Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Say Their Names: Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson, Say their Names, 2020
Overview: The week of June 22, 2020, sees one of the most brilliant images in the storied history of New Yorker covers, Kadir Nelson’s “Say Their Names.” Within an elongated body of the murdered George Floyd, we behold a host of other people of color, many murdered or martyred, across four centuries of American history. The New Yorker website contains a fascinating digital scrolling tour of the cover, which in its upper reaches contains the faces of recent victims of police violence, and descends in time through the victims and heroes of the Civil Rights movement, to images of the enslaved at its base.

Pamela Alllara: The June 22, 2020 New Yorker cover illustration by Los Angeles-based artist Kadir Nelson is both a monument and a history lesson. For the past quarter century, Nelson’s art has addressed  African-American culture both past and present, and his illustrations have appeared on numerous New Yorker covers. In 2019, his artworks for Kwame Alexander’s Caldecott Award-winning poem, The Undefeated, was given the Coretta Scott King award. Frequently, Nelson’s work is composed of collaged portraits, and “Say Their Names” is similarly organized. Floyd’s torso contains portraits of blacks, few of whom we might initially recognize. Reminiscent of a monumental relief sculpture, Floyd’s body is expansive, as it must be to contain the faces that push towards us, requiring us to acknowledge their presence. This commanding composite figure is issuing a posthumous order: to find the individual names, to learn how each person died, and also why they died, which is almost always for no justifiable reason. As Nelson has made clear, George Floyd is not simply an individual; his name refers now to America’s racist history. In his egotistical poem “Song of Myself, 51” Walt Whitman wrote words that now can appropriately be attributed to Floyd:

“The past and present wilt—I have fill’d them,
    Emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future…

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Mark Auslander: In this image, George Floyd's body, containing 'multitudes," serves as a vast graveyard for those who passed before him, at white hands both known and unknown. Blue periwinkle flowers, which often signaled the graves of enslaved and free persons buried without markers, dot this symbolic final resting place. Are we perhaps also meant to think of the flashing blue lights that haunt the nation’s streets and highways, sometimes the last thing seen by those pulled over for driving while black?

On the throat of the vast figure, suffocated by the policeman’s knee for the infamous eight minutes and forty six seconds, we see the faces of some of the most recent victims of the nation’s undeclared war against its own citizens of color: Ahmed Arbery, Tony McDade, and Trayvon Martin. Throughout this shadowy landscape we see those who, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ terms, were denied fundamental authority over their own bodies, even as they struggled for life and dignity, unto the last breath.

Appropriately, George Floyd’s head blocks out two letters of the magazine title, “Y” and “O.” Although he was killed in Minneapolis, his death left a jagged wound in the nation’s preeminent city, in the entire country, and around the world, a reminder of how many lives across the generations have been blotted out before their time. His death has occasioned acts of planned and spontaneous mourning and remembrance near and far, including in the form of murals and street art, and perhaps most famously, the painting in yellow of the words “Black Lives Matter,” on 16th street, directly facing Lafayette Park, from which peaceful protesters were forcefully removed with pepper spray and truncheons for the Presidential photo op. In Concord, Massachusetts, each morning my wife Ellen and I walk on a paved path through the woods, on which two dozen local high school students have conscientiously chalked the names of hundreds of black and brown victims of police shootings, and their efforts are of course echoed now around the planet. There is a fascinating convergence of grieving, for those lost in recent months to Covid-19, a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted communities of color, and the outrage over the violent deaths, one after another after another, of black people.

So far as I can tell, the only white people glimpsed in the work are at its precise center, perhaps over the spot where George Floyd’s heart might be, and roughly where he wore a tattoo. We see the shadowy figures of white police offers beating a prone Rodney King in front of stopped vehicle. The nocturnal scene of terror is lighted, appropriately, by the adjacent burning cross of the Klan.
The work’s title, “Say their names,” occasions a fascinating and necessary history lesson, plumbing the dark depths of American history. Nearly all of us need some help from the website in recalling who precisely we see, although some of the names, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Emmett Till, and Rosa Parks, are familiar to most. The lashed and knotted back of the formerly enslaved man in the bottom right, is recognizablet to many, although his name, “Gordon,” is less widely known. Significantly, the left base of the image is filled with over twenty enslaved people in shackles, whose names are beyond recovery. We can try to honor them in silence, but we cannot follow the injunction to “say their names.: They are forever interred in unmarked graves on the plantation, signaled only by the periwinkles.
Misericordia Polyptych
[Madonna della Misericordia]
 Piero della Francesca. 1460-62

The shape of Floyd’s body has many echoes. Perhaps we are meant to think of the dark outlines used in police target practice, or the chalk outlines drawn around victims’ bodies on the pavement. We may sense flowing from Floyd’s head the torrents of a great river, perhaps an allusion to Langston Hughes’ “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” There may an allusion to the classic motif in Christian iconography of the Misericordia, in which Mary’s outstretched arms and mantle encompass and protect the multitude of the faithful.

Frontispiece of Leviathan by Abraham Bosse,
Jean Comaroff notes parallels with Abraham Bosse’s frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’ “Leviathan,” an etching in which the torso of a giant sovereign is composed of the faces of hundreds of persons, a technique that may have borrowed from Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s tendency to depict portraits of persons composed out of other elements.)

One particularly poignant association may be the famous depictions of the dark shape of the hold of a slave vessel, crammed with captive human bodies, summoning up the estimated 35,000 journeys that brought enslaved people from Africa to the New World across the centuries. Most of those depicted within Nelson’s great body were born long after slavery, but the long shadow of America’s founding original sin endures. In a sense the entire nation remains trapped within the slave hold, charged with the unfinished work of making amends and now rising, one hopes, to the work of social repair.

Many of the depicted faces, it should be noted, are smiling, a reminder of the vital spark of life snuffed out by police violence or white mob action. Floyd’s face is impassive, perhaps even serene, although his darkened eyes do look out at us, unflinchingly, reminding of us of the great work that lies before us, as we seek to honor his memory, and that of the many thousands gone. These are the faces and the names whom we carry with us, as we together, march forward, once more, in the long-thwarted quest to build the Beloved Community here on Earth.

An earlier version of this essay was posted on my personal blog

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Vetoed Dreams: Theodore A. Harris

Theodore A. Harris. Vetoed Dreams. 1995
Theodore A. Harris
Vetoed Dreams
Mixed media collage on paper
Collection Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 

Overview:  A young black male child wearing a bandana or face mask looks at us, his forehead perhaps scarred. Behind half of his head we see a large red stripe; to the right we see an inverted image of the US Capitol. The image of the child is taken from a photograph of a Rwandan boy, wearing a mask to protect himself from the stench of victims of the vast genocide of 1994.

