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Harare Conversations: A Panel Discussion at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe

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Harare Conversations is an ongoing discursive platform that is part of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe’s educational programme. Held on October 14th, 2016, ‘Harare Conversations: Videonomad Harare Iteration Talks’ formed part of a larger initiative orchestrated by the National Gallery, Njelele Art Station (Harare) and Videonomad (Berlin), an independent project that aims to provide an alternate platform for African artists, both within the continent and abroad. Founded by Tobi Ayedadjou in 2013, Videonomad have worked as far and wide as Kalamata, Pesaro, Bahia, Tunis, Tokyo, and Dakar.

Moderated by Lucia Nhamo, this panel discussion included artists Berry Bickle, Bogosi Sekhukhuni, Simon Gush, Tabita Rezaire, and Mario Macilau. This discussion touches on a wide range of themes, by looking closely at the processes of production, their intended outcomes, and the many concerns born from their respective contexts as individuals working with a similar but varied set of tools, each to their own end.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec08 HarareConversations3Screening, Njelele Art Station, 2016. Photo: Tobi Ayedadjou. Image courtesy of Cosmo Zengeya.

BERRY BICKLE

The video I’m showing is called On the wire. It’s basically about the body politic. In one sense it’s about defining or deflecting the idea of the wisdom book on Africa – in the sense of the subject – and a reversal of that idea within body politics and the look. It’s constructed as a performance piece, working with oppositions, narratives of gender, history, tradition, religion, and in one way shifting the look of each. It’s a question of what you as an audience are looking at, because what you’re looking at has already been looked at by the performers.

SIMON GUSH:

Lazy Nigel is part of a series of essay films that I’ve been producing that explore ideas around work ethic – our relationship to work and the ideologies at work. When you meet a stranger one of the first questions they ask is “What do you do?” When we respond, ‘what we do’ is oftencommunicated by the way in which we think of ourselves, and I wanted to question those ideas. The video was filmed in a small town outside of Johannesburg. It’s one of those towns with a lot of industry, but notmany people that live there. People come in for the week to work andthen leave on the weekends. I was interested in what happens in thespace when there’s no work happening, what that time outside of workmeans – concepts of laziness and productivity – and how we can shiftthe way we think about those concepts.

TABITA REZAIRE:

Sorry For Real is a virtual apology on behalf of the Western world. Through a fantasized smart-phone conversation, I question the power imbalances within the apology-forgiveness narrative. What is the function of an apology? Who benefits from the apology? What are the power structures hidden behind our apologetic age? The work virtually captures the violent histories of slavery, colonialism, the continuous exploitation of African and Indigenous’ bodies and lands, and the way these legacies shape current global systems of oppression. Unapologetically, this cyber exchange addresses the politics of “reparations,” and the need to decolonize our technologies and healing strategies.

BOGOSI SEKHUKHUNI:

'Consciousness engine 2: absentblackfatherbot' is part of a series of sculptural and conceptual works that explore conversations around the origins of consciousness. Where can you locate it? The video itself is a simulation of the relationship that I have with my father, who I met on Facebook a few years ago. The simulation is made up of a conversation that we have had over a period of four to five years. It’s part one of an experiment where I’d like to take two chatbot applications, which are these narrow artificial intelligence programmes that you can have conversations with, but to have two of these personas talk to each other, like a poetic gesture to generate consciousness.

MARIO MACILAU:

There are many habitual problems in our society that have become a part of our culture, due to the way societies were structured historically. I made Organic in Maputo, where I live with my family. As the only man in the house, I get criticised from all angles if I set foot in the kitchen. I work hard to bring food home, but if I cook it’s like I want to control the food and don’t want to share with other people. Now I question myself; I like cooking, but I can't cook at home because as a man, society doesn't permit it. Organic is an attempt to question this aspect, to see how we can influence our situations.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec08 HarareConversations4'Harare Conversations' at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Image courtesy of Njelele Art Station.

DECIDING ON VIDEO AS A MEDIUM

Berry Bickle (BB): I knew I wanted to work with video the minute that I was behind the camera and understood the power and value of the image, and all of its possibilities. In the years of being in Mozambique it was about mobility, about collaborations, about not being confined to a studio, where I was actually able to take ideas into any kind of parameter through camera. The ability to find a new narrative with the image was also very attractive to me.

