Un-ma(s)king Mandela: an interview with Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi

Left: Anene (After Anene Booysen) 2013 Right: Hani (After Chris Hani) 2013

Left: Anene (After Anene Booysen) 2013 Right: Hani (After Chris Hani) 2013

Slipnet talks to Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, a Johannesburg based, multi-form artist interested in the way structures – physical, architectural and social – reflect and determine the web of relations which make up the social order in which they are found. Here, she meditates on the relations of Art, capitalism and popular mythology.

Modern social value systems emit myths. In our own context, the most diffuse, the most prodigious, the most continuous, and the most unequivocally zealous act of myth-making is the lionisation of Nelson Mandela in the collective national consciousness of contemporary South Africa. On his death, with a bristling, refulgent pride, South Africans spanning myriad identities poured their veneration into the public sphere, in acts of mourning and homage. While these encomia were fully deserved by a man integral to the creation of a democratic, peaceful and functional post-liberation South Africa, scepticism as to the effects of such sentiment should not be dismissed as misguided sourness. South African society is manifestly striated, layered, complex and fractious. In a polis riven by a history of structural violence, the total agreement to Mandela’s saintliness by South Africans of varying social groups is undoubtedly heartening – if it allows for genuine catharsis, fellow-feeling and material change. But what if, instead, it gives mourners the right to live an unexamined life, one where sporadic acts of hero worship absolve worshippers of the duty to reflect and act in ways that true reconciliation demands? How might the interruption of myth-making prevent such a corrosive absolution? Should Mandela really be idolised with such pulsing, and possibly precious, fervour?

In May 2013 you exhibited a series of portraits at Room Gallery, in Braamfontein, and then wrote an opinion piece on Mandela, published in December 2013 in the Washington Post. Is there a connection between the import of these two different interventions?

What I wrote was very linked to the Heroes series. The portraits grew out of a questioning of the new money that had come out just before. I was frustrated by that idea that the only person we were choosing to memorialise was Mandela. And I started thinking about who gets memorialised and why. Who chooses who gets memorialised? What is this figure of “the hero”? How does it function? I remember getting some emails from friends saying things like “Oh, I hear that he’s sick.” People had heard that (my partner) Daniel’s grandfather had worked with him, and they also knew that my father knew him. “This must be a hard time for you and your families”. I remember being unsure of how to answer those emails. So it came from a few connected things: the beginnings of the sanctification, the construction, of the Mandela icon as it reached its apex in his death, the new money, these emails, the media flurry around his death – I started thinking about the writing of history in general, and how frustrating the single-hero narrative is. So the paintings were really a response to that; and the article I wrote – well, a friend of mine works at the Washington Post and wanted a South African to write something after Mandela’s death. “I knew that your dad knew him, would you write something?” I said, “Ya, but I might not write what you think I’m going to write”. She said, “That’s fine”. I thought it was an important moment to speak frankly and honestly, and from a personal perspective, about my frustrations. And to talk about the construction at work. That’s what I’m interested in – structures and constructs.

Is the Mandela icon impairing our ability to confront the past, and hence the present, in a frank way?

I think the Mandela image – symbol – does function, and serves different purposes depending on context. There’s something numbing about the myth of Mandela. And I think that people are very resistant to the idea that he was a man with imperfections who maybe didn’t always make good decisions. I think some people are willing to see him as a man but that most are dying for some kind of relief, and he provides that. He allows people to feel good about themselves and to think that there’s good in the world in very fundamental, or basic, ways.

Does the image allow people to feel good about themselves without really reflecting on their place in the world, in society?

Emotions are not simple but they can be uninterrogated and uncomplicated in problematic ways. On the other side of the coin, you have racism, or any kind of other -isms, which are emotionally based. They’re not based on any kind of contemplation or self-reflection. Not analysing, not asking questions, is a dangerous way to go through the world. Questions don’t have to be accusatory. They can come from from places of genuine curiosity – from wanting to know. I think that we are instinctual knowledge-seekers. But at some point that falls away and we don’t want to know. Somewhere around their late twenties, early thirties, people decide they don’t want to know anymore. The world is too much with us.

