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DOI 10.1215/10757163-2009-002 © 2010 by Nka Publications Journal of Contemporary African Art• 26• Spring 2010 6 • Nka A grainy black-and-white photograph, shot during the height of the apartheid years, demonstrates with dramatic clarity the over­ lapping of language and landscape in the South Africa of my childhood. Separated by a lone lamppost, two men, one facing forward, the other backward, take up their allotted places in Cape Town’s urban and social space as they cross a segregated railway bridge, which has one walkway for “Whites,” another for “Non Whites.” Here the now-notorious signs that literalized and policed the spatial demarcation of place according to the reigning racial monoliths of “whiteness” and “nonwhiteness” from the early 1950s until the collapse of apartheid some forty years later are emblazoned over the looming presence of Table Mountain, seen from the Devils Peak side.1 The juxtaposition of signage and scenery is stark. In fact, it encapsulates—crudely, perhaps—the mediated experience of place that conditions and constructs our relationship to the land. To grow up in apartheid South Africa was to live with and by The infectious spread of apartheid into the smallest detail of daily living has made South Africa a land of signs. Ernest Cole, House of Bondage Tamar Garb A Land of Signs Garb Nka • 7 Nicholas Hlobo, Umthubi, 2006. Exotic and indigenous wood, steel, wire, ribbon, rubber inner tube, 200 × 400 × 730 cm (variable) the injunctions and prohibitions of the law, crudely made manifest in the often bizarre and objectifying signs that permeated public space. Beyond the categories of “whiteness” and “nonwhiteness” were a collection of fragmented subjectivities that separated people according to labor, land, and putative origins: “Non-Europeans and Goods,” “Delivery Boys and African Servants,” “Non-Europeans and Tradesmen’s Boys with Bicycles,” read some of the outlandish notices captured by the documentary photographer Ernest Cole in the 1960s in his monumental visual archive of apartheid, House of Bondage.2 More than anything else, it was fear that kept these divisions in place. What would happen if you sat on the wrong bench, got on the wrong bus, strayed onto the wrong side of the beach, or were pulled by the tide into the wrong stretch of water? Who would see you and punish you? Fear of authority and the unknown existed in equal measure . No incursion into public space, whether in the form of a trivial errand, a journey to a designated destination, or an excursion for pleasure, was without the danger of transgression. And for some the consequences of straying beyond legitimate boundaries could be fatal: “any kaffir trespassing will be shot,” reads a makeshift notice, transcribed in oil paint from a found archival photograph onto a washed-out piece of burlap in a painting by Vivienne Koorland.3 The violence of the language in the painting’s handwritten capital letters spells out “the bottom line” of the apparently polite imperatives contained in the stenciled prohibitions of the bureaucrats and officials of “separate development .”4 In apartheid South Africa, terror and territory went hand in hand. The land was permeated by fear, its legendary beauty marked by the strictures and structures that curtailed and conditioned experience and the laws that delimited and defined its use. But now “legislated apartheid is dead.”5 The signs that separated subjects and circumscribed social life for over forty years have been removed. They, and recordings of them, have become part of the material culture of South Africa’s history, preserved in the archives as relics of a lamentable past, witness to a world that has disappeared.6 Yet history, of course, is never relegated to the past. The residue of enforced segregation outlives the discarding of placards and posters and the sequestration of materials in libraries and storage rooms. Although the streets and the cities are now open to new inhabitants and trends—with a younger generation of artists assertively proclaiming their possession of public space and new modes of performativity7 — the scars and the traces of the physical partitions, spatial disruptions, demographic dispersals, and resettlements of which the apartheid signs were only the most superficial (and literal) manifestation, still remain visible...


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