Objects
Elfriede Dreyer

Diane Victor
2008
smoke on Hahnemühle paper
200cm x 150 cm
Public art collection, University of South Africa
Diane Victor

Smoke and Succulents: Metaphors of Nomadic Culture in South Africa

 

The metaphor of the rhizome is of particular interest to an engagement with nomadic identity in the context of a continent such as Africa that has been subjected to “wicked, messy problems”. Being similarly exposed to a severe environment, African people have accustomed themselves to survive in difficult circumstances and to a large extent have become nomadic as a result. In many cases they have adopted itinerant lifestyles and form groups for protection, safety and cultural coherence. The art of South African artist Diane Victor provides an eminent example of nomadic and rhizomatic identity depiction. The artist utilises various ephemeral media in her work, such as ash, crushed charcoal and staining.

Elfriede Dreyer
Elfriede Dreyer

 

The Richtersveld National Park in South Africa has some of the most beautiful and hardy vegetation in the world. The 'botterboom' ('butter tree') (Tylecodon paniculatus) is but one example hereof. According to Wikipedia (RICHTERSVELD 2008), "The plant appears to have wide tolerance of growing habitats, growing in weathered rock in the north to coastal sands in the south. The plants can reach heights of 2 m making them the largest of the tylecodons. Tylecodon paniculatus is summer deciduous. The plants conserve energy by photosynthesizing through their 'greenish stems' during the hot dry summer months. The yellowish green, papery bark is a very attractive feature of this plant and has given rise to the common name. During the winter, plants are covered with long, obovate, succulent leaves clustered around the apex of the growing tip. [...] In nature the plants tend to grow in groups, making a spectacular show when they flower. [...] The shrub is reported to have a surprisingly weak and shallow root system for its size." This plant is representative of many other African succulents and bulbous plants that have shallow root systems and can therefore easily adjust to desert and other harsh environmental conditions. They change their leaves into thorns and the surface to protect the plant against the loss of water.

 

The metaphor of the succulent is of particular interest to an engagement with nomadic identity in the context of a continent such as Africa that has been subjected to "wicked, messy problems". Being similarly exposed to a severe environment, African people have accustomed themselves to survive in difficult circumstances and to a large extent have become nomadic as a result. In many cases they have adopted itinerant lifestyles and form groups for protection, safety and cultural coherence. Living on a vast continent, they are accustomed to long journeys; however, poverty, violence, civil wars, colonial and other imperial infiltrations and oppression have resulted in a focused nomadic condition where people are constantly moving and travelling in the search for a better life and even survival. Aligning contemporary culture with nomadism, Polish sociologist and philosopher Zygmunt Bauman (1996) appropriates the stereotype of the pilgrim who is on a teleological journey - ordered, determined and predictable - but cannot come to rest and leave a footprint in the sand. They operate through a 'shallow root system'.

Bulbous succulent plants are essentially botanical rhizomes, a concept that inspired the notion of the rhizome as a philosophical concept, initially developed by Gilles Deleuze (philosopher) and Felix Guattari (psychotherapist) in their Capitalism and schizophrenia (1972 -- 1980) project. Deleuze and Guattari (1987:7) state that the "rhizome itself assumes many diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion in bulbs and tubers". In "A thousand plateaus" (1987 [1980]) they introduce the concept of the rhizome as follows (assigned to cultural patterning):

 

1. Principle of connection: any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other

2. Principle of heterogeneity: any point of a rhizome can be connected to any other

3. Principle of multiplicity

4. Principle of a signifying rupture: a rhizome may be broken, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines

5. Principle of cartography and

6: Principle of decalcomania: a rhizome is not amenable to any structural or generative model; it is a map and not a tracing.

