You cannot step into the same contemporary twice.
As we all may have realised by now our contemporary world as we know it is under a turmoil of monumental proportions. The epistemic logic behind Western civilisation’s conception of time is too static an idea to contend with the emerging global order. However, these are the foundational pillars of human rationalisation that are tied to our understanding of lived-experience. The structures providing the impetus to the motion of our contemporary time are transforming at an incredibly rapid pace, and relationality as an idea that undergirds social practices is being redefined. This is producing a lot of chaos that is distracting us from the importance of human and planetary solidarity at this moment in time. Regardless of the magnitude of dissonances that we are currently experiencing, this is a ripe moment for us to reconsider what it means to be humans who are contemporaries of their time.
The present moment in the Western world is a phenomenon that is taken as a feature of modernity only, and therefore denying the existence of other experiences of the contemporary moment that run parallel to the one imposed on us by western logic. Because of the collapse in the western construct of time, that of a singular contemporary, our present contemporary moment during this unprecedented period of pandemic and widespread panic is shown to be unfounded. The possibility exists to transform our notions of the contemporary moment and further destabilise hegemonic ideologies that govern our existence. Throughout history, time is a concept that has been internalised and interpreted according to a particular biased historical lens. That has grounded the epistemic structures of knowledge from which our collective sense of self is constructed. What is required now is a different system of values when it comes to how we relate to time. More emphasis should be placed on pluralisation of our understanding of human experience in time. The dyschrony that one experiences when they are not insync with archaic notions of time could well be the kind of ambiguity required to be contemporaries of this unprecedented historical time.
At the height of this COVID-19 pandemic, history does not suddenly sleep, pause, or ceases to apply. It can in fact seem restless as it plays itself out, and reveals what has remained beneath the surface of our fraught and limited understanding of the contemporary. The ‘Contemporary’ or the ‘multiple contemporaries’, has been used to describe the cultural moments that proceeded after the end of WWII or to refer to those periods after the term’s coinage in the early-modern period of the seventeenth century. This present notion of the contemporary is but one of many conceptual trees historically identified by its etymological root. Therefore this tree which we identify today may neither be endemic nor adapted to the present environment in which it appears. Rather to account for the prominence of this one conceptual tree or perspective one must realise that this tree, like the timber tree, was and still remains as an instrumental part of an extractive economy that cleared, dislocated or endangered indigenous trees at its expense. Yet, as a dominant and authoritative discourse it has become yet another inventive way to mask ‘periodization’. This conceptual tool at the disposal of governments, empires, and corporations has also been, arguably, the single most effective tool of historical narrative manipulation to maintain power and consolidate it by rewriting and publishing authorised versions of history to determine where that period ends and this period begins.
It is this understanding of the contemporary that has ultimately diverted the potentiality of real resistance and therefore real change. However, there is also an aesthetic dilemma, since, the modern or contemporary aesthetic that implicitly entails economics, politics and history but seeks to deny all three, manifests as an aesthetic of presentist decontextualisation. That is, we cede hegemony to the notion of this supposed Contemporary of unfettered capitalism, developmental economics and the fraught idea of the nation-state to renounce our own cultures, histories and epistemic traditions as they only come to represent essentialist, failed and non-existent contributions to this Contemporary. Therefore, the self-implicating paradox appears in this present moment when one innocently chooses to reside in an upmarket apartment in Woodstock or Observatory, or to do one’s shopping at Cavendish Square Mall or a thrift store in Salt River, which are sites of various modalities of Contemporary culture. Thus, it is in the moment that one denies, ignores or downplays the history, politics and economics of the sites themselves on the basis of their contemporary facade, that the epistemological inconsistencies of this consumptive, individualistic and presentist notion are laid bare. Since, this very notion, built on a history of land dispossession, reappears in the contemporary form of the current crises of market-driven gentrification, responsible for removing poor families en-masse from the city to its periphery on the basis of capital and development, that we build our limited and flawed aesthetic conceptions and notions of the contemporary.
Perhaps, in the midst of a global pandemic, what has become clear is that the denial, rejection or silencing of history, makes the contemporary what it is? Further, what is one then to make of the events that disproportionately affect others on the age-old bases of race, class and gender? There has been a spike in hate-crimes of Asian people globally with the outbreak of the virus. Certain disadvantaged groups are denied the same freedoms given to other groups, or heavily policed for it, due to inferred assumptions about the relationship between poverty, crime and being a law-abiding citizen in pathologized areas or communities. Or, what about stories of certain kinds of people being refused entry to essential services buildings in some countries, not because they did not abide by the law, but because one is what their personal history has phenotypically produced them to be. Therefore, we cannot deny, on the basis of this evidence, that the contemporary cannot, has not and will not be used as a veneer by our current and future system to shield its racism, classism or ethnocentrism that never dissipated with the changing tides of history in line with our societal ‘moral progress’, but hid beneath the surface of this notion. Perhaps, this is no more clearly shown in another little-known episode of land dispossession in the Cape. When the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague occurred in 1901 in the former Union of South Africa it was used by the settler population to stigmatise and dispossess those Africans who worked and lived in District Six and on the docklands of Cape Town where the plague had arrived initially on aboard European ships. These Africans or ‘natives’ were the first to be infected and subsequently impacted by a racially charged moral panic amongst the settler population in the Cape, who demanded that the ‘diseased’ Africans be removed from the city. Between the 12th and 15th of March 1901, the government applied a Public Health Act as the grounds to remove Africans to a place called Uitvlugt or Ndabeni. The name Uitvlugt itself is an unusual allusion to a village in Guyana colonised and established by the Dutch in the 17th Century on the Westbank of the Demerara River, where rum from Sugarcane was produced, but no mention is made of its the original indigenous population in the biography of the settlement. Perhaps, even more strangely, in a retroactive narrative of dispossession and colonization, the major South African historical event of the 19th century, Mfecane or Difaqane – an event that supposedly drove ‘natives’ to civil conflict, forced migration, internal strife and even supposed cannibalism justifying land grabs and the ‘vacant land’ justification in the settler colonial narrative – was caused by an exponential demand for sugar and labour in the Cape Colony.
