By Jean-Christophe Lanquetin (translated by Dominique Malaquais)
During the last five years of Unathi Sigenu’s life, I was a fellow traveller.
Following his participation in Urban Scénos/Johannesburg, an artists’ residency run by two artists’ collectives – my own ScU2 (based in Paris) and the Joubert Park Project – we developed an ongoing working fellowship. Linking Cape Town and Paris, this fellowship extended from the spring of 2009 to the time of his passing at the end of December, 2013. During this time, I was an active witness to his artistic practice, particularly as concerns the early stages of a key project, a series of oversized drawings on paper, and, in the wake of this, several other undertakings. Unathi is known in South Africa above all as a co-founder, with Kemang Wa Lehulere, ZiphozeNkosi Dayile, Athi Mongezeleli Joja, Themba Tsotsi, Khanyisile Mbongwa, Lonwabo Kilani and Dathini Mzayiya, of Gugulective, a collective of artists based in Gugulethu, the Cape township where he was born and grew up. From 2007, the collective developed a series of events and projects in the neighbourhood around Kwa-Mlamli, a shebeen-turned-exhibition-space, drawing attention from South Africa and beyond.
The period of his work that I was present for began as Gugulective’s activities as a group waned. For Unathi, these years were difficult. They represent a transition from dynamic group practice to more individual, solitary endeavour. The radical spirit that guided so much of who he was, during this time became all the more complex to shoulder. His focus, throughout, was on drawing, on conceptualization and on the outlining of multiple projects, as well as on repeated (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to garner residencies and scholarships. Few people were interested in his submissions and the projects received little real attention, with the exception of an exhibit held in September 2012 at the Association of Visual Arts Gallery (AVA) in Cape Town, and the 2012 MTN Award which he won, along with Khanyisile Mintho Mbongwa, for Die Kat, an installation at the Castle of Good Hope.
I started to write these words on the day of Unathi’s funeral, which took place in Cape Town on 8 January 2014. It was not possible for me to attend. That morning, I took a train to Strasbourg, in Eastern France, and in the time it took me to get there, I wrote a first version, accompanied by a few of Unathi’s drawings and photos of him at work. Since then, I have revised this first draft many times. The present words are my latest rewriting.
My memory of our discussions and of the intensely concrete, political way Unathi had of linking his artistic practice to the practice of his daily life guide my thought. The documents I have available – drawings, photos and videos of him drawing; texts; multiple versions of conceptually powerful projects – actively shape the writing of what is meant to be an open series of reflections and queries. My goal is emphatically not to propose a finished product, a final say on a given time in an artist’s career. What follows is a deeply personal reading. Because Unathi is not here – because he cannot contradict me – I run the risk of betraying him. Still, this is all I am in a position to offer. Having borne close witness to the disrupted dynamic of his artistic process, I feel it essential to speak of the sheer energy that marked this period. Because of his talent and his radicalism, of his desire for life. Because he was interrupted in the middle of a time of intense growth. Also, because his work has so much to say about the present circumstances of South Africa and the world more generally.
But who am I, a European, to speak of Unathi Sigenu?
The slave ship
The Slave Ship (2011) is a very large drawing (circa 1.50 x 3m) in which a body, its face casting a sideways glance, appears deformed, stooped, constrained by the limits of the paper that it fills. The body seems to want to shatter the edges of the picture plane. It jumps out at us. The drawing is in four parts. A map of a slave ship’s hold fills the left-most portion of the image, showing the systematic, regular alignment of slave bodies lying in staggered rows, mere inches apart. This gives the constrained body an immediate, clear meaning: we know without a doubt that we are looking at an enslaved body. This self-evidence intensifies the power of the drawing. It expresses links between the past the artist is depicting and the present he is experiencing, the intimate violence that marks both. The image leaves no doubt: the memory of the slave trade reverberates in the contemporary. In many senses, this drawing was a turning point. Whereas earlier, Unathi had worked with complex groupings of figures, here he opts for radical simplification. He goes straight to the point and the emotional dimension explodes.
