Thursday, July 29, 2010

By/way of Passage

Image by Gabi Ngcobo

Gabi Ngcobo’s curatorial intervention “PASS-AGES: References & Footnotes” located in the space of the former Pass Office at the corner of Albert and Polly Street in Johannesburg engages with what it describes as “the most basic work of the apartheid state . . . the control of black bodies across the South African landscape.” It references in part the photography of the late Ernest Cole, of Drum pedigree, whose iconic “Young boy is stopped for his pass as white plainclothesman looks on” is reprinted in the program accompanying the project, fittingly more “newspaper” than catalogue. In order to animate the moment of arrest--apprehension but also stasis—that is the substance of Cole’s tableau, we might invoke Mongane Wally Serote’s “City Johannesburg”, a key text of the “Soweto Poetry” of the 1970s. Serote offers a kind of contingent ekphrasis tied to the same technology of power which had produced Cole’s image a decade earlier.

This way I salute you:

My hand pulses to my back trousers pocket

Or into my inner jacket pocket

For my pass, my life,

Jo’burg City.

The poem evokes a lived sense of the body’s disarticulation in response to its being hailed by the racist state apparatus, but the interpellation must be routed as much through Fanon as through Althusser. If the poem illustrates power becoming capillary, in Foucault’s sense, it returns this trope to the tissue of material embodiment in a manner reminiscent of the hemorrhage that spatters Fanon’s body with black blood in the fifth chapter of Black Skins, White Masks.

Gabi Ngcobo and her collaborators are intimately attuned to the materiality of the body and its capacity to archive the production of race in apartheid South Africa. They work in a particularly dense nexus of such production: the pass office, paradoxically stripped of its evidentiary status through the willed destruction of the archive—in the most literal, bureaucratic sense—by the state officials who worked there. Its emptiness must be “activated” in Ngcobo’s term, or “reenacted.” Kemang Wa Lehulere’s video installation “Pencil Test” does just this. It reenacts the notorious pencil test of apartheid classification, rendering it absurd through multiple insertions of pencils into the artist’s own hair. The video installation is part of a larger—spatialized--commentary on what is imagined as a kind of archaeology of race. Afro-combs set in a display case triangulate between “Pencil Test” and a second video installation, amplified by photographs, of another performance piece by the artist which documents his excavation of a hole in Gugulethu using an afro-comb. The assemblage is framed by the statement “I found a rib cage” that alludes to the unexpected discovery of the skeleton of a cow in the process of excavation.

This is reenactment as haunting, then, but equally as an “unearthing” of stories and narratives “that the dominant historical narratives have shoved six-feet under,” states Kemang Wa Lehulere in a conversation with Gabi Ngcobo reproduced in the “newspaper” catalogue. The degree to which this is a critique of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose own preoccupation with exhuming corpses is well known, is never rendered explicit. In a slightly different mode, Zanele Muholi and Mary Sibande use the female body as surface onto which to project enduring questions regarding domestic work as a site of domination erased by, precisely, the framing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission’s focus on gross violations of human rights as Mahmood Mamdani has long argued obscures the ability to see apartheid in structural terms, as well as in its quotidian instantiations. Muholi’s and Sibande’s contributions encourage us to ask how the figures of the “Madam” and the “Maid” continue to be joined. How, in other words, do they inhabit “complicity” in that slightly more expansive, more complex etymology which Mark Sanders has taught us to recognize? What is the duration and what the temporality of its folds and grooves? A tactile, even textile association feels appropriate here. Mary Sibande intervenes in this problematic under the sign “Long Live the Dead Queen,” reworking Victorian costume through the use of fabric typically associated with the uniforms of domestic workers in South Africa. Zanele Muholi, for her part, investigates the problematic of domestic work in a photographic series which encodes deliberate personal references. The series is staged under the banner of “Work as Usual” in a telling allusion to a 2002 newspaper article that documents the biography of the artist’s mother, itself included in the sequence and captioned “Work as usual for Bester.” One of its memorable images juxtaposes the high-heeled legs of the white madam with the figure of the maid on her knees washing the floor: a footnote, if you like, to the hierarchical relations prevailing between them.

