Two staff members of Iziko South African National Gallery (SANG) in Cape Town were physically assaulted on Tuesday by office bearers of a separatist political party whose main objective is to have the Western Cape secede from South Africa.They were shoved, dragged and manhandled while trying to protect an artwork by shielding it with their bodies while two white men, accompanied by several other people wearing Cape Party T-shirts, defaced the artwork with a large sticker painted with the words “Love Thy Neighbour”. For their safety, the staffers’ names are withheld.
The artwork is two posters, a wheat-pasted old school chair and a pair of ugly overpriced but beat-up Adidas shoes spray-painted gold. The poster and the chair are covered very simply in black letters that read FUCKFUCKFUCK WHITEWHITEWHITE PEOPLEPEOPLEPEOPLE in alternating lines. In terms of the materiality of the work there is no real world value as an object but it has significant value in its subjectivity. The artist’s description of the work reads: “If you are white, you are probably feeling some type of way right now. White people have been having a lot of feelings lately about ‘reverse racism’ as if it’s a thing,” and goes on to address issues of white privilege and systemic violence.
This is my artwork. But these are not my words. Last year I photographed a student, Zama Mthunzi, wearing a T-shirt with the words “Fuck White People” smeared in black pain(t). He was threatened with expulsion and a case at the Human Rights Commission. None of the complainants said anything about the front of the T-shirt which reads “Being Black is Shit”.
In Tuesday’s incident two black men were assaulted by white men
Let me be even more clear: in Tuesday’s incident two black men were assaulted by white men, wearing party political branded T-shirts, while they were doing their job at a national cultural institution protecting an artwork by a white artist which asks very pointed questions around white privilege and the violence inherent in the white identity.
For the last year, I have been wearing a tailored object of protest, a three-piece suit inscribed with the words “F**k White People” as both a catalyst to start everyday conversations around white supremacy, racism and privilege, and as a decolonial gesture with an aim to destabilising predominately white spaces, to make whiteness visible, to reveal its centralised position and to perform visible allyship to anti-racism efforts to advance social justice.
I am a Master of Fine Arts student at the University of Cape Town and this work forms part of my Masters project, which looks at how artistic practice can move beyond the oppositional binaries of artist and audience, and at how performance can fluidify boundaries, breaking the fourth wall, where both audience and artist collaborate in a dialogue aimed at shifting ideas of power and so-called public space. The work democratises the creative process, helping people to develop a language to articulate their conditions and provide a platform to express their imagination.
The primary intention of the work is to make whiteness visible
In May 2016 Iziko SANG asked me to be part of a show looking at the “Art of Disruptions”. It opened in June and I have continued to both observe and document reactions to the exhibition. The primary intention of the work is to make whiteness visible. And many white people have responded mostly in the typical way, which is with violence.
White people in general tend not to feel racialised, or feel answerable for our actions in terms of a racialised identity. We exist in spaces where we very rarely “feel white”. We exist at a level of default because every space is open to us, to use and exploit at will. We tap out too easily, as “not all white people” when confronted for both interpersonal racism and our programming into white supremacy.
We are individuals first, with little to no collective responsibility for actively dismantling the systems that keep us white. Being white is a construct which we have too heavily invested in emotionally and spiritually, and which asks us to turn a blind eye to oppressive behaviour that continues to destroy our humxnity. It is too easy to blame racism on the “bad whites” and give ourselves a cookie for good behaviour but every single one of us profits from white privilege and, until we actively deal with systemic racism, with both everyday and extraordinary action, identifying as white to the exclusion of our humxnity will continue to be problematic. The discomfort of feeling racialised in spaces, to honestly ask ourselves if we belong, or how we achieve belonging, is a very necessary part of unlearning oppressive behaviour.
