Dineo Seshee Bopape’s “Lerole: footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting)” in Witte de With, Rotterdam. This installation is the last one for Para / Fictions in which ten artists rotate in a year-long exploration of the correspondence of literature and visual art. Until the 18th of this month, people can see an installation of this South African artist.
This piece is multi-layered with different references in which revolt the common thread is. As written on Witte de With’s website, the installation is based on the writings of infamous James Baldwin (1924 – 1987). He was one of the first (the first?) writer who articulated the omnipresent but unspoken complexity of racial, sexual, and class differences and oppression in Western societies, mostly mid-20th-century America. Baldwin was very much involved in the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s. Although he rejected the label “civil rights activist” due to believing that if one is a citizen, one should not have to fight for one’s civil rights, he is commonly seen as one. With his novels, he did not only strive for emancipation for black Americans, but also an acceptance for non-heterosexuals. As Vice writer Michael Cuby writes, “it’s important to remember that not only was James Baldwin unapologetically black, but he was also unapologetically queer.” Baldwin has stated: “I was not born to be what someone said I was. I was not born to be defined by someone else, but by myself and myself only.”
Bopape’s installation shows pre-colonial documentation of revolt and resistance against European colonization in Africa. It has different plaques with informing the public about different acts of resistance in African history. This subverts the common European believe that the continent was conquered without much fight or resistance from the people. She also refers to Robert Sobukwe, a political nonconformist who was the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress in opposition to apartheid. Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement in Robben Island, a prison mainly keeping political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. The story goes that when new prisoners arrived, Sobukwe grabbed a hand of soil and raised his first to salute the new political prisoners. You can find clay pieces, formed by firmly squeezing clay in one’s hand, releasing it, letting it dry, and firing it till it’s hardened. I don’t think I have to explain how this works as a metaphor.
The installation constitutes of bricks, gold leaf, and collected recordings of three different occurrences in nature. One is a resplendent quetzal bird. According to the myth, this bird commits suicide when held in captivity. The other one is the sounds of large bodies of water found surrounding and in the African continent.
So what is the connection between Bopape’s and Baldwin’s work? I think that she took his spirit of “acts of resistance” and shows that this prevailed in Africa’s history and applicable in the particular case of Robert Sobukwe.
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Article about James Baldwin