The twisted position of the body is not specific to this drawing alone. It comes back again and again, in a body bent to the point of fracture, in an elegant body, dancing. Several drawings are of large contorted figures, tragic and/or almost mannerist: a silhouetted body that curtsies, leg bent, open hand throwing dice while the head looks on. Or, yet again, a body seen from the back that appears to be pulling away – is it dancing or is it wrenched in pain? The legs seem on the verge of breaking; of feet and hands there remain nothing but a ragged stump and running ink. Still, he – or rather, she – dances, head thrown far back, buttocks front and centre, right hand holding a lifted skirt. This body is at once whole and dismembered, joyous and suffering, emotionally charged, and in full combat.
In 2012, whole bodies begin to fragment as Unathi takes to exploring alternative ways of exhibiting them – different types of media and approaches to staging drawings in gallery spaces. For the exhibition at the AVA Gallery, he initially planned to show The Slave Ship and other drawings cut, fragmented, and strewn freely across the walls. No more frames, a radical unmooring. He spoke also of drawing on transparent surfaces. The white cube – the history it carries – was for him a difficult place. He felt more comfortable with the multiple potentialities of urban space.
Paris. The twisted silhouette of The Slave Ship progressively invades the walls of the studio in which Unathi is working, first traced in charcoal, then in ink. The drawn body and the drawing body meet in the energy of the artist’s gesture and in the texture of his drawing. The bodies he has depicted are quite big, even bigger than we are; the connection is all the stronger for it. Shortly after his passing, I unroll some of the work. Paper = flesh. An unmistakeable carnal connection is there, strong, violent, written in such a way that the paper, however thick, is lacerated, scratched until pierced, full of holes. The sheet is skin and movement. The studio is full of these presences. Two bodies – drawn and drawing – seem to be engaged in a performative dialogue of which the charcoal line is the remnant. The laceration, the removal of bits of paper, makes flesh appear, but also movement, light, expression. The physical act of tearing until there are holes in the paper, until it is wounded. And yet the lines are perfectly precise. Coal, charcoal, ink, erasing, tracing, scratching, tearing, retracing, gluing. There is also a musical dimension to the work. As he works, music is always on – lots of jazz, Tosca, Ursula Rucker. Often Fat Freddy’s Drop. Intensities, physical and sonic, alternate with long moments of observation and discussion.
These drawings must be seen in person: reproduction greatly lessens their impact. Only a scale of I:I speaks truth to the power of the image.
I feel it essential to link these drawn bodies to the burden Unathi often expressed when he spoke of his life. He was torn between aspirations that seemed irreconcilable, between spaces he did not renounce despite seemingly unmanageable antagonisms, pain shot through with flashes of lightness and intense joy. I am not sure that he would agree with this reading – he would likely deem it too personal. His commitment, the meaning of his drawings, he wanted these to be understood as a political gesture. Still, living among his drawings, I am often struck by their personal dimension. His life was at their core, the emotions and the violence of a lived fracture, broken and vital all at once. This wasn’t about autobiography – not in the ordinary sense. It is through their intensity, through a haptic dimension, that the drawings find their force. They mix and meld snippets of stories, of fiction, with conceptual strokes of inspiration. This results in a strong narrative dimension, rich in emotion, palpably present in the material of the drawing. The work has the intensity and the physical presence of a photograph shot at a crime scene. If there is autobiography here, it is in this respect: as an iteration of intense flash fiction.
In a similar vein, consider The Jacket, a video installation created during Urban Scénos/Johannesburg. In the street, outside the ground floor of a building inhabited by squatters, Unathi suspended above a long taxi queue the vest in which his brother, a policeman, had been shot on the job. There was no autobiographical emphasis on the vest’s origin; everything was in the act of suspension (and in the filming of it). This approach, which one might call intimate, constituted a force, a power of resistance to the world in which Unathi lived (South Africa in particular, but Europe as well, for it too was an object of his rage), a world he fought for as an adolescent participating in the final years of the struggle against apartheid.
