The perversity of my birth, the birth of my perversity
"Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart;the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world" (W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"/ Chinua Achebe, "Things Fall Apart")
I am guilty! I cannot hide my guilt as it is written all over my face. I was born guilty without being given the option. As a white man (presumably heterosexual) born into a working class Afrikaans family I was precisely that being for whom Apartheid had been invented. My life as Jacobus Hermanus Pieter Geers was scripted by my father, my grandfather and my great-grandfather before them, all of whom had been Jacobus Hermanus Pieter Geers a.k.a."Koos." In 1982 I ran away from home to become Kendell Geers. I ran away from something that at 15 I did not yet know the name of. My education, morality, family values, religion and life in general had been very carefully constructed to prevent me from ever knowing. I did not know my mother as she had already run away from my father when I was 5. My flight was not from him but from what he represented, namely patriarchal bigotry and intolerance. I ran away to fight for my freedom of expression, a crime for which I was later imprisoned, it being my curse that I have always asked too many questions. I had no idea at the time that my own private struggle may have been related to that of the Freedom Fighters in their struggle against Apartheid. The system was so perfect, so seamless in masking its own construction, that there were even those people who believed it was an integral and unchangeable part of their moral reality. I had no part in the construction of Apartheid, nor even in its maintenance but I remain guilty simply for having been born what I was. At university my extra-curricula activities exposed me to the most awful atrocities that were being committed to maintain the ideological and economic privileges that Apartheid had bestowed upon white people like myself. But by then it was already falling apart. During my first year, 1985, a State of Emergency was declared which gave the police the right to detain anybody whom they considered a security risk for up to 180 days without trial, the power to search any place or person at time without a warrant, the right to censor the media, restrict public access to information, in short a euphemism for Martial Law. It is only necessary to resort to such extreme measures when all else has failed. It was the South African regimes last ditch attempt to hold together their utopian dream which was crumbling all around them as a result of both internal and external political as well as economic pressures. My enrolment at Wits University was in part an attempt to postpone a compulsory 2 year military conscription. The only legal alternative being 6 years in a civilian jail or of course fleeing into exile, an option I was forced to accept 4 years later once I had completed my degree. My real education was however not in the Hallowed Halls and Ivory Towers of the Academy, but on the streets where survival became my mother and violence my father. The political "unrest" of the 1970's and 1980's degenerated in the 1990's into opportunistic crime and vandalism until Johannesburg came of age in 1994 as the most violent city in the world, a city where art begins as life ends.
After 27 years in jail Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990 to become the international icon for the next decade. Apartheid was at long last officially over and we could all begin putting the pieces back together again. There were very few heroes as every living (and dead) South African was and remains, in one way or another, a victim of Apartheid. While the legal structure of Apartheid as we know it was legislated largely between 1948 and 1958 it was not an entirely South African invention. It is no coincidence that the South African flag during the Apartheid years included a Union Jack at the heart of a seventeenth century Dutch flag. As Rembrandt was engraving his "Three Crucifixes" a fellow countryman, Jan van Riebeeck was declaring the Cape of Good Hope to be a Dutch colony.This declaration in 1652 was an integral part of the European colonial expansionist project, a project that was based on the assumption that European culture, morality, religion and ideologies were only fit for humans anywhere in the world. It was built on what was believed to be a solid foundation, namely Christianity. At the heart of Christianity lies the belief that it is the duty of every Christian to convert every non-believer. In colonial terms there was no limit to how this could be achieved. Every belief, custom, ideology, ritual, social practice, tradition, person or place that could not be converted to Christianity was destroyed, and since only Christians were considered to be "saved" the rest were entirely dispensable. In 1899 the former Dutch, now Afrikaans and the British (who arrived in 1795 and 1820 to also declare South Africa their colony) would fight against each other in the Anglo-Boer War over land that neither had any right to. The British co-opted militia from local black tribes with false promises of democratic rights if they had won, which they did. It was during this war that the strategy known today as Guerilla Warfare was invented.