For the most part when I perform I often receive positive responses, especially from white people who are keen to tackle the questionable nature of whiteness. We understand that it is a social construct that demands that we exert social control over those we are indoctrinated to treat as inferior because they look different, or they are less privileged, or live their lives with values different to ours. There is also another response: one of discomfort betrayed by a closing off, an avoidance of eye contact, and grimaces. Friends have told me about about white women in the background whispering to each other that I deserve a big klap for walking around like that. I have also given lectures to students and had incredible conversations with people who have been genuinely interested in unpacking what I am doing. It isn’t easy, but often it sparks a conversation between strangers who begin to speak about what is so often left unsaid for the sake of politeness.
This performance leaves me incredibly vulnerable, and it’s not always physically or emotionally comfortable, and it’s not always like I’m able to choose the way in which it’s vulnerable, because you’re dealing with people, so you can’t always say what’s going to happen. My experience has been that the more vulnerable you make yourself in the world, in which you share particular things with yourself, the more invulnerable it makes you too in certain respects. The more I’ve been vulnerable with the people in personal or social spaces, the more often people respond with kindness and generosity and that’s just something that I had to learn.
I can’t help but wonder how perfect an example of white privilege it is to spend a large part of your day hating on someone’s body, gender presentation and physicality because you don’t agree with their work.
There is another far scarier reaction that I have begun to experience. There is a confrontation that extends from the physical world to the digital world. I have throughout the process extensively been watching and documenting reactions to the performance and the installation. I have hundreds of pages of printouts and screengrabs of conversations on social media between people I don’t know, whom I have never met and who, for the most part, have become increasingly violent and abusive. I can’t help but wonder how perfect an example of white privilege it is to spend a large part of your day hating on someone’s body, gender presentation and physicality because you don’t agree with their work.
My body has always been a site for white violence
My work makes the inherent violence of white identity visible in multiple ways.
I have a dropbox folder entitled “White People Made Visible” filled with hundreds of dehumxnising, threatening and hurtful comments about my fat, queer body. My body has always been a site for white violence and today I have had to seek legal help to apply for an interdict against people who want to hurt me, and to destroy creative works which make them uncomfortable. My body presents outside of gender-binaries, people are confused by that and it’s online where I experience the most hateful transphobia. I have been made into a monster, people on those sites refer to me with a dehumxnised “it”. To them I am a waste of white skin, a traitor to my race and for that I am disallowed any right to humxn dignity. I still benefit from white privilege in my everyday life but I know that if I meet one of these people IRL there is a real risk to my life. I am receiving terrible threats of violence on social media and e-mailed to me, by people who are using their real names, connected to their real addresses and they do not care that they are acting criminally. They are that arrogant and entitled.
Whiteness is a powerful drug and no one is immune.
Some of us who are also white, too few to be honest, have voiced our objections to a system that benefits all of us, irrespective of whether we have done enough to either reject these privileges, or ask forgiveness for the pain many of us — yes sometimes through ignorance, and not always with malice — have treated black people. I think we have very far to go though. Whiteness is a powerful drug and no one is immune. It is not the only problem we face but it is a very powerful foundation for patriarchy and capitalism. The system works hard to separate us because it desires chaos and confrontation and wants disunity. I believe many people who, if you know our history, have only relatively recently become white, have become too comfortable, too fragile and too intolerant to challenge themselves to face a very obvious cognitive dissonance. And politicians and political parties exploit this all the time. There are no coincidences as to why white people protect their privileges so fiercely, we are terrified to experience hardship and unfortunately we have grown unused to acknowledging how quickly we allow ourselves to become complicit.
The Cape Party, and various other white supremacist organisations, including the KKK and the Freedom Front Plus, have appropriated a representation referencing a cry of black pain to centralised white love. I must ask everyone who has watched the video and read the violence on their Facebook pages to consider the experience of what it is like to have white people move into your communities. From colonisation to gentrification, when have white people been good neighbours? How do you preface a message of love with a violent, criminal act which has no respect for the bodies of people who have been oppressed for centuries and who still experience daily aggression and trauma?