In Our Words: Mohau Modisakeng (PART 1)
Our ongoing series, In our Words provides an opportunity to connect with the faculty and staff of Black Studies at UT's community. In this two-part essay, Dr. Hershini Young provides an in-depth look at Mohau Modisakeng's haunting three-channel video Passage, which was on view in the Art Galleries at Black Studies Idea lab in 2020. Young is a professor in the department of African and African Diaspora Studies where she teaches she teaches classes on queer/black performance, focusing on Southern Africa. Her latest book, Illegible Will: Coercive Spectacles of Labor in South Africa and the Diaspora (Duke UP) uses performance to critically reimagine the archive.
In this essay Young says Passages moves "...from a singular exploration of hidden South African histories to a situating of that history within the anti-black afterlives of slavery and imperialism."
Mohau Modisakeng’s Passage: The Space of Mourning, unpacks this meditative 20 minute exploration, in two parts. Part 1 is presented here.
A still from Passage, Mohau Modisakeng, 2017. Image by Mark Doroba.
Mohau Modisakeng’s Passage: The Space of Mourning (Part 1)
By Hershini Young
I perch awkwardly at the end of the crowded bench to experience Mohau Modisakeng’s Passage. Three screens curve towards me, the gallery is filled with sound, and I immediately lose all sense of where I am. I am immersed in an elegiac ebb and flow of water as the delicate sparseness of composer Neo Muyanga’s chamber music fills my lungs. I find myself floating both above and alongside three figures on different screens, each in a small boat. Each character lies on their back, their head framed by the prow of the boat. A voluminous skirt billows around hips, a whip sways like braids, a closed umbrella knocks against the side of boat. I mourn as I watch all three boats slowly fill with water. The camera moves from directly above to below the water as the boats sink, and each of their inhabitants slowly drown, sinking to the bottom of the ocean where they join the millions of other diasporic Africans who came before them and will continue after them.
Born in Soweto in 1996, Modisakeng graduated with an MFA from the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, South Africa. While his original love is sculpture, his films, installations and photographs have been met with overwhelming acclaim, culminating in his winning of the foremost art award in Africa, the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Visual Art in 2016. Passage was first presented as part of a two-person exhibition for the South African Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. The photographic and video installation arose as a response to the Pavilion Commission’s injunction to explore South Africa’s hidden histories. Modisakeng’s original idea was to depict the history of slaves brought to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company beginning in 1658 from areas such Goa, Bengal, Madagascar, Angola and Mozambique. His story of these black and brown bodies reduced to fungible objects, bought and sold, and forced to travel long distances across the Indian and Atlantic oceans towards Africa, however, began to ripple out as it resonated throughout the diaspora. Passage conjured up the ghosts of the transatlantic slave trade to the Americas. His sinking boats, Modisakeng realized, evoked the large number of migrants from Syria, Eritrea, South Sudan, Libya and Tunisia attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Fortress Europe today in what has become one of the deadliest migration routes in history. True to its name, Passage became a pathway to the tensions that arise between concepts of the migrant, the refugee, the conscripted, the coerced and the enslaved, all bearing the marks of global capital.
Passage thus moved from a singular exploration of hidden South African histories to a situating of that history within the anti-black afterlives of slavery and imperialism. It became a commentary on what Christina Sharpe in In the Wake: On Blackness and Being calls [1.] ‘living in the wake’. Sharpe elaborates, “to be in the wake is to occupy and be occupied by the continuous and changing present of slavery’s unresolved unfolding…To be in the wake is to live…in the no-space that the law is not bound to respect, to live in no citizenship” (pgs.13-4, 16). It is to be ensnared in what Frantz Fanon described as the ‘zone of non-being,’ a space of terror where the deaths of black and brown peoples, already emptied of their ontological value, are rendered meaningless even as they enable global capital to function.
Modisakeng tells us that Passage began with a dream.
I see an image in a dream and then I sketch it out. I then spend a
couple months living with that image, researching where it comes
from. Then I’ll start testing it out…Eventually I’ll hire
the equipment I need and shoot it. That process can take a long time,
the longest with was the ‘Passage Project,’ which took about two
years (Lenkinski). [2.]
He continues by explaining that during the making of Passage, he was “dreaming and having conversations, all with coincidental mentions of water” (Lenkinski). The beginning of Passage exposes this artistic process by mirroring his experience. All three screens are dark. Slowly the room fills with sight and sound, almost as if one has begun to dream. The sight and sound of water floods our senses. The complex interplay between artistic process and a material product/ performance characterizes much of the video installation as Modisakeng combines what he is trying to say by how he says it. Thus, he disrupts the audiences’ assumptions of seamless progressive narratives by deploying various aesthetic strategies that expose and center performative techniques and strategies, implicating the viewer in the process of meaning making.