Art and Culture were intrinsic components of the Colonial project and thus were at the time expressions of Christian ideologies. This dogma later developed in South Africa as what became known as Christian National Education, my education, forming one of the corner-stones of classic Apartheid. In rejecting Colonialism and its project Apartheid, I thus have no option but to also reject every element of its ideological and hegemonic machinery including its morality, art and the culture, which I guess makes me guilty all over again. Today around the world that very same Christian Moral Order and the art traditions it spawned is collapsing upon itself, unable or unwilling to make the transition into the late twentieth century and effectively resist the growing opposition from among others, Islam, Atheism and a general ethical breakdown. But Colonialism was, in the terms it set for itself, an overwhelming success. For every individual born within a former colony there exists a European point of reference. This is particularly true for art as the White Cube Gallery has itself in the twentieth century colonialised the space of art. Survival in Africa became a matter of adjusting to change as traditional practices and beliefs were eroded and subverted. Objects, images and ideologies from the European continent were recontextualised and assimilated into African Culture. This assimilation was neither neat nor without considerable pain and left Africa in a state somewhere between what it once was and Europe, being simultaneously both and yet neither. In the urban centres Bongo Drums have been replaced by Ghetto Blasters playing Rap or Jazz Music, assegais or spears have been replaced by AK 47'S and leather loin cloths replaced by Armani suits. It is impossible to turn back the clock and as much damage is being caused today by academics, nostalgists and apologists who are trying very hard to hold back development in Africa in order that it reverts to (in their imaginations at least) the romantic utopian paradise they think it once was. Africa has, to date, never produced an historically acknowledged international artist and never will for as long as current conditions persist. Cheri Samba and Frederick Bruly Bouabre have most notably enjoyed relative European success in the last decades but I would argue that their success is more in terms of their ethnicity in relation to contemporary European politics than as a result of their work. The economic and political state within the African continent precludes not only the White Cube Gallery but also the entire Institution of Art. The Art that was produced has historically been for a foreign tourist market, an economic force that unavoidably influenced the nature of the work produced. As a result of this and earlier Colonial interventions, African artists saw (and see) themselves through European eyes identifying more with Picasso or Mattisie's perceptions of African culture than with their own historical heritage. This is in part due to the fact that the conception of Art as we understood it has never really existed within Africa. The traditional artifacts that we now call African Art were never produced as an end in their own right but were always connected to a ritual, ceremony, dance, belief or superstition. The meaning of the ritual would determine both the aesthetic and form of the object. Thus if an evil spirit was to be evoked the mask would embody the personality traits of that spirit. It was produced to be worn during a specific dance and thus only really had meaning and value in relation to, if not only, at the time of that performance. In todays very lucrative African Art market the difference between an authentic artifact and a curio or fake is a matter of "patina," in other words whether the object in question was actually "used" in a ritual or performance or not. Traditionally the artifacts would have been destroyed, buried, burnt or abandoned after the ritual was complete. Those which were stored until the following year were stored out of sight and certainly not for public contemplation. It was the missionaries and explorers who originally returned to Europe with these objects as proof of and as souvenirs from their travels. The most important and comprehensive collections of African art have always been in Europe or the United Stases. The idea of collecting and displaying, in museum conditions, such artifacts is alien to African culture where all the collecting was done "in the mouth" in terms of the oral tradition. Histories, myths ,legends, beliefs, information, taboos and so forth were all passed on verbally from one generation to the next. One of the first colonial interventions was the introduction of written language. The Bible was translated and simultaneously transcribed into the indigenous languages and then used to teach people how to "read and write", a process that at the same time conveniently converted the pupils to Christianity. This"education" effectively destroyed thousands of years of oral cultural history.
