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The Salon

Notes on Imagination

Thuli Gamedze

(Cape Town-based artist and writer)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Untitled Black Imaginings

 
Thuli Gamedze

(Cape Town-based artist and writer)

There is no possibility of beginning an oppressive world regime using ‘nuanced violence'. The psychological violence of colonialism today only exists as a re-enactment, or a reframing of the original physical warfare between colonialist and colonized bodies, this being the most basic kind of physical violence and theft.

We might understand that the discourse of images, writing and symbols is a parallel colonialism, one that served as culpable accompanier to the central violent interaction of colonisation. However, as we understand this notion, we must observe that the classic colonial process of inflicting first physical violence, and then psychological violence is, in the image-world, impossible, because symbolism's original scope for violence is, and has always been in the psyche. Thus we must recognize the idea that in the contemporary world, symbolism continues to operate in its original form.

So although at this point in time, white supremacist capitalist patriarchal structures psychologically violate the black body, the way these structure are represented in the world (through symbolic gestures) has managed to retain this historic lack of nuance and complexity. What I mean here, is that contemporary images and representation still repeat the profound violence of a colonial regime because these entities have always occupied the space of the psychological- and the space of psychological violence under white supremacist patriarchal rule, remains wholly intact and fully protected.

The kind of symbolism that black people are forced to exist between, and on the outside of, continues to reflect the violence of colonial occupation. Here, I refer to a multitude of symbols- yes, the Rhodes statue, for instance, but also the symbolism inherent within every other space of existence- within popular culture, within academic curricula, literature, mainstream music, art, architecture, theatre, etc. White supremacist patriarchal representative culture pervades the contemporary world in ways that appeal to binaries, as Mbali Matandela mentions in ‘Stagnate Debates' (2015), in ways that continue to be unimaginative.

Symbolic Violence: Locating The Black Imagination

As humans- fluid individuals who create discourse through our daily lives- the ability to self-imagine is essential to our existence. We must be able to consistently see ourselves and understand ourselves in spaces different to those we occupy in the present. This idea of self-imagination is necessary to every sphere of our daily lives, as well as to our lives in a larger context. Imagination allows us to progress, to have vision and to make decisions.

We find ourselves in a unique position- permanently existing in the in-betweens, operating around white patriarchal symbols but, as humans, still having always to create, to imagine, and to progress.

So if we can concur that in order to progress, and even to exist, the individual needs the capacity to self-imagine, then the implications of the world-dominating white supremacist patriarchal symbolism for the black mind, are incredibly interesting. Within blackness, the lack of representation of women and queer bodies makes these positionalities especially interesting. We find ourselves in a unique position- permanently existing in the in-betweens, operating around white patriarchal symbols but, as humans, still having always to create, to imagine, and to progress. If we understand the role that symbols play in shaping imagination and spurring thought, then we must ask the question- where is it that blackness, that black femaleness, or black queerness, finds its reference point for imagination? Or is it, in fact, that these imaginations lack the possibility of owning and claiming reference points- that even the origin of our imaginations is uncertain?

When we think about popular platforms of self-imagination, for instance books and movies, we must acknowledge that these forms originate in white hetero-normative patriarchal foundations. In these spaces, we are used to, are mystified by, and are bored of white male protagonists. Confronted by white males in our every encounter with mainstream imagination spaces, we are constantly excluded from seeing ourselves coming of age, falling in love, having mid-life crises, being heroes, being the ‘chosen ones', trying and failing, trying and succeeding, having families, getting married, defying our parents in favour of our true passion, making friends, taking part in epic car chases and in epic war scenes, and so on. From an early age, we are forced into symbolically empathizing with our oppressor, for he is represented as the quintessential human. While we ourselves understand that our bodies consistently carry out these ‘activities of whiteness', this action is made invisible through mainstream culture's consistent strategic failure to represent blackness, queerness, and femaleness. We do not have the privilege of sharing in ‘popular' imagination.

I am intrigued, therefore, by black imagination. It is an essential human feature that exists despite the un-transformed symbolism in which it is immersed. It does not get its cues from popular movies, music, literature and art. It likely does not get cues at all. In fact, black imagination has always to be an improvisation, a dance in an obstacle course, a performance inside a burning room. It is impermanent and has no binaries to hide behind. In knowing that the symbolism given to us does not include us, we are forced to occupy the many gaps in the canon. Our imagination consists of transitory fragments that piece together to form the most complex of narratives; narratives that cannot ever be represented in the stark and simplistic manners adopted by whiteness. And importantly, narratives that are fluid and difficult to define.

It is no surprise therefore that Intersectionality arose from a situation involving black females. It is in using this approach that we can allow space for the ‘in betweens', or the intersections of oppressed individuals, and furthermore, we can acknowledge that in mainstream representation, oppressed individuals only exist in these in-betweens. So however violent the existing symbolism we are exposed to is, I think it is pertinent for us to revel in the infinite possibility that exists in the undefined, in-between spaces of our own black imaginations. These spaces are inevitably more complex, more potent, more interesting, and more intelligent than the tired mainstream representations of white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy that we have grown so used to.

Azania-House Intersectionality as a Catalyst for Black Imagination

 
Thuli Gamedze

(Cape Town-based artist and writer)

If we understand oppressive powers as those that not only police our actions and place glass ceilings on our holistic potential, then we must recognize them too as powers that suppress our imaginations. Perhaps this is the most significant action of oppressive power, as it substantially inhibits oppressed bodies from enacting resistances that lead to our material and psychological liberation. It is from here that I would like to propose intersectionality as a freed thinking form that not only humanizes oppressed bodies, but allows us to imagine humanity outside of stifling white, male, heteronormative structures.

