Imagine doing a nationwide survey asking South Africans to describe Europe. Despotic coloniser, distant motherland or dream holiday destination might be some of the descriptions that crop up. There are plenty vile and complimentary words – too many – to impart here to describe this landmass. A continent far from us, whose imperialism spanned the globe and whose cultural capital in the post-colony insidiously shapes minds.
Its philosophies assumed superiority and de-legitimised any opposing knowledge system. Its statues of conquerors litter our cities and their outposts, while its languages forcibly roll off our tongues. It came, it saw and it conquered figuratively and literally that which was not to it’s immediate advancement. And then, it left us with deep wounds, scarring the psyche. Europe aggravates and ignites our imaginations.
What are we to do about our vexed relationship with the continent? The group exhibition, Dear Europa, at WHATIFTHEWORLD investigates this multifaceted and deeply problematic relationship. In light of this, we spoke to arts journalist and artist, Amie LH Soudien, about this quandary.
The forcible influence Europe has had and continues to have on us both as an idea and a physical power is almost boundless. How is it influencing the South African arts industry now?
The influence of Europe is felt in the South African arts industry in a host of ways. From an education standpoint, as has already been discussed at length, curricula still emphasise European and Northern American art and cultural production. South African and African art thus often exists in direct relation to the art production in Europe. The tokenisation of African artists, and the fetishization of African art in the contemporary realm in Europe is still a real concern. Since the advent of modernism, and some art historians would argue that even prior to modernism, Africa has been the source of misappropriated inspiration and exoticization. The work of Picasso is a classic case of this dynamic.
Europe has a long continued history of festishising Africa, and in this context, South Africa. What do you make of our fetish with Europe and our ideas about ‘The Western World’?
It is difficult for me to think about Europe in the South African context as “fetish.” A fetish implies something that is unusual or out of the ordinary. European-ness, particularly in the localised context of Cape Town, is a part of our daily experience, and even pervades our very ways of thinking. European-ness is, for many people living in South Africa and who have been educated here, is an almost constant preoccupation that is either embraced, wrestled with or rejected on a daily basis. For some people Europe is something to be idealised, and thus South Africa – like all colonies – is in a constant position of “catching up.” In a simplified sense Europe is indelibly linked to ideas of “progress,” and “advancement.” These ideas are taught and disseminated under the notion of the universal. This is primarily where our problems arise.
On artistic level, owing to these factors, South African cultural production is often seen as less desirable than cultural production elsewhere. People would much rather watch American or European films over and above South African films, for instance. The music industry faces a similar problem.
The exhibition is based on the idea of sending letters to Europa. I suspect they might be very long, perhaps more like a novel. In summary, what might you imagine them to say?
Many of the letters are a lament. They are concerned with the ways in which Europa has forced them to change, or led them to re-calibrate themselves to adapt to the colonised environment. Works like Ashraf Jamal, Werner Ungerer, and Pierre Fouche’s Europa…Europa, and Athi-Patra Ruga’s The Berlin Conference Intervention #1, refer to specific artefacts or events which served as catalysts for the colonial project. These works are a response to a series of external forces which have shaped the current South African reality. There is a great sense of unease and anger. There is also immense frustration because one realises that Africa, despite everything, still does not feature in the European consciousness in any comparable way. It’s a lot like shouting into the void.
What purpose do you think art galleries serve in today’s world and what value do they have in a country that has previously been colonised?
Fundamentally, galleries have the opportunity to support and promote artists. They also have the space to explore new ideas in innovative and experimental ways. Owing to institutional guidelines, donors, funders, sponsors etc. this is much more difficult for museums. Galleries can help to provide new spaces for art outside of the established institution, and in this way can help to provide the exposure and the support of artists who have otherwise been overlooked.
Ashraf Jamal wrote, “Europe is under siege. Enlightened secularism – the ethical fulcrum of the Western world and the very basis of the contemporary art world – is on the verge of extinction”. What are your views on this?
The rise of the far-right in Europe, and an increasing intolerance of immigrants and asylum-seekers reveals to us the breakdown of the ideals of “civility,” or what is considered “civilised.” It is becoming increasingly evident that “enlightened secularism” does not provide people with the freedom to express themselves or their in a safe and respectful environment, but rather, gives some the freedom to protect what is considered European at all costs.
If ‘contemporary art’ is called decadent, what can we say about ‘contemporary African art’ and is it necessary to make a distinction between the two?
As Ashraf Jamal writes in his essay for ‘Dear Europa…’ contemporary art is dismissively called decadent when there is an assumption that it is a superfluous activity. For many contemporary African artists, art-making in the contemporary context is an important way to grapple with the notion of the colony at odds with other epistemes. As long as ‘contemporary African art’ does not bear an essentialist marker of what is considered African, it is helpful to make a distinction between contemporary art, and contemporary African art.
Often, Cape Town is thought both by certain locals and tourists to be “a bit like Europe and not like the rest of South Africa”. Where do you think this idea originates from and what dangers might it present?
Cape Town was the first major European settlement in this region. The term “the Mother City” could be interpreted as the expression of this: it is the first “city” in South Africa, in the European sense of settlement. The Dutch and British footprint on Cape Town is undeniable. Much of the city’s physical infrastructure stems from either of these eras. Added to that, is the urban planning of the Apartheid regime, which forcibly removed anyone who was not white out of the city center, and other “desirable” suburbs. This happened not only in District Six, but in other places like Claremont and Newlands. At present, when the locals and tourists you describe visit the CBD and the leafy Southern Suburbs, the city appears European and predominantly white. The city has been engineered to appear that way.
The incredible danger of this idea is that it erases the many people of colour who live in Cape Town. The idea of the European Cape limits the conception of the city to touristic or “desirable” areas: the Cape Flats in this particular view, are not part of the city but “somewhere out there.” It also dismisses the comprehensive history of slavery at the Cape, and the very fact that Islam has existed in Cape Town for as long as European settlement, for instance.
Ashraf Jamal also talks about, ‘the banal but all too real slogans’ present in Julia Clark’s work. How do we engage with these sentiments and not treat them as cliches to dismiss and do nothing about?
From my understanding, the slogans come from protest placards. So in this way, these slogans are a call to action. Yes, we have heard them before, and in many ways they probably have become cliches, but they are also part of a legacy of protest that has resurfaced among students. These slogans become re-activated when we are forced to consider why these statements are being made again, and why they are still necessary in our current political climate.
What strikes you most about the exhibition at WHATIFTHEWORLD?
The exhibition is a biting examination of citizenship and belonging. As a group show, it effectively cuts to the heart of current discontents.
If we’re not able to exorcise Europe from our thoughts, what remedies might we use to lessen its stronghold on our imaginations?
‘Decolonisation’ and ‘transformation’ are not mere concepts, but internal, personal processes that need to take place within each of us. This self-work can be ignited through reading, but can also be developed through a more complex understanding of history. Critically re-visiting the historical narratives taught to us in school, for instance, can help one to reframe the past in a way that re-centers marginalised people.
This has helped me to better understand not only the current context, but myself supporting and engaging with local and African artists, authors, musicians, dancers, actors, and filmmakers are important ways of shifting the focus. Many South Africans – myself included – are painfully unaware of what is happening on the continent, and it requires conscious, concerted effort to reverse this tendency.