The match stick, the suitcase and the weaver: nervous conditions in Dan Halter’s The Truth Lies Here
The status of ‘native’ is a nervous condition introduced and maintained by the settler among colonized people with their consent. Laying claim to and denying the human condition at the same time: the contradiction is explosive. For that matter it does explode, you know as well as I do; and we are living at the moment when the match is put to the fuse.
fab ri cate (verb)
- to make, build, or construct
- to devise, invent or concoct (a story, lie etc)
- to fake or forge
(The Free Dictionary)
The manner in which a structure is built determines its fate. Weak materials, shallow foundations, and shoddy workmanship place stress on it. To the naked eye the danger is often hidden; we cannot see the slowly rotting joist that will one day cause the ceiling to cave in, the shuddering bolt that will make the bridge collapse or the live wire that will spark the fire. Look closely though, and we might notice a few hairline cracks; the bubbling paintwork that belies rot, or the flakes of orange rust collecting beneath the support.
Sartre’s treatise on the status of the ‘native’, quoted above, was written in 1961 as a preface to Fanon’s seminal treatise on decolonisation, The Wretched of the Earth. Written during the decolonisation of Algeria, Fanon’s text tackles all manner of issues; from the role of intellectuals in the revolution, to the manner in which colonial language subjugates the subject.
Zimbabwean author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, reused Sartre’s phrase in the title of her novel, Nervous Conditions (1989). Set in colonial era Zimbabwe, the book displays the psychological maladies exhibited by the young black protagonist, Tambudzai, and those around her, when they come into contact with the coloniser. Ranging from alienation to full-blown anorexia, these invisible conditions build up and feed on that which is internalised; the rage that does not find expression.
Born in Zimbabwe, and currently residing in Cape Town, Dan Halter’s work refers not to a colonial context, but to a dictatorship. On one level, his works are fairly divergent, exploring a web of issues surrounding the post-colonial drama as it has played out in Zimbabwe over the past decade. His modes of fabrication, for instance, diverge greatly. In The Truth Lies Here, works are either fabricated from match sticks, woven mesh bags or woven from excerpts of literary text. On another level though, there’s a seam – or crack, rather – which runs through all of Halter’s work: a nervous energy which leads us back to time when the walls cannot hold; the lie unravels, and the structure topples. It is here that we begin to spot the nervous conditions of a different sector of the world’s population: those living under a dictatorship, or attempting to escape it as a refugee.
‘text’ (n)… from pp. stem of texere “to weave,”
(Online Etymology Dictionary)
Weaving is not new to Halter’s practice. In the past, he has generally woven together two contradictory pieces of printed material; text from Orwell’s Animal Farm with maps of Zimbabwe (I don’t know what to believe anymore (2005)) or shredded Zimbabwean currency with a maps of farms (Never say never (2006)). The act of weaving in these works then, is about joining; knitting things together as if to force a confrontation
In this exhibition though, it is the same pieces of text which are sliced up, and meticulously rewoven back into themselves. It’s an odd tautology, in a sense; a long process to go through, one might think, just to keep the text the same.
In Samizdat (2011), it is a portion of Orwell’s 1984 that receives the reweaving treatment. Recreating a page from the fictional book within the book, The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism by Emmanuel Goldstein, Halter slices up the text and then reweaves it back into itself. By and large, the text is still visible, and the fake manifesto, still legible:
Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence… The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records and in equally full control of the minds of its members, the past is whatever the Party chooses to make it.
The words, however, bend and curve with the warp and the weft of the weaving. The mode of fabrication draws attention to another kind of fabrication: that of writing a text. The magician’s trick revealed, the magic dissipates, and the crowd have no reason to follow the leader any longer.
Similarly, in Stru’s Bob! (2012), three A2 pages of text from George Orwell’s Animal Farm are rewoven in a triptych. In the act of weaving a certain amount of slippage also takes place. “Bbtlefef ttl ccwswsedd” reads one phrase, the words literally falling through the cracks. The paper too, is placed under stress, pulled taut to keep the meaning, it buckles under the strain. It begins to resemble something worn, a used piece of cloth, a little like a woven mesh bag.
Speaking of the work, Halter recalls how, in 2000, just as the farm grabbing began in Zimbabwe, one brave newspaper reprinted Animal Farm in its entirety. A brave, subversive deed, Halter’s Stru’s Bob! commemorates this act, whilst simultaneously calling attention to the erosion of truth and transparency in Zimbabwe’s media over the past 12 years.
At a glance, two things signal the refugee: his accent, and his suitcase. Plastic mesh bags, of the variety used by immigrants all over the world, have become a recurring signifier in Halter’s works. Early on, they appear emblazoned with an alien motif from Space Invaders, or arranged to form a literal barrier, visible from the air.
Mass produced in China, the bags have become synonymous with refugees, often named for the immigrants in each country. In Ghana and West Africa, Halter notes, they are known as ‘Ghana must go’ bags, after a period of forced expulsions which the countries engaged in.
Halter’s Ghana Must Go Quilt (2011) uses these bags as a means to find solidarity with other persecuted groups in history. A recreation of the tumbling block pattern, used in quilts prior to the end of slavery in the USA, the work refers to a theory held by some historians that slaves during this period employed coded quilts hung over fences to communicate (City of Owen Sound 2004). This particular pattern is thought to be a covert warning to those escaping that the area is not safe; a conductor is in the area. Constructed out of the woven mesh bags most commonly used by refugees, it reads differently. It is a warning to illegal aliens, of dangers from the authorities? A warning of the threats of xenophobic violence? Or an indictment of the host country who exert a pressure akin to slavery on their guests?
