Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Kultur and Caliban

First appeared
Friday, 08 May 2015


In my previous column I wrote about Mawande Ka Zenzile’s latest exhibition, Statecraft, at STEVENSON Gallery in Cape Town. Some of the works (a combination of cow dung, earth, gesso and oil on canvas) lend themselves to ready interpretation through iconographic allusions. There is one image, however, that I’m still puzzling over; its points of reference are diffuse and difficult to reconcile. 

Titled “Destroy This Mad Brute (Caliban and Miranda): The end of an allegory”, the painting is in the first instance an explicit citation of US Army enlistment propaganda from 1917. In that picture, the “mad brute”, looking like King Kong, wore a helmet labelled “militarism” and carried in his right arm the bloodied club of “kultur”. In his left arm he clutched a helpless, half-naked woman. Emerging from a body of water, behind which lay smoldering ruins, the ape-man stood on a shore marked “America”.

The symbolism was about as unsubtle as one might expect from a recruiting poster. The bloodthirsty gorilla was Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm – an enemy that would surely cross the Atlantic Ocean, after “raping” England and France, to attack the United States.

This caricature has been appropriated and adapted towards various ends over the last hundred years. Ka Zenzile provocatively links it to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. That play also features a character who is depicted as half-man, half-beast: Caliban, the original inhabitant of a small island that is now controlled by Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan. Somewhere in the play’s pre-history, Caliban had attempted to rape Miranda, Prospero’s daughter (the “mad brute” image fits this narrative).

For centuries, The Tempest seemed to endorse the binary of “civilised” coloniser and “savage” colonised so cherished by European imperial powers. Yet today it is standard practice among scholars, teachers, actors and directors of Shakespeare to interpret the play through a post-colonial lens. Caliban is, after all, given eloquent speeches in which he declares “This island’s mine” and denounces Prospero’s arrogance, cruelty and exploitation. 

What does it mean, then, for a very unsympathetically-portrayed Caliban to wield the club of kultur in Ka Zenzile’s painting? Although kultur has its origins in the nationalism and expansionism espoused by Hohenzollern dynasty, which dominated Prussia and spurred the creation of a German empire, ultimately taking it to war in 1914, the word is more strongly associated with a later and more notorious regime. 

During the Third Reich, kultur was invoked to promote “native” German culture, superior to others (in accordance with the Aryan myth). Kultur also emphasised the collective over the individual: national interests, defined by the state, could not accommodate dissident opinions. It is paradoxical, then, that Ka Zenzile should merge the totalitarianism and genocide of Nazi Germany with the figure of Caliban, who would otherwise stand for resistance to oppression and racism. Perhaps the point here is that thinking “allegorically” – trying to fit complex matters like national identity, ethnicity, persecution and liberation into simple stories and stereotypes – is inadequate and, indeed, absurd. 

Mcebo Dlamini, would-be political firebrand and now former president of the Student Representative Council at Wits University, would do well to consider this absurdity. Dlamini’s controversial recent claim to “love Hitler” might be attributed to a basic misunderstanding of the word “love”: surely, we think, what he is describing is not love but a curious fascination with, even admiration of, Hitler’s charisma, rhetorical skill and megalomania. Sadly, it is clear from Dlamini’s subsequent remarks that he doesn’t know what he means. He wants to oppose Zionism but slips so easily into anti-Semitism. He wants to criticise white privilege and power but declares his affinity with the author of Mein Kampf. He equates strong and efficient leadership with autocracy and violence.

Dlamini is like the worst kind of student debater. He thinks he’s adopting a clever and contrarian position; he thinks he can impress people by defending the indefensible, expose the mistreatment of Palestinians by invoking Nazism, and present “whiteness” as an homogeneous entity in precisely the way that white supremacists do. But all he achieves is to make himself into the contradictory and dangerous figure in Ka Zenzile’s painting: a kultur-wielding bully who has embraced, and is now bent on perpetuating, the denigrating colonial image of Caliban.



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