How does myth-making relate to history and to those who are acted upon by the myth? Your Heroes series consists of close-up portraits of figures who slide between anonymity and familiarity. They seem to recognise themselves within a particular historical person but, at the same time, through the titles you have elected and the ascetic, sombre palette you employed, trouble that recognition: they’re recognisable but almost not. How does all of that relate to this act of questioning, this interrogation? All the figures are somehow related to important liberation movements or traumatic, bureaucratic moments. Some of the people are related to other mythologised historical figures in some kind of way. Is there some embedded critique in that?

I want to say something about painting before we talk so that you know where I’m coming from. I had this conversation with this curator, this Egyptian curator, who said to me: “all your work is about structures, the work you’re doing in Musina is about structures”. She said, “Why don’t you consider these paintings as your notes, as a form of notation for things you’re doing outside the studios”. It was a really powerful moment because I felt totally fine with the idea of selling my notes. I want to make things that don’t necessarily look like art, and potentially operate outside the market. Coming at the paintings from that angle: the paintings were an interrogation of myth-making and power. And the idea of holding power versus affording others power. I’m interested in people reclaiming their own agency, including myself. Part of what is important in that reclaiming is to humanise figures that have been dehumanised so that we can learn from them and see them more like us. I wanted to lay bare this idea of people being recognised as entirely good. Lay bare the fallacy of that. What’s closer to a truth is that these symbols, images, people are all serving a purpose. They may function to perpetuate a numbness convenient to consumer capitalism. To keep us believing that things are the way they are and can’t be any different. In this way, they may act to limit your imagination and curtail your own agency.

Are you trying to set up a set of contrary ways of reading the same thing? If we think of the Anene Booysen piece, that horrific event was closely followed by the death of Reeva Steenkamp. But after the Pistorius affair, Anene dropped out of focus in the media and in everyday conversation. Both traumas highlight the pathology at the heart of gender relations in this country but at the same time they were two young women from very different circumstances.

With the Anene painting, of course I was thinking about Reeva Steenkamp. That’s the one picture of her on the internet – its her ID photo. Reeva Steenkamp is all over the internet. The painting gives the sense of wanting to memorialise this young woman but also questioning: who decides who gets remembered and why? The whole series, each of them, is asking a similar question in different ways. The way they were set up where some figures were more readily recognisable than others made people ask themselves, “should I know that person?” And I loved that moment of recognising and then looking closer – those different levels of recognition, from the really famous to my great grandmother who only my dad knew. And that’s it. He’s the only person who came to the show who would know her. So that was a game of recognition to get people thinking about this idea of “should I know who that is?” I was talking about my motivations for painting. These paintings have a limited life. They’re in the gallery and then they’re in someone’s home. They won’t be displayed as a series again. In doing them, I was testing the power of painting as a means of transmitting ideas. Of trying to break the façade in some way, for a moment. So that series was about that. I’m thinking about these ideas, can I paint them? Have them generate some kind of discussion in the world? Can they activate something while still being sellable? They were really a proposition, a provocation. I was hoping that people would walk away not believing in this idea of heroes so much, thinking rather, “what if everyone’s a hero?” Maybe we’re all heroes, maybe no one’s a hero. Maybe this idea is a tool, not a truth, not a reality. And it’s also so subjective. People would come in and see Winnie and wonder why she was there. And other people would think “oh ya Winnie’s there”. I’m very concerned about the ways history gets written, how we remember how things have happened. The older I get the more apparent it is how we keep repeating the same mistakes and how debilitating it is to not know that there are versions of history. I often think of the Apartheid museum and it’s mostly an ANC history. It warps the truth about how things change. It warps the truth about how there isn’t ever one hero who comes and saves the day – it’s actually going to take all of us. In some ways the idea of the hero allows us to abdicate responsibility. It’s all tied in together.

Is this series trying to interrupt or disrupt the logic of myth-formation, the transmuting of a signifier from history into nature as Barthes would maybe put it?

I’m representing to you what you know. But how I’m presenting it, I’m asking you to reconsider it. That’s the thing, of course, definitely one of the things I’m wanting to do. One of the frustrating things about painting – creating sellable objects – is that the minute a painting enters the market its power as an “interruption” is, on some level, nullified. That’s the thing: in some ways I think art should not be consumable. It should be terrifying, and it should bother you. That’s the bind that we’re in. I think artists are there to do that hard work of interrogation and reveal alternatives. So, I’m trying to see if there’s a way to mitigate the tidal force of the market, which sucks everything in.

Related reading:

The Mandela Myth by Daniel Roux

Not our long walk to freedom by Wamuwi Mbao

Poems for Mandela

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