Franz Kafka on the tenth anniversary of his death by Walter Benjamin (1934)

The German-Jewish literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) published several pieces about Franz Kafka, which were later collected in the selection of his essays titled Illuminations.

Franz Kafka on the tenth anniversary of his death (1934)

What makes Benjamin so enjoyable to read also makes him difficult to summarise. This is that he proceeds by a process of association, linking together thoughts and ideas to whip up a meringue of insights in a manner which is closer to that of a creative writer than a logical analyst. One thing leads to another which leads to another, and all sorts of sparks fly off all along the way.

This is exacerbated by the way he tends to bring out a flavour or aspect of a writer by comparing, by laying them alongside, work by another writer or from another tradition i.e. he works by a process of comparison and association.

Thus he opens the whole essay, not with anything by Kafka at all, but by telling a legend associated with the great Russian statesman Potemkin in order to make a preliminary definition of ‘the Kafkaesque’ – and at other moments he describes part of the legend of Ulysses, compares Kafka’s writing to that of the Chinese sage Lao Tse, or to Chinese theatre, or to the relationship between Jewish Holy Scriptures.

Some commentators have compared Benjamin’s approach to the Modernist technique of collage, cutting up and pasting next to each other material from different sources and traditions, in order to spark and jar interesting new perspectives and insights.

This makes for an immensely enjoyable, learned and impressionistic carnival ride through the subject being analysed, and reading Benjamin makes you feel wonderfully well-read and clever – which accounts for his enduring popularity among undergraduates ever since his essays were translated and became available in the 1970s. But also makes it quite difficult to grasp and define the points he’s making, or to extract logical summaries of his essays. That said, here’s my attempt to summarise the key points of this essay:

Original sin

Kafka’s world is one of people dogged by the Original Sin of having been born to fathers who have instituted an obscure and unknowable Law, which no-one can live up to, fathers who are themselves subject to decay, decline and fall. It is a primeval world:

  • ‘Laws and definite norms remain unwritten in the prehistoric world. A man can transgress them without suspecting it.’
  • ‘It takes us back far beyond the time of the giving of the Law on twelve tablets to a prehistoric world, written law being one of the first victories scored over this world. In Kafka the written law is contained in books, but these are secret; by basing itself on them the prehistoric world exerts its rule all the more ruthlessly.’
  • ‘…the prehistoric forces that dominated Kafka’s creativeness’
  • ‘In the mirror which the prehistoric world held before him in the form of guilt he merely saw the future emerging in the form of judgment.’

A world so prehistoric that it seems to exist before the world of myths and legends that we learned about at school, a world of inchoate feelings which only later, in man’s earliest myths and legends, found their first expression. [This is clearly an impressionistic, literary way of thinking about Kafka.]

The only beings who seem to exist outside the punishing dyad of decaying authority figures and stricken sons are ‘the assistants’, that category of characters who are not serious, are frivolous, who giggle and fool around. They seem to have escaped, or were never part of, the fallen world of endless guilt.

Characters in experimental theatre

Benjamin brings together allusions from the ‘gestic’ nature of ancient Chinese theatre and the melodramatic postures of characters in El Greco paintings, to bring out the way that many of the stories and characters can be seen as gestures. Each is playing a stylised role.

Key to this insight is the central role of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, in Amerika, which is clearly an allegorical entity, and which everyone is welcome to join.

a good number of Kafka’s shorter studies and stories are seen in their full light only when they are, so to speak, put on as acts in the “Nature Theater of Oklahoma.” Only then will one recognize with certainty that Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings. The theater is the logical place for such groupings.

It strikes me as a profound way of reimagining the stories to say that ‘ Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of gestures’. That’s quite a fertile insight, it makes you reflect back over the oeuvre, and consider how much and in what way it applies to the stories or novels.

The next bit is even more powerful:

a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset; rather, the author tried to derive such a meaning from them in ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings.

Now that is really profound because it opens up your understanding. A basic level understanding of Kafka’s work might be to say that he kept trying to write more or less the same story but kept failing. The motto of this fairly linear reading of Kafka would be Samuel Beckett’s famous line:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (from Worstward Ho!, 1983, Beckett’s second-to-last published work)

Benjamin’s metaphor is immediately more accurate, rich and suggestive, in that it is three dimensional: now the varied characters Kafka created are not doing the same thing, but actors trying out different stylised gestures within a vast stage or theatre (three dimensional because, though most are on the surface of the earth, some are up in the air – like the trapeze artist of First Sorrow, some beneath the ground like the narrator of The Burrow).

