manifestos

This text serves as an introduction to the Dead Revolutionaries Club (DRC) and as an editorial to our inaugural edition of our webzine.

When we started thinking about this webzine there was a pervasive sense amongst a number of people that I was working with that there is a certain lie that is perpetuated in the art world and, that in our various interactions with that world, we were being asked to conspire with that lie.

The lie manifests itself in different forms. One of the forms that it takes is this idea that there is something inherently progressive about contemporary art. In the context of many Third World countries and South Africa (from where we speak) is no exception, what this often means is that the only way to stake a claim on the international art world is to commodify difference while professing progressive politics.

Another part of that lie is that there is unbounded freedom and yet at each and every turn one is confronted by restrictions and authoritarianism which is also cloaked by a veneer of progressive rhetoric. Our particular interest is in the cultural arena but the issue obviously relates to global politics which, I would guess, would be a feature of the Clinton/Bush years. In other words as the instruments of oppression become more sophisticated the rhetoric of freedom becomes more pervasive.

The idea of this webzine came about because two people, Sharlene Khan and Khwezi Gule, wanted to confront this lie. We were later joined by Fouad Asfour who provided a different perspective to our vision and the final impetus we needed to get this show on the road. Bandile Gumbi and Kemang wa Lehulere also joined us - Bandile being a published poet and Kemang having initiated Gugulective.

What is common and brought us together is that we felt that there has to be a way to draw out those aspects of the art business that make sticking around worthwhile. At the same time we will not flinch from exposing those things that make it unbearable. In short, this is our attempt to restore the sense that there is such a thing as integrity, beauty [1] and sincerity in art-making and in talking about it.

But where to begin…

During an unusual cathartic episode I wrote what was, for a moment, our manifesto. It was then that we came up with the idea of doing an issue on manifestos.

At the time I searched for the model manifesto, one that could satisfy our present dilemmas, predicaments and desires. That none of the manifestos I consulted sufficed came as little surprise but what this exercise yielded was at least a few impressive lines. I went to the usual sources the Communist manifesto, the Futurist manifesto, the Freedom Charter, the Black Panther Platform & Program etc.

While we’re on the Freedom Charter, I recognise that it does not say in its title “manifesto”, but if that condition was applied to a number of texts I consulted, only a few would qualify as manifestos. What came to be known as the Harlem Renaissance Manifesto (The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain by Langston Hughes) is one such text. What then in my definition qualifies a text as a manifesto? Here are a some features:

Defining the ‘enemy’

One of the most obvious things about manifestos is exposing the thing that one is fighting against: naming the enemy. The use of the word enemy may seem a bit strong but to write a manifesto is to subscribe to a politics of rupture. Half-measures don’t seem to be part of the discourse of manifestos. Of course one cannot live in a constant state of upheaval so the language of rupture is not always appropriate. In our case I certainly think it is appropriate. The rupture against post-apartheid complacence.

The Language of violence

To court rupture is also to quote the language of violence (militancy). I am not only referring to physical violence but to symbolic violence. If the word violence sounds scary to you, you must understand that for the most part the art world and its institutions have not rid themselves entirely of the language of violence. Many operate on the basis of baaskap. [2]

Of course baaskap is a word that has special relevance to the South African context but its meaning can be applied to any context where, because of ill-gotten privilege, there is an intransigent, incestuous, and self-appointed authoritarian group of people. Once internalised, of course, baaskap poisons every kind of relationship on every level of society from the home to the church and, of particular interest to us, the cultural sphere.

Even in a new dispensation, there are often remnants of baaskap that remain as they do in South Africa. In such cases, the only way to deal with the baaskap culture is to be direct, unapologetic and precise.

In the context of manifestos, violence is enacted through ideological and tactical rupture with an established order even within the forces of resistance. To set oneself apart from other groupings and ideals. When a group of Black students led by Steve Biko seceded from the racially mixed National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), the basic rationale was that even though NUSAS may have believed in racial equality, NUSAS failed to adequately address the needs and problems faced by Black students therefore necessitating the formation of the South African Students Organisation (SASO). The SASO Manifesto addresses itself not only to the apartheid regime but to liberal organisations opposed to apartheid.

In a way, there is also a sense of arrogance or should we say resolve in the language of manifestos. Again I refer to Langston Hughes's essay where in the closing lines he says:

“If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. ... If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

There are, of course, manifestos that seek to criticise the prevailing order through humour and irreverence. One such text is the Dada Manifesto by Hugo Ball. Some, like the Nastia's Manifesto (below), also lampoons the idea of a manifesto as an austere statement.