In Europe the White Cube Gallery specifically and the Institution of Art in general grew out of a conceptual shift in emphasis that began at the time of the Renaissance and was refined during the Industrial Revolution. While the production of artifacts or images for religious, educational or decorative purposes has always been and will remain an integral element of every culture, Art has become a highly specialised discipline particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was not always so, being born in the form of public monuments and large scale commissions like the Sistine Chapel, providing the masses with ( propagandistic) information. It was not Art in today's terms but rather cultural manifestations, the difference being one of conception and intention in relation to historical determination. In order that these expressions successfully communicated with those masses for whom they were produced they needed to be, without exception, visually accessible and at the same time reinforce beliefs of the patron and commissioner who in turn represented the dominant moral (religious) and economic institutions of the time. In this regard pre-renaissance Western Art functioned in similar terms as traditional African Art. The invention of the printing press (1440) and later of photography liberated the work of art from this didactic function and the artist was as a result granted increasingly more freedom of expression. In the 20th century particularly the proliferation of the mass media liberated the artist to that degree where that freedom was complete and unrestricted. The development of Modernism and the Avant Garde was precisely dependant on and in relation to development in Information Distribution Technology and the mass media alleviating Art from the need to be a) accessible to the masses b) didactic c)morally affirmatory d) representational and e) entertaining. Today works of Art need not possess any meaning beyond the fact of their own existence. Art created the White Cube Gallery into which it escaped and from where it cloned critics, curators, collectors and further artists to protect itself from life and from the Spectacle the mass media was inventing to in turn protect itself. Art developed as a result in a highly specialised language spoken by and known only to its initiates. That new language was limited by the fact that the conception of Art as it had originally developed remained unchallenged. Contemporary Artists continue to, on the whole, produce pictures and sculptures according to formal and aesthetic canons and principles that have their origins in the Renaissance. The only real difference being that contemporary artists can be more critical, if not subversive in relation to the institutions that support it. That apparant freedom remains however an illusion since Art has become so isolated from life with its over- specialised and over-sophisticated languages that any critique becomes idealistic and irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. What Art once was has since been replaced in the Society of the Spectacle, by Steven Spielberg, Michael Jackson, MTV, Times Square, Nintendo, Vogue Magazine and so forth. Art as we know it is exhausted, finished, the project complete, over and out. For some time now there has been talk of the "death of painting," of the "crisis in art," but these warnings have gone unheeded. Every time another canvas is stretched, every time another nostalgic painting is produced, the Institution congratulates itself and declares the crisis over. But simultaneously Diesel Jeans, Benneton, Calvin Klein, Coke-a-Cola, British Airways and so forth produce another visually more appealing commercial, Microsoft releases another version of Windows, France tests another Atom Bomb, CNN creates another war and the support for Contemporary Art gets even smaller. The Spectacle is built upon a surplus of images and capital that artists cannot compete with, even at their most successful. In the last 20 years the most creative and talented potential artists have become aesthetic refugees in the fields of advertising, cinema, television or some other manifestation of spectacular culture. What the Catholic Church was during the Renaissance the Spectacle is today. Artists have as a result been reduced to stylists chasing their own and each others tails in a never ending circle of narcissistic indulgence.
Around 1912 Marcel Duchamp "had the happy idea" to produce the first Readymade in a state of what he called "visual indifference." This shift in emphasis away from the retinal was a potentially important development for art that would, Duchamp had hoped, place art back "at the service of the mind." Now more than 80 years later that shift has failed to materialise. The Institution has economically sufficient vested interests to ensure that the status quo remains unchallenged. Matisse and Picasso continue to demand higher prices at auction than Duchamp will ever realise. The Minimalists, Conceptual Artists, Performance artists and even Duchamp himself have all been assimilated and reduced to simply being aesthetic styles. Those artists who do attempt to embrace the spirit of the present in conceptually articulate terms are, more often then not, lost in the cloud of conceptual "Style and Rhetoric" that the commercial galleries prefer since it asks fewer and less embarrassing questions. Duchamp may himself be partly to blame in that already during his own lifetime he had settled into a smug dandyism, unwilling or unable to accept responsibility for the Readymade and its full implications. By not developing the concept further he allowed the Readymade to be disinfected and sanitised, a condition that he later protested against, but by which time it was already too late. He told the world that he had given up making art to play chess, while secretly working on his Grande Finale "Etant Donne," publically revealed for the first time after his death in 1968. It ultimately undermined his earlier projects in that it represented a return to the retinal and aesthetic, being by all accounts a traditional sculpture, glowing with the admission of the Readymade's defeat. In the process however, for whatever reasons, Marcel Duchamp lied! A lie that too many artists, critics, curators and historians continue to believe. Indirectly it was an acknowledgement of the fact that life had become more interesting than art and perhaps even that the only acceptable condition for art in the late twentieth century may be in the form of a lie. This has anyhow became the moral foundation and primary language of international marketing and advertdsing campaigns, "The Choice of a New Generation."
