This is a reflection piece on the BLAC initiative, a self styled "discourse building project" (1998-2003). The project was an arts based response to the challenges of the time: working with black cultural workers and artists in a divided Cape Town, within a transforming south africa.
The context for this article on BLAC was laid in three previous pieces. First I explained my personal motivations for being involved in the BLAC project - as a cultural activist of color with a practise shaped in response to repression and political change. Second I introduced the reader to the politics of race that defined the modern South African state - how this politics emerged, and how it was shaped as a fiction, to support exploitation of the Other by whites. Last I provided a background to the development of South Africa's cultural policy and argue that by not focusing sufficiently on cultural democracy, and ignoring the participatory ethic of the anti-Apartheid movement, the State missed an opportunity to build on the creative potential of its citizens. I suggest that "symbolic restitution" as a way to work through the current impasse around racial intolerance, drawing on artists and other cultural workers, could help us foster a new inclusive way of imagining a non-racial/intercultural South Africa*. In addition to this, because BLAC has a very specific response to Cape Town, I introduced the reader to this city's particular dynamics in the above and an earlier piece about the city's deeply divided nature.
Why a Reflection on BLAC
Its worth considering BLAC now, because it took place at an interesting time in South African cultural policy history. It happened at the time when South Africa was changing to a post-apartheid country and there was still a level of enthusiasm about its possibilities as a "rainbow nation". The much loved liberation leader, who had championed reconciliation, President Mandela, was about to step down from his single term in office. For those working in culture and the arts, however, there were deep concerns. Although there was political change, Cape Town was still a highly divided city, dominated by white power. This domination was wielded strongly in state run cultural institutions and at universities, but was also apparent in the private sector working with culture and creativity. As a result the stories of, and about, people of color and their aspirations and dreams for the future were not finding avenues for expression in the city. The development of a new museum, The Robben Island Museum, would show up the dysfunctionalities that would plagued the country during and post Thabo Mbeki's era. This is when the ruling powers dominance began to be wielded in an intolerant way, there was a rise in the politics of patronage and a sharp right to neoliberal economics. There were no loud sounds made, the shift was subtle, but artists and cultural workers felt it.
Its interesting to examine BLAC in the light of the Rhodes Must Fall movement which erupted in 2015 when students at universities rose up in response to institutional racism and began to demand the de-colonisation of education and its institutions. Many of the issues BLAC engaged with were the same as those that emerged a decade and a half later, and thus its worth looking at the ways contexts have shifted between these periods. The Rhodes Must Fall movements was rooted in the academic environment. In this respect it is a different space from the ecosystem of cultural production, the space where BLAC was mainly operating, though the end goals were similar. Both concerns centred on an open, socially just society.
What was BLAC
BLAC emerged as a discourse building project to make sense of what was happening in the seemingly un-transformed cultural production ecosystem of post-apartheid Cape Town - It was a relational art project set up to critique the power and privilege of the status quo. Its aim was to collectively build a new language which could shape a different, more empowering, narrative about the future, for black cultural workers and artists first, and ultimately all others.
Why "black" cultural workers and artists?
BLAC used a black consciousness definition for the purpose of "membership". As proposed by the South African activist Steve Biko, black was seen as all people of color marginalised by apartheid. Biko believed that black people needed to emancipate themselves from the racial inferiority which had emerged through centuries of oppression - famously saying that "the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed". His belief in psychological empowerment meant black people needed to develop a sense of pride and dignity in themselves and to share this with other marginalised people through community development programs. Biko was an anti-racist, he was not trying to substitute white dominance with that of black, but was rather working towards a project of emancipation for all. He was in turn influenced by the Martinican born academic Franz Fanon, whose work has been key to postcolonial and queer theory. Its Fanon who forwarded ideas around decolonisation, and out of his writing notions of intersectionality have emerged, both key words in the #Fallist movement.
What was the nature of BLAC's discourse building initiative?