Following an attempt on his life in Gugulethu in early July 2011, it becomes risky for Unathi to live in his neighbourhood. He comes to France and draws a lot (notably The Slave Ship). In early 2012, I am in Cape Town. The car is our common space. We drive a lot – in the city, on the mountain, on the coast. We drive to drive. The car is surreptitious and gives us autonomy. Go here and not there; don’t stop. Sometimes I handle things; at other times he does. We don’t go out together for fear of provoking remarks, hostility. He, black, me, white; this simple fact seems to suffice to cause reactions. For a long time, I thought he was exaggerating, but in all honesty, some places are intolerable. He’s not welcome there. In others, it’s I who quickly becomes undesirable. I don’t see it; he feels it, knows it. The city is an almost-impossible commons, exclusion masquerading as its inverse. Ever-present violence in an idyllic environment. When a homeowner in Observatory (a nearby suburb) finally leases him a two-roomer, things improve. Something begins: furniture arrives; between the kitchen and the lounge, Unathi places a statue of Buddha surrounded by books piled high. Clothing, always chosen with great care, is put away in the closet. Two, three purchases from a second-hand shop and Chinese supermarkets. The desk by the window, the computer and the music. The space inspires work, and huge drawn bodies begin to fill it. Fabric on the window facing the courtyard, for discretion; green plastic fringes adorned with tiny birds mask the door. I do not live long in this apartment, at most a month. We rarely go out together, sometimes find each other elsewhere. Worry rarely leaves him. I only have part of the story. Sometimes I sit in a café and think about friends who died without warning.
This is how I discover another side to Cape Town, the segregation that underpins the city. It’s part of what I learn from him: another face to the world. Before meeting him, even if I am aware of this and am attentive to the stakes involved, even if I understand the impact of all this on lives, a distance persists in my gaze. At the end of the day, everyone goes home. Here, something else is happening. I see, for the first time, what the so-called Humanist gaze on the world blinds me from seeing. The stunning and persistent power of obliviousness: the way in which we have – I have – grown up with the certainty of understanding, of being able to understand everything, of being right in one’s quest to understand. To explain. Here I realise that this dynamic, which defines me, has hit a wall. I can’t figure out where the spaces are, the ways of reacting that may exist beyond it. He speaks of them with me, but I am as if paralysed. Here our friendship hits a rough patch. Distance creates tensions, failure to grasp situations and words. It is often impossible for us to agree. Ultimately, it’s a question of how friendship negotiates the violence of this impossible world. Is it possible to resist, on the level of individuals, of singularities, of bodies? Daily attempts to overcome, to discover common ground. We both work on this, on our own level: in our exchanges we push on the absurdity of thought systems, until they start to weaken. I evoke the immense complexity of all this and he, in turn, connects it with his work as an artist, with the social, the racial, and the political that permeate his life. This is also at the heart of our discussions. Daily, we play, beyond differences, with the complementarity of our positions. As it happens, I put little faith in the Cartesian underpinnings of the culture in which I was raised; origins, history, hegemonic past: all of it is in me and requires deconstruction. In spite of it all – or, better still, because of it – I refuse to give up on acting, on doing, or, in any event, on trying to do. This is so especially when I feel vulnerable, when I don’t quite see the way forward, or don’t feel in charge, and harbour doubts as to the wisdom of my position. In situations such as these, I seek to experiment in response to multiple stories and points of view. In the 1990s, I started working abroad – in Syria and then elsewhere. With this came a distancing from my country, France, and the Western world more generally, though I continued, and continue still, to work there too, because the ethics of dissent require it. Till Unathi, however, I had scarcely questioned, theorised, butted my head up against what such distancing meant. From our meeting in 2009, this feeling of discrepancy, of being an outsider wherever I may be, has become amplified and infinitely more specific. It is clear that my “tools” for seeing and understanding are shifting. With Unathi, I glimpse the origin point of radicalism.
This has an impact on my work as an artist. For a time, I stop photographing. When I start up again, my way of looking at things has begun to change. Visuality, the fact of looking, prompts in me debates on the nature of power, making some positions untenable; I can no longer simply picture what attracts me because, often, at the root of my attraction, I recognise latent forms of exoticism or voyeurism. This places an importance on the act of not photographing, on not doing anything, on the simple fact of being there, attentive to what is happening, attentive as well to what my presence, with or without a camera, can generate, like shifts in energies and attentions in a given context or situation. Focal displacement, photographing without anything to point out, plays with invisibility. The photo becomes a relational, performative apparatus. All of this was latent and it is the power of Unathi to deconstruct, to think and to conceptualise, our contexts and our situations that activated this shift in me. The constant connections that he made between places, stakes, events, emotions, rapports of power and their history, the manner in which he situated his work as a process of creation at the heart of life, brought me to glimpse paths of radical thought whose direction I could barely discern in that dark part of Humanism at my core.
