Know Thy Enemy, Know Thy Self
Khwezi Gule 2006
I don’t like Dan’s art. In fact there is a lot of art I don’t like. But that is not to say it is bad (aesthetically), misguided or insincere.
Fortunately my profession demands that I must engage with art that is not necessarily to my taste and art that promotes ideologies that aren’t consistent with my own and to understand its origins, the contexts in which it is produced. I am also required to take into account the technical and visual acumen that informs its production.
Unfortunately, all this does not make me like the work. So what is it that I don’t like about Dan’s work? In the first place it is too nice. I have used the word nice for all the innocuous connotations that come with it. I find it as innocuous as some of the terminology that is used these days to describe murder of civilians such as “collateral damage” and “extraordinary rendition” to gloss over kidnapping.
A while ago I received an email from a friend with a link called Fallujah Pictures. What I subsequently saw was the kind of thing that messes up your day and makes you lose your appetite but at the same time there was a sense that at least this kind of information was getting out there so it was good because these are the kinds of things that the embedded media finds too inflammatory to screen. Having said that however I had to wonder what I expected to see when I clicked on that link. It is not that I thought that the siege on Fallujah was without casualty or that it would not be bloody. So what is it that made it remote until I saw those pictures?
The point about this story is that there are many things in the community of nations that are vile. What do these images of other people and their suffering really tell us about who they are and the places they live? How do you make sense of the conflicting reports that come from those places beyond merely identifying those who look like us and sound like us? What has been interesting in the many discussions that have happened since 9/11 is in trying to define who and what the enemy is. How far in the hierarchy of the world’s victims do white Zimbabweans fit in and how far in the hierarchy of perpetrators do they fit in? What about South Africans and all those nations who think they are oh so good?
So when Dan asked me to write for the catalogue it was important for me to understand his work and where it was coming from. Because, in my thinking at least, I have abandoned the desire to write about art in such as way that my text is an elaboration of the artist’s statement. This piece of writing is less about Dan and his art than what I bring with me to the conversation. Not that I have been completely insensitive to what Dan is trying to say but that my engagement is as loaded as the work themselves nor do I expect his work to answer any of these questions. But I do expect him to ask himself and those who are close to him some hard questions and maybe that is precisely what he is trying to do.
You see, in light of the very complicated “challenges” of coming to terms with sheer scale of human tragedy that is unfolding around us there was no way that I could write about Dan’s work without bringing all of that luggage with me to the writing process. It is precisely because his work delves into these unsavoury territories of fear, paranoia, race, power, farm attacks both those perpetrated by employees on farmers and by farmers on employees that I have to go beneath the surface of his work. It is like when my friend Joe says there is contempt in the eyes of black people even as they bow and smile and rub their hands. It is that same look of contempt that I see in the eyes of white blue and white-collar workers even while they are calling me “Sir”.
But it is necessary for people to take the sting out of what they are experiencing or to lessen the pain of their memories. Dan’s life is replete with the contradictions of being a white person in the world today and if you look closely, behind the lines so does his art. You see from where I stand it is easy to dismiss Dan’s work as the anxieties of a white Zimbabwean bemoaning his paradise lost and to reduce his experiences here in South Africa as a spoilt rich boy who does art to titillate himself and his Michaelis-trained friends. And so I dislike the fact that his art is cool.
It is also the thing I detest I a lot of South African art. How can you aestheticise horror? Perhaps to do so is the only way to deal with it without letting it consume you. To stare at it obliquely lest you be blinded by the sight, to understand it, to come to terms with it. Maybe not to make peace with it but at least to come to terms with it and ultimately to confront it. So maybe I have spoken too soon.
There are of course many other things that are implicated in the subject-matter that the artist is delving into: the machinations of the liberal press, the viciousness of the attacks, arbitrary state power, the besieged settler mentality and its gun culture that is so aptly described in Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and one that afflicts many a community including many white South Africans, large sections of the Israeli population. There is also embedded in discourses about Zimbabwe many of the same assumptions that frame the way people talk about African societies which is to look at contemporary African society solely in terms of what has been lost instead of what has been gained as well as the possibility of what can be achieved.
In all fairness though there are no spaces in the chaotic world that we live in that do not in some way compromise us in some way even less when you are trying to earn money from the art industry, so I can’t judge. But I do judge. Because what is art other than something to be sold. An artist once said that his paintings are like his children. Well you don’t go selling your children, I thought. But then again we do and a whole set of other gruesome things as well.
These are all the kinds of things that happen in which we are implicated in one way or the other. And for those of us who chose to do or say something about them have to take some responsibility for what we say. Our motto should be: let me judge so that I too may be judged.
So what is to be done? The one thing that can be done is that we can take responsibility for the person that we are or have become. For instance Dan is white and that’s not his fault but he still has to take responsibility for it. The same applies for the fact that he holds a Swiss passport, that he is an ex-Zimbabwean living in South Africa and a man that lives in a Capitalist society that demands he sell his produce. It is a terrible feature of contemporary society that you have to be accountable to a society that you had no hand in creating.
But he is also as artist and on that score he has tremendous power to determine what he produces. I don’t know what his art would look like if it was to bring all of these issues to the fore. I certainly do not want to see blood-splatters and severed limbs. That is something for Dan to solve as his career develops and as he delves ever deeper into these murky waters. A conciliatory note to Dan is that he could do no better if he was a flower painter. No one could. It is unfair to expect another Guernica but the video of toyi-toyi/rave video starts coming close to exposing that raw nerve but it still panders to being cool.
In the end to know your enemy you have to also know yourself and one of the ways you get to know the enemy is by looking at his art. If Dan’s work is able to make South Africans and Zimbabweans look at themselves with the disgust they deserve, maybe then I might like it a bit more.
Good luck Dan. You have your work cut out for you.
See the exhibition mentioned in this article.