Mark Auslander: Although created a quarter century ago in the immediate aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, this image of a vulnerable masked child speaks to us with startling urgency today, as the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic--from which face masks offer partial, though by no means complete, protection. The upside down US Capitol dome, then as now, is a reminder of ineffective US governmental response: how many lives might have been saved, in 1994 or 2020, had those in power acted with more foresight, decisiveness, and moral courage?

The image is centered on a young Rwanda male, wearing a face mask to protect himself against the overwhelming stench of rotting bodies. The mask has the function of highlighting his eyes, which look directly out at us, silent reminders of the failures of the international community, and especially the US government, to intervene to limit the mass killings by state-sanctioned militias.

Alfredo Jaar
The Eyes of Gutete Emerita, 1996
The work of the eyes is rather like those in Alfredo Jaar's  "The Eyes of Gutete Emerita" (1996), created a year after Harris' collage. Jaar's eyes pose a haunting accusation to the world, for failing to prevent the massacre in Rwanda's Ntamara Church. For Jaar, as for Harris, the worst illness of our era is a failure of empathy and of outrage, the numbing of passionate care and concern for others. A silent, gazing pair of eyes constitutes the most fundamental appeal to see the self in the other, the I in the Thou, to fully acknowledge the pain of others and the common dignity of all sentient life.

Viewed in the mid-1990s, the vertical red stripe behind the young man, which intensifies the color of his bandana and the downward slashes of his forehead scars, bought to mind the flows of blood from the hundreds of thousands of mutilated corpses, as well as the Kagera River, through which tens of thousands of murdered bodies floated  from Rwanda down to Lake Victoria in Uganda, irrefutable evidence of the horrors unfolding upriver.  The parallelism between the youth's black head and the rotund shape of the white Capitol building is striking, and is made even stronger by the now-downward direction of the spire, evocative perhaps of the governmental inaction, which in effect pierced the victims as sharply as any machete.

Masks as Racial Signifiers

Reconsidering the work in 2020 our minds inevitably turn to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on communities of color, as converging co-morbidities linked to prexisting medical conditions are intensified through histories of poverty, deficient medical care, and racialized geographies.  
There is at the present moment a strange racial politics to the wearing of masks in the United States; those on the right who refuse to wear masks to protect themselves or others against the disease are by and large sympathetic to white nationalist positions (even if they do not consciously acknowledge that sympathy). They insist that the mask is an infringement on their personal freedom. This stance can be read as implicitly racially coded, in light of the thoughtful analysis by Adam Serwer in his essay in the Atlantic, "The Coronavirus Was an Emergency Until Trump Found Out Who Was Dying."  Building on Charles Mills' concept of the 'racial contract,'  Serwer argues that Trump's supporters are motivated first and foremost by a politics of resentment against the undercutting of an older system of unquestioned higher status for whites; and that as it became clear that communities of color were predominantly at risk of mortality from Covid-19, resolve to combat the pandemic diminished proportionally, both in the Trump administration and in "Red"-governed states.

In the puzzling alchemy of race in the US of 2020, to refuse to wear a mask (fully revealing one's face) has become a kind of public affirmation of white identity, while wearing a mask is coded as signaling a commitment to a multiracial compact of mutual care as foundational to the democratic experiment. (This is, as many have noted, a striking contrast to the association of masks and white racial terror during the periods of the first and second Klan.)

As I write these words, these dynamics are pointedly on view in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on the weekend of Juneteenth, as thousands of Trump supporters, overwhelmingly white, flock for the President's first mass rally of the pandemic era, most refusing to wear masks, as  a multiracial alliance of protesters, galvanized around #GeorgeFloyd and #BlackLivesMatter, converge on the city, most of them likely to wear masks. All this unfolds at the site of the nation's most horrific pogrom against African Americans, on the eve of its centennial. Two Americas, one masked, one unmasked. An ethic of mutual care and transracial solidarity, opposed to an ethos of ostensibly rugged individualism and an assertion that 'race doesn't matter anymore' (an alibi, of course, for the transmuted white nationalist stance).  Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter.

The Capitol, in Free Fall

I am also fascinated by the way in which this image centers on the image of the upside-down Legislature as a stand-in for Federal government failure, even though so much of the responsibility for the failures of both the 1994 response to Rwanda and the 2020 responses to the novel coronavirus rests with the Executive Branch.  This ambiguity is millennia-old, of course: the Roman Empire identified itself through the initials, SPQR, Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (The Roman Senate and People). Even when the Emperor had  long superseded the actual decision-making functions of the Senate, the legal fiction endured that he governed as an expression of the Senate and the popular will of the people of Rome.  

We may be approaching a similar moment in the United States, in which the Republican-led Senate appears to have abdicated all oversight responsibilities, bending to the will of an increasingly autocratic Executive. The Executive power of the "veto," even when it is not exercised, seems to have cowed the upper branch of the legislature into staggering passivity, putting at risk, in the current crisis, hundreds of thousands of lives (especially the lives of persons of color, imperiled by militarized policing and public health failures.
The power of the "Veto, " referenced in the collage/s title, also dates back to Ancient Rome, to the power of the Tribune to block action by the Senate, and to supersede conventional law by virtue of ostensibly standing for the whole of society, having, as the keeper of law, the ultimate power to suspend all laws under emergency conditions. These paradoxes are brilliantly explored in Giorgio Agamben's book,  Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life" (1998).  Agamben centers his discussion on the figure of the Homo Sacer, a person condemned to live outside of the shadow of law, so that any person may kill him, while his body is deemed unworthy of serving as a sacrifice in ritual action. This shadowy figure, Agamben argues, continues in the modern world, which renders permanent a "state of exception" that legitimates mass violence against certain designated classes of people, cast outside of the "spell of law,"  by an executive that claims to embody the totality of society.  Hence the road to Auschwitz, to the massacre sites of Rwanda and Srebrenica,  to the confining of migrant children in border cages and to the present-day abdication by those in power of the duty to care for persons of color most threatened by a global pandemic. 

