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In light of the rise of right-wing populism in the Netherlands and the general increase in blatant racism, islamophobia and xenophobia by citizens and politicians alike, it seems important for us to ask ourselves what we can do in response to these worrisome developments as cultural practitioners. One of the concrete tasks that lies ahead of us is the decolonization of the art world. In order to understand what is at stake here, one could look at some of the recent developments in South Africa. I speak with Khwezi Gule, writer and Chief Curator at the Soweto Museums and artist Simangaliso Sibiya, a representative of the students at FUNDA Community College in Soweto.

Dorine van Meel: What does the term ‘decolonization’ mean to you, both within the general context of South Africa and the art field in particular?

Kwezi Gule: ‘It is important to acknowledge that colonisation not only operates on the level of the physical, which is the subjugation of people through military means, policing, administration, labour, but also on the level of discourse and representation. Within the art world this means we have to question the mechanisms through which this discourse is controlled, and understand how value is assigned to certain artworks and art practices –historically as well as presently. We have to ask why one specific artwork becomes symbolic to a particular movement, era or generation, whilst another one is relegated to the dustbin of history. Ultimately, these mechanisms will impact the monetary value of an artwork, and therefore the possibility of the artist to sustain their practice. Decolonizing the art world means that we not only have to analyse, question and resist those mechanisms, but also, that we have to find different modes of representation, of making meaning and assigning value.

If you look at art practitioners from my generation, you will find that all of us had to read two books as part of our undergraduate studies: Gardner’s Art Through the Ages and Honour and Fleming’s A World History of Art. These books follow a chronologic structure and somewhere in between the Greeks and the Byzantine period, you’ll find five or six pages of the history of art in Africa, Oceania and South America. During our studies, most of us were very suspicious of this lack of representation, but we did not have the knowledge or even the language to question it. It was only after I had graduated, that I started to discover a more recent and local art discourse, precisely through the discovery of places like Funda Community College and Bag Factory Art Studios. Only then I started to learn about all the artists and collectives that were active in the seventies and eighties and that emerged from those places. It is our task now to add this knowledge to a more mainstream art discourse.’

Simangaliso Sibiya: ‘Let me add some concrete examples from my perspective as an artist from Soweto. I once read a book here in the museum that talked about “township artists”. I would argue that the use of the prefix “township” artists, rather than simply artists, is already a colonial gesture. Because there is no such thing as a “suburb” artist, or artists with any other prefix for that matter. The same can be said for the use of “African” art; this categorization in itself is a colonial gesture, that has been used and it still used to exclude certain art practices and artists.

Another example can be found when you look at the ways in which art circulates. There are a lot of artists in Soweto, but most of us are struggling to sell our work here, because our audiences cannot afford it. This means that many of us are forced to bring our work to the suburban areas, where you can find a white and wealthy audience. The specific interest of this audience however, is different from the one in Soweto; often abstract works are preferred above figurative works. This results in artists adjusting their work accordingly, which also means that they start to exclude their audience in the townships, who do not necessarily understand this language of abstraction. And it is not just that the audiences here get alienated, also the artists themselves often feel their artistic practices get compromised. In order to follow the money, they have to give up telling their own stories, give up capturing important moments in history, which is a high price to pay.’

DvM: In the discussion on questions of decolonization, the politics of positionality arguably plays an important role; that is to say, who speaks and from what perspective? Who is listened to and who is spoken to? Could you say something about your positions and the tasks you see for yourself within the conversation around decolonization?

KG: ‘As a curator I find myself preoccupied with the question of how cultural institutions, especially post-’94 cultural institutions, can become the living expression of what people desire, in broad terms. For instance, here at the museum we have a large archive that could be used as an educational tool, in order to become a vessel for social transformation. An example of this would be the book club we organise in collaboration with the students from Funda Community College. On a larger scale I constantly have to re-evaluate whether or not the narrative we are presenting here at the museum, is still appropriate for where we are now. We need to acknowledge that these histories are lived histories.

Now when you raise the point of different audiences, I would like to recall what a friend of mine said to me ten years ago in an interview we had. He made a statement to the effect that one of the things that Black Consciousness teaches us, is not to be obsessed with the pathology of the oppressor. This statement echoes what Steve Biko said: “The most potent weapon that the oppressor has, is the mind of the oppressed.” So my actions and thinking are not so much driven in reaction to all those institutions and authorities that seek to have power, and which are perceived to be the centre. I try to focus on how we change the dynamics from the spaces in which we operate instead.

Therefore one of the things, that I hope to make a contribution to, is the formation of a circle or an affiliation of bodies around Soweto, which can begin to control the discourse around what it is that we do here. We also try to enable this discourse to travel to other places, and not necessarily to the centre, or what is called the centre, but precisely to spaces that are considered peripheral. I think it is important that the discourse that we develop does not always have to be mediated through the centre. Instead I would like to work towards a situation where a “peripheral” space, like Soweto, which actually makes up for forty percent of the total population of Johannesburg, becomes its own centre.’ 