For those who lived through land dispossession and injustice vindicated upon a force majeure or an Act of God, their time does resemble ours. Where infectious disease becomes once again a societal metaphor, which allows for classist and racial attitudes, cultural stereotypes, essentialisms, and media tropes already in currency influence general societal opinions and attitudes. It then only becomes a matter of time when it will percolate to the level of policy-making that eventually shapes the institutions that perpetuate stigmatisation and segregation. This has indeed been seen with the City of Cape Town’s very recent request to amend its ‘streets and public places’ by-laws, effectively giving unwarranted discretionary ‘overseeing’ powers to officers against those citizens they perceive to be as criminals. It was Lawrence Kris Parker back in 93’ from the discourse and diachrony of the contemporary urban griot tradition arising out of ‘The Dozens’, ‘toasting’ from the Caribbean, Gill Scott Heron’s poetics and the experiential culture of African-American storytelling; that he had lamented in rhyme about the overt correlations between Jim Crow overseers, the contemporary police officer in USA and ‘the Black Cops killing Black kids in Johannesburg’. We should therefore indeed be wary and cautious of what the Contemporary seeks to hide and make us complicit in, through its discourse of secular, ethical, rational and democratic pretensions. For history shows then that the application of this discourse results in the exact opposite appearing in reality or in the repetition of the same imperatives of injustice perpetuated by its preceding Contemporaries.
We must then ask, what is at stake for African art, young artists, and artist’s of liberation? For those alternative conceptions of the contemporary on the continent with their own epistemic traditions such as the precedent of the Metseshaft Bet. Perhaps we can glean partly from this idea of a ‘School of Interpretation’, in Ethiopia’s indigenously adapted Orthodox curriculum in hermeneutics that is undertaken in the same manner as postgraduate studies in the West, that interpretation founded upon epistemic humility, comprehension and received wisdom which is an artifact of anachronism with the present as a relevant alternative. After all, it is only after many years of preparative learning and the requisite mastery of reading - entailing recitation and memorisation of an entire corpus of scripture, and by showing their proficiency in poetics or qene, a school in itself, which requires independent inquiry, discussion and debate, that one finally shows their ability to enter the school of interpretation.
Thus, many more are proficient in reading and very few complete mastery of interpretation and philosophy as many cannot or choose not to surmount the challenge of qene or poetry. Poetry, in this context is seen to lay bare the tapestry or secrets of the language of its own Contemporary, linguistically and philosophically, as it vacillates between the free association and imagination that art inspires and the dogmatic interpretations that persist out of habit, training, and discipline. It is indeed here that we realise that interpretation or synthesis as we have been taught, is both the gateway to comprehension but also marred by the duality arising out of the process of thought and our personal conditioning. This requires a comprehension that must extend further than our enclaves, the duality of the mind and the disciplinary vectors we impute onto reality. At the very least there is a need to recognise the innate unity of opposites that make up this diverse contemporary…
We, therefore, return to the idea of interpretation. But as with our predecessors, like the class of 76’, the youth are always agitated and require a shift in justice, in the contemporary, now rather than later. Therein, also lies the danger where all our contemplative traditions on the continent become only sampling archives for the same exploitative system, we denounce. In turn, the same machine will narratavise the artistic actions of our contemporary youth as a justification for profitable mass-appropriation of the last vestiges of culture leading to the denigration of the relevance of important archives, frameworks of understanding and knowledge bases. This also denies those in this contemporary moment, to yield diverse interpretations or to use the past as a template to build comprehensive knowledge that can become beacons for resistance and frames of reference to address recurring disputes that arise out of circumstances in a similar extractive system.
Authors: monga kobo e bohale and ABA
Agamben, G. 2009. “What is the contemporary?” What is an Apparatus? And other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford University Press, 2009)
Glissant, E. 1990. “Poetics of relation.” University of Michigan Press, United States of America.
Girma, M. 2011. “Whose Meaning? The Wax and Gold Tradition as a Philosophical Foundation for an Ethiopian Hermeneutic.” SOPHIA 50, 175–187.
Mudimbe, Y. 1998. The Invention of Africa. Indiana University Press, United States of America.
Sambumbu, S. 2010. “Reading visual representations of 'Ndabeni' in the public realms.” Kronos, 36(1), 184-206. Retrieved May 21, 2020 (University of the Western Cape)
Swanson, M. 1978. "The Sanitation Syndrome"; C. Saunders, "Segregation in Cape Town: The Creation of Ndabeni" (Cape Town: Centre for African Studies, 1978)
ho ha cha, ke eng e salang