I have a final thought, inspired by that other set of eyes immortalized in Alfred Jaar's work.  Some years ago, we organized with the Waltham Family School a series of workshops for refugee and new immigrant women, who crafted recorded testimonies about major works of art in the collection of Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.   One woman, recently arrived from war-torn western Guatemala, was deeply taken with  The Eyes of Gutete Emerita.  She was not very familiar with the Rwandan genocide, but she knew, she said, the eyes of women survivors of any violent civil conflict. "For men, she says, a war stops when the bullets stop flying. But for us women, another, real war starts at that moment.  Our menfolk come home, having seen such horror, and we must wait watchfully, wondering what did he do to survive, and what might he do, because of that, to me and my children? Will we ever see kindness again?"

Midway through our annus horribilis of 2020, her question seems more urgent than ever,  posed in a new register by those haunting eyes, still staring out at us from Jaar's work and  Harris' "Vetoed Dreams." There is a kind of rage afoot in the contemporary US rightist white sector, coalesced around the Trump cult of personality, which seems to have cast people of color, and by partial extension their allies, as outside the penumbra of social protection, as alien beings whose lives are trifling.  No mask will be worn to protect them. They must be driven with tear gas from the public square. Increasingly guns can be fired at will. Knees taken to the throat. 

Will we ever see kindness again? 

Ellen Schattschneider:   Mark concentrates on the first word of Harris' title, "Vetoed. " I am especially intrigued by his second word, "Dreams." What precisely are we being asked to awaken from, then and now, through this piercing image?  In this light I am inclined to approach the work, both in its original 1995 framing and in how we read it 25 years later, through the psychoanalytic concept of "disavowal," which for Freud was vital to unpacking our dreaming and waking lives.   Unlike the psychic function of repression, in which a threatening impulse or scenario tends to be deeply buried in the mind, that which is "disavowed" rests relatively close to the surface, and is hedged about with constant strategies to prevent full recognition of a truth that is in a profound sense known, although it cannot be spoken or manifestly acknowledged.  As Freud notes, the mind actively and "obstinately defends" itself against overt perceptual evidence, to prevent potentially disturbing or traumatic realizations.

In that sense, one of the most important elements of Harris' image is the white field below the inverted Capitol dome, an enveloping miasma of denialism, as if "white-out," used to cover up typing errors, has been spread across the surface.  In one reading, the white fog of disavowal, enhanced by the whiteness of the upside-down Capitol, organizes the right half of the canvas as "safe" and "neutral," in contrast to the deeply disturbing left side, associated with death and terror through the palates of red and black.  The distinction is consistent with Robert Hertz's (1907)  famous anthropological discussion of Death and handedness, previously noted in these pages; in diverse world cultures, the left hand is symbolically associated with death, darkness, and danger, while the right is associated with life, protection, and light.  (Harris appropriately complicates and subverts this conventional distinction, as a proud band of black resolutely extends into the right half of the canvas, above the Capitol dome.)

At one level, "veto" could refer, as Mark suggests, to the exercise of Presidential power to thwart proper, righteous action.  The state has failed to answer the understandable dreams of the people of Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Central America,  or persons of color on local streets, for peace and justice, and in that sense the nation has vetoed their dreams. As we have seen this week, the #BlackLivesMatter movement's call for serious police reform has faced de facto veto in the Senate, even without a formal Presidential rejection.

But perhaps, in a deeper sense, the work's call for justice is actually an insistence that the dream of disavowal, of systematic failure to apprehend reality, will itself be vetoed, or actively pierced by the accumulated weight of history.

Disavowal in the long term never really works, and that crucial truth is, to my mind, the point of the image. The white mist might be read, not simply as the blanking out of reality,  nor only as a racialized "white out" but rather as two spectral hands, irrepressibly returning to take hold of the Capitol. Perhaps the souls of those whose enslaved hands built this very building, as well as the nation, are rising up to demand a long-delayed accounting. (How appropriate that the upper dome of the Library of Congress, the nation's repository of knowledge and history, is just barely visible over the inverted Capitol's flank: even in our era of systematic, wilful ignorance,  the flame of wisdom and rationality isn't quite wiped out.) 

In 2020, amidst a pandemic whose severity is being actively denied by President Trump and his supporters, the dynamics of disavowal are undiminished, albeit in a novel register.  The complaint by white rightists and libertarians that wearing a mask is a 'constraint' on their personal freedom, actively "masks," I suggest, an underlying resistance to the harness of social responsibility, to taking civic-mindedness seriously, to entering into the social contract.  To say that I am free only inasmuch as I am a sovereign state unto myself, independent of others, is an act of pathological disavowal, a refusal to recognize how deeply bound to one another we actually are, from our initial bond to our mother onwards.  Today, to don the mask in the public square is to acknowledge, at the end of the day,  that we are our brothers and sisters' keepers. Our very breath, which gives us life, can transmit danger to others, and our promise to one another is to try to keep our shared air, from which draw breath, as safe as possible.  

The spectacle of white folks gathered, proudly and defiantly maskless on Florida beaches or around state capitols, insisting that they are in God's hands,  is perhaps the epitome of disavowal. My actions don't matter since I will be taken care by the Lord (who, it may be assumed, is white like me). It's just those other people, over there, who are the problem. They may be constrained by society (and by masks) but I am free. The point about the white "racial contract" as the fundamental unmarked category in American society,  is that it makes a claim to not being a contract at all. It is simply the natural order of things. Anything else is catering to "special interests."

A person can try, as hard as they might, to maintain the dream illusion that like the Capitol in Harris' montage, they exist only on terms of their own making, on their own island, in full disavowal of the fires burning an ocean away, or three blocks away. But the arc of history does have a way of bending, and even the dream-universe of total self-mastery (the ultimate fantasy, it should be noted,  of the Confederate slaveocracy) has a way of going topsy-turvy and tumbling down.  That spire of the Capitol just might pierce the dream world of the sanctified Self, whatever elaborate defenses the Ego has deployed.

None of this is without irony. The Statue of Freedom on the Capitol's apex was, we now know, partly cast and erected by enslaved persons.  The weight of history's injustices rests upon the very nation's ultimate symbol of liberty, the gleaming dome of the US Capitol. Yet, in our ability to recognize those long denied truths as self-evident, we can awake ourselves from the dream of a past denied, and marching together, celebrate a new birth of freedom. 


Hertz, Robert, 1960 (1907). Death and the Right Hand (trans. Rodney and Claudia Needham.) London: Cohen and West 

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Victime Covid-19: Romario Rolook Lukau

Romario Rolook Lukau
Victime Covid-19

Kinshasa-based artist Romario Rolook Lukau has posted this painting on Instagram.  An African man, perhaps a double of the artist himself, is bare chested and facing us directly, wearing a protective face mask, in front of a bright yellow background. His right torso (our left), arms and forehead are partially tattooed or painted with abstract shapes. Over his right shoulder (the viewer’s left) he totes an automatic weapons; over his left shoulder is an elaborate nkisi nkondi, with a ritual mirror embedded in its center. The  face of the nkisi seems to be that of a monkey; the figurine holds aloft in its right arm a open circular form, in which a spear or blade might be inserted, its  right thumb pointed upwards.

