At the opening of the Sounding Out exhibition in Fordsburg on Wednesday night, Professor Achille Mbembe from the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research made some powerful observations. A few observations about the exhibition. But mostly about the state of our culture. It felt angry and a little sad. I recorded the speach. Here is most of what he had to say.
“It seems to me that the present cultural moment we are experiencing is what we can call official culture. By this I mean it’s the attempt by the ruling elite to tell us what culture is all about and they can tell us at what point it is we transgress that culture. The ruling class will also tell us what price it is we have to pay when we transgress that culture.
On the other hand we have what is clearly the intellectual decay of the ANC. I mention the ANC because our country and society depends a lot on what happens in the ANC. This is the case because we live in a one-party democracy and when that party is in a crisis, it has a tremendous effect on the rest of society. And right now that party is suffering some serious intellectual decay. So these things: the emergence of official culture and the crisis of imagination in the ruling party go hand in hand with a 3rd trend. Which is the capacity of art to release high levels of toxic energy. And it seems to me as we try to go forward we need to take seriously these three challenges because they introduce into our public life or public culture a number of things:
A tension between a kind of art which is happy doing compilation, collection as opposed to art which is a practice of documentation which is to give distant meaning to distant things and events.
The second tension is between repetition and memory. And on the other hand the compilation of images devoid of any concept.”
With reference to Sounding Out, Mbembe said, “This exhibition is compelling. The artists have produced what seems to me a very exciting exhibition. I am very much in awe of the intellectual quality that has accompanied this exhibition. It offers a real challenge of how to hunt for real meaning. There are so many amazing forms of life – fragmented, diverse dispersed. The ability to read this is diminishing. This exhibition is experimental, inter-disciplinary and re-imagines not only a way of seeing but a way of hearing which is to convoke all the senses through the arts.”