Marlene van Niekerk’s two most recent volumes of poetry, Gesant van die mispels (Gedigte by die skilderye van Adriaen Coorte ca: 1659–1707) (Emissary of the medlars [Poetry with paintings by Adriaen Coorte ca: 1659–1707]) and In die stille agterkamer (Gedigte by die skilderye van Jan Mankes: 1889–1920) (In the quiet backroom [Poetry with paintings by Jan Mankes: 1889–1920]), converse ekphrastically with two Dutch painters, Adriaen Coorte and Jan Mankes. Van Niekerk’s decision to communicate artistically with specifically these two artists’ work is unexpected. Both painters could be seen as minor artists because they did not produce many paintings, were not very well-known in their own time, and functioned outside of the artistic tradition of their eras. They also lived in different centuries, in milieus differing greatly from Van Niekerk’s contemporary world. Van Niekerk identified with Coorte and Mankes while writing her poems (Esterhuizen 2018). Van Niekerk tried to echo the two Dutch painters’ artistic attentiveness and nostalgic magic in her poems. The paintings also fascinated her because the painters lived in two very different turbulent eras of war which led to great social changes. Both painters calmly carried on with their profession during these times. Furthermore, both painters decided not to adhere to the artistic styles of their times. In this way, these two painters chose to function outside of their own time and space.
While Van Niekerk was writing the poetry for these volumes, she was also thinking about her own temporal and spatial position as a South African and Afrikaans poet, wondering what she wanted to say and to whom (Van Niekerk in Steyn 2016). These questions represent a crisis for Van Niekerk as it seems that some artists’ right to ask political questions are currently under suspicion in South Africa. In extreme situations valuable artworks originating from colonial and apartheid times are destroyed, for example when students of the University of Cape Town burned and damaged irreplaceable artworks from the university’s collection during student protests in February 2016. As an artist herself, Van Niekerk was greatly troubled by these events. According to her, innocent youths taking offence at artworks that comment on political issues problematises the legitimacy of artists to comment on troublesome issues (in Esterhuizen 2018). Language is a specifically problematic issue in terms of exclusion and advantage in South Africa. The issue about the historically advantageous position that Afrikaans (the language that Van Niekerk writes in) held during apartheid is especially invidious. The student movements #FeesMustFall and #AfrikaansMustFall are expressions of these sentiments that played out on many university campuses during 2016.
In this article I argue that these two volumes of poetry offer interesting perspectives on a South African and Afrikaans poet such as Van Niekerk and her position in the current turbulent political era in South Africa. These volumes can be read with the help of ideas relating to metamodernism, especially with regard to temporality and spatiality (see Linde 2018). Vermeulen and Van den Akker (2010:12) describe metamodern space-time as follows: “a deliberate being out of time, an intentional being out of place, and the pretence that that desired atemporality and displacement are actually possible even though they are not”. I contend that heterochronicity and minor transnationalism can be connected to metamodernism with relation to the ways in which space and time are portrayed.
Metamodernism can be described as a “structure of feeling” that originated during the early 2000s. Metamodern ideas relating to “a (often guarded) hopefulness and (at times feigned) sincerity that hint at another structure of feeling, intimating another discourse” (Van den Akker and Vermeulen 2010:2) in reaction to global ethical, ecological, social and political instability can be seen in the work of contemporary writers and poets. Van den Akker and Vermeulen (2017:10) define metamodernism as follows: “an oscillating in-betweenness or, rather, a dialectical movement that identifies with and negates – and hence, overcomes and undermines – conflicting positions, while being never congruent with these positions”. Metamodernism oscillates mainly between modernist and postmodernist ideas regarding art. These metamodern ideas create a symbolic space in which literature can be studied in terms of minor transnationalism and heterochronicity because it emphasises in-betweenness and oscillation.
Minor transnationalism can be defined as the movement and exchange of cultural artefacts, such as literature, between minor cultures without the mediation of a so-called universal cultural centre (like the English literary tradition). Van Niekerk’s volumes of poetry represent such a movement because they consist of poetry in Afrikaans and Dutch, two literary traditions of lesser international influence. The poems also revolve around primarily Dutch spaces, but from a South African and postcolonial perspective. This emphasises the linguistic and historical connections between these two languages and countries transnationally.
Heterochronicity refers to the idea that time does not move linearly or chronologically, but rather that a multitude of temporalities exist simultaneously. Keith Moxey (2009) developed this postcolonial term in response to the fact that the passing of time is usually understood in terms of the mainstream Western ideas of time. Moxey suggests looking at time another way, anchored in the idea that the contemporary moment is a-chronological. Consequently, the current moment is not seen as a fixed period. Time is not singularly linear, but multiple and multilateral. A heterochronic attitude to temporality is present in Van Niekerk’s recent poetry. She creates a situation in which three actors from different eras act simultaneously: Coorte, Mankes and Van Niekerk herself. The reader becomes a spectator of the interaction among these three while experiencing the poetry and paintings visually in real time. The interactions between everyone involved become conversations that transcend spatial and temporal boundaries. It is as if the painters, the poet and the reader are speaking to one another in the present moment, but also in the past and in the future simultaneously.
Poems such as the one in In die stille agterkamer accompanying the painting Wyandottehaan met tinnen schotel (Rooster with tin dish) (1913) (2017a:47) creates direct connections between the space and time when the painters (in this case Mankes) painted their paintings and those of the poet-narrator in most of the poems. In this poem a painting of a white rooster and a memory of a similar rooster from the narrator’s childhood on a farm are intertwined heterochronically: A past which the narrator never experienced (that of Mankes) is portrayed in the present as a memory from the narrator’s own, more recent past. In the poem on page 27 of Gesant van die mispels (2017b) Van Niekerk draws comparisons between her contemporary situation and that of Coorte during the 17th century. Coorte’s times of unrest in the form of war are connected on a meta-level to Van Niekerk’s own time of political and ideological turbulence. In Coorte’s time he was expected, as an artist, to create artworks that proved his loyalty to his country. Likewise there are expectations in the contemporary moment of Van Niekerk as a postnationalist writer to portray the dominant ideologies of the time, and specifically not to express opinions on certain issues.
Van Niekerk identifies with Manke and Coorte because she also wants to focus on her artistic trade and not have her art used (instrumentalised) for the advancement of political and ideological ideas. She takes the same position in these two volumes of poetry as Manke and Coorte did with regard to their art: She faithfully focuses on her trade with excellence and determination to create small but stirring poems that transcend temporal and spatial boundaries. This does not, however, mean that the poetry is altogether politically apathetic. By emphasising the aesthetic aspects of her poetry she is commenting on the homogenising influence of major languages and their literary traditions, such as English. Her poetry can therefore be seen as aesth-ethical art (aesthetic-ethic) (Vermeulen and Van den Akker 2010:2): artworks whose aesthetics are utilised to make an ethical point. By doing this she comments on the turbulent, ideologically minded era that she lives in, on both ethical and aesthetic levels.
Minor transnationalism and heterochronicity as theoretical frames make it possible to see Van Niekerk’s poetry as being intentionally out of place and deliberately out of time (Vermeulen and Van den Akker 2010:12). In the end, by connecting herself and her poetry artistically with that of Coorte and Mankes, Van Niekerk transnationally and heterochronically emphasises those things which make people the same across time and space, and which have the potential to connect people rather than create more distance. That is the ethical importance of art in turbulent times: to connect people across time and geographical boundaries.
Keywords: aesth-ethical art; Gesant van die mispels; heterochronicity; In die stille agterkamer; metamodernism; minor transnationalism; Marlene van Niekerk