Mark Auslander: Wyatt MacGaffey, leading authority on minkisi and their diverse affordances, suggests in correspondence that the nkisi nkondi is perhaps here used, like the AK-47, as a signifier of African militancy and resistance in the face of the challenge of Covid-19.  It is possible that the artist may be in sympathy with assertions, circulated on line,  that the virus, or the projected vaccine, are specifically targeting Africans and they they must be actively resisted.

Minkisi nkondi (known in coastal regions as minkisi mbau) are the most potent form of minkisi, and can be used to enforce oaths that have been sworn as nails are pounded into them, and more broadly to protect an entire community. They contain medicines and spiritually charged substances, including grave dirt, often encased in a special abdominal cavity behind the core mirror, which implies energies and visionary capacities that move between the visible and invisible worlds. It seems appropriate that in this struggle against the invisible terror of the virus, this human figure would be protected in part through an nkisi, a kind of portable grave through which the powers of the ancestors are made accessible to the living.  The ritual figurine over one shoulder, which presumably once held a spear or knife, may function as a kind of spiritual gun, complementing the physical firearm hefted on the opposite shoulder.

Nkisi Nkonde (power figure)
Wood, iron nails, glass, resin
Angola, Congo, and Democratic Republic
of the Congo (Ambrizette region);
H. 51.4 cm (20")
University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art
The nkisi nkondi depcted here is similar in form  to one in the collection  of the University of Iowa's  Stanley Museum of Art,  The Stanley’s catalogue entry for the figurine states, “The figure stands with one arm raised (the hand once grasped a spear of knife) with the thumb pointing toward the realm of God, Nzambi.”

Perhaps significantly, in Lukau's painting the man’s face mask and the nkisi’s mirror are side by side, and share a mixture of light and shadow, suggesting a resemblance between man and ritual object: in both instances, secrecy and enclosure may be linked to special powers.

I am uncertain how to read the designs on the torso, arms and forehead of the man; other paintings by this artist depicts similar designs on human skin.  They are somewhat reminiscent of design elements found in the art of indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast of North America, motifs which at times speak to the intimate relationships between persons and nature's beings. Perhaps the artist here hints at comparable affinities between humans and creatures of the forest, or evokes flows of energy pulsating through the body.

Several Bakongo minkisi nkondi in museum collections including in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Leiden’s Rijksmuseum for Folk Art, do have monkey or ape features,  The fur of monkeys is at times used in the fabrication of minkisi. I am not sure if the monkey face in this instance bears special significance for the artist.

Although the nkisi and the male human figure evoke strength and vitality, the title "Victim (of) Covid-19" suggests that the person may be gravely ill. Perhaps he has in fact succumbed to the pandemic, and is in the process of moving towards ancestorhood. Representing him here in painted form might,  like the act of fabricating an nkisi,  help summon the invisible powers to safeguard the living at their time of great trial. 

Elaine Sullivan:   In front of a bright yellow background, Lukau’s male figure stands looking straight ahead, white surgical mask on, gun over his right shoulder. Above the man’s left shoulder, an nkisi stands looking straight ahead, its right hand raised above its right shoulder, a carved circle indicating where a blade would once have been. The man may have his gun on one shoulder and the nkisi on the other as two weapons to fight Covid-19, or the parallelism between the two figures with weapons over their right shoulders might imply that the man himself will act like an nkisi to protect himself and his community. Further, the white the of man’s mask doubles the white of the mirror over the nkisi’s belly, where a medicinal pack would like have been placed, a source of the nkisi’s power.

 In a time of airborne infection, one can also imagine the mask covering a cavity holding powerful, unknown substances. On the man’s body, white paint used on the figure’s skin brightly reflects light and divides the figure between light and shadow. Notably, the nkisi shines out above the shoulder in shadow, perhaps signaling its work within an unknown realm of ancestors and spirits (though to be clear not necessarily associated with negative acts or dark arts).

I have been thinking a lot about minkisi since first sheltering at home because of Covid-19. At home I worried about the virus, about my community, and about the unknown. On the one hand, the virus’ airborne transmission has exposed how interconnected we are with our communities, perhaps best illustrated by the reminders that wearing a mask does not protect oneself, but rather everyone else. On the other hand, the virus has laid bare the divisions within our communities, disproportionately affecting and killing the elderly sequestered in nursing homes, and those workers deemed “essential,” many of whom come from poorer neighborhoods and communities of color. I think of minkisi because of how they can work on both individual and collective levels.

Many of the minkisi made in Congo do not look like the nail figure painted by Lukau, but are rather small bundles of medicinal substances used for personal protection or healing. As Mark mentions, larger, anthropomorphic minkisi nkondi like the one pictured work on a community-level and some were community-owned. Each nail is a symbol of an instance the nkisi has been called upon to do such things as witness an oath or agreement between members of the community. To fail to live up to the oath would incur the wrath of the nkisi, ensuring all follow the social order. I have been thinking of minkisi because they protect and heal, actions many individuals but also entire communities are in need of right now. Considering the virus works in the beyond-visible realm, in addition to following doctor’s orders I would also seek a protector who also works in invisible, such as the nkisi-spirit.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

COPvid 2020: John Sims

John Sims
COPvid 2020
Digital image

Overview: A large blue planet has a police badge emblazoned across it, rather like a continent surrounded by oceans.  The center third of the badge is cast in shadow. Twelve American flags protrude into space from the planet's surface.  In the background dozens of identical blue police planets also surrounded by tiny flags,  float in space, filled with darkness and dust.

Mark Auslander: John Sims' new digital artwork "COPvid 2020."  accompanies his 14 June 2020 commentary in the Orlando Sentinel,   "Dear Police: We can’t trust until you change", written as an open letter to "The Police."  The work draws a clever implicit parallel between the SARS-CoV-2 novel coronavirus (engaged with through Sims' recent video game "Korona Killa" and the metaphorical virus of endemic racial terror. The twelve flags flying from the surface of each planet are reminiscent of the American flag planted on the moon's surface by the Apollo astronauts, and equally evocative of the protein spikes of the novel coronavirus. Those protein spikes, it should be remembered,  function as camouflage through which the virus in effect mimes helpful proteins, tricking the cell's walls to allow it entrance into the cell, where viral RNA hijacks the cell's internal mechanisms, turning it in a device of its own destruction, ultimately starving the body of life giving oxygen.

