Conversations about Art, Objects and Archives

17 Dec 2019 - 11:30
Conference conversation with Professor Emeritus, David Lewis-Williams. Photo courtesy of Tammy Reynard.


Report by John Wright

This was the title of a workshop held at the Origins Centre at the University of the Witwatersrand on 18 and 19 November 2019. It was organized by Vibeke Viestad of the Heritage Experience Initiative of the University of Oslo and Amanda Esterhuysen of the Archaeology Division at Wits and chair of the Origins Centre. Among the participants were APC chair Carolyn Hamilton and APC research associates Nessa Leibhammer and John Wright.  Here Wright gives his views.

Across the world where museums of what is still widely called ‘African culture’ are to be found, policy makers and curators are increasingly facing calls for them to break out of the colonial mindsets in which their institutions’ collections of material objects were generally  conceived and put together, and in which all too often they are still curated and displayed. What these calls mean, in effect, is for curators to move on from seeing these objects in primarily ‘tribal’ ethnographic categories – ‘Zulu’, ‘Sotho’, ‘Xhosa’, ‘Tswana’, ‘Nguni’, ‘San’ and so on – and to engage with them in historical terms. That is, as far as the evidence allows, to contextualize them as objects made by particular individuals at particular times and places under particular circumstances, and so bring them out as products of human agency, subject to contestation and change, as distinct from being generated by static tribal ‘custom’.

As the organizers of the workshop told us in their initial circular, the Origins Centre itself has come under criticism for failing adequately to contextualize many of the objects that it has on display in its museum, and for unproblematically fixing the meanings thought to be carried by southern African rock art as standing outside time. Against this background, the Centre and the Heritage Experience Initiative called for papers aimed in the first instance at opening up discussion of what a critical reading of archives of material culture and objects of art might entail, and how the complex processes of making meaning in museum displays might be approached.

Eighteen papers were presented at the workshop by participants from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, the UK, and Norway. They were organized under seven heads: Discourse around the rock art exhibition and the Origins Centre; Decolonization ‘from within’: calls for African perspectives on African collections; Archival and material narratives and counter-narratives; Art, artistic representations, construction of meaning and ‘the archive’; ‘Ethnographic’ photography/movies, state policy and archives; Repatriation, contested heritage and knowledge production; and Co-curation, community involvement and accessibility.  Among the papers were one from Hamilton on ‘Umlando, ukuqamba, and stating their own views: recalibrating the history of intellectual thought in the KwaZulu-Natal region’; from Leibhammer on ‘Considering the symbolic substance of light in some 19th, 20th, and 21st century images from South Africa’; and from me on ‘Pixley Seme discusses Ukukhanya with James Stuart: a text from the 1920s’.

I cannot do justice here to individual presentations that, for differing reasons, caught my attention. The main strongpoint of the workshop, as I saw it, was that, in several of the sessions, participants took up the argument in a range of ways that the aims and display policies of the Origins Centre need to be fundamentally rethought. This, I felt, was a concrete achievement. I don’t remember that anyone made the point in so many words, but several contributors were clearly working with the notion that, in a South Africa where issues of decoloniality, and what it means, are at the top of the agenda for many intellectuals, institutions like the Centre could be playing an important role in ongoing debates about the reframing of southern Africa’s past before colonial times in terms that take us beyond colonial-era master narratives and stereotypes.

Other participants thought about decolonizing the past in rather different terms. They tended to portray it as having to do primarily with processes of decolonizing ‘heritage’ by valorizing notions of the past produced within what was frequently referred to as ‘the community’. Neither the notion of heritage nor the notion of the community were directly problematized in the papers submitted, though in discussion they came up for some constructive critical comment. The linked trope that ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather’ could be seen as authentic repositories of ‘traditional’ knowledge about the past also surfaced uncritically on occasion. It is a notion which, in its more simplistic versions, has been challenged by the work of Ayanda Mahlaba, an APC Masters student.

This report reflects my own particular interests, and focusses on topics that I feel competent to comment on. It should be read in conjunction with Nessa Leibhammer’s report, which takes up a range of other issues.

