Posted on May 7, 2012

George Mahashe (2012): Installation view; Mixed media; Dimensions variable; Photography by Dave Southwood

George Mahashe (2012): Installation view; Mixed media; Dimensions variable; Photography by Dave Southwood

The Brat recently showed some of his photography on Imperfect Librarian (May 2012, Michaelis Gallery, Cape Town), a curated group exhibition that fitted together, in one venue, a range of projects that collectively highlight contemporary creative practice of artists who delight in the diversity of the treasure troves of South African archives.

The title of the group show Imperfect Librarian is borrowed from Borges' The Library of Babel. Written in 1941, exhibition curator Clare Butcher describes it as a short story 'in which Borges literally builds the (perhaps) infinite library/universe/archive. His words shape an intricate network of shelving, galleries, staircases and hexagons designed to hold a library containing 'several hundred thousand imperfect facsimiles'.' Six colleagues from UCT's Centre for Curating the Archive use this framework of Borges' infinite possibilities to show their work in progress, and the resulting series of case studies reveal very different methods of archival practice that steer creative production.

It is unfortunate that archives, constructed as they are around social or institutional structures, often still maintain that aura of the dogmatic. Fortunately, this is not at all the case here, and the exhibition seems shot through with two types of queerness. The first kind (the gasping kind) peeks out from behind Jessica Brown's cupcakes and Clare Butcher's decidedly pink wall. Joanne Bloch's gold spray-paint does its bit for glitter pit appeal, and George Mahashe's riveted absorption with the Rain Queen may be described as quite royal. My focus on the symbolic phallus of apartheid is not exactly what one may call straight, and neither is Andrew Putter's enchantment with costume and make-up. Finally, Jon Whidden's enthralment with that ultimate of fashion accessories, the handbag, is not every layman's cup of tea. But these are just flippant examples that provide a glinting hint of the second type of queerness, one of an altogether more studiously theoretical form, here defined by the insistence, of all participants, on taking an alternative view. And it is here where the artworks start revealing their true queer practice as - in the words of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe - 'a specific resistance to objectifications of society construed according to the normative coordinates of subjectivity, identity and community'. Even further, all the projects on exhibitions seem to have, vested in their scholarship, some aspect of the three methods of queer pedagogy described by Deborah Britzman as 'the study of limits, the study of ignorance, and the study of reading practices'.

The projects may be read as a set of 'impertinent performances' that are - to quote William Haver's reading of queer pedagogy - 'an interruption' of the world by pedagogies. It is then ultimately here where the projects become more emphatic about their true allegiance to queer methodologies; where the actions of research become, not method or means to an end, but points of departures, positions of influence, intrusions and disruptions; constant creativity and the infinite possibility that, according to Britzman, what is important is not that 'anyone might be queer', but that 'something queer might happen to anyone'.

This text chooses some of the juiciest examples on exhibition, paying close attention to the nuances between form and content, and to their contributions to the critical advancement of archival agency.

The politics of dust

Central to archival practice is the sticky political issue of custodianship. Arguably, the guardians of the archive direct what may be seen and not seen, and the manner in which it is seen. In this very obvious way, custodians present a highly specific, highly limited mode of reading the archive, steering its interpretation. The custodian of the archives is thus, often problematically, central in the creation of its meaning. Often, archives are held by institutions whose interests are vested in public perception, a veritable minefield explored and exploded by Jessica Brown's research into what happens when an institutionalised collection is put to use in the creation of an institutional identity. Brown takes on the art collection of UCT - scattered in corridors and offices, halls and meeting rooms, libraries and research hubs ('hidden in plain sight') - as a case study to map the manner in which the forces, insidious and unseen, do their work. From the university's collection of 1,200 works, Brown here exhibits two works by Gabriel Clarke-Brown (Painting Reality I and II, 1995), installing them in relation to a label and a ladder. By devolving power to both the works of art and the tools of their custody, Brown underlines the subtle manner in which institutions create themselves through the objects they collect, the processes of their collecting, and their modes of public display.

However weighty these matters may be, of greater intrigue is Brown's fascination with the 'harm' that befalls the collection; damage imparted by physical handling, fogging and foxing, chips and nips and scratches. Is destruction, Brown seems to ask, a natural process to be honoured? Is the gradual decay of the archival object part of its biography? Could this evidence of time and life add value to retrospective readings? Does conservation practice hinder the accurate reading of the dynamic life of the archival object? It is at this subtle point where Brown, via the poetry of the gentle obfuscation of settling dust, applies her case study to foreground the ethical dilemma in the fraught relationship between curator and conservator.

Her Majesty

Mudjadji the Rain Queen endows, to Balobedu history, a regal centrality. As with many figures of perceived immense power, her image is as much real as it is constructed through mythologies, and complicated even further by both popular presentation and the 'science of anthropology'. George Mahashe's point of departure is the latter, via the 1930s ethnographic photography of Eileen and Jack Krige. Their work is often denoted as the South African pivot point between an earlier anthropometric photography devoid of contexts, and the more recent documentary photography with its focus on people within environments. It is this historic shift in ethnographic methodology and visual language, when combined with a multi-disciplinary contemporary scholarship, that imparts an immediate vibrancy to the project, a dynamic that Mahashe harnesses by building a photographic darkroom in the gallery. Visitors are greeted with an invitation to process their own photo prints of the Kriges' images, but the initial excitement at seeing the image appear is soon replaced by the frustration at the absence of fixative. Just as quickly as the image appears, it fades to black when taken out into the light and pegged on a drying cable.

