Decolonial activist art at the intersection of the struggle against white privilege and gender marginalisation

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Abstract

This article addresses issues of cultural and aesthetic politics evoked by artistic-activist interventions as part of the protests by predominantly poor, black students in South Africa in 2015 and 2016. The latter were directed against enduring structural racism and colonialism in the tertiary education sector and were driven by a radical black decolonisation politics. The article mainly reflects on the controversial artwork F*** White People (henceforth abbreviated as FWP) by Dean Hutton, a white, non-gender-conforming performance artist. Briefly put, this installation and performance work from 2016 borrows a slogan of a black student protester – F*** White People – and turns it into a wallpaper pattern that is then used to make a billboard and matching clothes, worn by Hutton, and to upholster a chair. Owing to its provocative thrust the work was harshly criticised not only by white, right-wing groups but also, more surprisingly, from a radical decolonial perspective.

In considering FWP, its critical reception and related conceptual and practical issues, the following general questions are addressed: How can white artists who are critical of whiteness and supportive of on-going decolonisation struggles contribute to the latter? What are the main critiques against such contributions from a black, decolonial perspective, and how should one assess these critiques in terms of their implicit presuppositions and pragmatic implications? How do issues of gender and intersectionality complicate the assessment of white artists’ contributions to the decolonial cause? In addressing these questions, an immanent-critical approach is adopted according to which something is examined and assessed based on its own explicit and implicit stances, assumptions and goals, without passing judgement on the latter’s validity as such. The aim of the article is to qualify, complicate and question one-dimensional and somewhat formulaic readings of FWP in terms of prevalent concepts and arguments within radical decolonisation discourse. It does so by offering various alternative interpretations based on notions such as over-identification, race suicide, symbolic politics, intersectionality and the politics of marginality.

I first argue that over and above the artwork’s straightforward meaning and stated intention, a subtle, ironic effect is created by the way in which the protester’s amateurishly painted slogan is converted into a highly stylised, propagandistic total work of art. Based on the resulting sense of overstatement and overkill, I contend that FWP can also be read as a parody of the politics of “strategic simplification” characteristic of the radical decolonisation movements, which creates an interesting tension with the work’s explicit position and aim.

Turning to the critical reception of FWP, I first note some contradictions and ironies in the way in which right-wing parties such as the Freedom Front Plus and the Cape Party have presented themselves as peace-loving and moderate in contrast to FWP’s aggressive, polarising stance. On the opposite side of decolonial politics I consider a set of criticisms issued by a black cultural critic, Kwanele Sosibo. The latter’s principal objection to FWP is that it constitutes a problematic form of “white allyship” based on the belief that white people can deploy their racial privilege as a tool to rectify and undo such privilege. I specify the “white privilege” in question in terms of the higher symbolic status awarded to white artists as a result of historical and structural processes of colonialism and racism. I take Sosibo’s critique to mean that such privilege makes Hutton’s artivist allyship highly contradictory because their assertive plea for the elimination of white privilege is undermined by the deeper structures and institutional mechanisms of privilege that, to a large degree, empower Hutton to make this call in the first place, and even rewards them for it (e.g. in terms of their career or media attention). In this regard I speak of a performative paradox in which whiteness manifests and furthers itself at the very point at which its eradication is advocated with much bravado. As such, Sosibo dismisses acts of white allyship as a clever “ruse” employed by white people to hold on to their privilege and endlessly delay what he considers to be the only right thing for them to do, namely, to surrender all racial and colonial privileges without further ado.

I then critically assess different presuppositions, implications and gaps of this radical decolonial critique. I first argue that key concepts within the current discourse of decolonisation are at times applied somewhat too formulaically, thereby misrepresenting key tenets of FWP such as its emphasis on action and material compensation (rather than the introspective, psychological processing of white guilt) and self-hatred (rather than white tears). I then contend that what I take to be a key operation of FWP is overlooked, namely, its public enactment of race betrayal or suicide. Redefining Amílcar Cabral’s notions of class betrayal and suicide I define race betrayal as the resolute rejection of the privileges, power and status associated with one’s race through an identification with those that have been oppressed by one’s race. I differentiate such a race suicide from the actual suicide or extinction of a race – as proposed by Terreblanche Delport – and, instead, conceive it as a symbolic act in which a group reckons with problematic aspects linked to its colonialist and racist history. I emphasise the crucial importance of public, performative acts of race suicide to impact on the collective white psyche and intervene in debates on white people’s enduring complicity in colonialism and racism, and ways to overcome the latter. I argue that this aspect of FWP is underappreciated in radical decolonial discourse due to an overemphasis on the material conditions of possibilities of artworks and their real-life effects. I contend that symbolic and material acts cannot be distinguished and valued so simply and are deeply entangled, as evidenced by the key role played by symbolic gestures and cultural politics within the decolonial student protests – especially in the #RhodesMustFall campaign.

The article also considers some possible practical implications for white artists of a radical, decolonial critique of white privilege and allyship. These include the withdrawal from platforms where they might take the place and resources of black artists, or the adoption of a merely facilitating role in the art world geared toward empowering black, underprivileged artists. I show how each option comes with its own difficulties, dilemmas and potential objections from a radical decolonial perspective, which puts white artists who support black liberation in a somewhat impossible position, facing irreconcilable demands.

A final, complicating interpretative move of the article is to assert the importance of FWP’s gender dimension in assessing its allyship with decolonial struggles.

Although Hutton’s queer identity is represented in FWP by the inclusion of their trademark golden boots, it is mostly camouflaged by Hutton’s adoption of a uniform consisting of a typical battle cry of radical decolonial politics, while also being accentuated in a subtle way. Based on such an underplayed, elusive gender expression – which is at variance with Hutton’s other works – I contend that FWP can be understood in line with a series of artivist interventions within the recent decolonisation movements as part of an internal struggle over the prominence of the fight against gender inequality and marginalisation compared to the fight against racial privilege and neo-colonialism. I refer here to a protest action in 2016 by a collective of transgender activists (Trans Collective) and a public art performance in 2015 by Sethembile Msezane entitled Chapangu. I thus read FWP as a form of “gender or queer allyship”, over and above its white allyship, that necessitates a more nuanced way of accounting for the different, intersecting forms of marginalisation regarding race, gender and class simultaneously at play. In developing such a multidimensional approach I draw on Kobena Mercer’s notion of the “politics of marginality” in which the differential distribution of positions of privilege and marginality between an artist and its “subjects” are fully acknowledged and properly weighed. Correspondingly, I argue that although Hutton, as a white person, is undoubtedly privileged in present-day South Africa compared with the majority of black people, such racial privilege is somewhat hampered by Hutton’s marginalised, non-binary gender positioning in a predominantly heteronormative, patriarchal culture shared by all racial communities. Such an intersectional reading is regarded as essential for a more positive assessment of allyships between artists and/or activists from different racial backgrounds in the struggle for decolonisation and gender diversity.

As part of the latter argument I note that although Sosibo acknowledges the importance of FWP’s gender dimension in challenging white, patriarchal heteronormativity and its bodily and beauty ideals, the work’s artivist intervention in the gender politics of radical decolonisation movements goes unnoticed. I take this omission to reflect a recurrent tendency within radical decolonial politics according to which gender issues and struggles are downplayed and deprioritised in relation to issues of material redistribution, as exemplified by Andile Mngxitama’s intervention in the debate on protests by LGBTI activists against Zanu-PF’s homophobic party culture.

Keywords: activism; contemporary art; decolonisation; gender; intersectionality; LGBTQIA; race; South Africa; student protests; white privilege

 

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