 

Deleuze and Guattari's model allows for a cultural view that entertains non-stable relationships, subjectivity, relationalism, multiplicity and volatile positions. Similarly, Italian contemporary philosopher and feminist theoretician Rosi Braidotti (2011:3) views the nomadic predicament and its multiple contradictions have come to age in the third millennium after years of debate on the "'nonunitary' - split, in process, knotted, rhizomatic, transitional, nomadic - so that fragmentation, complexity and multiplicity have become everyday terms in critical theory." Since the 1990s Braidotti has been engaged with the question as to what the political and ethical conditions of nomadic subjectivity are, grounded in a "politically invested cartography of the present condition of mobility in a globalized world" (Braidotti 2011:4).

 

South Africa has experienced turbulent histories over the last two centuries and nomadic movement was brought on by volatile colonial, postcolonial and global upheavals, leading to political and social displacement and consequently hybrid identities. Having been a British as well as a Dutch colony, South Africa has since 1652 shown cultural patterns of movement in and out of the country, and from place to place. During apartheid non-whites or 'people of colour' were viewed as not belonging and were removed from the city; forcibly established in townships outside the city; only allowed as workers into the city; and had to carry passbooks (identity documents) on them all the time. For many decades now, in postapartheid South Africa, migrants from all over the continent have been flocking to the country in search of a better life and even survival, and they mostly live in temporary shelters. Many other sociological and cultural problems have emanated as a result of the migrant issue, based on subjective racism, xenophobia, crime and fear for the other.

 

Identity (and subjectivity) in the African modernist context is neither stable nor fixed, and the corporeality of the artist-as body and the artwork-as-process in this specific part of the world henceforth has produced liminalities in many ways. Often rooted in a rural or small-town environment, African artists generally tend to move to multicultural, cosmopolitan cities where gallery and industry networks are in closer proximity. Those in the rural remote parts of Africa make it their business to connect through digital and social media in order to stay connected, current and noticed.

 

The art of South African artist Diane Victor provides an eminent example of nomadic identity depiction. The artist utilises various ephemeral media in her work, such as ash, crushed charcoal and staining. In Perpetrator 1, 2008, a so-called smoke portrait, she has used the deposits of carbon from candle smoke on white paper to draw with. The work is exceedingly fragile and can be easily damaged, disintegrating with physical contact as the carbon soot is dislodged from the paper, and in this way speaks about the fragility, precariousness and insubstantiality of a nomadic human condition. Although the smoke portraits started with a series on AIDS victims in 2003, Victor continued to depict various other individuals, commenting on ephemeral politics and ideas, and life generally as a temporal entity. In this work she depicts a perpetrator with reference to the previous South African apartheid dispensation and the atrocities of its perpetrators, but also to counter racism and the violence committed in the name of political redress. The Perpetrator's race is indeterminate, but his gender is certain, as well as the cruelty of his dispensation. Severed from the body, the Perpetrator's head becomes a rhizome that is not 'rooted' in a body, but uprooted, derooted, and floating with tubular arteries as corms hanging from it like a beheaded monster.

 

As an ephemeral, nomadic image, Perpetrator 1 speaks about a decolonial condition that presents the ambivalent Baumanian idea of the pilgrim-tourist who keeps going in circles, driven by an ideological sense of survival. Nomadic identity is essentially rhizomatic, and in Africa, as in many other parts of the world, the drive to belong and the utopian quest for a better life have resulted in identity being redefined, renegotiated, rerooted and sprouting in many directions.

 

 

 

References

  • Bauman, Z. ‘From pilgrim to tourist – or a short history of identity’. In Hall, S and Du Gay, P (eds). 1996. Questions of cultural identity. London/New Delhi/Thousand Oaks: SAGE.
  • Braidotti, R. 2011. Nomadic subjects: embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. Second edition. Gender and culture: A series of Columbia University Press. New York: University of Columbia Press.
  • Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. 1976. Rhizome: Introduction. Paris: Éditions de Minuit. [based on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s  Capitalism and schizophrenia project (1972 - 1980)].
  • Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. 1987 [1980, French original]. A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. London: Athlone Press.
  • RICHTERSVELD NATIONAL PARK - VEGETATION: BOTTERBOOM (Tylecodon paniculatus). 2008.Available: https://www.richtersveldnationalpark.com/vegetation_botterboom.html (Accessed 3 January 2019).