The itinerant exhibition has the potential to activate a concept of the post-apartheid as a particular manifestation of the postcolonial, argues Premesh Lalu
There was certainly more to the Sessions eKapa conference than meets the proverbial eye. The subterranean currents of provocation and despair, even hurt, belying the arenas of artistic production in South Africa, and Africa more generally, erupted intermittently during the conference. Thembinkosi Goniwe’s protest at always becoming — as opposed to never being — an artist was symptomatic of the difficulty underlying the proceedings. This intermittent eruption perhaps explains why N’Gone Fall’s opening salvo, in which she invoked the concept of a “state of emergency” to describe artistic production in Africa, resonated so prominently throughout the conference proceedings. eKapa highlighted why states of emergencies require lines of flight, especially when it seems we are forever destined to work at the limits of the frame.
If Fall provided the outlines of constraint in the opening session of the conference, Sylvester Ogbechie suggested why the search for lines of flight was thinkable — and precisely because of such constraint. His was an enabling postcolonial prompting that de-emphasised the transactional qualities of the circuit of artistic exhibition and reclaimed the productive spatial interference of artistic exchange. As the conference unfolded many, I suspect, lost the plot charted by Fall and Ogbechie, which recalled the interplay of constraint and possibility. It became clear that there was no specific language — artistic or otherwise — to speak about apartheid, specifically of its disciplinary and institutional legacies. Judging from the tone of the discussion, there seemed little likelihood of forging an alternative concept of difference from the trauma of the originating concept.
Yet, there were always other possible routes out of the impasse. Jacques Derrida’s essay in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Art contre/against Apartheid (1983), and since translated by Peggy Kamuf, is an exemplary case in point. There Derrida reflected on the itinerant exhibition that hosts a collection of artworks and collectively keeps watch over that which is not. The word apartheid is made to function as a watchword for difference while the itinerant exhibition, in Derrida’s reading, supports a conception of a future that arrives, unexpectedly perhaps.
It is this level of productivity of thought about art that I repeatedly hoped for from eKapa. Whatfuture would the postapartheid keep watch over, which futures would it anticipate, and which exhibitionary form would open the present to the arrival of such a desired future? To set to work on these questions in the arenas of artistic production, is to ask that it once more make apartheid a watchword of difference as it produces art that keeps watch over the arrival of a future. It is also, incidentally, to refuse to be paralysed by the state of emergency.
Art practice might seek inspiration to survive the state of emergency by reclaiming a sense of nomadism. The example of the itinerant exhibition, like the refugee who is inserted into a line of flight, has the potential to activate a concept of the post-apartheid as a particular manifestation of the postcolonial. Art practice in Africa may benefit from the supplement, especially as it calls into question the all too easy resort to instrumental reason, the recourse to pastoral techniques of power, claims to identity and the retreat into homeland security. For the postcolonial to function as a supplement to the post-apartheid, programmes of action are best substituted with dialogues about lines of flight.
The state of emergency might then effectively place before us the productivity of this line of questioning as it activates a concept of the postapartheid that is different from the violence named in its transcendent desire. After all, it might, as Julian Jonker put it in the closing moments of the conference, be the very condition for a state of emergence.
Premesh Lalu is a senior lecturer in the Department of History at the University of the Western Cape. He chaired the session “Framing Africa” at eKapa