SS: ‘Within my work for Funda Community College, one of the things we organize are weekly fireside meetings, in which we gather for one evening around the fire to discuss some of the concrete problems we face within our community and our practices. Many of us, whether we are visual artists, performance artists or musicians, are often confronted with similar problems. The example of copyrights could be a problem that is both relevant for artists as well as musicians. How can a visual artist prove their work is authentic and original, rather than mass produced? A musician will have a similar problem, when they post their work online, and everyone likes it, but the musician never gets recognized for that track. So, during our fireside meeting we agreed to establish our own label at Funda. It is called The Library of the Future. Here musicians will be taught about copyrights and will be able to record a master copy of their track.’

DvM: Do you believe there is a need for people who speak from different positions to come together, and if so, what do you think would be important in such reunions?

SS: ‘My take is that there are no safe spaces in a discussion around decolonization. It is one of those uncomfortable things we need to talk about. And we need to include as much white people to come through, to sit with us and actually talk about this. And not in order to sugarcoat things, but to actually start to fix things. For instance, we need to look at the many artefacts and archives from South Africa that the United Kingdom still possess – artefacts that often have spiritual significance for us, and we need to discuss the option for those archives to return home. A discussion about decolonization should not just be about talking, you need to put your money where your mouth is and say: this is how much damage was done, let us start fixing it with the people who are actually experiencing these damages. And as artists we are confronted with the task to use the various media in which we work in order to find ways to communicate these difficult messages – from the super-rich to the poorest of the poor.’

DvM: So you mean it is important to be very precise and concrete with regards to the kind of demands that one puts forward?

SS: ‘You need to realize that we are now at this point of crisis in South Africa, because we have mainly been talking for the last 23 years. I believe that it is time to start taking actions, before this situation gets really out of hand, which leads to students actually burning down libraries for example. And to the disproportional violence the police uses within peaceful protests. And sometimes I feel that the people in power stay comfortably in their own little corners and claim that they do not know what to do. But I believe they certainly know what needs to be done. I myself for example, have this long term vision for Soweto, for it to become its own architectural centre, with proper skyscrapers and all. Originally Soweto was built by the colonisers, to provide really poor housing for the mine workers. And as people living here, we all wonder how we can claim this place as our home. And this is where we would need to see some concrete money, in order to make this happen.’

DvM: To what extent do you believe that former colonizing countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom have a responsibility towards a country like South Africa to provide financial support?

KG: ‘Though there is of course a larger issue of economics involved, I think that the question is not so much what Europe can do for us, but what we need to do for ourselves. In order to realise this decolonial world that we imagine, we have to find ways in which our economy can become more autonomous. The questions are these: how can we lift our people from poverty and bring them to a decent standard of living so that they do not have to steal and rob to survive? How can we transform our society from being a largely illiterate society to a literate one? And how are we going to achieve that within the next ten years?

In addition to that, I believe it is crucial that we create a different sense of value, a kind of cultural mind shift. Here in South Africa, we have imbibed this gospel of prosperity. This means that even if you are living in debt, you still feel the need to project an image of success. And therefore you buy this big expensive foreign car, which only helps to further enrich these foreign countries. Of course our government has a large role to play in the transformation of our society, which is still extremely segregated, but as citizens we must also change our mindset. We need to realize it is not about the big car or the house with the pool. 

And the current student movement will have an important role to play here. I would argue that their call for free education and a further decolonisation of the educational system in general, is the most important thing that has happened since 1994. If they will succeed, their achievements will completely transform our society. And not just because it will change the way we think about education, but it will also change the way we think about who we are as people. It is precisely the kind of decolonial work that needs to happen. Even if it does nothing else, it will have changed the mindset of the society to some degree, and I think that the rest of civic society has got a role to further the project of changing the social imagination.’ 

DvM: If you say it is about shifting the framework of values, could you give an example of the values you feel are most urgently needed?

KG: ‘For instance, when the student movement started catching steam last year, there were a lot of celebrities who wanted to become part of it. But the students very quickly dismissed this idea and sent them away. For me this was a really important sign, especially given the fact that these are young people who should be the ones who respond most to celebrity culture. But it seems like they are rejecting that culture and instead say: “We are the ones who are controlling our own narrative.” And this is something that I have not seen before – in my lifetime anyway.’

Image: Funda Community college: 5th from the left Simangaliso Sibiya and 6th from the left Khwezi Gule 

Khwezi Gule is a curator and writer based in Johannesburg. He is currently Chief Curator at the Soweto Museums, which includes the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum and the Kliptown Open Air Museum.

Simangaliso Sibiya is the representative of the students at Funda Community College in Soweto and forms part of the collective MOLLO WA DI TSHOMO.

Dorine van Meel is an artist from the Netherlands who lives and works in Berlin and Amsterdam. Her interest in discursive and socially engaged art, feminist methodologies, and self-organised forms of collaborations is reflected within her projects.

Dorine van Meel

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