Institute for Creative Arts and Black Academic Caucus seize the decolonial nettle

15 Aug 2016 - 21:15
Koleka Putuma performing at the Third Space Symposium, 13 May 2016


The University of Cape Town’s Black Academic Caucus (BAC) held a two-day workshop to discuss epistemic violence, the curriculum and pedagogy at Hiddingh campus. The workshop ran alongside the programme of the Institute for Creative Arts (ICA, formerly GIPCA) 3rd Space Symposium, held on 13 and 14 May 2016.  The ICA symposium aimed to interrogate the concept of the “third space”, a term originally coined by Homi Bhabha, but lately employed widely in thinking about how decolonial academic practice might work. APC fellows attended a number of the sessions, and here we have compiled some of their notes and reflections.

In the BAC session “History, Heritage and the Questions of Episteme”, Dr Antonio Tomas spoke about his experience teaching at Stellenbosch University and the challenges he faced teaching a decolonial curiculum in the English department. Professor Leslie Witz from the University of the Western Cape followed. Using the example of an exhibition curated by members of the History Department, Witz emphasised the ways in which public history projects could be used to open up debate about heritage and commemoration. The third panelist, Kerusha Govender, a tutor in the History Department at the University of Cape Town and an APC fellow, gave a frank account of her experience as a first-time teacher during times of student protest. Reflecting on the productive challenge of having to meet the twin expectations of having to facilitate robust debate about contemporary student issues and deliver a history lesson, Govender highlighted the dynamism of the tutorial venue as a transformative learning space. 

The session provided insight into the distinct yet common challenges of pedagogical practice at three different institutions of higher learning in the Cape. It evoked questions and comments that dwelled on disciplines and disciplinarity as a form of violence, and the fruitfulness of interdisciplinary approaches for realising epistemic justice. The discussion bypassed the important question of how new engagements with archives would be beneficial for the transformation of the curriculum. 
The segue into the ICA symposium from the BAC’s workshop in the morning worked well in that they shared a common set of themes, namely heritage, practice and decolonisation. Delivering the opening keynote address, Professor Jay Pather mentioned that the “third space” was a place in between, something different, that the organisation wished to explore going ahead. This would be the first of three annual symposia. 

Heritage, History and Hybridity was the theme of the packed afternoon session. Koleka Putuma opened the floor with a biting satirical performance, "Africa My Africa", which ridiculed false, tired ideas about being black and free in a “non-racist” South Africa.

Ilze Wolff followed with a presentation on the Rex Trueform building in Salt River, Cape Town. She outlined how the building’s histories as a textile factory are woven into the city’s social fabric and wider, national apartheid urban modernities.

Mwenya Kabwe and Lieketso ‘Dee’ Mohoto conducted an interactive live Skype presentation that reflected on an educational project they ran called Astronautus Africanus. In the project, learners where asked to engage with Afrofuturism by becoming “space science experts” who built the sets that staged the fantasy of an African future in space.

Lois Anguria provided an account of creative hybridity using the example of Angolan artists who live and work in South Africa, concluding with a few striking examples of her own work.

jacki job’s intensely physical performance narrated her experience of being in between, as a coloured woman, as a South African who lived and worked in Japan, and as a creative practitioner moving in a new world of the Japanese aesthetic practice of Butoh.

The session concluded with the Vasiki Creative Citizens, who raised the possibilities of the fourth space of creative action. The session evoked questions of archive and performative engagement as a possible new method for engaging with pastness. It also prompted symposium participants to think about transitiveness, about the inbetween and the creation and significance of space and place for subjectivity. 

Nomusa Makhubu introduced the evening session, providing a rundown of the day’s events and what was to be expected in the future from ICA, concluding by introducing the Dean of Humanities, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu. The Dean spoke about ICA’s exciting work in a distinctive space of decolonisation, but also mentioned the challenges faced by the university’s fearful public stakeholders who were raising concern about ‘the changing of the guard’.

Mapped against three quotations, writer and critic Sisonke Msimang’s thought-provoking keynote address covered her concerns about the contemporary use of the word “decolonisation”. She asked what indeed it means to use such a powerful, even dangerous, word.

Nelisiwe Xaba performed a theatrical one-person piece, "Fremde Tanze, Strange Dance", which played on racist themes permeating German children’s advertising, blackness, whiteness and gender.  Audio-visual modalities were continued in the later parts of the evening. Sikhumbuzo Makandula showed his documentary "Mission; Imagination in Troubled Space; Part of the History", which looked at public space, memory and archive in the case of the St Michael and St George Cathedral in Grahamstown. Neo Muyanga drew out questions of music, entertainment and liberation in the last intervention of the evening. His performance, "Revolting Music", included evocative renditions of ‘recovered’ sounds of apartheid era revolution and protest. 