Parables

Benjamin makes some preliminary remarks about parables, dividing them into two types, ones which unfold like a bud blossoming into a flower, the other like a careful piece of origami which the maker opens and flattens out into a flat blank piece of paper, and goes on to relate the second type to Kafka’s work. Very brilliantly he nails the sense I’ve had throughout reading them that all the stories are immensely pregnant with deeper meaning but that… they resist all attempts to reveal, expose or define it.

They are not parables, and yet they do not want to be taken at their face value; they lend themselves to quotation and can be told for purposes of clarification. But do we have the doctrine which Kafka’s parables interpret and which K.’s postures and the gestures of his animals clarify? It does not exist; all we can say is that here and there we have an allusion to it.

Not only does it not exist, but Benjamin brilliantly captures the profoundly evanescent feel of this eluding meaning – that Kafka was struggling to express something ancient and primeval or, in a brilliant moment, that his works could just as well be taken as the building blocks towards a new doctrine and teaching of some kind.

Kafka might have said that these are relics transmitting the doctrine, although we could regard them just as well as precursors preparing the doctrine.

Benjamin takes a detour into discussing how the central subject of the works was how we organise ourselves into society, and takes the story about the Great Wall of China as a classic example of meditating on this subject. But then he returns with another thought about parables, which is the care Kafka took to ensure that they resisted interpretation.

Kafka had a rare capacity for creating parables for himself. Yet his parables are never exhausted by what is explainable; on the contrary, he took all conceivable precautions against the interpretation of his writings. One has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cautiously, and warily.

This is a more practical, understandable point – that Kafka’s writings seem to be cast in the form of allegories and parables in order to prompt and invite interpretation by his readers. And yet, the closer you look, it feels like the more cannily they have been arranged so as to lead you only so far, before resisting all final, one-version interpretations. Before evading your grasp.

Talmudic interpretations

Benjamin was acutely aware of his Jewish heritage, and powerfully tuned in to the social plight and cultural role played by Jewish Germans of his own generation, a theme explained very clearly and thoroughly by Ernst Pawel in his biography of Kafka. This essay is sprinkled with references to Kafka’s Jewishness and by allusions to Jewish literary, theological and interpretative traditions and to individual Jewish folk stories or legends. Thus he writes of Kafka’s parables

This does not mean that his prose pieces belong entirely in the tradition of Western prose forms; they have, rather, a similar relationship to doctrine as the Haggadah does to the Halakah.

But I have no idea what the Haggadah or Halakah are. This particular section ends with Benjamin retelling a Talmudic legend told by a rabbi in answer to the question why Jews celebrate a meal every Friday evening. Some of Benjamin’s many allusions (like the one which compares the gestures of Kafka protagonists to the stricken, arms-raised gestures of El Greco figures who seem to be ripping open the sky behind them) illuminating and empowering. But I found Benjamin’s references to the Jewish tradition, on the whole, closing and narrowing.

This is by contrast to the lengthy sections Ernst Pawel devotes to the social and cultural plight of German-speaking Jews in the 1890s and early 1900s, in Austria, in Germany and in Kafka’s Bohemia, which I found electrifying. As Pawel describes the legal and political discrimination they suffered, the almost daily indignities, the attacks in the Press and by academics and nationalist writers, Pawel builds up a sense of the real climate of fear and alertness to attack from any sides which many of them felt and which I found helped me gain a deeper appreciation of Kafka’s permanent sense of unease and dread.

The hunchback

Benjamin asserts that the two commonest ways of interpreting or criticising Kafka’s texts – the psychological and the religious – are equally wrong.

There are two ways to miss the point of Kafka’s works. One is to interpret them naturally, the other is the supernatural interpretation. Both the psychoanalytic and the theological interpretations equally miss the essential points.

I tend to agree. (And so does Vladimir Nabokov, in his lecture on Kafka.) When Benjamin quotes some overtly Christian literary commentary on Kafka, its main effect is to make you realise how completely the entire Christian philosophy and worldview has disappeared from criticism and indeed most contemporary discourse. There are many many more articles about Islam in my newspapers and magazines than there are about Christianity.

As to psychology and psychoanalysis, still very much with us, I find it too trivial. That Kafka was afraid of his father or trapped in a hothouse stifling Jewish urban household, doesn’t begin to explain his genius, or the effect his writings have on us.

I didn’t understand much of what Benjamin says here.

Kafka could understand things only in the form of a gestus, and this gestus which he did not understand constitutes the cloudy part of the parables. Kafka’s writings emanate from it.

Nor when he quotes Kafka writing about a fictional character labouring under the weight of his ‘family, and goes on to say:

Doing this family’s bidding, he moves the mass of historical happenings as Sisyphus rolled the stone.

But I do mostly understand him when he goes on to emphasise the prehistoric nature of Kafka’s world, which he strikingly describes as a swamp world.

Kafka did not consider the age in which he lived as an advance over the beginnings of time. His novels are set in a swamp world.