Similarly, the artist may be suggesting, claims to patriotism are cynically deployed by "Law and Order" political leaders and law enforcement to infect the body politic with the virus of racial violence.  There might even by a sly allusion to the claims by the police of limited immunity for violent transgressions: our national political and jural system is increasingly revealed as immuno-compromised, unable to defend its citizens of color against aggressive, armed over-policing.

I find myself thinking of the tiny planet on Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince, in which the Prince must be forever on guard against the voracious baobabs that threaten to devour his entire miniature planetoid.  Are the flags themselves, used an alibi to justify excessive force and prevent civilian oversight, similarly corrosive of the body politic, as each Planet Police spins out of control, a universe unto itself,  accountable to no one? 

Another way of reading the image is as an insatiable Borg invasion force, or a deadly squadron of Imperial Starfighters, straight out of Star Wars, flying from the Death Star on attack trajectory.  Perhaps Darth Vader himself casting his ominous shadow across the police badge.  Is Planet Alderaan next in line for annihilation, as the Empire seeks to bend the galaxy to its will, its knee to the neck of all who dare resist it?'

Russell Smith:  Each look at John Sims' image reveals another layer of meaning.  Closer inspection reveals that the shield bearing the phrase  “American Police” is in fact the seal of the City of Minneapolis. Thus, the artist invokes the horrific death of George Floyd, while emphasizing that the now notorious Minneapolis Police Department is not unique, but at heart  just like all of the other police departments in the U.S., both large and small.  We are not simply dealing with individual officers or specific police departments that are 'bad apples," but rather an entire "planetary system" of systemic racism.

Each flag bears a blue stripe through its middle, eclipsing the red and white stripes. Here we presumably see a reference to the “blue line of silence” which mandates that police protect their own, no matter what atrocity has been committed.   This culture of silence, denial and cover-up, tragically, has been incorporated into the American Way, and millions of people of color are paying the price.

Rev. Avis Williams:  There are twelve months in a year, and twelve flags surround each Police Planet.  Are all police departments the same every day of the year, biased against black folks?  Perhaps the darkness around the smaller part of the badge suggested that not all officers feel the same as the majority of their fellow officers.  Some officers desire to do the right thing and treat all people as equal, as human beings, and seek to come out of the shadows, into the light. 

The flags are stuck in dozens of planets but these flags are stationary, not blowing in the wind but fixed in the cold vacuum of outer space.  These officers and departments, large and small, want their current way of doing things to remain the same,  frozen in place: they do not want the winds of change and transformation to blow their way.  The flags, planets, and badges are symmetrical, though not the same size.  The badge covers and controls the planet, holding Righteousness, Justice, and Fairness down, like an officer's knee on George Floyd's neck in Minneapolis, like an officer's knee kicking Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, like an officer standing on the shoulder of Rayshard Brooks, all as these men lay dying in the darkness of Injustice and Racism. 

The planet resembles the Coronavirus model shown in Mr. Sim's previous work. The darkness of this Virus is ravaging the black community in disproportionate numbers compared to the white community.   Yet, in Mr. Sims rendering, there is light underneath and in the midst of the darkness.  Viewing this work as a person of faith,  I know that there remains hope that the God of the Universe, presiding over all planets large and small, will do right.  The Lord is the light of the world and will overcome the darkness of this age, in time, and the time is now for Injustice and Racism to end!  The time is now for light to overcome darkness, bringing Equality, Justice, and Righteousness front and center. 

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Fisherman's Trophy: Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen
Fisherman's Trophy
Digital Photograph
TLC Extension Collection (South Africa, 202)

Overview: A digital photograph depicts a taxidermy specimen of a downward-pointing fish with open mouth above a taxidermy specimen of a small bird, perhaps a chick, affixed to a wooden platform, in a circle of dirt and pebbles. The shadows of  fish,  bird, and platform are visible on the wall behind.

Artist's StatementThe image might convey a metaphor for one being at the mercy of a force larger than oneself that one has little hope of overcoming.

Mark Auslander:  Both the image and the accompanying abbreviated artist's statement are enigmatic.  Other than the occasional shark, fish are not in the habit of eating baby birds, and this is clearly not a shark. Is this an image of an actual fisherman's trophy, or a fanciful artifice photoshopped by the artist himself? It is far from clear what the referenced "metaphor" might stand for.  Is the microscopic SARS-CoV-2 really "larger" than the human hosts it infects?  Is the devouring fish a stand-in for the spiraling pandemic and associated economic pain inflicted by the Lockdown, locally and globally?  Is the chick, seemingly oblivious to the descending peril, a representative of clueless humanity on the verge of decimation?

Perhaps the ominous "force larger than oneself" being evoked is the linked practice of taxidermy and of trophy-taking, and the entire sensibility these activities embody--to wit,  the belief that humans stand in a relationship of unquestioned dominion over the realm of nature.  Hunters and fishers routinely commission taxidermists to create tableaux incorporating their prizes, sometimes in naturalistic, or sometimes, as in this case, utterly absurd poses. Nature in these mises en scène is reduced, in the seemingly omniscient gaze of the human master,  to something outside of and subordinate to ourselves,  its extracted elements to be freely re-arranged and manipulated according to our will.  This was a principle inherent in classic natural history museums, which through taxidermy displays by and large celebrated the extraction of nature's bounty within an overarching narrative of biological and social evolutionism, honoring the survival of the fittest according to a natural and political hierarchy that equated might with progress. The greater devours the lesser, on and on.

This is, one might argue, precisely the mode of thinking that got us into our current mess, including climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. Uncontrolled human expansion into previously intact biodiverse ecosystems, impelled by an ideology of unquestioned human dominion over nature, has brought people into ever closer contact with wild organisms, including bats (which constitute about one quarter of all mammalian species) that serve as catalyzing reservoirs for emergent viral pathogens.  Taxidermy could be seen as a symptom of our underlying condition, of the illusion that nature is merely our plaything, a dream state from which we are rudely awakened when nature's beings, however tiny, strike back.

Having said that, there is something to be said for the humor of this digitally created assemblage. The artist seems to be inverting the poster for the movie Jaws (1975), one of the most familiar icons of global visual culture. An enormous phallic, sharp-toothed Great White Shark swims upwards  towards an oblivious,  scantily-clad swimming young woman on the surface. Article of evidence Number One for a feminist critique of the male cinematic gaze, reducing Woman to the objectified victim of voracious male sexual predation, visually and otherwise (Heath 1985; cf. Creed 1993).