Nastio














Click here to watch Nastia's Manifesto
Nastia Mosquito "Manifesto" 2008-2009, video, courtesy of dZzzz Enterprises & We Are Here Films

To be forward-looking and resist lamenting prevailing injustices

I wonder how many people take the time to read the Freedom Charter. It is a very positive document. There is little ambiguity about what it is that they are demanding and not only that, but that these goals are realisable.

It is easy for us now to say that lofty goals such as ‘abolishing hunger’ and freedom to settle anywhere you wish, were unrealistic. When confronted with an enemy determined to undermine your humanity there is little room to say: this is a wishlist and not a set of goals that can be achieved. But when people pledge to fight their whole lives…to fight… until those goals are realised, there is little ambiguity there.

So what happened? Things changed. Expectations changed. Well I believed in those things and I’m not quite ready to unbelieve them. If in the past I was encouraged to fight the person who acts to thwart those goals, should I not consider anyone who thwarts those ideals today also as an enemy?

Maybe things just don’t work out the way you’ve planned. And the world is more complicated than it seems and our the idea that we have common beliefs is an illusion. I am sure that it never crossed their minds of the people that drafted the Freedom Charter that they were corruptible. You have to admire such faith. The best thing about ideas though is that they can outlive the lifetime and the corruptibility of their proponents.

For me the only thing I can conclude about manifestos is that they serve their purpose for a time and that we constantly have to reaffirm our belief in lofty things such as freedom.

The final point on manifestos I would like to make is that the document which is presented as a manifesto is the result of many contending points of view which are then edited out. But sometimes the messiness of disagreement is more productive than consensus. So it was interesting for us that while we were formulating our manifesto we also look at other people’s manifestos.

And that is what this manifesto issue is all about and why on this first issue of this webzine we sent out a call for manifestos. It is like asking for directions. We invited people that matter to us for their opinion of manifestos to put in the FEATURE section. In COMMENT AND ANALYSIS we have selected a text by Valerie Jaudon and Joyce Kozloff that runs counter to the ethos of manifestos and shows them up to be the phallocentric and racist documents that they often are.

There is nothing manifesto-ish about the artist we have selected for FEATURED ARTIST. We chose him because we dig his work and we respect him as a professional and we like him as a person.

In the spirit of looking back to look forward we have used the TRIBUTE section to celebrate and mourn treasures that we have lost over the last year, some well-known some not so well-known.

As the name suggests ROUGH CUT is for all the interesting bits that we couldn’t find space for in the other sections. There is nothing in the BACK TALK section because this is the first issue and you (our valued reader) haven’t said anything yet. You are now invited to contribute to this section by sending us an email (check the email address at the bottom of the page).

Its nice to know about nice things so we will do LISTINGS of gigs that we like.

There was some disagreement about whether we should call the next section REVIEWS or REVIEWS AND REFLECTIONS. Because some of us wanted to reflect on gigs that had already happened and not just the ones that are still happening or ones that are yet to be. If there is an event or initiative that deserves mentioning for both bad and good reasons it shall be so.

The DRC has been getting up to a lot of stuff. Most of which has been under the radar screen of the art establishment. So the section DRC EVENTS is our chance to blow our own horn. And if we don't who will?

Finally, LINKS will take you to other universes run by other cats. The sites you see there constitute a composite portrait of the DRC webzine.

As you can see some of the stuff here is specific to this edition while others are more general and don’t necessarily have anything to do with the theme of the edition. And so it will be with subsequent editions.

In a way what we desire is to find a new discourse and consciousness: one that will embrace Black consciousness, gender consciousness, class-consciousness, an Africa-centred consciousness and a culture-centred consciousness and as many communities of struggle as we can manage (and not necessarily in that order).

We recognise that in other parts of the artistic community there are different struggles from ours or perhaps that priorities are not the same but that does not stop us from beginning the conversation.

That’s it. Let’s begin!

Simba Sambo

[1] About beauty Gabeba Baderoon says: "I write about subjects with depth, and truth, and beauty. Beauty has become crucial to my ethics of the world, because it exceeds usefulness. It is excessive. But it is that excess which is ultimately human." From: http://www.sentinelpoetry.org.uk/1205/interview.htm.

[2] Simply put this means boss-hood. The deeper meaning of it would probably sound like this: the systematic, sustained and violent cultivation of the fear and awe of white leadership.