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JWTC - Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism - Volume 9

Saturday 1 August 2015

Salon for What?

Gamedze and Gamedze

(The Department of Black Imagination, UCT)

I mean who actually reads this JWTC thing anyway? You know what I’m saying? Decolonisation for who? Decolonisation for what? Writing for what? Thinking for what? But here we are anyway... We, the RMF writing and education sub- committees, were super privileged to have a session/ workshop/seminar with powerhouse Amina Mama who is, amongst many things, part of the ranks of Black intellectuals who were nearly suffocated at UCT for pursuing Black liberatory intellectual practices that challenged the conservatism, elitism and whiteness of the institution. It was a great conversation and we learnt a great deal. The session formed part of an ongoing discussion that we had been having amongst ourselves around: writing, writing as a collective or individual practice, what language to use, which forms of writings to use, deep questions concerning audience, and a lot of other important questions that seek to interrogate, and shape, the potential role of writing in a political project that attempts to challenge colonial forms of power that we, as Black people, are, to varying extents and in different ways, subjected to both in the university as well as in broader society.

One question in particular, we think, speaks directly to the core of our circumstance and some of the central issues with which we are grappling: How do we, as radical intellectuals, write and publish our writing if dominant practices of intellectual writing, and most channels for publishing/disseminating that writing, are colonised/colonial constructs? Forms of academic writing, speaking and thinking are fundamental building blocks of the ivory tower’s hierarchy of knowledge that is exclusive and elitist. At an institution like UCT, these values - exclusivity and elitism - are deeply inscribed in academic practice and raises the question of ALIENATION. The alienation of African intellectuals (and intellectuals from other colonial/post-colonial/neo-colonial settings) from their people is central to this conversation and indeed our own present and future decisions as people who are on the path of academic specialisation. As we understand it, the general tendency or trend of colonial education is: the higher one climbs up the ladder, the greater the distance between the climber and those holding up the ladder. The more receipts (often referred to as degrees) one receives from universities - the more ‘qualified’ one becomes, the greater the degree of alienation from one’s people. This alienation takes many forms: where we live, how we live, how we speak, what we say when we do speak, how we think, and, perhaps most importantly for us, what we think, speak and write about. Prof Mama stressed that as African intellectuals, as Black people, this process of alienation is one we need to tackle, resist and subvert. To be a radical African intellectual is to challenge, on fundamentally personal, institutional and societal levels, this form of alienation that colonial education encourages.

It is rather ironic therefore that we are currently writing in a publication called ‘The Salon’, referring, in one instance, to the traditional French painters of the 16th and 17th centuries who submitted their work annually, hoping to displayed amongst the art elite. This painting practice, through symbolism and subject matter, upheld the systemic French monarchial class divisions and inequality of the time, and only artists working in a specific (read sell-out) mode were therefore accepted. Our attempts to challenge this established idea of the ‘Salon’ might frame us more accurately as an ‘avante-garde’ (echoing the disruptions of the likes of the Realist and Impressionist painters who’s aesthetic values sought to symbolically undermine established status quos) because we are working outside the established norms of what we should be saying and how we should be saying it. But that said, I think our project, while fluid, has its grounds in something far less flashy or fashionable than a purely ‘avant-garde’ project. We are writing because we are here, and because, as Black people, we will continue to exist in this world.

We write to assert our humanity as Black people, and to assert that, while the imagination that stems from this unrecognised, in-between condition is indeed flashy, exciting, ‘avant-garde’(in its un-investigated-ness) our humanity is at it’s root. We write in ‘The Salon’ because the status-quo prescribing Blacks as humans is the status-quo that we are interested in. Our ‘avant-garde’ nature in this sense is the nuanced, detailed and complex manner in which we imagine Blackness, a manner that seeks to re-define and widen the scope of this prescribed, exclusive and aloof ‘human’. While we recognise the injustice of not being accorded this particular prescription of humanity, we have already observed the limitations of it, and we know that our humanity requires more than this. This is one reason we continue to write, and while we must navigate the inevitable ‘Salon’ of western knowledge structures, we are aware that we are writing in ways that these knowledge structures have not prescribed.

So while we don’t have the answers to the tough questions that we posed at the beginning of this piece, perhaps we don’t need them. We just have a feeling that there is something about writing that allows us to subvert the structures that have oppressed us and continue to do so, and while this space of writing is contested- we are armed to enter this contest in ways that cannot and do not occur to our oppressors. We write different, and so we feel that writing is important. It is important to write ourselves, to write our own story. We know that many, who are not us, have BEEN writing about us and have painted us in many different ways, of which none are creative nor imaginative enough. We are here to represent ourselves and share our thoughts on our situation and on what we are up against. We are thinking about how we might create something new: how we might pursue writing in a way that represents and humanises us as energetic and hurt bodies.

We are writing collectively for instance, really investigating the collaborative nature of knowledge, using our process to deconstruct liberal ideals like individualism, which serve to uphold white patriarchy. In writing therefore, we contribute to a global project, long since underway- the radical project of decolonising our minds, our souls, our institutions and our societies.

Forward to something new...

See online: JWTC - Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism - Volume 9