One of Modisakeng’s key strategies is his use of three screens and the looping of the videos. When I first entered the gallery, the installation was a third of the way through. I therefore watched the video as it ended and began again, stopping only when I reached the point that I entered the installation. Few gallery visitors will enter exactly when the video begins, and Modisakeng takes this account. Thus, the audience’s viewing experience resists notions of progress. Instead there is endless motion, boats fill and empty, drowning become floating, the end of the loop occurs at a random point through the action and is different for every viewer. This looping, combined with the different projections on multiple screens, all challenge the viewer’s expectations. Rather than being able to consume easily digestible images, the dispersed, multiple perspectives foreground the effort required by the viewer to participate in the installation. This is not passive consumption but rather an active engagement with listening and viewing practices. Passage asks the viewer not only to watch, but to reflect upon how and why they are watching. What action does the installation inspire?
Helen Westgeest in Slow Painting: Contemplation and Critique in the Digital Age [3.] writes about the recent predominance of views from drones in film and video. These beautiful shots from above, once expensive and difficult to procure, now have come to dominate techniques of orientation in film and video. Borrowing from Eyal Weizman’s “The Politics of Verticality,” [4.] she notes that while “geopolitical power was once distributed on map-like surfaces on which boundaries were drawn and defended…power has increasingly occupied a vertical dimension, transforming space into stacked horizontal layers”. These stacked layers are predicated on the drone’s disembodied gaze where, as Achille Mbembe [5.] notes, the eye “act[s] as weapon and vice versa” and “most of the policing is done from the air” (pgs 28, 29). This orientation is seductive; Passage begins with stunningly beautiful shots above each boat. This is not a bird’s eye view but instead the eye of surveillance in its unrelenting, unblinking clarity. It deliberately evokes, among other things, the tremendously profitable Eurosur (the European External Border Surveillance System) which combines radar, cameras and patrols to track those Africans attempting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Modisakeng intervenes in this technique of orientation, exposing the dangerous militarization of horizontal layers of surveillance. He thus deliberately ruins the perfection of his aerial shots as the camera comes closer and closer to the water, focusing in on contorted face and strained torso. Finally, the camera sinks below the water and gazes up, instead of down, at the flailing bodies as they drown. The darkness that follows results from the camera seemingly sinking into the ocean’s dark, unable to capture and see the bodies above them. Modisakeng moves us away from the vertical gaze of the drone that abstracts black suffering to immerse us instead in the very substrate of black history: not the ship or the hold but the ocean itself with her transversal memory of desperate migration and brutal capture.
Mourning Weeds and Slow Time
Passage is about mourning the dead. To return to Christina Sharpe, living in the wake is not only about the terrible precarity of living as the afterlife of property. It is also about an engagement in wake work: a politics of mourning whereby we demand justice for our dead, where we counter what Saidiya Hartman [6.] calls the “violence of abstraction” (pg.7) and where “Black people everywhere and anywhere we are, still produce in, into, and through the wake an insistence on existing: we insist Black being into the wake” (Sharpe pg. 11). As Modisakeng tells Tom Seymour, “Right from the start, my art was drawing from my experiences of loss and trauma…I saw my body as a way of describing my own struggle with loss, but also reflecting on the collective black experience in South Africa and the trauma and loss that is such a part of our history.” [7.] In interviews, Modisakeng describes how his birth as an artist was directly related to the murder of his brother Sthembiso and his later encounter with his mother, whom he walked in on cradling the white sweater with a hole and dark brown stain that Sthembiso had been wearing when he was killed. Modisakeng’s art follows in his mother’s gesture as he lingers over material traces of loss. He attempts to reconcile himself with a personal loss that is part of the larger necropolitical climate of apartheid. “Sthembiso is a memory I must live with, so the only way to try and resolve his death is to reflect on it. He is a part of me, and that’s why our bodies can hold such power, if we want them to” (Seymour). The work which deals most directly with mourning in Modisakeng’s oeuvre is Inzilo, first performed in July 30, 2013 in Cape Town where Modisakeng, dressed in black, peels off a skin of wax and scatters coal dust in the air. ‘Inzilo’ (an Isizulu word meaning ‘mourning weeds’ or ‘fasting’) refers to a period of mourning over the loss of a loved one where the mourner wears only black for six months to a year. At the end of this period, a ceremonial unclothing is followed by the burning of the clothes. But we would be remiss if we overlooked how Passage also constitutes an example of ‘wake work’ where the dead are ritualistically remembered and grieved over. As Ruth Simbao [8.] notes, “Modisakeng opens up the affective space within which…mourning takes place” in all of his pieces (pg.6).