If The Slave Ship evokes the difficulty of living in this world – the slave trade as a radical metaphor for the hardship of finding one’s place – the Die Kat installation opens on a future to be re-invented. “Re”, here, evokes a past from before the arrival of the coloniser (what if we could go back to that time?). This notion was often a subject of conversations between us. Die Kat, which was shown in the governor’s room of the Castle of Good Hope, is in three parts: a staircase sculpture that one discovers upon entering; then nine seated bodies, without heads, dressed in Zion Christian Church outfits and suspended in a circle; finally, a small shadow theatre located in an adjacent room. An excerpt from the project description reads as follows:
“During the 1680s under the Dutch, this room was called the Kat, a name which identified the area used by the most important person (the commander), where the Council of Policy and Court of Justice met. As a centre of power this room controlled, via instructions from Amsterdam, the destiny of slaves. Also on Sundays the Kat functioned as a Church. In the 19th century, around the 1840s, under the British colonial regime, the room was modified into an English, early-Victorian period space.”
During the summer of 2012, I was engrossed in discussions and sketches focusing on the stairway – not the most spectacular element in the piece (also the one whose resolution is the most fragile), but nevertheless conceptually central to the project. At the heart of the matter, here, is the question of assemblages and how they function. The origins of the individual wood components and the pegs and mortises holding them together, Unathi noted, lay with the coloniser; they were solid, efficient signs of an allegedly rational relationship with the world. He didn’t feel linked to them, in the sense that their logic, he said, did not relate to his, but was imposed. From this emerged an attempt to disassemble and reassemble the staircase in a new way: “As an art work, the staircase will be artificially constructed as a puzzle that ascends or descends this history… The piece seeks to uproot, or to symbolically exhume, the physical and cognitive ideas that the space was utilised for” (this, again, from the project statement). Finding a carpenter who could understand the issues at hand proved impossible. Instead, Unathi had to teach himself the classic art of assembling a staircase.
Even if the result was not perfect, it held great potential. For Unathi – he was explicit about this – it was an experiment in psycho-geographic play with everyday life. Through art, he sought to interrogate and deconstruct daily habits, practical realities, so as to question the materiality and the functioning of everything around him. His was a radical refusal of the world such as it stands today, a world that he felt condemned to live in and which he was not willing to accept. How to re-make this world? How to escape its infrastructures, which format and allocate even the most banal aspects of our lives, our practices, our gestures, shaping our relationship to space, framing our perceptions and our experiences? Keys on the door; openings in a façade; street signs; the street itself; the structure of the city; salaried work, which he rejected out of hand; money… At all of these, and others still, he hurled himself with rage. How and where could he breathe, escaping the gaze(s) of others on his life? He was steadfast in his radicality, refusing to forego it, even where such might mean improving his comfort in life. He spoke often of an isolated place where it would be possible to be far and free. Where it would be possible to draw, think, smoke, and be peaceful. A place from another planet, grafted onto this one.
The collective was without a doubt the pivot of his life. He spoke about it as a tool to rework daily life for and with his people – the community he had grown up in – and, more generally, with people at large. This part of his life I was not directly privy to. I thus won’t speak of Gugulective in detail, if only because other collective members can do it more accurately. My understanding is that it sought, and seeks still, to question the state of the world, starting with the situation in South Africa two decades after the fall of apartheid – after the final battles to bring it to its knees, in which Unathi took an active part. Why did things go the way they did? Once again, how to re-invent? We spoke often of the fact that the mainstream art world had proven inadequate in its response to the times.
