IDENTITY, HOME AND BELONGING
by Betty Govenden February 2010
Often in life the choices that others make irrevocably influences the course of our own lives. My grandmother’s decision to leave India in 1904, for example, to come to Africa to work in the tea plantations outside Stanger, now KwaDuguza, influenced when and where I would be born, and how I would come to think of myself in the world.
When untenable circumstances under the apartheid regime here forced Pritz and Mala Dullay to leave South Africa in the late 1970’s, a time when political turmoil was at its height, this was to have a direct and far-reaching impact on their daughters, Simmi and Sureka [Soweto 1976 was to have long-term repercussions; Steve Biko, a close friend of Pritz, died in police custody the year before Pritz decided to leave South Africa. It is worth noting that 30 years later, this exhibition is being held on a campus named after Steve Biko.
For Simmi, the wrenching from the place of her birth and growing up, induced an acute sense of exile and dislocation.
At the same time, Simmi was exposed to foreign climes, and this has stretched and expanded her experiences and ways of looking at herself and the world. Her experiences in Denmark, Scandinavia, Europe and Tanzania have all contributed to the multiple inheritances that constitute and define her work.
Simmi aptly captures this, when she writes:
“I belong to a history of violent discontinuities, ‘placing’ me outside, beyond or simply in between cultures, histories and continents.”
The perennial, universal question - Who am I - takes on a particular and unique trajectory in Simmi’s art.
Simmi’s work subverts the adoption of an easy, linear narrative of identity; it resists notions of narrow, ghettoized, and static cultural identity formation [the kind that was dispensed by our colonial and apartheid masters]. Rather, Simmi’s work celebrates the bricolage of varied and diverse experiences, experiences that compete with one another, and illustrate a deft, yet nuanced interweaving of diverse influences - a melding of the cosmopolitan and the local, of rootedness and uprootedness, of belonging and of loss, of memory and desire.
So it is not surprising, then, that in Simmi’s art, we find dissonance and rupture, the illogic of the world around us, rather than a sanitized, packaging of it.
Indeed, the centre cannot hold.
In Simmi’s art we see an adept layering being enacted – text on image, and image eclipsed by other images, image fusing and coalescing with image, figure and ground in constant movement and interchange - and we begin to appreciate worlds imbricated in worlds; cultural zones lapping against one another and overlapping constantly; surprising juxtapositions... She is, indeed, A BORDER WOMAN! Her work is not about sameness but of difference, of negotiating difference. The gaze is shifting, often multi-directional, from centre to periphery, from periphery to centre…
As an artist, Simmi clearly absorbs from the storehouse of tradition and subverts it into something new and startling. As a post-colonial black feminist, cultural worker, Simmi’s artistic endeavours provide daring challenges to western, male trajectories of reading and representing the world. We see the very shaking of the foundations of knowledge, power, and of conventional modes of representation. Feminist critique has emphasized that women’s struggles are concerned with AUTHORSHIP AND AUTHORITY, and part of feminist activism and agency is to represent the world from the vantage point and experiences of women themselves.
Given the historical exclusion of black women generally from the field of fine art, Simmi’s work fills a void, and urges that the development and support of the artistic creativity and potential of many talented black women should be deemed a national priority. In fact, with a little probing we will appreciate that they are many black women artists out there, but we have to ask: Why do they remain invisible to the mainstream culture? They are making an important contribution to the way we think of ourselves as a people, and they must be in the forefront of our consciousness. [We also need to question the arbitrary distinctions between craft and fine art, especially as it applies to black art in general, and to black women’s art in particular.]
In Simmi’s oeuvre, I see a distinct, alternative South African imagination at work.
The apartheid ideologues had certainly succeeded in their work, as we see the coercive nature of identity politics rearing its head in new guises, as in the slogan – one nation, many cultures, and the tendency to work with dominant, one-dimensional assumptions of how the ‘nation’ should be narrated.