The organizers of the workshop aim to hold a follow-up meeting to focus more specifically on some of the more salient themes of discussion raised on this occasion. They will be guided by comments from the participants that they aim to canvass in the aftermath of what was a successful first meeting.

Report by Nessa Leibhammer

This report follows on from the one by John Wright.

One of the major issues discussed at the workshop had to do with a serious weakness in the way the displays at the Origins Centre were conceived when they were set up. The Centre houses displays about the San (a controversial term which remains unproblematized in the displays), and about the origins of the human species. The conflation of these two areas of knowledge in the same institution has set up a problematic synergy between ideas about the San and about early humankind. The impression given by the displays is that the San are an ‘ancient’ people closer to early humans than to modern humans. This idea still lingers in public consciousness. Amanda Esterhuysen, one of the organizers of the workshop, agreed that this a problem urgently in need of addressing.

Christa Kuljian’s presentation, titled ‘One Photograph on Display – Straining Against the Archive’, was one of the most moving.  She took as her starting point a black and white photograph on display in the Origins Centre of four women with head wraps sitting on dry grass in front of what might be a grass rondavel. They look intently at a magazine they are holding. The caption reads ‘San are not isolated’ but does not identify the women. Kuljian traces the story of these women. She reads their histories together with that of Raymond Dart, who was Head of the Department of Anatomy at Wits Medical School from 1922 until 1958. What follows is a disturbing narrative of physical anthropology’s search for the ‘pure’ bushman type.  The bland positivism of the caption hides a sad story, some of which has been uncovered by Kuljian. No one, after reading this narrative, would look at that image and be lulled by the deflecting words on the label.

On a more critical note: one of the participants raised the question of whether, in reproducing these photographs, Kuljian was not in danger of trafficking in the same racialized images that generations of physical anthropologists had circulated. The question remains ripe for further critical discussion.

Another moving presentation was by Blackmore and Okwenje, who interrogated missing archives of Uganda’s ‘dark pasts’ through artworks. Refusing to traffic in images of human misery, they photographed quotidian items left behind by the inhabitants of refugee camps in the aftermath of the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and Ugandan Government forces. In their work ‘Gang Kikome and Other Things We Left Behind’, photographs each a metre high stretched over metal frames have their ends in the ground. These are staggered across a field as if they are tombstones.  Items such as repurposed plastic bottles with holes in them, old canvas shoes, a rubber boot, a tin plate and an old can with ‘USA’ printed on it feature in the work. The objects were first photographed against a plain dark background and then re-photographed with the fingers of a black hand holding the first image up. These images capture the poignancy of loss and the disintegration of ordinary life in times of war.

A second work discussed by Blackmore and Okwenje, titled ‘Kanyo Love’, deals with the lives of 36 ‘bush wives’ abducted by LRA soldiers during the war and forced to live with them. The artists’ work provided a place for these women to tell their own stories and also share their ideas of love.

Wright’s paper, given on the first day of the workshop, raised the issue of the isi-Zulu word ukukhanya that can be translated broadly as ‘enlightenment’ or ‘knowledge.’ This subject is the main point of a discussion between colonial official James Stuart and Pixley Seme and published by Stuart in 1925 in one of his isiZulu readers. Wright notes that he had previously omitted Seme’s statements on ukukhanya from the edited and translated renderings of Stuart’s notes but now believes the concept to have been at the centre of intellectual history in the KwaZulu-Natal region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The concept of light was also the central concern in my paper. Here I considered the use of light and shadow in some nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first century South African images. I contemplated the phenomenological and metaphorical weight of light in two-dimensional images as used in Western canons of representation. This has particular consequences in representations of subject people that are seldom, if ever, discussed. Today, some contemporary artists transgress these canons using light iconoclastically in a ‘decolonising’ impulse. I look forward to future discussions on the cross- and inter-cultural visualisations of this topic.

The presentation by Viestad raised the issue of European colonial museums having to counter the weight of the history of their collections and how obdurate the problem remains.

On a more positive note, Hamilton’s discussion showed how historians can draw on the depth and extent of the available discursive archive to illuminate the conceptual world of Africans in KwaZulu-Natal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

There were many other noteworthy papers. The organisers have called for transcripts so that the proceedings can be published.