In Ballen's version, however, the attacking fish is toothless and rather flacid, and the female swimmer is recast as a fuzzy little chick. Rather than traversing the deep ocean, the birdling is scratching around in the dirt. And rather than emerging from the watery depths, the fish ineffectually dangles down rather ridiculously from above, with a mouth hardly quite big enough to swallow its intended prey.  Not much prowess left at all.  Even the deep blue sea is rendered ineffective, a painted, roughly daubed wall. 

The June 1, 2020 New Yorker cover depicts an anxious person walking though an empty cityscape, apartment windows filled with the shadows of fellow New Yorkers locked in by the Lockdown. The visual joke is that the entire cover is upside down. Turning to the Table of Contents, we learn that artist Richard McGuire has given his cover art work the title, "This Side Up." A fitting commentary for our topsy-turvy zeitgeist, when all the old certainties are gone, and we need instructions about just where Above and Below actually are.  How far have we come from 1975, when we could enjoy the horror flick secure in the knowledge that Roy Scheider would triumph in the end, in mano a mano combat over nature's most fearsome underwater predator.  Nowadays, we aren't even sure which end is up, and no harpoon, however sharp or explosive, avails us in flailing against a danger we can't even see or quite make sense of.  We could try standing on our heads, but that, alas, won't help either. Welcome to the vertiginous fun house of 2020, a hall of mirrors in which we meet the distorted, upside down enemy, only to discover, at the end of the day, that he (or she) is us.


Creed, Barbara.  1993. The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. 1 edition, Routledge. 

Heath, Stephen. 1985.  Jaws, Ideology, and Film Theory. in Movies and Methods, Vol II. edited by Bill Nicols. University of California Press. 509-14. 

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Saturday, June 13, 2020

There's a Cat among the Pigeons: Steven Rosin

Steven Rosin
There's a Cat Among the Pigeons
Bullet lead, acrylic paint, and lacquer on hand-carved wood
TLC Extension Collection (South Africa, 2020)

Overview: Sculptures of a bird with the head of a cat.

Artist's Statement: 'There's a Cat among the Pigeons' This sculptural 'flock' is derived from the Aesop's fable called The Cat and the Birds, which goes as follows: A Cat was growing very thin. As you have guessed, he did not get enough to eat. One day he heard that some Birds in the neighbourhood were ailing and needed a doctor. So he put on a pair of spectacles, and with a leather box in his hand, knocked at the door of the Bird’s home. The Birds peeped out, and Dr. Cat, with much solicitude, asked how they were. He would be very happy to give them some medicine. “Tweet, tweet,” laughed the Birds. “Very smart, aren’t you? We are very well, thank you, and more so, if you only keep away from here.” Sometimes the cure can be more dangerous...

And here's my artist statement in response to the Corona Event: A macabre dance of dubious origins and questionable rhythm played out to a reluctant audience in an empty theatre

Mark Auslander:  Since the Covid-19 crisis began, the world has seen tens of thousands of hagiographic images, from street murals to high art, centered on the figure of the heroic medical worker, the beloved frontline warrior of the current struggle. Rosin's sculpture is so far as I know unique in casting a medical figure, here marked with the familiar red cross, as the villain of the story.

So who precisely is the cat in the artist's rendition of Aesop's fable, trying to sneak his way into the pigeon's house? One approach would be to read him as the novel coronavirus itself, whose protein spikes in effect knock on the front door of our cells, masquerading as a benevolent protein to gain admission through the cell's protective outer membrane, only to seize control of the cell's "programming" and transform it into a factory for producing viral RNA that proliferates through the body. In that sense, the hybrid bird-cat could seen as an image of the hybridity of our vital-invaded cells and bodies, paralleling Ella Conjé's vision of a zoomorph human-horse hybrid.

The artist's statement that the "cure is more dangerous..[than the disease]," however, would seem to suggest that  he views the deceitful cat as an avatar of the Lockdown itself. Here in the United States, this position is usually associated with rightist supporters of President Trump. Having recently lived in the Michigan Lansing area, where anti Lockdown protesters rallied at the State Capitol, some bearing Confederate flags and automatic weapons, I must admit that I instinctively recoil from the position.  The current predicament of Brazil, where Federal leadership has heaped scorn on the danger of Covid-19, seems disturbingly instructive, as the nation's infection rate has climbed to the world's second highest.

However, it must be acknowledged that in the South African context the "cure" of the Lockdown has been enormously challenging for the nation's poor, who are overwhelming located in under-served communities of color.  The work of artist's in evoking this saga is enormously important. The impact of economic shutdown in these locations is painfully and poignantly illustrated, for example, by the embroidered small tapestries produced by the Heartworks Stitching Club in Cape Town; by Themba Khumalo's haunting drawing of the seemingly endless queues for food parcels; and Kim Berman's depiction of the ravages of forced shantytown removals in her "State of Disaster."  Clearly.  Lockdown absent systematic economic assistance (including, many would argue, a universal basic guaranteed income) and a highly efficient and accessible public health system, clearly poses terrible burdens on already precarious and marginalized sectors of society. In that sense, the artist's choice of bullet lead, itself a pernicious neurotoxin, for this hybrid sculpture is all too apt; the nation's poor are targets of multiple assaults, born of the virus itself and of state response that tragically fails so many in their time of greatest need.

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New Territories: Bevan de Wet

Bevan de Wet
New Territories
Etching with chine-collé
TLC Extension Collection (South Africa, 2020)

Overview: Etching, two images of a plant, reversed. Left image on dark background, right image with light background..

Artist's Statement:  In my current practice, I am exploring man’s growing sense of alienation from the natural environment. Being forced to stay indoors, and not interact is certainly exacerbating this feeling, further estranging us from our surroundings and communities. Distancing ourselves from nature, our perceptions of it are distorted and idyllicised through digital media.

My garden becomes a site for inspiration, meditating on an invasive plant, a common weed, and revisiting it in an abstracted and disconnected sense. It becomes a new way of mapping our immediate spaces. Since mapping has a history of colonialism, of plotting “unchartered” space, this practice of construction and deconstruction attempts to reverse and re-imagine, in a sense unoccupying space. By working with a combination of structure and chance, allows for a vulnerable space that evokes a sense of uncertainty and otherworldliness.

