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JUDITH FEBRUARY: In praise of art turning things upside down

OPINION

The Kennedy Centre in Washington DC is one of the city’s gems. In a town of now toxic petty partisan politics, it provides a welcome relief as an influential centre for the arts. Its public mandate was established early on. As an inscriptions reads, ‘The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center (sic) of a nation’s purpose - and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilisation’ - John F Kennedy December 1962.

So, if the arts are indeed at the centre of a nation’s purpose as JFK asserts, then the question is, what purpose will it fulfil in a country such as ours?

The passing of Toni Morrison and Johnny Clegg seem to provide a moment for reflection on the role of the arts and language in our national life. Recent Heritage Day celebrations focused on the role of language and literature, though mostly South Africans braaied. Perhaps in putting a piece of meat on the coals, we are all most alike? In typical South African style, the day was also a hotchpotch celebration of our diversity and also of the complexity, which comes with such diversity of language and culture.

Like our many languages, art and discourse must reflect the maturity, immaturity, struggles, contradictions and discomfort of our young society.

South Africa has battled to develop an intelligent discourse, which sees cartoons, writings, satire and poetry as central to our nation’s life and development and not simply about the technicality of whether or not to publish a specific work. Art and expression have therefore unsurprisingly sometimes become battlefields in the search for social cohesion and national identity. Think: Jacob Zuma and Brett Murray’s The Spear in 2012.

Yet, art’s purpose is to reflect on society in all its complex manifestations, however uncomfortable that is. Moreover, cohesion will not come to us via a government-led initiative like government social cohesion summits where politician after politician have been known to spend endless minutes spewing mostly dull rhetoric.

Government is but one player, albeit an important one, in creating an environment where the arts, creative expression and speech can flourish. The challenge is the understanding that ‘sameness’ and uniformity is not what art is about; rather it is about irreverence, turning things upside down and going against the grain.

Antjie Krog’s lecture delivered in Rotterdam in 2004 entitled ‘In defence of poetry’ remains instructive as we think about our collective heritage beyond the platitudes. In it Krog makes her defence of poetry as only she can, but more fascinating is her description of the role of the imbongi in African culture and her use of the poetry of Mqhayi to describe this.

‘Praise-singer’, she writes, is the incorrect translation for the role of the imbongi. In fact, she says: “Literally, imbongi means ‘go-between’, ie the poet who moves between the leader and the people. He translates the leader to the people and vice versa. He keeps the leader responsible to the voice of the people.” Importantly, she goes on to say, “Because iimbongi can criticise a leader to his face, their art has developed a wide spectrum of poetical and theatrical devices, among them irony, sarcasm, onomatopoeia, word-play, sayings of wisdom and instruction, and metaphor.”

She then goes on to deconstruct the irreverent performance of an imbongi when the Prince of Wales visited the Eastern Cape in 1925. The ‘official’ version was that the imbongi sang the praises of the Prince. As she points out, it was the incorrectness of what the imbongi - Mqhayi himself, known as the Shakespeare of his time - said which gained fame. For, in fact, Mqhayi was not praising the Prince at all. He was launching a scathing attack on the British. Where was this imbongi when Meghan and Harry visited, one wonders? The visit was, after all, rich with its own irony.

hayi, Great Britain

here you come with a bottle in one hand and a Bible in the other

here you come with your vicar who is supported by a soldier

you come with gunpowder and bullets

with canon and guns

Forgive me O God, hear us, to whom must we listen?

Hail Calf-of-the-great-Beast

he who tramples underfoot everything that is already trampled underfoot

pass on you who gloats over my country’s inheritance

long live the king

So irreverence has long been a part of South African culture. This piece shows us that our discourse needs to broaden for we have much unexplored cultural territory. We also limit our understanding of who we are if we don’t explore the likes of Mqhayi and others who form part of a rich literary, distinctly South African tradition. The arts should reflect our society in all its unevenness and contradiction. We can do that with humour and pathos and be at the centre of a nation’s purpose as Kennedy envisioned.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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