The Film Will Always Be You: South African Artists On Screen

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Lerato Shadi, “Matsogo”, 2013, HD video, sound, 5 minutes. Video still courtesy the artist and Stevenson Gallery.

Yvette Greslé: Your work has a strong political underpinning and your experience and being, as a black woman, is a major departure point.

Lerato Shadi: The personal is always an important part of my process. The live performance Makhuba at Iniva (in 2014) spoke about the black female subject, of how black women are rendered invisible and viewed through certain negative stereotypes. I was also thinking about how people of colour have been resisting, fighting, writing and creating. My work enters into a dialogue with galleries as white spaces. Through my performances I talk about how these spaces exclude me but at the same time I am claiming these spaces as my own. I am not going to allow myself to be made Other within these spaces.

YG: At Tate Modern we saw MATSOGO (2013). We see your hands crumble and then reconstitute the cake. I am engaged by the sensation I feel, as I am unable to access the meaning of the title and the context of the songs you sing, which relate to Setswana folktales. This is an important part of the politics of the work and how it’s experienced. You treat the sound as a material; you cut it up and reconstitute it, similar to the cake.

LS: I do think sound is a material on its own. Sound has its own space. A lot of people say to me, “What is the song about? What does it mean?” I say:  “Enjoy it in the same way that I enjoy a William Kentridge work. You don’t have to be included.”

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Dineo Seshee Bopape, “is i am sky”, 2013, Digital video, colour, sound, 17 minutes, 48 seconds.Video still courtesy the artist and Stevenson Gallery.

Yvette Greslé: What is interesting for you about moving image as a temporal and time-based medium?

Dineo Seshee Bopape: Moving image is unstable, and it holds so many possibilities inside of it. It allows for the manipulation of time, to go backwards and forwards, to conflate, to chop up and put seemingly unrelated things together. It can be like writing: the process of narrating, of making a story, destroying a story, and opening up stories.

YG: What are the questions you hold in place when thinking about moving image as a medium?

DB: Who holds the gaze? How are things framed, and what is excluded from a frame? What stories are made of an event? I think about editing and processes of adding to an image, special effects, which make something more visible or opaque.

YG: In is I am sky (2013) we see the fragmentation of your face, which then becomes translucent, we see sky and land and we see through it. This work is also a dialogue with Sun Ra and the poem The Endless Realm (1985).

DB: In his work Sun Ra thinks about what it means to be black in a white world. What does it mean to exist as a negation in language? He puts forward the idea that black people should cease to exist as a white imaginary. I made is I am sky during the trial of Julius Malema. I sang some songs with the camera low, kissing the sky, thinking about what it is to be landless and have nothing.

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Robin Rhode, “Recycled Matter”, 2015, Digital Video, sound, 16 minutes. Video still courtesy the artist and Stevenson Gallery.

“The Film Will Always Be You: South African Artists On Screen”. Curated by Zoe Whitley, Adjunct Research Curator, Tate, supported by Guaranty Trust Bank pic, and Abrie Fourie, Artist/Independent Curator (Modern Art Projects South Africa). Supported by the SA-UK Seasons 2014 and 2015, a partnership between the Department of Arts and Culture, South Africa and the British Council. Tate Modern: Friday 10 July – Sunday 12 July 2015

Review/Interviews published in Art Africa Magazine, Issue 01, September 2015, pp.169-173.

Curated by Zoe Whitley and Abrie Fourie, ‘The Film Will Always Be You’ brought South African moving image practices to Tate Modern for a weekend. The geographical framing is a familiar strategy and, despite its limitations, provokes debate about borders at a time of continued xenophobia and displacement.  The experimental documentary film Border Farm (2011), about unofficial border crossings from Zimbabwe to South Africa, held political weight here, giving voice to experiences without reinscribing the objectification of marginalised subjects. South African artist and filmmaker Thenjiwe Nkosi and Zimbabwean writer, farm worker and community spokesperson Meza Weza conceived of the film, which emerged from a wider project. It was compelling in its staging of a dialogue between film-making and theatre.

While the work of William Kentridge and Angus Gibson is historically important, their documentary film Freedom Square and the Back of the Moon (1986), which opened the event, appeared anachronistic within the programme as a whole. The films that followed were Zanele Muholi’s Enraged by a Picture (2005) and Robin Rhode’s Recycled Matter (2015). Why not inaugurate an event such as this with a specific focus and a less predictable emphasis on Kentridge? Muholi is already visible to London audiences, following the exhibition of ‘Faces and Phases’ (2006-2014) at the Photographers’ Gallery, aligned with the 2015 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. Her visual activism, focused on LGBTI rights, constitutes a historical record of violence related to gender identity and sexual preference in South Africa.

Similarly to Nkosi and Weza’s Border Farm, Muholi’s work is attentive to urgent political questions and contemporary forms of violence in South Africa, which have relevance across geographical sites. Nkosi/Weza and Muholi grapple self-reflexively with the ethical questions at stake in the representation of marginalised subjects through documentary forms. The opening night set the tone for a very unevenly curated event: Rhode’s poetic Recycled Matter, building on earlier concerns with performed movement, experimental choreography and sound, was incongruous alongside the work of Muholi and Kentridge/Gibson.

The relationships between performance and video art in South Africa, across generations and subjectivities, was a major thread across the event as a whole but was not elaborated on. While there was much institutional critique during the course of the artist-led panels, a live performance that addressed Tate as an institution would have made a critical contribution to the weekend. I am thinking here, for example, of how Lerato Shadi mobilises her body as a black woman in critique of galleries as white spaces.

Berni Searle, Minnette Vári and Penny Siopis have been exploring video art as a medium in substantial ways and all were represented. Siopis has made a number of works that mobilise found footage as allegories of history in South Africa, and her work, which is complex in its deployment of sound, subtitles and image, needed more emphasis in the event as a whole. The centrality of performance in Searle and Vári’s practice could have been elaborated in relation to younger generations of artists such as Shadi and Dineo Seshee Bopape. Searle stages highly choreographed performances, often in relation to place, while Vári deploys digital manipulation to distort her body.

It was confusing – from the perspective of the audience – to be presented with so many artists without a clear curatorial framing. Fewer artists could have been shown and more attention given to specific practices. Participatory audience discussions along with the interventions of scholars and critics would certainly have enriched the artist-only panels. The major flaw in the event’s strategy was in attempting to show too much work and, ultimately, depth of focus was lost.

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Berni Searle, “Enfold”, from the Seeking Refuge series, 2008, Archival pigment ink on cotton rag paper, Image courtesy the artist.

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