The African continent is now together with a number of European allies and comrades, attempting to assert itself within the European Fine Arts mainstream. The most ambitious attempt to date being "Africa 95" which was celebrated in London towards the end of 1995. It remains highly ironic that this exhibition, the first to present on such a high scale the points of view of the African artists themselves, articulated itself entirely within European Modernist terms at precisely that moment when European Modernism seems to have finally collapsed. Jean Clair's 1995 Venice Biennial a few months earlier represented a declaration of a "State of Emergency" in the condition of art, an admission that all around him the languages of art as we understood them were disintegrating and that the Modernist project was at long last over. The ultimate irony is that Modernism was built upon precisely the same essentialist Christian philosophies and beliefs as Colonialism and that in most respects could be flip- sides of the same coin. Perhaps the reason why this seemed to have escaped the Africa 95 curators' attention is because the struggle in Africa remains for basic human and intellectual rights and that under such extreme conditions the fragility and self serving nature of western morality remains hidden behind the utopian dream it can still pretend to be. It is going to be a very long time before the Sex Pistols are really understood on "The Dark Continent." The harsh realities of the African experience have prevented the Modernist vision and practices from effectively taking root in their purest form. In both traditional and modern Africa the work of art remains unavoidably and intricately connected to the life and culture of the artist, translating into a "Reality Principle" that interrupts and interferes with the "suspension of reality" required to maintain the essentialist escapist aestheticism of High Modernism. In attempting to stylistically imitate the European mainstream, at the same time as articulating local beliefs and realities, the African Modernist cannot but seem parochial and awkward from a European perspective. For as long as African artists continue to believe in the Colonial-Modernist vision of the world, a vision that "naturally" places Europe at the centre, they will remain victims of that vision and prisoners of their own gullibility. The African experience is unique and could, if more carefully and consciously articulated, provide the young artist with both the subjects and the strategies that could challenge as well as contribute to International Art History. The time for aesthetic invention and material transformation has passed. The Society of the Spectacle has given the contemporary artist an entirely different challenge. He or she must insert himself or herself into the "New Moral Order" of the Spectacular and in the manner of the revolutionary double agent construct modes of resistance that translate into strategic interventions within the Institution of art that are simultaneously relevant to life outside the White Cube. Such interventions can be formal, abstract, visual or structural providing they remain critical of the support and thus destabilise the assumed "natural" flow of life and information within the Society of the Spectacle. The absence of economic, intellectual and moral support for critical thinking in Africa assists the artist's task as there are no markets that can be alienated. It has always been an African survival strategy to recycle foreign objects, images and ideologies. In art we must create in this spirit a political Art Povera that hijacks and kidnaps the international (historically defined) languages and codes, tortures and interrogates them until they reveal their true nature and identity. Then according to the strategy that we know best, that of the Freedom Fighter or Terrorist, to plant bombs at strategic points set to explode with maximum linguistic and semantic impact.
I am a stranger in the country of my birth by virtue of being to European in my appearance and culture. But at the same time I am unwelcome in Europe on account of my being too African. I embrace Africa, a violent and volatile space where nothing can be taken for granted, where the very best of both the First and the Third Worlds blend and clash. A place where you can die for what you believe in or for the small change in your pocket. I am the abandoned product of a failed experiment, a hybrid of cultures and identities, a contradiction in terms. Born into an upside down world at the tail end of the millennium, my only responsibility is to this time and place. In rejecting my (Colonial) moral heritage and all that it spawned I became guilty once again by virtue of that rejection. I accept that I will now remain guilty until I die, perhaps even dying as a result of my guilt. But I have witnessed firsthand the expediency of morality in South Africa, the easy changing of sides and positions without guilt or remorse. What was good is now simply bad and bad is good, but the construction of good and bad remains unaltered and unchallenged from when it was originally designed and prescribed by the settlers and missionaries and later tailored by Apartheid's ideologues. My Art grows out of this guilt and resulting perversity, an expression that will respond by any means necessary to the histories that define it and the world it inherited and must now inhabit. My guilt is my freedom and at the same time my freedom the cause of my guilt.