In a second gargantuan quilt, it is the map of the world which is constructed from these bags. Rifugiato Mappa Del Mondo (2011) references Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa del Mondo in which each country is embroidered with its flag. In Halter’s quilt, the entire world is made up of new and used bags, as if the world were an endless sea of travellers, perhaps, united under one flag.
In places, the mesh bags are still new; North America is a shiny expanse of fresh bags, while Africa and South America are worn raw. Elsewhere, the fibres have stretched beyond breaking point, and holes are appearing. In one place, big looping black stitches have been used to repair the bags, in another a thick stretch of black rubber winds itself between the borders, securing the topography. Roughly conforming to an infographic of immigration and emigration statistics, the quilt reveals the weak spots where the world is under strain; where the fabric of society is stretched taut, and made to bear too much weight.
In Things Fall Apart I and II, this threat of breakage is articulated. A reference to Chinua Achebe’s seminal novel of the same name, the plastic mesh bags both exhibit holes. For the main character in Achebe’s art, the story ends in disaster, with Okwonkwo taking his own life after finding himself incapable of tolerating the indignity of colonisation any longer. The ultimate expression of a “nervous condition”, Achebe’s story suggests how continued stress can lead to self-destruction (Satre 1961).
A third bag meanwhile, is embroidered with the phrase ‘When the bag breaks, the shoulders get a rest’. A seemingly pragmatic saying, it also highlights the weight these cheap, flimsy bags carry, the tension their carrier is under, and the proximity of disaster.
Halter’s works with match sticks are perhaps the most tension-filled of all of his works; the most confrontational expression of the building tension. As Sartre put it, “We are living at the moment when the match is put to the fuse,” (1961).
Halter first used matches in the work Font for a revolution (2006), the matches glued together to read the ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.’ Using both the matchboxes, and the matches, the work was a veritable kit for starting a fire. It seemed to call for revolution, as if hailing the cleansing power of violence elucidated in Franz Fanon’s anti-colonial writings.
In this exhibition, the match stick works are used in a contradictory sense. “Patience is Zimbabwean” declare a row of matchsticks in Struze fact (2012).
Rendered 3D by a trick of their positioning, the letters seem to tilt ever so slightly, as if at any moment, they might topple and meet with the side of the matchbox, causing a fire.
Like the Brit’s fabled stiff upper lip, or the brashness of Americans, the phrase uses cultural pressure to enforce obedience and conformity. This patience though, surely cannot last forever. The repressed rage will seep out somehow; particularly given the vast injustices which Zimbabweans daily face.
The phrase also brings a childish chant to mind: “Patience is a virtue, virtue is a grace, Grace is a little girl who wouldn’t wash her face”. Nonsense it may be, but appropriately, Grace also happens to be the first name of Robert Mugabe’s wife. Known as ‘dis-Grace’ by some Zimbabweans, her lavish lifestyle represents one of many bitter pills Zimbabweans – some of whom do not even have access to safe drinking water – must swallow.
A third reading results from the fact that Patience is a common Zimbabwean name. As such, the work becomes a statement of nationality; the marking of an outsider, or, in a context of xenophobic violence, an accusation.
In Necklace (2012), a tyre, emblazoned with the words ‘Go Home or Die Here’ in matchsticks, refers to a second verbal threat used during the 2008 outbreaks of xenophobic violence. A veritable kit to commit a necklacing, the match stick here captures another sign of cracks forming; the vertical violence and oppression which has so patiently been endured by South Africa’s post colonial subjects, converted into horizontal violence.
In the 2008 attacks, Halter remarks on the fact that the aggressors used language to discern who was a foreigner; their shibboleth a Zulu word for elbow – which ironically led to several South Africans dying as they did not speak Zulu.
In an interview, activist Joachim Gauck discusses the psychological effects of living in exile. The refugee must constantly observe themselves and their surroundings. “You are immediately recognisable because you talk differently… don’t let yourself be too easily recognisable, it could be dangerous” (2010).
In the third matchstick work rainbow-coloured matches spell out ‘amakwerekwere’. A childish, teasing name, it is meant to ridicule the way in which foreigners sound when they speak, but it is easily co-opted into tinder to spark a fire, burning the ideal of a rainbow nation as it burns. Titled Indlala inamanyala (2012), meaning “don’t blame us blame our stomachs” it alludes again to the conversion of vertical oppression to horizontal oppression. Unable to free themselves from poverty, or the legacy of the apartheid oppressor, the aggressors take it out on those around them.
Everywhere in Halter’s work then, there are signs that something is amiss in the fabrication. Try as we might to conceal the tensions; cracks are forming, the slick covering inevitably peeling away to reveal the rot within.
Be it in buckling woven texts, ripping bags or inflammatory words, Halter’s fabrications vibrate with this tension. For now, the frustration is held patiently in the rewoven texts, the quilted bags. They beg several questions: how long will it be before the match is struck? And when it comes, will the fire be a cleansing one, or will it merely destroy those whose load is already too heavy to bear?
See the exhibition mentioned in this article.
City of Owen Sound. (2004). Quilt Codes. [online] Available: http://www.osblackhistory.com/quiltcodes.php (13 March 2012)
Dangarembgba, T. 1988. Nervous Conditions. Seal Press: New York
Gauck, J. 2010. Right life in the wrong life: Joachim Gauck talks about Ossis and Wessis, opposition, conformism, and the long-term psychological effects of a dictatorial regime. An interview with Joachim Güntner. [online] Available: http://www.signandsight.com/features/2039.html (14 March 2012)
Homer; Monro, Homer; Monro, D. B. (David Binning). (1890) The Iliad. [online] Available: http://www.archive.org/details/homeriliadbooks00monrgoog (13 March 2012)
Sartre, J, P. (1961). Preface to Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth”, [online], Available at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/sartre/1961/preface.htmz [13 March 2012]