Earlier this month Nomusu Makhubu and Nkule Mabaso co-curated a multidisciplinary exhibition, Fantastic, at Michaelis Gallery which subverted the colonial fetishisation of African Art in Western contexts. Rather than rejecting the ideology of ‘the fantastic’ as a primitive and regressive lens through which to view African themes, they invited the viewer to reimagine the term in a critical light, where the power mechanisms at play – responsible for creating and perpetuating neo-colonial mythologies – are examined.
Of the concept behind the collection, they said that “The exhibition recognizes the fantastic as a site of resistance and conceptual framework for debate about biopower and biopolitics”. The visual dialogue between the works attempted to re-ignite rigorous critical thought and dispel colonial misconceptions about ‘witchery’ and ‘superstition’ so often associated with the term. Nomusa and Nkule believe this much needed shift in perspective is crucial if we are to fully comprehend the complex economic and cultural relations that weave together and make up the strange disparities of modern life.
Fantastic was co-curated. How did this come about and what role did you each play in the process?
Nomusa: Nkule read my doctoral thesis and suggested that we consider realising an exhibition from it. She’s been absolutely incredible throughout the process. We’ve worked together on all aspects.
Nkule: Shared resources and shared knowledge and double the brain power.
In retrospect, what are the pros and cons of having more than one curator?
Nomusa: There are more pros than cons. There’s always a team of people around a curator. I enjoy collective thought – one learns a lot from it.
In each of your opinions, what makes for a well-considered and thought-provoking exhibition?
Nkule: Sound research, planning and exactness in execution.
Nomusa: I think it’s the interesting conversations between works and those sparked by the works.
What does the notion of ‘fantastic’ mean to you?
Nomusa: I see it as an intervening strategy, a way of confronting the language of power (recognizing its phantasmagorical qualities).
In the tradition of colonial discourse the ‘fantastic’ within the African context has been synonymous with tropes such as ‘the dark continent’, ‘superstition’ and ‘the noble savage’.How does the show that you’ve put together engage with, critique and subvert these readings?
Nomusa: I could use these words to describe the European context as well. Speculative capital is superstitious and savage. Certain types of magic (technology for example) are seen as progressive while others (religion) are seen as regressive, and even so, why are we still holding on to the racialized distinctions of these forms of understanding the fantastic? These dichotomous distinctions limit us from understanding social experience in a nuanced way. They also limit us from understanding the power of imagination and from seeing the ways in which the everyday continually becomes unsettling and extraordinary.
Fantastic was inspired by the writings of Ben Okri and one of the aspects the exhibition examines is invisibility/visibility in relation to power dynamics within post colonialism. How do the mediums of photography and video explore this idea within the show?
Nomusa: Photography was instrumental for scientific racism to justify colonialism. Similarly, film reinforced racial difference. These tools, however, have been used to decolonize the frame. Using these tools to show what is made invisible, to contravene, to author changes the discourse. The power of these technologies lies their semblance of reality and yet produce fictions that have bearing on material conditions. These mediums capture the paradoxes of the fantastic. Reading Ben Okri, one becomes aware that fiction is not just a way of discerning reality. The contemporary world is characterised by an interweaving of time, and multiplicity of place. In ‘The Famished Road’, for example, Azaro’s worlds are real and experienced, the spirit world is as real as the material world. And as political and economic changes transform the landscape, so the dialectical emerges.
Curators wield a certain political power in the art world. How do you think the past has influenced the present mechanisms at play in the art market and your personal process of curation?
Nomusa: I am, primarily, an art historian and artist. Curating is one of the ways in which I realise research. The exhibition had not much to do with the art market.
This group exhibition showcases artworks from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and the USA. How did you go about selecting the participating artists?
Nkule: Our deciding of the works and artists who would make interesting contributions to the show was very flexible and relied on researching particular artists and works and, as Nomusa has indicated earlier, the exhibition was actualised around a framework she had already explored in her PHD thesis. I was interested in questions of the extraordinary and ‘who’ has the possibility to be ordinary and possibly how this ordinariness is produced. Nomusa has already has a wealth of research and insight on the “fantastic subject” to the selection of works and the coming together of the exhibition felt very natural and we pursued it to its current form because it remained intriguing.
