– Summer 2015

Events, Works, Exhibitions

Center for Historical Reenactments: Is The Tale Chasing Its Own Tail?

Khwezi Gule

Cover of the publication of the Center for Historical Reenactments Digging Our Own Graves 101 (2014), designed by Maziyar Pahlevan. Courtesy the artists

Over the last decade, writing, art-making, historicising, teaching, archiving and curating have been engaged in various acts of mutual cannibalism, disrupting the insularity of disciplines such as art history. This is also patent in the arena of what I would term ‘memory work’, referring to the myriad forms of institutional engagement with the past that take place in the public sphere, from memorials to public art projects and museums; all such edifices have developed discursive components, such as research projects, processes of public consultation, the recording of oral histories and event programming, in order to legitimize the public benefit of their enterprises. As a result, memory work has become highly specialised, highly lucrative, highly choreographed and highly policed. Mind you, this is taking place in a climate where, as far as the rhetoric goes, processes are open, transparent, participatory and democratic. In this knowledge economy, memory work exists partly as a strategy to privatise collective memory, and it serves in many instances to cement the authority of dominant voices. In the same way that the privileged global subject remains the Western white male in a world that is supposedly more plural and polyphonic, so too the white male artist remains the privileged subject in the post-apartheid art system of South Africa;

  1. The US-based curator Sohrab Mohebbi is a former CHR member.

  2. PASS-AGES: References & footnotes (self-published newspaper), Johannesburg: Center for Historical 
Reenactments and Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism, 2010, unpaginated.

  3. The passbook was known by a number of names, including the vernacular ipasi. It was also referred to simply as a ‘reference book’ or sometimes as a ‘dompass’. Dom is Afrikaans for stupid.

  4. Although there were already many pieces of racial legislation prior to the 1950s, the National Party’s election in 1948 accelerated the tightening of population control.

  5. For more on the history of the pass, see ‘Pass office is a place of shelter’, Joburg [website], 30 July 2007, available at http://www.joburg.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1420: pass-office-is-a-place-of-shelter&catid=127&Itemid=210 (last accessed on 4 February 2015).

  6. When I was growing up, in the 1970s and the early 80s, one was supposed to acquire a passbook upon turning sixteen, and so, paradoxically, it was also seen as a sign of having reached adulthood. Having a pass meant that you could seek employment and earn. It was a rite of passage, albeit one with undesirable connotations.

  7. Gugulethu is the township in Cape Town where Wa Lehulere grew up and later founded the collective Gugulective together with Unathi Sigenu.

  8. The performance was staged as part of ‘Scratching the Surface Vol.1’, AVA Gallery, Cape Town, 4—22 August 2008, curated by Gabi Ngcobo and Mwenya Kabwe.

  9. ‘The Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life’ was curated by Okwui Enwezor with Rory Bester, and debuted at the International Center of Photography, New York (14 September 2012—6 June 2013). It travelled to Haus der Kunst, Munich (15 February—26 May 2013) and Museum Africa, Johannesburg (13 February 2014—30 April 2015).

  10. The Exuberance Project’ took place at the University of Cape Town, where it was hosted by The Names We Give and the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA). It included a symposium, an exhibition and film screenings.

  11. ‘Center for Historical Reenactments: After-after Tears’, New Museum, New York, 22 May—7 July 2013.

  12. The first iteration of the Johannesburg Biennale (28 February—30 April 1995) was curated by Lorna Ferguson; the second (12 October—12 December 1997), by Okwui Enwezor. The 1997 edition ended prematurely when the City of Johannesburg, which was supporting the exhibition, ran out of funds. In subsequent years the City did not offer funding for its continuation.

  13. Conversation with Gabi Ngcobo, 20 December 2011.

  14. Xenophobic violence reached unprecedented levels in May 2006, when more than sixty foreign nationals were killed in South African cities within the space of two weeks. South Africa also has very high levels of gender-based violence: gender activist Nhlanhla Mokoena has claimed that a woman is raped every 26 seconds in South Africa. See ‘Rape Survivor Takes Long Walk to Raise Awareness’, eNews Channel Africa [TV news channel website], 13 October 2013, available at http://www.enca.com/ south-africa/rape-survivor-takes-long-walk-raise-awareness (last accessed on 23 March 2015).