The second day of the ICA’s 3rd Space Symposium saw a shift towards issues of decolonisation of language and the curriculum. 
Jay Pather introduced keynote speaker, Nomalanga Mkhize, who delivered a rousing speech which addressed the (somewhat neo-colonial) insistence on blackness as difference – of immutable ethnic boundaries, and a being locked in particularity so that every mundane, banal action becomes a very special and outrageous exotic flourish.

A central theme of Mkhize's address highlighted how "the good Bantu subject" of African literature has historically been written in ways which limit transgressive capacity. Whether looking at the moralized subjects of African children's literature, the markets which control the author's potentials to produce languaged material, the "acoustic barriers" which we inherit (and disinherit or forget) or the challenge of using old teaching material for new teaching practice, Mkhize presented fascinating cases of the intersection between language and multiple identities which need to be taken seriously as we think about how to use language, whether indigenous or not, in furthering the intellectual project of South Africa.

The panel of Nomalanga Mkhize, Xolisa Guzula and Carolyn McKinney, Lesoko Seabe and Hedley Twidle raised important issues dealing not only with challenging the dominance of English within the academy and literary worlds, but also with questioning how the use of indigenous languages within these parameters have constituted certain characters and subjects which need to be challenged. This panel was particularly interesting because it brought together academics working with the concept of “languaging” in different spaces within and outside of the academy. 

The day progressed from Mkhize’s explication of the ‘normal’ in South African society, towards a critique of ‘Anglonormativity’. What was made clear is that norms, as existing in policy and on paper, are far from the actual praxis of the majority.  Yet things are not as simple as the popular essentialisations of ‘blackness’ and ‘whiteness’.

Lesoko Seabe spoke of her personal experience with the category of the ‘coconut’, and the stigma associated with perceived Westernisation and the meanings we ascribe to such things as accent, where every inflection is perceived as grounds for judgment of ‘authenticity’. Cast in these terms, the potential for ‘ethnic authenticity’ seems to be a fable we never write ourselves. Somehow, to be a real Indian, you need to sound like a Real Indian, whatever that may be. And it is this separation, the powerful divisive qualities of language, in reading and writing and speaking, that becomes critical for journeys of being and becoming, albeit in this case within the confines of institutionalised education. 

Hedley Twidle later brought this theory into a discussion on curriculum transformation, with an intriguing refusal to teach an “English literature” curriculum, rather opting for a “Literature curriculum”. This is an attempt to move beyond the limitations imposed by the political geography of language, an attempt to destabilise the unqualified power of English, French, German against all others. Interestingly, Twidle’s proposed first-year literature curriculum includes courses on the work of hip hop artists Nas and Kendrick Lamar, as well as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is currently working on the new Black Panther comics.  It would seem Twidle’s move serves the dual purpose of decolonising the curriculum as well as presenting content that is contemporary and relevant far beyond ‘knowledge for itself’, as the Western canon so often proposes.

The discussion had relevance to practitioners of all disciplines because, beyond the boundaries of language, its enquiry was into how we perform, communicate and package the knowledge we produce. This panel was suggested that that notions of decolonisation within the intellectual sphere require much more than simply including currently excluded languages or authors. Rather, serious work is needed to reconstruct how languages as we have transcribed and utilised them today, particularly African languages, exert power over their users as well as the subjects they describe.

The presentations of Julia Raynham and Gita Pather shifted the focus from language and curriculum towards the visual and fine arts. The speakers, in part, presented a critique of a status quo which, while presented as stable, is in fact far from this. While the institution (in this case the university) presents and reacts as if in a stable state, the realities are far more accurately described as being in flux. Pather in particular took to task the academic and the research institution itself, bringing to the fore issues propounded by unproblematically wielded methodologies. It would seem our research methods themselves require decolonisation.

Dinner took the symposium in a refreshing and delicious new direction. Chrisantha Chetty shifted fluently from theory to art, art to food, food to thought, thought to experience, with what could perhaps be described as a ‘post-traditional biryani-inspired installation’. The piece was an exploration and explication of culture, the coalescence of seemingly divergent cultures, and the persistent mobility and fluidity of a being once locked within the limitations of colonially instrumentalised ethnicity.

From Chetty’s installation, the symposium shifted to the performances of Jacques Mushaandja and Ntombethongo. Both artists explore the worlds of traditional healers; Ntombethongo also practices as one. Mushaandja comes from an urban angle, while Ntombethongo draws content from experiences in the rural Eastern Cape. Like Chetty, Mushaandja and Ntombethongo in their performances do not demand authenticity or ethnic purity. They are acutely aware of the dynamism of being – that dynamism which has been historically denied to the colonised person.

The symposium proved to be a melting pot of thought and performance. It brought together thinkers from all over the country, from different but contemporarily converging academic disciplines and ‘traditions’. Academics like these are doing the work of deconstructing problematic and immensely limiting traditions, in a meaningful and powerful effort to decolonise institutions and spaces. The third space (and fourth), it seems, is a political space which can only possibly exist in performance. It will certainly be intriguing to watch this space as it develops through persistent praxis.