Nomusa: There are more works from Nigeria (two works by Zina Saro-Wiwa, works by Andrew Esiebo, and works by Jelili Atiku) and this is because the research (done in 2010 and 2011) was based in Lagos. When we thought about most of the issues raised in most of the works, we realised that they were pan-African concerns and, some really are global concerns. Pentecostalism (as in Esiebo’s work), for example, is a global phenomenon.
You’ve stated that the choice to have a multidisciplinary exhibition is because technologies have complex relations in the conceptualising of ‘Africa’. Can you elaborate on this?
Nomusa: The theme is inter-disciplinary. It’s a literary theme re-considered as a visual aesthetic. The colloquium was inter-disciplinary: we had speakers from literature and anthropology. We have chosen the mediums of photography and video for the complex relations in representations and conceptualisation of Africa. But just on inter-diciplinarity: the art history discipline borrows from so many other disciplines.
So inter-disciplinarity enables us to question the ‘traditions’ of disciplines that were themselves instrumental in the colonial project (anthropology, history, art history, etc.) “African” art seems to be all the rage both locally and around the world right now. Is this exhibition in any way a deliberate response to this trend?
Nomusa: The exhibition was not conceptualised as an ‘all Africa’ show but our political and social interests are here. Most artists in the exhibition live and practice in various parts of the world. Terence Nance is American. The “trend”, I suppose, is a commercial one. We work in a university environment so our motivations are about research and education. A deliberate response might be towards the call to decolonize the curriculum in South African institutions.
You also held a colloquium that was open to public attendance. How has the exhibition been received, what topics were raised and were the discussions anything like you anticipated?
Nomusa: I am really grateful to our speakers: professors Gabeba Baderoon, Harry Garuba, Anne-Maria Makhulu and Imraan Coovadia. They took this theme to new heights and really opened our minds to different ways of thinking about the fantastic. Gabeba Baderoon so aptly examined how we can think of the fantastic in light of Njabulo Ndebele’s observation that apartheid operated through the spectacularization of the everyday (mass demonstrations, mass killings, mass removals, pass raids, etc.). She offered so many thought-provoking ways of thinking about the fantastic, not as Tzvetan Todorov might have, but as post-colonial politic. Harry Garuba led the discussion towards destabilising the stubborn dichotomies of modernity that create bigoted discourses. Anne-Maria Makhulu responded directly to the works in relation to the gender and racial issues raised. Imraan Coovadia pointed us towards understanding aesthetics after Rhodes Must Fall. Destruction, or the destruction of artworks has long history in which objects/artworks are fetishized, treated as sacred or magical objects.They yield symbolic power and are sites of contestation. RMF paved a very important path towards transformation. I do not believe that I have done justice to the depth of discussions that our speakers sparked and we really appreciate that they created the kind of platform for nuanced discussion.
You’re having a book launch on the 9th of October. In what ways does this add to the exhibition and how important is it to publish literature around this body of work?
Nkule: As a record the exhibition, the catalogue stand both as evidence and a contribution towards further research in the area and the questions around it.
Nomusa: The basis of the exhibition was scholarly, and so it makes sense to discuss, think and write about it rather than to merely show. We realise that the exhibition might be misunderstood as well. The term fantastic is colloquially used and so the rationale might be missed if we do not create the platforms for discussions. Furthermore, we realise that many debates might arise from the association of African arts with magic, superstition, etc. which seem to not take into consideration the brutal racisms and sexisms that are fuelled by global capitalism and uneven relations.
Lastly, what contribution would you like to make both as artists and curators?
Nomusa: I would like to work more collectively in creative and written contributions on current socio-political concerns.
The Fantastic catalogue launch is taking place from 6pm at Michaelis Galleries on 9 October, 2015.