These days, contemporary South African art is undergoing an awakening totally different from the hopeful, celebratory, and overwhelming determinism it nursed during the transition from apartheid to democracy. The promise then was to move forward into a new and inclusive national culture. Almost thirty years later, this remains a mirage. Today, the enthusiasm for structural change in the visual arts and across all sectors is less ebullient, more realist and critical. And while this push is certainly welcome, a blind spot has been the false assumption that such an approach has no precedents in the postapartheid era.
One such precedent is Tracey Rose, whose retrospective “Shooting Down Babylon” is more than just a wonderful guide through her artistic practice since the 1990s. Named for one of the works on view, the show can also be engaged as a map of how her work over the years has fiercely, satirically, and radically challenged postcolonial amnesia and the systematic restraint of criticality that has typified contemporary culture. Rose is fascinated with history, particularly with how colonial scopic regimes have repeatedly set, classified, and transmogrified certain bodies as available for abuse, but at the same time—for reasons Frantz Fanon and others have explored—she privileges that same body’s perspective as site of injury, experience, radicalization, and ingenuity.
Rose works across video, installation, performance, theater, photography, drawing, inscription, and even sculpture. But her most persistent medium is the human body. The centrality of the body as its own self-differentiating counteragent often finds expression in Rose’s own physical being—which is alternately represented as being stretched, exposed, confined, examined, masked, redefined, and redoubled. Zeitz MoCAA’s executive director, Koyo Kouoh, summarizes Rose’s approach in a single word: “rage.”
Take the artist’s classical performance piece TKO, 2000. Obscurely captured by four video cameras from different angles, a naked figure—Rose—spars with a punching bag. Listening to the punching, shuffling, and especially groaning (with inflections of sadomasochistic enjoyment), one realizes, as the fighter reaches exhaustion, that she’s losing to this inhuman, unfeeling, anthropomorphized bag on a “technical knockout.” The scenario’s metaphor is generative, encouraging us not only to reflect on the administrative practices and surveillance technologies of the hegemon, but also to rethink our complacent and ambivalent reactions to power.
“Shooting Down Babylon” brings this and other well-known pieces from Rose’s formative years—such as Span I and II, 1997; Ciao Bella, 2001; and The Kiss, 2001—into dialogue with relatively little-known works new and old, such as the performance piece Die Wit Man (The White Man), 2015, and entries to her ongoing series of sculptural objects titled “A Dream Deferred (Mandela Balls),” 2013–. The title of the series is taken from journalist Mark Gevisser’s 2007 critical biography of South Africa’s second president, titled Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, and beyond that from Langston Hughes’s 1951 poem “Harlem.” These texts’ inner messages of deteriorating vision are given a lewd sexual twist to underline the impotence of the postapartheid regime. The sculptures that form part of this series appear throughout the show—their rotund shapes suggesting lifeless presidential testicles shriveled by the sun, like the story of the postcolonial dream that dried up before the release. While many cultural activists jettisoned the protest idiom with the advent of democracy, younger artists such as Tracey Rose picked up the struggle in the 1990s to confront new contradictions.