Passage redefines what it means to mourn or grieve. Modisakeng’s performance articulates mourning as a temporal practice that links notions of place, power and death in order to envision a freedom that is yet to come. For diasporic Africans, death is omnipresent: a knee of a police officer on one’s neck, the Italian coastguard covering up corpses that wash up on their beaches, funerals on Youtube and Zoom as yet another person dies of Covid-19. There is the living dead of a necropolitical global order, the unnamed dead who burn their identification papers so they can’t be sent back ‘home’ if they survive the Mediterranean crossing, the beloved fragments of the dead as a mother testifies in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission clutching a piece of scalp with hair, all that remains of her child. And if all this death has taught us one thing, it is that death is not the end. Mbembe argues that what “connects terror, death, and freedom is an ecstatic notion of temporality and politics…The present itself is but a moment of vision—vision of the freedom yet to come” (pg. 39). Put another way, mourning can best be described as a strategic temporal mode of inhabiting the present while envisioning a freedom still to come. Mourning requires us to occupy the space of wake, even as we rupture the epistemology of the wake by making and marking time.
The time of mourning is slow time. “I want to bring time to a halt,” Modisakeng tells Percy Mabandu [9.] in an interview. Rather than easily understood, rapid-fire images that characterize much of today’s social media and mainstream cinema, Passage’s embodied and sonic images are slowed down and occasionally paused. The characters’ choreography is not about progress. Rather their bodies’ undulation, the twist of torso, the occasional kick of the leg and turn to the side simply keep them afloat in roughly the same space. Time moves so slowly that we are only able to watch the entire sequence of events (boats filling up with water and sinking) due to moments when the screen goes black and time is compressed. As Lutz Koepnick [10.] writes in On Slowness: Toward an Aesthetic of the Contemporary, slowness
sharpens our sense for the coexistence of different and often
incompatible vectors of time…To experience the present
aesthetically and in the mode of slowness is to approach this
present as a site charged with multiple durations, pasts, and
possible futures…to go slow also means to open up to the opulence
and manifoldness of the present; to unfetter this present from the
burdens of mindless visions of automatic progress and nostalgic
recollections of the past and to produce presence beyond existing
templates of meaning (pg. 4).
Moving slowly tethers us to the multiple vectors of the present. We experience not just the loss of, but also the palpable presence of the dead in the salt water that washes over bodies and boats and we feel the excruciating tension that is a future freedom not yet born.
Composer Neo Muyanga’s echoes many of these themes of slowness, simultaneous time and rituals of grief when talking about the process by which he composed the music for Passage. [11.] Inspired by his family, who are Zulu and Mozambiquan, the sparseness of Muyanga’s composition embodies a taut holding in of emotion that circles around the onslaught of anger and grief. Through a sonic layering of meditation bells, Mozambiquan xylophone, whale-like sounds and delicate chords that replicate the multivalent time, Muyanga’s music conveys the idea of the ocean as a space for prophecy and rituals (of grief). The music depicts a space where emotional, physical and spiritual boundaries criss-cross in a multidimensional present filled with the voices of the dead and screams of a freedom not yet realized.
1. Christina Sharpe. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke UP, Durham NC, 2016.
2. Ori J. Lenkinski. “Traversing Consciousness with Artist and Photographer Mohau Modisakeng.” The Jerusalem Post, September 6, 2020.
3. Helen Westgeest. Slow Painting: Contemplation and Critique in the Digital Age. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. Advance copy
4. Weizman, Eyal. “The Politics of Verticality’, openDemocracy (Web publication at www.openDemocracy.net), 25 April 2002.
5. Achille Mbembe. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture 15. 1 (2003): 11-40
6. Saidiya Hartman. Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America. Oxford University Press, 1997.
Seymour, Tom. “Mohau Modisakeng: Memories of a Murder”. Financial Times September 26, 2016.
8. Ruth Simbao. “Performing Stillness in Order to Move: Mohau Modisakeng’s Becoming.” Mohau Modisakeng: With Essays by Hlonipha Mokoena, Ruth Simbao, and Ashraf Jamal. Exhibition Catalogue.Tyburn Gallery, Whatiftheworld and Galeria Ron Mandos. 2016: 68-73
9. Mabandu, Percy. “Chit Chat: Modau Modisakeng.” City Press, 9 September 2011.
10. Lutz Koepnick. On Slowness: Toward an Aesthetic of the Contemporary. Columbia UP, 2014.
11. Neo Muyanga: Creating the Music for Mohau Modisakeng’s Passage. Facebook Video. https://www.facebook.com/thesouthafricanpavilion/videos/1391186674270602