Mario Macilau (MM): I am a photographer, so I work predominantly with still images. The reason I work with video is because in my photographic practice I’m fascinated by the people and the stories that surround me. With video I was studying the sound and movement of people, allowing these to tell the story that I want through my imagination.

Simon Gush (SG): I began working with these choreographed performances, so video was a way of translating them. Often the performances would happen in spaces where there wasn’t really an audience, so it became a way to give those works another life, to document those things. When you don’t have an audience for the performances, you start to think about video and how to make this work beyond just the formal document. That kind of exploration led me to think about video and what I could do with it – simplifying it, bringing forms out.

Bogosi Sekhukhuni (BS): I’m interested in the cultural implications of video technology, and as a means to an end, more than coming from an western art history obsession with image. Being a second year student with no money, video is one of the easiest mediums to work with.

Tabita Rezaire (TR): I work with video because it’s a language I’m familiar with, as we are saturated by it from TV to the internet... Being bombarded with videos and being frustrated with the images I was seeing, I wanted to make the videos that I want to see, so it’s a way for me to share information and rewrite narratives from a certain perspective.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec08 HarareConversations1Screening, Njelele Art Station, 2016. Photo: Tobi Ayedadjou. Image courtesy of Dineo Seshee Bopape.

ON STYLISTIC CHOICES AND THEMATICS:

 SG: I wanted to make the process of filming visible in Lazy Nigel, to make the camera acknowledge itself as a camera. The black and white, the static shots, playing up the angles, these things that are not associated with the human eye. It is a way of locating myself in the video. It’s about finding an aesthetic that would speak to its filmic quality and work against the conventions of realism. The other thing that is very present in my work is the interplay of text – I was interested in bringing this layer of narrative into it. With inter-titles you have these breaks between the image and text, and are able to control time – how long you have with the image, how long you have with the text. In a sense it’s about labour; how much time you own.

I really think in terms of production, not consumption. One thing that I hate about art school is that you are taught that you need to grab someone’s attention in the first two seconds. It’s true that people seldom watch videos the whole way through, but there are ways to deal with that. In the exhibition we have free DVDs available so that the audience can take it home and watch it in their own time, and have a different relationship with it. I am aware that text does sometimes push people away, and the pacing, but I don’t think all art should appeal to everyone all the time. It’s not necessarily their thing. I think trying to use the medium in a critical way is more important, and then hopefully people get something out of that. So there will be people who respond, and people who don’t, but that’s true of all things. Once you admit that, you feel more free to let those things happen.

TR: I'm interested in the politics of technology – electronic colonialism – and in understanding whether technologies act as another layer of oppression or can also be used as a tool for emancipation. I am looking at that dynamic, trying to understand its power in our lives. In the work Sorry For Real, the hologram talks to the intangibility or insincerity of a supposed apology.

MM: One of the most important things when I start to work with video is the development of a narrative, starting to think about how I wanted to show the final result. When I start a video, I put it into separate columns, to visualise the different stories. When exhibiting the work I like to project different stories at the same time; these different moments that are somehow connected.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec08 HarareConversations5'Harare Conversations' at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe. Image courtesy of Njelele Art Station.

ON THE TREATMENT OF PLACE:

BB: Well first of all the place is the video – that’s the frame – so locality is very important. In reference to what the others were doing, the parameters are instructive. So in one sense, the work floats on this design.

BS: We often like to think of the Internet as existing in an intangible space. But the reality is that it also has a physical construction and infrastructure behind it. This intangible space is the same place that you go to when you’re thinking. I was interested in these similarities, whether or not there is a difference between these states of mind – being on the Internet and just thinking. Advancements in emergent technologies – from biotechnology and computer science, to genetics – these are all industries that can force the Western world to start reevaluate essential questions about the nature of reality. I’m interested in what African academic histories have to say about these ideas.