Inadequate too, I would argue, has been the way in which this same art world has dealt with the collective. Gugulective has drawn notable attention. It is regularly shown and referenced in exhibits, lectures, conferences – in 2014, for example, at ZKM (Centre for Art and Media) in Karlsruhe, it was highlighted in a show entitled “Global Activism”. What is troubling is the distance between the stakes of the project, the concrete utopia that it sought/seeks to materialize, and what seems at the same time to be the incapacity (or refusal) of the institutional art scene to create situations adapted to the existence of such a project. A question that extends far beyond Gugulective, for it is a matter of forces – structures, markets, institutions – that do not wish to see such ventures succeed in the long term, who focus on them short-term, the better to maintain them, always, in a state of precarious fragility. These were concerns that Unathi spoke of often. Another key concern for him was what he perceived to be a fundamental lack of fit between Gugulective’s goals and the spaces – physical and otherwise – on offer from the mainstream art world (museums, galleries). Unathi was disconcerted by the rift between the certainty that such a project could develop strong social and aesthetic experiments – new and striking ways of being together – and the on-again-off-again offers of support from a dominant system that, at times, showed real interest in the collective’s undertakings. Events, residencies, exhibitions were proposed, but, all too often, these came with commercial constraints, imposed formats and demands that the work on view fit into mainstream spaces that didn’t correspond to the initial project: reconfigurations in a foreign context of a project that had been locally conceived and created, requiring a manner of renunciation, a form of abdication.
He spoke rarely of Gugulective. When he did, it was clear that the collective’s dynamics and goals mattered immensely to him. Its rootedness in Gugulethu – the fact that it was meant to speak to local audiences, outside any form of hierarchy – was, in his view, critical. He respected intensely the way in which people – the public at large, everyone – responded to the collective’s projects. An artist’s role, he insisted, is to interact and to exist in proximity with his community’s daily existence. Through his engagement in Gugulective, Unathi found a real measure of congruity with himself. Every project brought to the fore core questions: Where am I speaking from? How do I speak? In what context? To what audiences? How can I connect other artists and people to this project?
Such questions are urgent. Despite much talk (and writing and funding) to the contrary, art world apparatuses prove incapable of addressing them head on. This is so even where contemporary African art is concerned: though there are key exceptions, even here one encounters over and over a failure to invent formats that put artistic practice at the heart of the city, making them available to all, and a tendency, instead, to conform to existing systems tethered to Western standards.
Leonardo da Vinci
In a summer, 2011 series of drawings of big bodies in movement, the themes originate mostly in sensations, in intuitions and in images glimpsed here and there. The focus, here, is on re-appropriating gestures and moments through the act of drawing. Unathi looks at lots of images in magazines, on the Internet, in books (I have a whole file of these images, some used then, others later). Finally settling on one, he scans it, reframes and prints it. This will serve as a visual and conceptual point of departure, allowing him to foreground the intended meaning via a change of medium and scale.
In a series produced in 2012 for the show at AVA Gallery, this process continues, but in a deliberately less intuitive fashion: Unathi begins working from drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, playing with their graphic techniques while using his own street fresco style. He examines bodily stereotypes (and also classical statuary) that these drawings convey, in order to divert them in favour of his own self-positioning (the term “representation”, here, seems inappropriate to me). During this period, he is very interested in anatomy, in graphic and visual techniques of representation, in the description, analysis, fragmentation, cutting and framing of human bodies developed in the West since the Renaissance. This is an excerpt from a statement for a (denied) Visa pour la Création artist’s residency application in 2012:
“[T]hese ways of depicting humans and these ways the Western world, as I see it, depicts itself… Western eyes used to be, and are still in many ways, occupied (sometimes fascinated) by the idea of indigenous people, as a construction, as a way to see ‘others’, non-Europeans. This, instead of admitting to a lack of understanding of non-Western cultures by many researchers and even artists. There’s a lot of stereotyping still going on, falsification and down-talking, and, seen from my side, it often looks as though many Western observers had (have) no sense that anybody except them has reason or intellect. I see it like this, as even today I’m facing a lot of questions and misunderstandings about where I come from, about my past, my history… Many of these questions and misunderstandings appear to me as being directly or indirectly in relation to a European background and point of view.”