This swamp metaphor allows Benjamin to link to some of the women Kafka’s protagonists encounter, describing them as swamp women (which chimes with the eerie detail in The Trial that the middle fingers of the woman Leni are joined together by a web of skin.) Benjamin makes the claim that only conceptualising the stories as coming from primeval prehistoric zone can we read them correctly.

Only from this vantage point can the technique of Kafka the storyteller be comprehended.

And then to move briskly on to the notion that everyone Joseph K. talks to speaks to him as if her has actually known all along the processes and procedures of the Court, but has for some reason forgotten them. This allows Benjamin to assert that the real subject of The Trial is forgetting and then to segue, as he so often does, into the role of memory in Jewish belief and ritual, quoting from Willy Haas that:

Memory plays a very mysterious role as piousness. It is not an ordinary, but … the most profound quality of Jehovah that he remembers, that he retains an infallible memory ‘to the third and fourth, even to the hundredth generation.’ The most sacred . . . act of the . . . ritual is the erasing of sins from the book of memory.

Benjamin conflates this deep memory as extending back into the prehistoric primeval world he has conjured up

What has been forgotten – and this insight affords us yet another avenue of access to Kafka’s work – is never something purely individual. Everything forgotten mingles with what has been forgotten of the prehistoric world, forms countless, uncertain, changing compounds, yielding a constant flow of new, strange products. Oblivion is the container from which the inexhaustible intermediate world in Kafka’s stories presses toward the light.

And, Benjamin suggests, this is why Kafka was attracted to narrators who are animals – because Kafka is plunging back into a world so deep, that it is pre-human. That or it casts back to a time when pre-literate tribes identified with sacred animals and set them on their totem poles. In some moods, Kafka is more of the animal world, than the human.

Which, after some convoluted reasoning, brings Benjamin to the biographical snippet that Kafka referred to his tubercular cough as ‘the animal’ – something pre-human rising up out of his own body.

Speaking of the body, Benjamin goes on to point out the frequency of characters in the novels with their heads bent down onto their chests. He then makes a larger than usual leap to connect these fictional characters with the figure of the hunchback in an old German folk song. And from there arrives at a conclusion of sorts, rejecting the two schools of false interpretations mentioned earlier – psychological or Christian – and instead associating Kafka with the prehistoric depths of the German (and Jewish) folk traditions.

In his depth Kafka touches the ground which neither ‘mythical divination’ nor ‘existential theology’
supplied him with. It is the core of folk tradition, the German as well as the Jewish.

Sancho Panza

The final section of the essay is titled Sancho Panza after Cervantes’ comic character, but, with characteristic ellipsis, Benjamin begins by not mentioning Sancho at all, instead quoting another Talmudic or Jewish folk story. See what I mean by the way Benjamin proceeds by building up mosaics or multiple levels of reference and association?

This section weaves together a brief consideration of the Jewish folk story with references to Jaroslav Hašek’s comic character, The Good Soldier Švejk, then refers to Plutarch of all people, to Peter Schlemihl, and arrives back at the Oklahoma Nature Theatre, the student Karl meets in Amerika, the bucket rider and Red Indian and Bucephalus short stories, to create a whirligig of insights and connections. I understood this part:

The invention of the film and the phonograph came in an age of maximum alienation of men from one another, of unpredictably intervening relationships which have become their only ones. Experiments have proved that a man does not recognize his own walk on the screen or his own voice on the phonograph. The situation of the subject in such experiments is Kafka’s situation; this is what directs him to learning, where he may encounter fragments of his own existence, fragments that are still within the context of the role. He might catch hold of the lost gestus the way Peter Schlemihl caught hold of the shadow he had sold. He might understand himself, but what an enormous effort would be required!

I think this section ends up by concluding that hope derives from learning, but learning without a goal.

The gate to justice is learning. And yet Kafka does not dare attach to this learning the promises which tradition has attached to the study of the Torah. His assistants are sextons who have lost their house of prayer, his students are pupils who have lost the Holy Writ.

And he ends his essay by saying it is all summed up in yet another of Kafka’s really short, gnomic pieces, the one about Sancha Panza – and hence the name of this section.

Without making any boast of it Sancho Panza succeeded in the course of years, by devouring a great number of romances of chivalry and adventure in the evening and night hours, in so diverting from him his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that his demon thereupon set out in perfect freedom on the maddest exploits, which, however, for the lack of a preordained object, which should have been Sancho Panza himself, harmed nobody. A free man, Sancho Panza philosophically followed Don Quixote on his crusades, perhaps out of a sense of responsibility, and had of them a great and edifying entertainment to the end of his days.

Which I partially understood, but Benjamin himself makes no effort to explain.


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South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other British Museum shows

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