There were three key parts to BLAC. First BLAC started with and was held together by a series of 9 discussion forums held annually. These usually included up to two people, as facilitators, usually practitioners and, at various time, academics. It was structured without a fixed agenda in a multidisciplinary format covering everything from heritage politics, to feminist poetry, to hip hop and more. For the first two years these sessions were only open to black cultural workers and artists in order to create a safe space for dialogue. While it was criticized for this, the majority of those who attended found it a fertile space that allowed them to talk openly.
The second part was a publishing element. This was a pre-social media period and thus publishing was attached primarily to a website, BLACONLINE and an electronic newsletter. While some writing emerged, it was harder to get this going for two reasons. The first was that there was a shortage of writers of color who were able to critique the issues at hand at the time. Writing that did happen ended up being done by those with art history or cultural studies experience, and many were emerging thinkers. The second issue was the difficulty of building an audience, which had much to do with the challenge of not having the kind of public two way dialogue which social media provides. Lastly many practitioners wanted to do projects rather than talk only. Out of this two projects emerged: the Returning the Gaze Public Art Project (2000) and Liberating Zones (2003). The latter will be discussed next week.
Returning the Gaze took place during the second Cape Town One City Festival, the year BLAC moved to being a more open forum. The project was open to all on the basis of a call. It was planned as a public art project, using media as an artistic field and was made up of postcards, billboards, murals and included an online entry. It had an open brief to respond to the issues of "Race, Culture and Power" in Cape Town, drawing on Foucault's thinking on these issues. A panel of BLAC members chose the final works used for postcards and billboards, the curators had some leeway with the murals which were added later. The project produced some striking imagery, much of it highly relevant today (most of it used in this and the past two articles), and it received attention from researchers internationally. However its not clear what impact if any the project had in changing anything, since there was little or no response from the media or public. Much of the public had not been exposed to the issues other than seeing the billboards on busy highways. They either clearly did not seem to understand or want to engage with the content, since there were no call ins or letters to the editor about it. In retrospect, the project was ahead of its time, since many people were still in rainbow nation mode and had not seen the signs the artists had. Considering more recent issues around racism, corruption, the crisis in education and other related societal collapses, it would have interesting to see what impact a public project such as this may have had today.
Positive Developments in the Cultural Landscape: 96-2000
BLAC recognized a number of important positive developments in the transformation of South Africa during this time. Positive elements that made the challenges that emerged even harder to reconcile.
An important moment of the time was Thabo Mbeki's "I am an African" speech, made in '96 when South Africa's much lauded constitution was passed. It is still considered one of the great moments of political Imagineering in the country. Later Mbeki's African Renaissance program from 1997, which built on essays by Cheikh Anta Diop from 1946, put forward a powerful set of ideas that linked culture and political change. In this Mbeki drew on the glories of a number of great post colonial African leaders some of whom, such as Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso), Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Amilcar Cabral (Guinea/Cape Verde), had been assassinated through the actions of western governments during the early days of African Independence. All these leaders had pushed a strong cultural agenda. Sadly only a few remaining leaders were given the space to carry forward their Africanist cultural change agenda, most notably Léopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal. Mbeki's powerful vision for Africa would inspire for many years. There was high hopes in the cultural sectors.
Second, the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) was in the process of setting up important new organizations to support cultural production by artists and other cultural workers. These included , The National Arts Council (peer review arts funding), the National Film and Video Fund, and the Heritage Agency (which had an expanded brief to look at intangible heritage). It had also begun work on a large scale Community Arts Centers program - with plans to build 42 centers by 2000. The DAC's mandate provided a range of opportunities for a new cultural landscape to emerge.