His goal at this time is to spend time in Europe visiting museums, in order to develop his research on these questions.
Drawing was a space where Unathi’s primary concerns took form. It was a way of studying. By way of a single gesture, he would take references and techniques on – seizing and grappling with them – to radically displace them. Thus his take on a da Vinci drawing gleaned from a Penguin book. A group of elderly, bearded European men sit at a table and talk among themselves, as, in front of them, miners reduced to the size of ants scurry in the shadow of giant hard hats – a direct reference to the 2012 Marikana massacre. In a related work, a massive bearded white man, muscular, naked, fist raised, seems to wrestle with folds of fabric bunched at his knees. Look closely and you will notice that the fabric is, in fact, a jumble of miner’s bodies. This drawing was shown at AVA as the central element of a triptych. On either side stood an equally massive figure – a man on the left, a woman on the right – each face part-whole and part-flayed. Both, referenced in the drawing as Alpha and Omega, look sideways at the bearded man struggling with the tiny miners.
This peculiar graphic fable was left unfinished; circumstances did not provide Unathi with the time or the space to complete it. Yet there was so much more he meant to say, as witness our many conversations – about bio-political questions, most notably. He was consumed by notions of constraint – means, physical and otherwise, whereby bodies are held captive – and by ways available to escape such violence. At the core of it all was his own body as a focus for artistic experimentation. While his untimely passing cut short further exploration in this vein, this concern of his was clear, even in his way of dressing. His relationship to clothing was ultra-precise, referencing highly specific (often class-based) conditions. Always elegant, he was determined, through his use of garments, to play with codes so as to re-appropriate spaces and situations, making them his quite specifically. Among his plans for the future was a series of photographs focusing on details of his body: tattoos, scars, punch marks.
Faced with the immense difficulty – with the sheer intractability and yet the intense interest – of living in this world, Unathi nonetheless never seriously considered leaving South Africa or, indeed, Cape Town itself. In such a move, he felt – even though this often left him conflicted – he would lose something essential, a fundamental link to his community and its battles. When, in 2013, and with a friend, he developed a project centring on residencies in both Europe and South Africa, his focus was not on himself, but on young artists and activists from Cape Town. His unrealised proposal for the South African season in France consisted in conceptual performances in the Paris metro with young Cape Town musicians. He constantly returned to the idea of opening spaces to create collaborative situations with persons with whom he shared a history, energies, and lived experience. He wouldn’t even move to Johannesburg. He probably should have, given that his home city forced him daily to negotiate with his history and his past. But in Paris (or in Europe more generally, for he travelled quite a bit), everyday city life made him angry. How to deal with people’s attitudes and gazes, thick with racist undertones even when the intent is solicitous? With arrogance born of fine sentiments and ignorance, so obvious when, as an outsider, you become its object? If Belleville in Paris struck him as liveable because cosmopolitan, Brussels, he held, was the only European city where he ever felt comfortable.
In 2012, on the occasion of Urban Scénos, he travelled to Dakar – his only foray away from South Africa on the African continent. There, for the first time, he said, he encountered an urban environment that, for him, held real possibilities, even hope. In a video shot with a smart phone at a Mouride gathering, it is tangible that he is at ease in the midst of a crowd singing religious chants and dancing. And it is with young artists and local activists that he spent most of his time. Commenting on his visit to Dakar, Unathi wrote:
“Senegal, the Ouakam neighborhood in Dakar, was a culture shock to all the conceptions I had coming from South Africa. Our liberation in South Africa resulted in a loss of unity, caused by the imposition of capitalist political and economic standards. In Ouakam, there is something that seems to be still intact, despite the community’s social, economical and religious issues. I might be wrong, but in comparison to our communities, socially people here have better ways of functioning and being human. The amount of companionship with one another and hospitality to those from outside is so striking. In comparison, our independence in South Africa resembles a newly born baby.”
Dakar was a discovery. A space was opening up. The text and the video to which I refer are the only traces left of this moment of encounter.
This is all I can say for now. Later, I will perhaps do more.
This piece features in Chimurenga Chronic: We Make Our Own Food! (April 2017). To purchase in print, or as a PDF, head to our online shop.
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