Secular séance: Post-Victorian embodiment in contemporary South African art

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

In this thesis I explore selected bodies of work by five contemporary South African artists that resuscitate nineteenth - century aesthetic tropes in ways that productively reimagine South Africa’s traumatic colonial inheritance. I investigate the aesthetic strategies and thematic concerns employed by Mary Sibande, Nicholas Hlobo, Mwenya Kabwe, Kathryn Smith and Santu Mofokeng, and argue that the common tactic of engagement is a focus on the body as the prime site of cognition and "the aesthetic as a form of embodiment, mode of being-in-the-world" (Merleau - Ponty). It is by means of the body that the divisive colonial fictions around race and gender were intimately inscribed and it is by means of the body, in all its performative and sensual capacities, that they are currently being symbolically undone and re-scripted. In my introduction, I develop a syncretic, interdisciplinary discourse to enable my close critical readings of these post - Victorian artworks. My question concerns the mode with which these artists have reached into the past to resurrect the nineteenth - century aesthetic trope or fragment, and what their acts of symbolic retrieval achieve in the public realm of the present. What is specific to these artists mode of "counter - archival" (Merewether ) engagement with the colonial past? I argue that these works perform a similar function to the nineteenth - century séance and to African ancestral rites and dialogue, putting viewers in touch with the most haunting aspects of our shared and separate histories as South Africans and as humans. In this sense, they might be understood both as recuperations of currently repressed forms of cultural hybridity and embodied visual conversations with the unfinished identity struggles of the artists’ ancestors. The excessive, uncanny or burlesque formal qualities of these works insist on the incapacity of mimetic, social documentary forms to contain the sustained ferocious absurdity of subjective experience in a "post - traumatic", "post - colonial", "post - apartheid" culture. The "post" in these terms does not denote a concession to sequential logic or linear temporality, but rather what Achille Mbembe terms an "interlocking of presents, pasts and futures". This "interlocking" is made manifest by the current transmission of these works, which visually, physically embody a sense of subjectivity as temporality. If the body and the senses are the means though which we not only apprehend the world in the present, but through which the past is objectively an d subjectively enshrined, then it is by means of the ossified archive of that same sensory body that the damage of the past can be released and knowledge/history re - imagined. Without erasing or denying South Africa’s well - documented history of violent categorisation, the hypothetical tenor of these works instantiates an alternate culture of love , intimacy, desire and inter - connectedness that once was and still can be.

Includes bibliographical references.