Writing Art History Since 2002

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A number of South African curators submitted proposals for this year’s Venice Biennale, amongst them Colin Richards. The following is an edited extract of his proposal, entitled ‘Punch-line: Hurt and Humour in Contemporary African Art’

“Nothing is nothing funnier than unhappiness, I grant you that. But —” Nell, in Endgame by Samuel Beckett In his discussion of Cameroonian cartoons, republished in On the Postcolony (2001), Achille Mbembe writes: “Enjoyment and need for assuagement are… complementary and take various forms; excess and intemperance, extravagance and dereliction, the capacity to set limits (arbitrariness) and to breach them (transgression), in short the apparent facility with which, with a simple fiat, one can decide to set up anything or abolish anything. So impunity reigns. One lets it all hang out. One eats it as it is, with no care for the morrow. For the dominated subject, subjection can then be transformed into a sort of magical song, at the point where nightmare, trance, hilarity and madness meet.”

There are many sides to the picture Mbembe sketches and this focused exhibition seeks to articulate and explore this many-sidedness. The first term in the subheading — “hurt” — is all too familiar to us, having become the rather over-traded trope of trauma in contemporary art. Hurt is what scholar Frederic Jameson so famously said history does to us. The condition of hurt — nursed, reiterated, ritually denied — dominates much contemporary art discourse and practice in Africa, as elsewhere. There have been many creative responses to this hurt, but perhaps most often its presence is understood as a consequence of colonialism and its after effects in Africa.

Hurt is serious. Humour, a slightly bland word, but no other serves, is not usually spoken in the same breath as hurt. To seek humour in historical hurt — whether it be the violence of poverty, or the insults and injuries of war and genocide — is profoundly risky. To do so is to give humour a hurtful edge, and make it a provocation. Humour is protean. It enjoys intimacy as much as spectacle. It can be acid, gentle, lyrical, bombastic. It can be a barb, a balm, a bomb. It can be monstrous and unfunny. It is always embodied; a smile that bites, a laugh that explodes, a grim grin.

Humour seeks to make light of a dark world, or vice versa. It is part of our incessant, courageous struggle to create an imaginative space in which to live more fully. Where hurt and violence can feel generalised and indifferent to the particular, humour always seems ineluctably particular and individual. The sense of humour also distinguishes the human animal from the purely animal. Humour may even be a sign of what it means to be fully human. And so it indirectly invokes the ‘tradition’ of humanism, which for Frantz Fanon and many before and after has wrought little more than an “avalanche of murders” rather than any kind of life-affirming mutuality.

Importantly, humour is a form of human relating; affectionate, atavistic, critical. Amongst other things, recent violent disputes about cartoons, of making fun of the sacred, taken with the enduring attraction of caricature and character in contemporary African popular art point to the almost mystical persistence of what is best called the power of the image. The power lies in the laughter and in the lynching. Even in the most obstinately secular of worlds, this power still holds sway. Taking this further, we might begin to feel that the commonplace opposition between the mystical (or the magical) and modernity, which underpins the reception of much contemporary African art, is much more elastic and energetic than it often appears. In Africa Remix, for example, the dialectic between magic and modernity was a distancing, quite stable one. Quite different from the world Mbembe describes above, a world where hilarity and profundity collide and where the play of reason mediated by modernity becomes precarious, soulless or offensive in itself.

The only other exhibition I have uncovered that has dealt more-or-less directly with this subject was the rather clumsily titled When Humour Becomes Painful, curated by Felicity Lunn and Heike Munder at the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst, Zürich (2005). The curators tend to see the relations between art, hurt and humour in rather sanitised and polite terms, robbing these relations of the impropriety, edginess, activism and even atavism. Humour and art share much in common in enabling access to a world of freedom and intuition. Both find absolute values alien. Both ignore all barriers, permit contradictions and constitute an experimental space where human concerns are introduced to us in all their relativities, with one’s own failure always in view. Manifest in this kind of humour is a preparedness to test its own identity and put it on the line, at that moment where humour becomes painful. Then, in the deepest consciousness of humanity, the subversive truth comes knocking.

Proposed artists: Lara Baladi/ Samuel Fosso / Nicholas Hlobo / Mona Marzouk / Wangechi Mutu / Tracy Rose / Penny Siopis / Barthelemy Tuguo / Sue Williamson (Artists under consideration: Mìchele Magema / Aimé Ntakiyica / Hicham Benhoud) Curator: Colin Richards, Professor of Fine Arts, Wits University Associate Curator: Laurie Ann Farrell, Executive Director of Exhibitions, Savannah College of Art and Design Curatorial Advisor: Achille Mbembe, Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research, Wits University

Colin Richards currently lectures art criticism, studio practice and art theory in the Division of Visual Arts in the Wits School of Arts, Wits University

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