Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Memory Card Sea Power

First appeared
Friday, 19 June 2015


What a difference a week makes.

Last Friday, South Africa certainly had more geopolitical credibility: Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir had not yet arrived in the country, and so had not yet given our feckless “leaders” the chance to renege on our commitment to the Rome Statute that gives authority to the International Criminal Court.

A week ago, Rachel Dolezal was still “mixed race” (black, Native American and white according to her own description) and was still head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. She has since lost those two facets of her identity. 

Given the coincidence that my column last week about “Black Beethoven” touched on the performance of race – or the adoption of an alternative racial identity – I have been following the Dolezal story with interest. Never mind Nadine Gordimer’s Beethoven was One-Sixteenth Black; if we’re using a South African literary lens, the title of Antjie Krog’s Begging to Be Black seems an appropriate summary of Dolezal’s strange tale.

As my thoughts have shifted away from the Beethoven race debate towards more current concerns, one aspect of the topic has remained pertinent. Even if Beethoven was partly of west-African descent, and grew up with some knowledge of polyrhythmic musical systems, what does it mean to claim that this helped him to fuse (as if single-handedly) African and European musical styles?

Historians of music – no less than art and literary historians – tend to allow the achievements of prominent individuals to be over-determining factors in their narratives. But African influences on European music did not occur primarily because of Beethoven or any other major composer or performer; they developed in countless undocumented performances and exchanges, moments produced in colonial and mercantile and adventurous encounters.  

Similarly, the migration stories of famous people and their forebears are often turned into the causes, rather than the effects, of globalisation. The alternating celebration and denigration of Barack Obama’s family background – from Kenya to Hawaii to Chicago to the White House – often presents this background as a shaping force in America’s demographic dynamics rather than a consequence of them.

Obama’s story aside, of course, there is a racialised vocabulary to discourses around migration: white people become “expats”, black people become “immigrants”, as the trite but accurate formulation has it. But what about the millions of unnamed travellers who, because they want to or because they have to, become temporarily stateless: no longer belonging to one place, not yet welcome in another?

The iconography of displacement and economic desperation has shifted from rows of tents in refugee camps to overcrowded boats crossing the Mediterranean, but photojournalists run the risk of visually reinforcing the cliché and stigma that is already attached to the figure of the migrant. For this reason, Dave Southwood and Sean Christie’s MEMORY CARD SEA POWER is a welcome publication.

Designed as a broadsheet newspaper, with Southwood’s photographs accompanied by Christie’s text, MEMORY CARD SEA POWER documents a transient community of Tanzanians living under the N1 highway on Cape Town’s foreshore. These men, who use the Cape as a base from which to board ships heading all over the world, are both seasoned and would-be stowaways; their presence is ignored by the South African authorities because acknowledging them would make the state responsible for the cost of their repatriation (a variation on the theme of myopic expediency that guided government’s actions in handling the al-Bashir affair).

While there is inevitably an element of voyeurism in the work – the stowaways have fascinating life experiences to share, after all – Southwood and Christie have clearly developed relationships of mutual trust and respect with their subjects. Unlike “Girl with Cake”, another newsmaker over the past week, MEMORY CARD SEA POWER is not poverty porn; it does not invite us to pity the stowaways, and it indulges no white saviour complexes.

The images are not didactic or anthropological. Instead, they present vivid faces and living spaces to the reader, with attempts at symbolic interpretation frustrated by the division of composite photographs across page divides. Along with Christie’s prose, snippets of “found poetry” – idiomatic graffiti left by previous stowaways – hint at the life philosophies of these travellers. My favourite is an optimistic nod to Bob Marley: “AVER THEANG ISGOABE ORITE”. 



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