Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Othello and Post African Futures

First appeared
Thursday, 28 May 2015


Ostensibly I’m in Germany to work on Shakespeare; for centuries, Germans have viewed the man from Stratford not as a British export but as “ganz unser” (entirely ours), which makes him a less divisive figure here than he is in South Africa. Sometimes, however, the primary object of my research is German baking.

Breads, pastries, cakes – savoury or sweet, you name it, the Germans bake it. Tim Noakes and the banting diet would be laughed out of the country. For me, the pleasure of consuming German baking lies not just in eating but also in procuring: admiring the dense-packed shelves, trying to decipher the labels, ordering through pointing and bad pronunciation. 

It was with a combination of delight and horror that, at a café in Bonn last week, I discovered a treat called an “Othello”. Delight because I could understand the word, because here was further evidence of Shakespeare’s presence in German daily life, and because it tasted so damn good. Horror because it was a marker of the kind of casual and unexamined racism that, although apparently innocuous, is not entirely distinct from the anti-immigrant discourse and even race-baiting hate speech that continues to rear its ugly head here and across Europe.

This edible “Othello” had a creamy filling and a chocolate coating. You guessed it: brown on the outside but white on the inside. Superficially, this might seem like a feasible diagnosis of the fractured psyche that drives Shakespeare’s Othello to kill Desdemona, his wife – he is a black man who wants to be white, or, at least, who is so desperate to integrate into a white society that he internalises its bigotry. Othello, according to this interpretation, becomes a self-hating black man, acting out the “savagery” that white racism projects onto him.

Yet this only makes sense if we accept (as Othello, tragically, seems to) a set of binary categories: white/black, rational/irrational, civilised/barbaric and so on. Inevitably, these binaries simply reinforce the denigrating attitudes of Europe towards Africa, of West towards East, and of coloniser towards colonised.

Shakespeare, writing in the first age of globalisation, created characters whose identities are fluid. Their experiences and their speeches challenge the idea that nationality, ethnicity, gender and other demographic descriptors are fixed, stable or predictable. The play Othello warns us against the dangers of a limited and limiting world-view, precisely the kind of easy dichotomising that makes a joke about the dessert “Othello” possible. 

As Natasha Distiller has pointed out, the phenomenon of using food to describe hybrid racial identities in a reductive and dismissive way is worth studying in its own right. In America, it’s the Oreo cookie; in England, it’s the choc ice; in South Africa, it’s the coconut.

Distiller’s book, Shakespeare and the Coconuts, considers the relationship between Shakespeare and “coconuts” as diverse as Sol Plaatje and the protagonist of Kopano Matlwa’s novel Coconut. She argues that to be a “coconut” – to have a complex sense of identity that isn’t limited to essentialised notions of race and culture – should in fact be a term of opprobrium, not an insult.

A similar resistance to simplistic and anti-creative categories lies behind Post African Futures, curated by Tegan Bristow, at the Goodman Gallery. Given its prominence in South Africa’s art scene, the Goodman has to work extra-hard to avoid complicity in what Linda Stupart recently called “the detrimental effects of commercial gallery culture on South African artists” (writing about the hastily assembled national pavilion at the Venice Biennale, Stupart wryly observed that the organisers may perhaps “be forgiven for finding most of their works in the Goodman Gallery’s storage basement ... perhaps not”).

Post African Futures, which features some twenty artists and collectives from across the continent, is a step in the right direction. Bristow seeks to subvert “restrictive labels and one-dimensional readings of the process of making art in African contexts”. Even trendy tags such as “AfroFuturism” are subjected to critical scrutiny, and the ready celebration of “innovative technology” is likewise approached with caution.

The exhibition, framed as “border thinking”, promises to emphasise the border as a site of diffusion and exchange, rather than the separatist thinking of black-and-white.

* Post African Futures, Goodman Gallery Johannesburg, until 20 June.



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