, 20/03/2014

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Edited by Garth Stevens, Norman Duncan and Derek Hook

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