Simmi’s purpose is not to invoke the simplistic multi-colours of the rainbow nation”, with its comfortable depictions of symmetry ….
Rather, Simmi’s purpose is to work with the discarded, the peripheral, the margins…
As she asserts:
“The burden of painting remains to negotiate the liminal space between the perceived and the real, to inflame the spirit of humanity in creativity.”
The exile or exilic imagination that Simmi’s work demonstrates refuses, for example, easy platitudes of home.
Edward Said, the well-known Palestinian critic, following Adorno, asserted that it is good not be at home in one’s own home. Said, an exile himself, was referring to the need for the intellectual to ceaselessly dismantle settled understandings, to resist sedimented truths, and to constantly seek out new insights and understandings and meanings of the world, and ways of representing the world.
Indeed, as Simmi’s work shows, Home can also be a deeply unsettling space.
It is for this reason that the body, especially the female body, becomes important in Simmi’s visual imagination. It is the palpable space where the multiple inscriptions of experiences become lodged, imprinted. The body takes on the texture of text. This is why the mappings on the body become a signature of Simmi’s work, as the rituals of the spiritual, emotional, subliminal are mirrored and enacted in the corporeal, the visceral, the erotic.
Simmi resists the notion of woman’s body as empty space, land that must be inscribed and colonized. Simmi’s images counter this historical violence, and celebrates the agency of woman’s body, the place of birth, the ultimate homeland... In Simmi’s art we appreciate that we have come a long way from the sexualized curiosity that a black woman’s body was fashioned into. In many ways, Simmi, through her art is, arguably, WRITING BACK to a history that turned one of our foremothers, Saartjie Baartman, into a clinical and voyeuristic exhibit. [The travelling show, that Baartman was reduced to, took place in 1810, and it is no coincidence that this exhibition by Simmi is being held 200 years later.]
THE PURPOSE OF ART
The classical view of art was that the artist holds up a mirror to the world.
And in many instances this is true.
But we have come to appreciate that art has more than this realist function in our society – to reflect the world.
The purpose of art is to change the world.
In South Africa, the role of artists has been exemplary through the decades of drawing attention to the injustices of society, and of challenging both the form and content of art.
Out of her deep engagement, Simmi prods and shocks us into new ways of seeing. SHOCK AND AWE takes on new meaning when we consider it in relation to Simmi’s work. Indeed, art is not to seduce and sedate us, to anaesthetize us, but to arouse and quicken us to new levels of awareness, consciousness, and action. Simmi’s art becomes a “combat zone”, the theatre where competing truths and ways of representing the world are in creative tension.
At a time when we face the rampant commodification of our culture, even of Mandela, and of struggle culture, we have to ask how we, individually and collectively, have become ghostly caricatures of our ideals. Simmi’s work shows the deep connectedness between art and politics, the aesthetic and the ethical; that the personal is irrefutably political.
Simmi, we are proud to claim you as a woman of the city of Durban. You are also a daughter of this continent and you are a world-citizen. Through your art, you are also MOTHER OF AFRICA, as you give birth to new images of our continent.
We wish you well at this important academic milestone in your career, and we are confident that you will enjoy further success in the coming years. More importantly, we know your work will continue to change the way we see, think and act in the world.
Simmi, to capture some of the elements of your work, I have composed the following poem:
POEM FOR SIMMI
Shaking off the tired colours
Of our histories,
the uneasy accoutrements of identity,
ghostly contortions of shadows,
Proxies for truth and honour,
You have refused the incandescence
Of the dry white season,
the paltry romance of
libertines dancing to freedom’s song.
In the cauldron of your soul
whirl into contorted visages
of neglect and fear.
From the detritus of living,
You have ferreted out
Epiphanies of desire.
Refusing to be subdued,
By pallid tones and hollowed strokes,
The canvas vibrates and heaves,
Splatters blood in my face and in my hands…