By 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed two years of work, which would be an important moment of witnessing. It had surfaced a number of important cases related to the atrocities of the Apartheid era, allowed a multitude of brutalized voices to be heard, and enabled many to achieve some level of closure with the deaths or disappearances of loved one. This story telling and reconciliation process was an important one, and received much praise and academic interest and was part of a wave of similar commissions - humanist approaches to resolving the impacts of past conflicts, with the view on restorative justice. One of the challenging issues that emerged out of the TRC, however, was that black people started to recognize, where issues of pain and suffering as a result of Apartheid were being discussed, white people, were, for the most absent and/or uninterested. Whites frequently expressed a desire "to move on from the past", without acknowledging their part in what happened. Nelson Mandela's magnanimity seemed to have lulled people into believing a reset button had been set and that nothing else was needed. At the same time the conditions remained the same, and the mindsets of those who controlled the economy did not appear to have changed much.
The challenge: A frustrated transformation of the cultural landscape
By 1998 it was not just economic power that remained in the hands of a white minority, but it was also cultural power. In Cape Town especially control of cultural institutions remained in the hands of white directors, programming staff and heads of education departments. Virtually all the key leadership positions in the "declared" cultural institutions funded by the state (Iziko Museums and Artscape Theatre), some important non profits (The Baxter, Public Eye), in many university departments (especially in the humanities, the arts, architecture and design - in UCT, Stellenbosch and CPUT) and in creative industries (the communications and film industries remained in the hands of white leaders. Institutional racism, on many levels, appeared endemic.
BLAC's concern was with issues of restorative justice, and a specific interest in representation and storytelling. As a result it was asking the following set of questions: How were the neglected histories and stories of those marginalized by Apartheid being told? Who was telling them? How did this relate to the lack of transformation in Cape Town? BLAC was aware that amongst the white cultural workers in positions in power were allies to change. It was also aware that simply having a person in power who was black did not necessarily mean they would be conscious to the issues, ie have "decolonised themselves". But it seemed patently clear that the stories that needed to be told were not being considered seriously enough by those in power. Further there were few plans in place to seriously address the transformation of leadership and of programming control, to enable those whose stories needed to be told, to be part of the telling.
These challenges raised questions asked about the role of the Department of Arts and Culture in monitoring transformation. DAC though was to a large extent inaccessible in many of these debates. It was also complicit, by not providing state funding, to the collapse of many of the historical 80's anti-apartheid organizations. These had knowledge and networks that would have been valuable to further an Africanist cultural vision, to foster greater cultural democracy, to further non-racialism and be spaces from which new leaders could emerge.
What was the impact of BLAC?
Did BLAC with its dialogues, publishing and projects manage to achieve its lofty goals of discourse change? Since much of its work was ephemeral, this is not easily quantifiable. As we saw the impact of Returning the Gaze in the public arena was not apparently significant. What was positive was the connections, conversations and opportunities for collaboration that emerged within the network through the BLAC program. From feedback its clear that BLAC touched a number practitioners who were feeling frustrated and alone in their concerns. BLAC created a space for reflection and engagement and as a result enabled a level of personal empowerment for the cultural workers who attended its sessions. A number of artists in the circle began to produce fresh new challenging work decentering issues of race, culture and gender. This was particularly apparent in the new work by Berni Searle, the work of WEAVE (a women's poetry collective), in Nadia David's play At her Feet and with a host of others. A number of the visual artists and arts critics involved in BLAC, not least Thembinkosi Goniwe, were involved in a documentary project The Luggage is still Labelled and would go on to challenge shifts in art history. While the link between the project and the outputs of artists and cultural workers is not direct, the opportunity BLAC created was to provide a needed disruption, an opportunity to relook, rethink and respond.
What has shifted since blac?
Overtime, post 2004, a number of important projects began working with similar issues to BLAC's, in innovative new ways. Chimurenga and the Pan African Space Station (PASS) project, renegotiated a new space for those who wanted to explore the Africanist imaginary. The Africa Centre played its part in PASS and in other important initiatives (some still active)- the Spier Contemporary, the Badilisha Poetry Exchange, Infecting the City and the AIR program. For a time the African Arts Institute played a role till its closure - it was integral to the Arterial Network (the African wide arts network) which was based in the city until recently. The Gugulective would bring a fresh perspective to art making from the margins, bringing in a new generation of young black artists to the fore.
