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November APC Research Development Workshop Review

1 Feb 2017 - 09:45
Thokozani Mhlambi presents to the workshop.
Thokozani Mhlambi presents to the workshop.

Duane Jethro

The APC's November research development workshop took place against the backdrop of nation-wide student protests about fees and the lack of transformation in higher education, and a delicately-brokered agreement for the completion of the 2016 academic year. Held at the Wild Fig conference facility in Observatory, the November workshop saw many graduate students working in the APC’s orbit return to follow up on projects presented at the April workshop or earlier. The event also drew fellows, affiliates and guests from England, Germany and Chile, as well as from Johannesburg, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.  This workshop was also significant in that it saw two of the three major projects under the APC umbrella, the Public Life of Ideas Book Project, and Archival Platform Archival Activism Report, report on their work. The bumper schedule of papers, proposals and reports unfortunately squeezed out a presentation by members of the Five Hundred Year Archive team who are running a major digital archive project.

Day 1

In some ways this day’s theme was that of archive and archivality, and started with a morning of proposals. Duane Jethro presented a book proposal based on his doctoral thesis addressing heritage and the senses in South Africa, and Tracey Randle presented a PhD proposal and first chapter that explores her time working as resident historian at Solms Delta wine farm, in the Franschhoek Valley. This gave way in the late morning session to the draft Archival Activism Report, which deals with both archival activity as activism and archives of activism in the post-apartheid dispensation. The presentation raised a series of theoretical questions about the relationship between archives and civic activism. Commenting on the panel, Thokozani Mhlambi challenged us to think of whether a shift had taken place from activism to entrepreneurship in the civic sector space, with the question of finance and funding taking precedence as the motivator behind the accumulation and mobilisation of post-apartheid archives today, a point which he nailed down in an interventionist form at the end of the workshop.

Our foreign delegates took the podium in the post-lunch session. Cornelia Knoll presented a PhD project proposal comparing the District Six Museum in Cape Town and the Kreuzberg Museum in Berlin, which evoked much interest and questions from the floor. Andres Torres, an architect working out of the city of Concepcion, Chile, presented a fascinating example of restoration work in a context of continuous natural disasters and the use of indigenous building methods. After the break Maria Rock Nunez, also from Concepcion Chile, presented her work on the city, and cityness as archive. Susana Molins-Lliteras delivered the last presentation of the day, discussing her engaging work on the Timbuktu manuscripts and their cultural framing as an iconic archive, and the stakes attached to the preservation of these precious texts. Highlighting the relationship between funding, conservation and cultural significance, Molins-Lliteras focused our attention on access to and control of the archive as an important theme of the workshop.

Day 2

The second day’s discussion shifted to questions of the public and publicness. Masters student Rehana Odendaal followed up her April presentation of a thesis chapter focused on the public activities of the Wits History Workshop with a discussion of university itself as a public institution. This set the scene for engagement with the Public Life of ideas book project. APC head, Carolyn Hamilton, and APC visiting researcher, Lesley Cowling, outlined the genesis of the book project, the themes they wished to capture in the book and the major arguments about the nature of the public life of ideas in contemporary South Africa. The sessions that followed examined the various chapters that will appear in the book. This included a chapter on methods, notably methods for the tracking of the circulation of visual forms and of the many kinds of take-up that they generate in order to bring into view public engagements that lie “well beyond” the normative public sphere. These are an important focus of the book. Lesley Cowling then presented her draft piece on the media, public debate and agenda setting in South Africa. This was followed by a chapter on social media and an engagement with web-based platforms as forums and drivers of public debate. In this paper, Indra de Lanerolle proposed the notion of fluid publics for the types of ephemeral constituencies that congregate and dissipate around certain topics on social media platforms.

Carolyn Hamilton presented a draft chapter on the public nature of archives and the powers they wield as repositories of public knowledge. Post lunch, Rory Bester presented a captivating account of the controversial Johannesburg art exhibition, Black Modernisms. Proposing the idea of an exhibition as “pollinate”, Bester visually plotted the network of stakeholders that congregated around the event and the temporal switchbacks and exchanges that took place during the course of the debate that ensued. The topic of exchange and the circulation of speech carried through into Anthea Garman’s paper, in which she proposed a return to Greek concepts of ethnos and logos to understand the kinds of difficult, sometimes divisive, public discussion fomented by the #FeesMustFall movement. Litheko Modisane prompted us to think about the historical possibilities presented by the mediagenerated moniker of the “Black Pimpernel”, used to describe Nelson Mandela during the 1960s while he evaded police capture. The afternoon concluded with an engaged discussion about the papers as a collective and the book as a whole.

Day 3

Mediation and cultures of translation served as the loose overall theme for  the third day of the workshop. The morning session opened with John Wright and Cynthia Kros presenting their historical biography of the little-known Zulu word, isithunguthu, found in the notes made by colonial official, James Stuart,  of his conversation with Thununu kaNonjiya, in 1903, referring to “one who knows and who is made to forget”. The paper signals a much-needed research turn to the serious scholarly engagement of indigenous concepts. Moving to contemporary historical texts, Himal Ramji’s critical reading of the South African school history curriculum, part of his master’s thesis research, raised questions about how southern and South African history, and more specifically the history of the many eras before the advent of European colonialism, was translated into teachable, yet disciplinary texts. Moving away from texts and translations, Gerald Machona presented a polished version of his proposal for a PhD in fine arts; here he asks how lobola mediates transnational social, cultural and economic relations in southern Africa.

The sound and audio-visual culture papers were presented in the late morning session. Thokozani Mhlambi, APC post-doctoral fellow, opened his presentation with a performance of a Zulu radio announcement, breaking with the academic tradition of seated presentation, and providing an evocative introduction to his intriguing paper on Zulu radio broadcasts, the circulation of sound and visual culture in the 1940s. Tuning in to the echoes of another body of subalterns, Anette Hoffmann prompted us to think about the place of subalterns in the German Lautarchiv and visual culture, in a paper that proposed the critical reassemblage of traces of forgotten black subjects appearing in troubled German archives.

We continued our archival sorties in the afternoon session with Erica de Greef’s paper, an extract from her PhD project, addressing fashion, dress and the history of clothing collections accumulated by the IZIKO Museums South Africa. Following on, George Mahashe, presenting material from his PhD thesis, asked us to think about recentring the body as a site of sensory input in visual arts practice such as photography and video installation. Emma Sandon’s book proposal, Films with a Mission, carried the theme of audio-visual culture into the last presentation of the day. Here, Sandon asked us to help her think through her introduction about the fascinating British Missionary Film Archive. Carolyn Hamilton rounded off the workshop proceedings with concluding reflections on the dominant themes that had emerged over the three days.

Winding down over wine and snacks, the gathering was treated to an impromptu cello performance by the ever-dynamic Thokozani Mhlambi. Afterwards, he brought out copies of a media publication he is busy running, which we could buy at R10 a copy. With articles that were activist in nature, the irony of activism as entrepreneurship, the challenge that he had so eloquently thrown down earlier in the conference, was not lost on us.  All around, it was a successful, intense engagement, with much exciting new work generated in the process. We look forward to hosting fellows and affiliates again at next year’s April workshop, which takes place between 5 and 7 April, 2017.