I am aware that my own language at this point has been shaped by the foregrounding of polysemy in the title of the curatorial project itself: “PASS-AGES: References & Footnotes.” Ngcobo dislocates the term “passages” into yielding a play on temporality: “ages.” The plural seems to carry her conviction regarding something like the unfinished nature of the past, an exploration of the way in which certain “codes and cultural signifiers are repeated, universalized and preserved.” It is also surely worth noting that the history of passes and, famously, of pass resistance in South Africa predates the apartheid state. A “pass” is officially a “Reference Book” or “Bewysboek” in Afrikaans (from “bewys”—“prove”), although the derogatory popular Afrikaans designation “dompas” had far more currency. The pass book would have contained pages used for the endorsements of employers, that is, references. But the term is not allowed to settle into its familiar usage in this context. In a substitution that raises questions concerning the relation between power and knowledge production, then and now, the box-files on the desk that stands in for the presence of the apartheid official who might once have sat behind it in the deepest, most recessed of the exhibition spaces contain a pile of articles by Berlin-based curator and art critic, Jan Vervoert. His article is (pointedly? playfully?) a “reference” in academic jargon. It is tempting to draw this mobility of “reference” into conjunction with the notion of “archaeology” tacit in Kemang Wa Lehulere’s visual engagements with excavation. What “archaeology of knowledge” so to speak, is being entertained here? How do these shifting and erratic registers—register is itself a word pressed into duplicity in the immediate context of a pass office—sit with the linguistic deformations for which apartheid was notorious? As an aside, note that the “Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act” of 1952 actually extends the pass law legislation to people formerly exempt from it.

What are we to make, finally, of the errance, as Paul de Man might have said, of “pass” itself, as noun, but also as verb? I have been suggesting that the coherence of our passages between the various visual spaces constituting the curatorial project is partly conditioned by Ngcobo’s bold critical gesture which is to make the curatorial project co-extensive with a kind of subterranean investigation of knowledge production through a device which the Russian Formalists might have designated the “realization of metaphor.” We have already seen this at work in the wrenching of “reference” between simultaneous contexts so as to settle as the stack of paper’s on a bureaucrat’s desk. Metaphor devolves back into materiality; the figurative becomes, in a sense, literal again. But to evoke the “realization of metaphor” is also to leverage “passing.” The literary theoretical term might serve to amplify the display of the life (and death) of Ernest Cole. Sean Jacobs’ homage to the dead Cole in the text that accompanies the project is entitled “The Passing of Ernest Cole” where passing is, and is not, a euphemism. “Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole successfully applied to be reclassified from African to Coloured in 1966,” Jacobs writes. “He was 26 years old.” Cole subsequently performs the trajectory of his life as the realization of a classificatory trope: coloured. We might say that Ernest Kole seizes a kind of perverse mobility delivered in passing and inadvertently by the logic of the classificatory mechanism itself. He is an “accident” of the system of the kind that Ackbar Abbas, drawing on the work of Paul Virilio, had previously asked participants in the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, a co-sponsor of the exhibition, to consider. “From Kole to Cole” proclaims the curatorial banner. But Cole’s trajectory, contra the foreclosure which the banner encourages through the very constraints of its form, is far from a simple one.

Cole’s posthumous inclusion in the curatorial event is also far from simple. Admittedly, the confluence of his photographs and of his life choices provides much of the historical ballast for the project. The specificity of Cole’s biography illustrates, as it were, the pernicious general logic of racial classification in South Africa. This is well and good. At the same time, the notion of reenactment as an illustration of overarching logics--the repetitive “codes” and “cultural signifiers” of the program--left me feeling somewhat disappointed. I would have liked to see a greater curatorial engagement: not with “the pass office” but with this pass office, the one on the corner of Polly and Albert. Spatial history, in Paul Carter’s understanding of it, seeks to reverse the subordination of space to history; the former’s being rendered a backdrop for the latter. Does Cole’s biography decorate the pass office in Ngcobo’s curatorial intervention or does the pass office decorate the impasses of personhood in apartheid and indeed post-apartheid South Africa? I would not settle for either version. In seeming, at times, to acquiesce in both, Ngcobo neglects a literal space, suspended instead as a byway, a byline, in a more general story. The performance, to reroute Dineo Bopape’s intervention in PASS-AGES, has indeed been deferred.

Louise Bethlehem

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