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Returning the Gaze Mgcineni Pro Sobopha A fter the long history of imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy, the collapse of apartheid and South Africa's transformation into a multiracial democracy was indeed a change to be celebrated in all corners of the world. It is human nature to rejoice in good times and mourn in tragic times. Like many events of its kind the Cape Town One City Festival came and now it is gone. Now as we proceed with our everyday life in its aftermath, its hangover calls upon us to reflect on its festivities and their implications/repercus sions in our lives. The One City Festival provided a platform for cultural workers of different backgrounds whereby iden tities were negotiated and new alliances forged. The span of the festival saw a variety of events taking place in the city and its surrounding areas. The Returning the Gaze exhibitio catalysed my thinking as I witnessed the exchange of differei cultures by people from various backgrounds. The theme of the exhibition Returning the Gaze is the brainchild of BLAC (the Black Artists Collective) which, according to its draft proposal for discussion, called upon black cultural workers "to return the gaze, turn the tables of history by creating a platform and structure for representations of whites by Blacks". The exhibition extended our visions as it offered us an opportunity to see through the eyes of artists reflecting on the legacies and vestiges of our past. In its conception this project seeks "to prise open a unique and unexplored space in the [South African] cultural landscape, not by crystallizing whiteness to essence but through exploration and unpacking the nature of power and social relations between Black and Whites from a black perspective". However it is interesting to note that in its realization, participation transcended the very criteria on which it was premised—the exhibition included the very same whites to whom it sought to return the gaze. I am not advocating the exclusion of whites in any manner , but I find it noteworthy that BLAC's initiative materialised into a positive dialogue and into a freedom of artistic expression from artists across the "colour line". However, one cannot resist the temptation to raise questions such as: can whites see black? Or for that matter can they "see" whiteness ? Art is situated in history and the individual/ artist's choice of subject matter reflects that situatedness. The politics of racism and sexism in South Africa created a cultural context 56 • N k a Journal of Contemporary African Art Billboard f r o m Returning the Gaze, t h e C a p e t o w n O n e City Festival, 21-25 S e p t e m b e r 2000. wherein the white (male) artist works in an art world predisposed to extend him recognition and visibility, locally and internationally. In the South African visual culture, the white subject in relation to whom all other beings are constructed as unfree "objects" symbolically personifies images of power and freedom. Interesting examples of this are the statues of colonial and apartheid white males visible around South Africa. In contrast with these images are the mis/representations of the black people one finds in galleries—notably at the South African National Museum. This reflects the sociopolitical and economical hierarchy of power, where the white male occupies the top, followed by the white female and then the black male, with the bottom reserved for the black female, whose image is personified within this "existing" culture of domination, as lacking in agency, with no capacity for a transcendent vision and thus powerless. Berni Searle's work questions and challenges the use of black bodies as a space where "whiteness" can be defined as the legitimate agent, through which black stories can be articulated while blacks are denied a subject position. One finds a common theme in most of the works in Returning the Gaze, as they reflect artists' preoccupation with the legacies and vestiges of apartheid. These works seem to be exorcising the Spring/Summer 2001 N k a - 5 7 Billboard f r o m Returning the Gaze, the C a p e...


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