TR: I don’t think I can relate to this specific work in terms of place. If so, it came from a place of anger, frustration, and pains from the architectures of power thatwe are navigating: patriarchy; capitalism;homophobia; transphobia; racism. To understand how those politics of oppression marginalise certain individuals daily and it’s connection to Western modernity, and how institutionalised violence has been integrated and internalised into post-colonial societies. For me it was a way to understand our current history, my anger, and where it comes from. I put it all there to see it better,as a form of catharsis and as a way for me to heal.

MM: Talking about place in the context of my video would be the same as talking about identity. It’s very related to my personal life, the places I grew up, and the places where I still live. This has changed over time, because I have been travelling to different places, which have opened my mind. I still belong to that place, but at the same time I don’t, because I have been surrounded by other people and influences beyond the home environment.

ON INTER-DISCIPLINARY PRACTICE, COLLABORATION AND HEALING: 

BB: I think it’s about language, how we build on these sensibilities and how those complimentary languages inform each other, and our intuitive sense of the ethereal; this constant sense of extended possibility.

BS: I’m interested in how means of production change so quickly. We are in a space where we can do almost anything without being completely reliant on big corporate bodies or some kind of institutional channel. That’s something I find liberating. The art world is an interesting place for me to do the sets of activities that I enjoy doing. I look to people like P-Diddy and Damon Dash and the music business models they created in the late 90s and early 2000s. I really like the idea of having versions of everything in different forms, and being responsible for all of that.

TR: I’ve been collaborating with Bogosi and Nolan [Oswald Dennis] as NTU. We’re interested in healing and our relationship with technology; ancient African spiritual philosophies, and how they can help us in order to reconnect. We are currently researching seeds from Southern Africa that are used as traditional medicines to connect and communicate with ancestors. We’re looking at this as a form of technology; being able to download information and looking at other ways of communicating and sharing information. I guess it’s the relationship between the spiritual world, the organic world, the technological world, and how those spaces connect and are interdependent.

Within the context of oppression and violence, a lot of struggles or liberation history focused on fighting, but healing is an integral part of the struggle if we are to overcome and deal with the life that we are living and the systems of violence that we navigate. When you heal yourself you are able to heal the communities around you. We need to nurture our energy. How does one reconnect on all these levels, be it physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, or political?

BS: In South Africa there is a current rhetoric about economic freedom, as if it's the last frontier, but I really feel that before economic freedom, we need a spiritual revolution. I think that's something that has been deliberately neglected by the powers that be, because I feel like that's the space where the real transformation happens.

AA Newsletter 2016 Dec08 HarareConversations2Screening, Njelele Art Station, 2016. Photo: Tobi Ayedadjou. Image courtesy of Simon Gush.

ON ART IN PUBLIC SPACES:

MM: In Mozambique, when I ask some of my friends to come to an exhibition, they are very scared to enter the gallery space, not because they are forbidden, but because they think that because they come from the township, they don’t deserve to go to this kind of place, which for me is something we need to consider. Is this the time to take art into the public space?

BS: My first practice was public performance. People watch you, but they also carry on doing what they were doing. In Joburg, public art is a thing, but you still don’t see so-called ordinary people going to galleries, so what is it about? Clearly it’s not just about going into public spaces…

SG: Putting art in a public space does not necessarily answer the problem or make the art more accessible. There are all these structures in museums and galleries, and we are not talking about how to decolonize those spaces. We can’t just take things outside and say “Oh we need to educate people so they can operate in those spaces,” we actually need to fundamentally change these spaces and how we think about them.

Audience: Another important question we need to ask is whether or not our art speaks to the people we want to take it to. Maybe there is a disconnect? I can’t help feeling that as artists we make art for ourselves… What is the purpose of art, when you make it? If my people out there cannot understand what I am doing, what is the point of it all?

SG: I think we have this idea that people don’t get art, but a lot of people do. It’s just whether or not they’re comfortable in the space. There’s literature that’s difficult, there’s literature that’s easy, there’s stuff that appeals to more people and some that appeals to less. I don’t think there is any less value in any of those. Different things work at different levels, but there are other kinds of systemic problems within the art structure, it’s not just about the artworks. Sometimes it’s about the institutions and cultures that produce those spaces. When you do workshops you realise that people can read images very well. We’re a visually literate society.

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