At its very simplest reading, the installation may be read as the limitations and unreliability of anthropological photography. However, a complexity begins when the visitor notes the transparency reproduction of the Krige photo albums installed within the dry walling, functioning as a screen between the dark interior and the light exterior. From inside the darkroom, these archival reproductions are opaque and indecipherable; when the visitor views them from the other side, in the light, the images become visible. This, in effect, becomes a visual reversal of the earlier experience: in the darkroom, the processed image is visible, but not the archival images; in the light, the processed image fades to black, whilst the archival reproductions can be viewed.

The full agency of the work comes to the fore when Mahashe's installation is read in conjunction with the skill of the Balobedu people in constructing figureheads of power. In this project Mudjaji is central; however, in general, the conscious and active construction of power is striking in all sectors of Balobedu societies. It may not be too great a leap of logic, then, to begin to imagine this innate capacity carried through into interactions with the Kriges and their cameras. And it is here that Mahashe may be concluding that the people of Balobedu, themselves, played a significant role in the making of the anthropological archive. This, for me, is the true power of this project: in the juxtaposition between inside and outside, between visible and obscured, between construction and presentation, Mahashe negates the presumed unidirectional flow of power from the anthropologists to their subjects. Instead, he outlines the mutual displays of vectors of power and presentation in the meeting of two very different groups of people.

Plastic gold; gold plastic

Of all the artists on exhibition, Joanne Bloch is the one that may be called a 'serious collector', a term that gives an immediate indication of the degree of subversiveness in her work. Serious collectors collect serious things, but Bloch collects, seriously, thousands, tens of thousands, of plastic toys discovered at markets, junk stores, airport lounges, haberdashery shops, sweet stores, or found on the way home. For her ongoing installation titled The People, a mass of dinky-sized figures crowd together on a table, cheek-to-jowl, functioning here as the starting point of her determination to upend the consumerist assignation of value by allocating museum status to a field of cheap tat. Not yet content, Bloch has installed, butted up alongside The People, items selected from the UCT Manuscripts and Archives Department. Titled The Things (2012), the haphazard, often incoherent collection of oddities and curiosities brings into sharp relief its automatic assignation of value as part of an institutional collection. But is in her third installation, The Treasures (2012), where Bloch drives home her point with surgical intellectual finesse. Crudely made clay copies of objects selected from both her plastic amassment and the UCT collection - wonky, not to scale, sprayed in gaudy gold paint - here become a direct confrontation of the assignation of value. By giving these two very different kinds of objects the same treatment, the artist adamantly calls into question, and defiantly overthrows, the arbitrary nature of the assignation of value.

Make-up and make-believe

Andrew Putter has set himself the task to make the world a more beautiful place. This is not a naïve mission, beset with romance, nostalgia or longing. Nor does he negate the reality of his context. Instead, with critical lucidity, his work seems centred on the potential of the imagination, and the transformative power of the beautiful, as weaponry against the racial hatred that remains, still now, a defining feature of South Africa.

Putter found - in the 'stultifying, primitivizing' photography of Alfred Duggan-Cronin - an archival source of material that has come to define the increasingly typological, tribalising and racist view of native South Africans in the early 1900s. The use of the definite article from the ethnographer's eleven-volume The Bantu Tribes of South Africa is telling in its fervent repetition: The Bavenda, The Nguni, The Vathonga. Thus named, the fearful swarm of Bantu (the mighty 'other') - individually unidentifiable to the colonial settlers - could be tamed through the principle and practice of divide and rule, and become more manageable through compartmentalisation into smaller groups.

Ironically though, the photographs are deeply beautiful, and it is thus apt that Putter uses them as inspiration for his current project: an imaginary, inter-racial tribe, one which draws on many different kinds of people to present a society unencumbered by racial history, living in harmony. The work on this exhibition is a series of photographic studies of costume and jewellery designs ultimately destined to unify members of this new tribe, regardless of phenotype. Cropped in the visual language of Duggan-Cronin, printed in monochrome and framed simply in back, the works are installed in the salon style popular in exhibitions during the turn of the century.

The images themselves are striking, graphic and, at first viewing, seemingly ethnographic. It is only when the viewer starts noting the niggling unfamiliarity of the costumes, or the indefinable, fluid, malleable flexibilities of the races of the models (the non-category), that the power of the project emerges. This is an agency that is vested not solely in finding beauty in an archive of oppression, nor just in the ability to create beauty from that archive of oppression. Instead, the true transformative power of the work emanates from Putter's ability to critically examine the archive, and to find, in the words of the artist, 'a richly articulated point of departure for thinking about big questions like race, culture - what it means to be human.

Brenton Maart is an Archival Platform correspondent.