The approach of an intersectional approach is an approach like any other. It describes the character, the personality of the approach, but it does not change that which we are approaching- the decolonization of the spaces we occupy, and in this case, of UCT institutional power structures. In fact, it makes this approach a collective journey that is receptive to, and inclusive of the specific pains and struggles caused by institutional oppressions.

THIS WHOLE BLACK WOMAN

Intersectionality is an approach that acknowledges the particular positions in which it finds its people- it meets them there, as they are. It tells us that oppression happens as a result of a poisonous hegemonic culture- the culture of whiteness, patriarchy and heteronormativity- but that there is no hegemonic experience that can encapsulate the particular oppressions experienced by particular people. It is an approach that acknowledges that people experience oppression at the intersections of their identities, but even so, oppressed people need not compartmentalise and fragment their personhoods, deconstructing these aspects of their identities for the purpose of struggle. In fact, intersectionality tells us that this is impossible- we need to be decolonised as completed units; we cannot separately decolonise each aspect of our persons. So while intersectionality must acknowledge the process of saying ‘I am a woman, and therefore I experience oppression', ‘I am homosexual, and therefore I experience oppression', ‘I am black, and therefore I experience oppression', etc, it wholly affirms the entire identity of the homosexual black woman who's person is oppressed by the space in which she finds herself.

It is an approach that acknowledges that people experience oppression at the intersections of their identities, but even so, oppressed people need not compartmentalise and fragment their personhoods, deconstructing these aspects of their identities for the purpose of struggle.

Because of the kinds of oppressions we have experienced at UCT, Azania House stands ideologically as a space in which we refuse to perpetuate the oppressions of institutionalised patriarchy, racism and heteronormativity. These oppressions detract humanity in every instance that our characteristics depart from the straight white male ‘center'. In the establishment of this space, we have called for an intersectional approach, a de-centering of our understanding of oppression, in order to be inclusive of all oppressed peoples. In this thinking, we create the possibility of a space that includes oppressed people as a collective, directly subverting the exclusionary tactics of institutions like UCT, who we have seen systematically oppress those who depart from the established hegemony. If we are to mimic these divisive strategies, we would only echo ‘divide and conquer' tactics of colonialism that sought to prevent the recognition of humanity amongst diverse groups of oppressed peoples. So whilst engaging in groups of people who can share similar experiences as a result of occupying similar positionalities is of course a liberatory act, true intersectionality catalyses an explosive decolonial power through humanising a mixed group of people at once, and arming them with multiple tools for struggle. There is power in collective pain, in collective rage, if only we might see it, recognize it, and acknowledge it within each other. Intersectionality collectivizes.

THE DERAILING INDIVIDUALISTS

The intersectional agenda of Azania house is in direct response to the history of patriarchy in black consciousness movements. The popular imagination of black consciousness resides in black heterosexual maleness. While Azania House cannot claim to be completely devoid of this particular expression of black consciousness, it is a space that continues to be self-reflexive, and aware that this kind of exclusionary phenomena can only be the result of an adherence to violent and ignorant colonial structures that we are already subject to in institutional spaces. These colonial structures are dangerous because they offer a strategy of deflecting personal responsibility in contributing to the systemic oppression of others, and scarily, these structures play out within blackness(es) all the time. They allow the space for a collective struggle for some (read straight black males), while appealing to individualism to dismiss the weight of responsibility that comes with the acknowledgement of ones privileged positionality in the world. This is characterised by denying personal culpability in an instance of oppression- for example misogyny in a black conscious space- using individualistic relations to prove innocence. When the ‘I' is included in an argument that seeks to excuse the violence of an individual holding more power over another within a given space, we must always be suspicious.

Because of liberal tactics, we are forced to deal with the derailing notion of this individual, and we do so by recognizing that no individual is free from holding certain power and/or disadvantage, given their positionality in the world. We are only individuals in order to recognise that we occupy a collective space, characterized by positionality, that includes both power in some instances, and disadvantage in others. We need to understand that in failing to engage in this self-reflection that seeks an understanding of the self in relation to power structures at large, we reinforce the systems that we attempt to decolonise.

INVISIBLE, INTERSECTIONAL, IN-DIVISIBLE

The notion of being invisible is one that we, as oppressed people, can all relate to. It is this relationship of understanding the sensation of being unseen, the relationship that involves us finding and seeing each other in the dark- it is this relationship that matters.

Wandering through the dark passages of the new Azania House during load-shedding hours is hardly a departure from the way I feel when the space is well lit. Here, we have let go of the colonial gaze and we have let go of the violence that tells black people to ‘other' one another; in a sense, we have turned off the lights and are hustling to re-invent electricity. Despite the constant threat of being victimized by the institution, which we seek to decolonise, this darkness has provided a new kind of safety for a diverse group of some of the best people I have ever met. Intersectionality gives us a key into finding each other in this darkness, and feeling each other out without having to carry with us the burden of inhumanity, which comes with the ‘perspective' offered by colonial lighting. When we discover ourselves in this dark, invisible, mysterious space, I cannot begin to imagine the inventive languages and visualities we will use in our struggle towards re-defining black humanity in the larger South African space.