IF IT were not for the seething acrimony of contemporary South African art criticism, the debate over Picasso’s alleged appropriation of African art forms — the accusation of theft leveled by Sandile Memela and the subsequent belligerent reportage by Donaldson — would have probably descended into polite satire — the culture of the absurd.
Instead of upbraiding the Pretoria News for its initial opinion piece, which had slammed Memela’s remarks for being: ‘more sad and pathetic than disturbing because they reveal an Afrocentrism clutching so desperately for something that it can claim as all its own.’ Memela chose rather to roast Donaldson’s admittedly egregious banter with yet another statement that inflamed the conservatives.
‘The voices that must have the final word are white. There is no room for the political and cultural critique by independent African voices on this contentious subject,’ Memela protested, in what one can only presume to be a sneaky piece of polemic calculated to bait former racists and cultural imperialists alike, but as it turned out, the imperialists and conservatives were right, having swallowed the hook, they would now witness the truth behind the Africanist position on Picasso, before the eyes of the world, or so it seems.
One can only commiserate with all those high-brow cocktail party-goers, those exhibition schlebs munching on pretzels while ineffectual cultural workers still slouch on the sidelines.
Regardless of cultural status, one still seeks common ground, and believing in the slow dance away from polarization. Yet again the public is enthralled by a debate of extremities — the neat binary opposition of the exclusive Africanist position vs vi die-hard Europhiles. An invariable extremism of tastes, a frenzy of aesthetic desires that see fit to ostracize certain Africans on the assumption that race is the determining factor in our identity as a nation; race and race alone is what will conclude this visual arts debate, thereby cementing the new African Renaissance and Globalism with a new flavour of pap, untouched by white hands?
For Memela, Africa can only be defined by what it is not. Africa can never be European, it must stand apart, and be purified like some dark continent only accessible to its original inhabitants. For Donaldson, the European Continent will always be the omega point of cultural discourse, while Africa must stand alone, like a poor, half-sister forever at the cocktail bar of discourse.
Memela on the other hand presumes that his own people are synonymous with the first peoples of our land, the Khoekhoe, the !Kung San, the Griqua; furthermore, that the ‘birthplace of humankind” is also the “cradle of civilization and only ‘African intellectuals’ may debate these issues. Donaldson moreover falls into the trap of a patronising snideness, an effete familiarity that can only bread contempt for the position of “white critics” on the sub-continent.
Turning Mamela’s attack upon Donaldson, in on itself however, may be considered a little disingenuous; it opens us all up to accusations of Eurocentricism and the harshest attack of all, of simply ‘being white’ regardless of ones skin tone. The very same kinds of attacks leveled at Memela by the conservatives, and now thrown about, in a circus of ritual absurdity that has begun to characterize popular debate in South Africa. One must therefore find another means of waging intellectual assault, perhaps the notion of universality spoken about by white intellectuals like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel?
If the juxtaposition of Memela’s use of the term ‘African’ (in contradistinction to the use of the term ‘whites’ ) our own semantically starched trap, were not bad enough, Donaldson’s use of a simple phrase without any universal appeal, except perhaps to his own mother, has snowballed into a literal form of xenophobism, a negro-centric attack against so-called white Africans of European descent.
This kind of intellectual sparring inevitably results in hate speech, of the insidious kind outlawed by our constitution. It is pointless going back to that time when racists of all hues could launch verbal barbs with a flick of the wrist, without forethought or fear of censure. It is even less advantageous for pale critics and ebony-coloured bureaucrats to deploy the arguments of racists, in the attempt perhaps to better themselves and others, uplifting nothing except the hated ideology of the past.