Book Review – A thermometer for our society

2011-01-19 13:00

Perhaps after hosting the Fifa World Cup and all its attendant cultural side events, a book like Positions: Contemporary Artists in South Africa is very timely for South ­Africans interested in what it means to be here right now.

A host of 18 contributors have ­tendered 18 essays and conversations with artists and writers over 291 pages.

Positions is a collective ­soliloquy for a ­country trying to ­understand itself ­during the tenure of its fourth democratically elected ­president, Jacob Zuma, a polygamist and freedom-fighter-turned-politician.

Through the work of selected creative individuals, edited by Peter Andres and Matthew Krouse, the book tries to ­explore how Zuma’s South Africa is “striving to employ what’s left of ­people’s culture to explore the power ­dynamics at play in society today”.

It’s about “the battle for cultural space, and looks at the route South ­Africans are to take going forward”.

But perhaps more interestingly, ­Positions tries to lead a discussion about the “nature of cultural production in relation to power, and to look at how artists are facing the challenge of ­engaging with the past while making sense of the present”.

The editors’ note declares that “for this reason, the book becomes something of a thermometer by which we can gauge the temperature of society”.

In this light, Andries Oliphant offers A Big Step: Abject Bile and Revolt in the Work of Lesego Rampolokeng.

As the first chapter, Oliphant’s instalment ­locates Rampolokeng’s body of work within the discourse of art as a weapon of struggle.

A debate that ­permeated cultural production in the 80s when South Africa was steeped in the dusk of the apartheid years.

There’s also Rampolokeng’s stance on the role of literature and art in education.

Olifant, in addition to examining the layers to Rampolokeng’s poetic practice, highlights some of what he calls the contradictions between the ­poet’s meta-creative utterances and the contents of his body of work.

For instance, his rejection of a prophet or teacher’s title and his explicitly self-characterising verses that posit him as an evangelical figure on a singular quest to save the world, proclaiming that his words are spears, bullets, guns, etc. So that, as the saying goes, Rampolokeng writes to fight.

Journalist Percy Zvomuya explores ­issues of displacement and exile through the work and practice of ­Kudzanai Chiurai, the Johannesburg-based Zimbabwean visual artist.

Zvomuya interrogates Chiurai’s sense of home in a post-xenophobic Joburg.

­Being an exile and also the first black graduate of the University of Pretoria’s art school are some of the ironies Chiurai grapples with in his art.

Positions includes contributions by the extended Mail & Guardian family. In addition to submissions by Zvomuya and the paper’s arts editor, Matthew Krouse, it also includes a chapter by its film critic Shaun de Waal.

De Waal celebrates the work and ­victories of Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action, and expands the book’s debate to include gender struggles and the contributions of the homosexual ­community to the broader liberation ­initiative in South Africa. – Percy Mabandu

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