At the same time older projects continued work that started in the 80's. One of these is Emile XYZ's tireless activism and education with the Heal the Hood initiative - one of the longer running projects of empowerment in the city aimed at young people using Hip Hop for change. Jazzart has been a key driver of African contemporary dance in the city. A project which started later, but which drew on the knowledge and wisdoms of elder artists, The Greatmore Studios, has provided an important space for an alternative perspective on the contemporary visual arts scene. The District Six Museum continues to be a an important space for community histories and activism around land restitution. Alternative Media stalwarts Bush Radio and CapeTV play an important ongoing role in the communicating with and to the city. But the internet has opened new frontiers and a range of online platforms emerge regularly.
Today, while the city may still be a divided one, there are subtle and important changes throughout it. There are more black people at art openings, visiting theatres. Stories are being told in fresh contemporary ways. Race and gender are often intertwining concerns in the production of new arts projects - a host of art collectives have been functioning in this space, more especially iQhyia and Zanele Muholi's LQBTQ cultural crew. There has been a flowering of township theatre as a result of the work of the Zabalaza Festival and Magnet Theatre Trust. There are now active township theatres such as Makukhanye Art Room in Khayelitsha, and The Black Box Theatre in the old Delft Rent Office run by the Rainbow Arts Collective. There is a vibrant underground music and arts scene. Important institutions/think tanks have developed such as the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape, the Institute for Creative Arts and the African Centre for Cities at UCT, all providing important interdisciplinary perspectives rooted in academia but drawing on practise. There is black leadership in many of the state run cultural institutions now, taking root and growing bolder. The slow shifts at universities have been hastened with Rhodes/Fees Must Fall. Projects are emerging out of this initiative. Diversity in the creative industry is less significant than it should be, but there are important projects like the Black Filmmakers Festival, who are creating alternative discourses about Africa and film. Technology and the internet has opened up new spaces for storytelling and public discourse.
What still needs attention?
Cape Town is still a challenging city, divided and complex, but there have been important shifts over the years. There are though, a range of broader issues in the cultural ecosystem that are still of concern. These go beyond issues of race, although in most cases, it is black artists and cultural workers most affected. These are national concerns, relevant beyond the city. Amongst them are DAC's lack-luster Social Cohesion program and the inability to foster a dialogue on non-racism, the severe shortage of cultural centres with the resulting under development of cultural democracy and the lack of funds for collections at the state run museums. Most worrying is that arts or creativity education at government schools level is virtually non existent. This will have significant implications for future generations, stunting the ability to question and learn, to build knowledge and create new narratives.
Is symbolic reparations possible if the stories that need to be, are not able to be told? Will the stories produced reach the people who need it most? Is there a need for new spaces for interdisciplinary sharing, for dialogue and advocacy? How can technology, the internet and mobile telephony provide new ways to tell stories and reach audiences? How will this change art making, alternative media and storytelling? What are the key enablers and restraints in todays cultural ecosystem? What leadership skills and other competancies are needed to take forward the task of shaping a more open, diverse and empowering imaginary? These are some important questions that need to asked of a younger generation who finding themselves increasingly in positions of cultural leadership. We need to ask if they have the resources and support to do the work they need?
One place where resources and knowledge can be found is by looking back, not to overly romanticise, but to draw on good practises that had impact. The 80's in Cape Town was a vibrant time for cultural production. During this time many innovations in community cultural development and especially in story telling happened.
Next week we will be looking at the cultural liberation movements of the 80s and how it carved open important spaces for transformation. We will look at various projects, including BLAC's, Liberating Zones, which worked with the spirit of the revolutionary 80's, exploring and adding to the archive.
* For a more detailed academic piece on the issue of symbolic reparations/restitution, you can read the piece Post-apartheid Public Art in Cape Town: Symbolic Reparations and Public Space in Urban Studies, February 2006
BLAC and Returning the Gaze were made possible with the kind support of Fastenopfer and a range of other donors - the Royal Netherlands Embassy, The National Arts Council, Pro Helvetia, The British Council and The City of Cape Town.