By embracing change, I aim to highlight the ephemeral cycle of creation and disintegration. This practice becomes an allegory for the breakdown of our ancestral values, and the fragmented nature of our engagement with space and our connection to the world.

William Blake, Jerusalem, Plate 91
Mark Auslander:
On plate 91 of his mystical visionary poem Jerusalem, William Blake famously writes, "he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole / Must see it in its Minute Particulars."  Blake illustrates the plate with a vision of the fallen hero Los, despondent yet mystically interconnected to enigmatic minute shapes that will help in time reveal the general forms he seeks.  Significantly, these mystic shapes are bound to each side of the prone figure, hinting at the interior duality of being that will time be overcome and integrated.

Blake was referring to the impulse to grasp the full measure of Divinity, but his insight equally applies to current struggles to understand the entire global ecosystem, including the dynamic entanglements of human and nature at this moment of crisis.  In this etching Bevan de Wet concentrates our gaze on the "minute particulars" of a single invasive weed found growing freely in his garden during Lockdown, which on close examination hints at the vast "Whole" of our present condition, as we stand on the eve of entering a new, uncharted era.

Through our present-day anxious eyes, the alien's weed's strands might be read as analogous to the novel coronavirus itself, with single strands of viral RNA (lacking the double helix of DNA that are foundational to "life" as we usually define it) that threaten to hijack the interior operations of our normal cells. As a virus that is both an invasive pathogen and a re-progammer of our inner being, SARS-CoV-2 is both  "us" and "not us," confounding normal distinctions between self and other. Hence, it is perhaps appropriate that this diptych presents a mirrored symmetrical vision, in opposite exposures, of this strangely beautiful organism.

We are now face to face with our shadow selves, unleashed, it would appear by our species' rapid and uncontrolled expansion into previously wild ecosystems, coming into every closer contact with bats and other organisms that function as generative hosts for new and emerging viruses.  Long term solutions to this and other viral pandemics will require critical and rigorous self-examination across the looking glass: what new protocols of human-natural balance might be re-calibrated as we struggle to live successfully with all manner of life across the biosphere?

In his statement De Wet references the long history of colonial mapping as a technology of domination, reducing the ostensibly "empty" territory of conquered and occupied land into projections of the colonizer's fantasies. These historical dynamics are particularly salient in South Africa, in which mapping has for centuries been an instrument of surveillance, land alienation, population removal, and terror. The dark left face of the lithograph could be read as evoking the "Dark Continent" of Africa in the colonial imagination, a darkness which for Joseph Conrad was an outer projection of the rage and violence burning in the white European soul. Presenting the dark and light exposures of the plant as mirror images of one another is perhaps a strategy for undoing the colonial fantasy of unbridgeable racial difference, a reminder of the fundamental unity of being across seeming lines of difference.

As Jean and John Comaroff argue in Of Revelation and Revolution, Vol. 2, non-comformist protestant mission gardens on the southern African colonial frontier were performative enactments of the civilizing mission, producing in microcosm the hoped-for transformation of the wild into the domestic, the purposeless into the practical. They were also structured as seeds of change, that would fructify surrounding African indigenous communities, spreading the values of husbandry, industry, and the cult of domesticity. Mission horticulture and agriculture began with the clearing of "weeds," the imposition of cultigens in rows, irrigated  and plowed according to routinized discipline. So too would the hearts and minds of African converts, the theory went, be rendered disciplined, punctual, and industrious according to the reigning protocols of rational modernity, liberated from the weeds of "idleness"  and "superstition" that were held by missionaries to be the primary African curses. 

De Wet offers us an alternate vision, a meticulous charting of a wild plant, volunteering its way within the garden, free to pursue its own course of growth and development, honored through careful observation and sensitive artistic rendition.  Like Blake's mystic vision in Plate 91 of the prone hero Los, connected to "minute particulars" from each flank, this delicate exploration is figured symmetrically, hinting at a unified whole as we venture forward, with fear, hesitation and a sense of wonder, into the "new territories" ahead.


William Blake Jerusalem:  The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804–1820) ,

Jean and John Comaroff, 1997. Of Revelation and Revolution, Vol 2.  The Dialectics of Modernity on a South African Frontier, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Coronavirus Embroideries: Heartworks Story Project

Coronavirus Embroideries

The Heartworks Stories project
Cape Town
The Heartworks Stitching Club

Overview: A series of embroideries, primarily by local and migrant women, in Cape Town, South Africa, depicting the impact of the Covid-19 Lockdown on their communities 

Pamela Allara: On June 8, 2020, American sociologist and photographer Jennifer Natalie Fish, whose research focuses on women’s labor in informal economies, and who chairs the Women’s Studies department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, published a short notice on her website about a group of embroideries depicting the coronavirus pandemic being created by the Heartworks Stitching Club in Cape Town, South Africa. The Stitching Club is based at the Heartworks crafts shop at the Old Biscuit Mill, but the 25 migrant and local women involved work from home. Heartworks was founded Margaret Woermann in 2000 in order to support local crafts women and men; Woermann currently purchases craft from many more crafters than just those women. Although Heartworks’ two shops offer a wide range of crafts objects, from refrigerator magnets to animal sculptures, its best-known products, embroidered teddy bears and hearts, are sold throughout South Africa and provide the women with sustainable income. The COVID-19 cloths are the most recent of its products.

Embroidery Collectives (Historical Background: Beginning in the 1980s, embroidery collectives were established in rural, impoverished areas to provide women and their families with desperately needed income. Several of the obstacles to the success of these projects included lack of contact with buyers as well as the challenge of arriving at ‘saleable’ subject matter. Whatever the initial challenges, a number of the collectives have thrived; for example, embroidered cloths, including wall hangings and table cloths, by the Kaross Workers and the Mapula group, sell widely to both locals and tourists in craft shops in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The women in these established collectives produce standard motifs such as South African wildlife, but the products avoid becoming repetitive as each individual is encouraged to represent the animals, or other motifs, such as domestic scenes, as she sees them. In addition, the larger wall-hangings permit the women to tell their own stories.

Florence Mdlolo, “Khululiwe”, Amazwi Abesifasane (Voices of Women) project, 2000-1, embroidered cloth, 28 x 41 cm Create Africa South, Durban
Florence Mdlolo,
Amazwi Abesifasane (Voices of Women) project,
2000-1, embroidered cloth, 28 x 41 cm
Create Africa South, Durban

Indeed, starting in the late 1990s, embroidery projects were seen as a means for reconciling a divided society by recording diverse histories. For example, in 2000, sculptor Andries Botha founded the Amazwi Abesifazane (Voices of Women) project in Zwa-Zulu Natal to use pictorial cloths to permit “the rather tentative, fragile, and endangered human stories to become part of the history that we (South Africans) need to conserve.” This approach has since become standard in embroidery projects and has permitted the women to voice a broad range of concerns from poverty to domestic violence to HIV.

The Current Project:  Margaret Woermann and Jennifer Fish have been friends for over twenty years, and when the pandemic and lockdown hit, Woermann asked the women to “depict their lives” to begin the social documentation of what would become a defining moment. Fish then suggested that the works become a special collection to provide needed financial assistance due to the closure of their established market outlets. As Woermann urged, the Heartworks Stitching Club’s recent cloths condense the personal experiences of the women during the lockdown in stunning cloths depicting moving episodes from their lives. Each of the cloths presents the same fraught themes in differing ways: the lack of availability of food, the closing of schools, the loss of jobs, the constant surveillance by police, and finally, the fear and illness that the conoravirus has spread in their communities. 

The individual motifs do appear as if they were scenes witnessed firsthand, and so in the cloth reproduced here, the depiction of “food relief” in the top half includes a pick-up truck stacked with bags of maize and other foodstuffs and a woman standing nearby handing bags to a line of people waiting; this image of the government’s active response to the crisis contrasts with the negative image of a woman and her two children being evicted from their home at the bottom of the cloth. Despite government efforts, people are still experiencing severe illness and unemployment as a result of the virus. As with the sale of the artworks in the Lockdown Collection, the proceeds from the sale of the Heartworks Stories project’s cloths will go to support vulnerable artists, in this instance the women of the Heartworks Stitching Club.

Mark Auslander: Taken together, these works highlight a central paradox of the Covid-19 crisis. The SARS-CoV-2 pathogen does indeed stalk all human beings indiscriminately: as one embroidery proclaims, the disease, chooses "no rich no poor." Yet the actual impact of the virus and the associated Lockdown does have enormously variable impact according to socioeconomic status and where one is located in the racialized geographies of contemporary South Africa. Predominantly white middle and upper class professionals, whose work allows them them to labor digitally and remotely, find the Lockdown highly inconvenient, but are, for the most part, able to endure in relative safety and security. For the millions of low income individuals, overwhelmingly people of color,  in urban,  periurban and rural contexts, the Lockdown is devastating, annihilating income sources and undercutting basic survival strategies, as access to clean water and basic foodstuffs is blocked.  Vulnerability to the novel coronavirus itself is deepened through medical histories related to pre-existing conditions emerging out of poverty (including, presumably, respiratory conditions associated with long exposure to charcoal cook fires or mining labor) and unequal access to medical care.  Queues for food relief, imaged in the embroidery above and in Themba Khumalo's haunting drawing, "Waiting for Food Parcels," have become a disturbing feature of the South African landscape in recent weeks, as food lines stretch at times for miles.

As in the early popular embroidery projects referenced by Pam,  the juxtaposition of text and image in these works is particularly fascinating. The letters and the depictions of people and places share the same vivid colors and seem to leap off the embroidered surfaces.  Sometimes, the words seems like whispered prayers, expressing hope for a better future; at other times one has the sense of bring privy to an anxious interior dialogue, hearing all the jumbled thoughts running through the minds of mothers and grandmothers contemplating how they will provide for all those who depend on them.

Words are used at times to heighten the impact of this ingeniously compressed storytelling, and to create discrete story panels that organize a complex visual field. In the work above, the overall predicament is signaled the phrase, "No Embroidery, No Work," stitched across the top. In the middle section, the words  "army" and the "police"  set up the next story image, as a law enforcement vehicle descends on Shebeen filled with dancing revelers, violating social distance orders. In the lower section, the words "We are starving, I am scared of losing lives," is keyed to an image of emergency medical workers rolling out a dangerously ill patient to a waiting ambulance.

Most of the works depict township contexts in the area around Cape Town, but in this image, "Stay at Home," we see  a village setting, perhaps from the Eastern Cape, a stark reminder of the particularly harsh conditions existing at the moment in rural areas.  Even the church, normally provider of spiritual strength and comfort at a time of crisis, is shuttered. Stitched words proclaim "no industry, no social life." Relatives from urban areas, who would normally visit with gifts and financial support, are prevented from traveling; the only vehicle shown is a police lorry, most likely enforcing Lockdown in a  draconian fashion.  

And yet, life endures. Masked women continue their daily round of life-providing activities,  including carrying foodstuff and preparing meals. Trees, living bridges between the visible world and the invisible world of the ancestors, still provide shade and shelter.   Flowers blossom and birds sing. In the upper left, women in traditionalist attire dance to a drum, one carrying a fly whisk used by traditional healers and diviners.  Performing a dance of healing, they summon the energies of the shades to restore a measure of balance to a land deeply out of equilibrium.

Franz Boas wrote long ago that the work of indigenous storytelling --anchored in what Claude Levi- Strauss later termed the improvisational process of "bricolage"--centers on calling into being "new worlds from fragments."   Like all the women engaged in this beautiful, inspiring  project, these dancing healers are well aware of the vast privations and viral dangers that surround them. Yet they remain committed to stitching back together the social continuum, out of all the scattered pieces of the present moment.

Ellen Schattschneider:  In the first embroidery pictured here, "My work affected," the dominant, central figure is shrouded in white, pushing a smaller figure in a wheelchair. Manifestly this is a medical worker, clothed in a Hazmat protective suit; similar white uniformed figures appear at the base of  "No embroidery no work" wheeling out a desperately ill patient or cadaver on a stretcher to the waiting ambulance.  The color white may have further associations with sangoma traditional healers, whose regalia often incorporate white beads, evocative of the ancestral shades who are sources of insight and healing power. As Mark notes, the trees and ritual performers in some tapestries may further signal or invoke amorphous ancestral presences. Through these works one might even say that the Dead are actively incorporated into the community at its time of great trial.: Might the diminutive figure in the wheelchair be a stand in for all of us, vulnerable and at the mercy of nefarious invisible forces, ultimately assisted by invisible powers of a greater dominion than the microscopic virus itself?  These embroidered object-images are surely more than simple techniques of income generation. They are active technologies of self and of the sacred, summoning up the benevolent powers of the invisible world to help repair breaches in the moral continuum, registered in the bodies and souls of those who struggle on, against all odds, on the economic margins of the South African social field.

For information on purchasing a Story in Solidarity, please contact Jennifer Fish at

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