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New York is Nooit

This weekend I saw DJ Spooky take one for the team. It was an ugly but necessary procedure, and the kind of thing you never — but never — see happening to an artist at an exhibition opening. Especially an American one.

We have a troubled relationship with all things international, we South Africans. On the one hand we’re pathetically grateful for any attention, financial or otherwise, and on the other there’s a kind of stunted pride: it’s the same conflict you see in the faces of people selling the Big Issue at traffic lights.

DJ Spooky’s launch of New York Is Now was a Design Indaba event at the UCT art-school campus, with the evening coming down off the mountain and more berets than you could shake a brush at. Inside there was gutrot and lollipops, which about sums up the thought that went into the launch itself.

Spooky is black, and specialises in artistic appropriation. Call it payback for colonisation — the 21st-century preoccupation with arranging other people’s ideas in a user-friendly format and calling it po-po-mo. (Twenty years ago they called it plagiarism, but that’s a rant for another day.) It ain’t new, but it has a nice beat and you can dance to it.

So. Picture the scene: white gym balls, the projectors set up to show identical old-school images of New York (dual consciousness, can you dig it?) and some pretty good music. Silent-movie flashcards elucidated Spooky’s endearing but incoherent and brand-heavy manifesto, while outside the artist was available in the flesh (dual consciousness, can you dig it?). His speech centred on the old tropes: surrealism’s debt to Africa, globalisation, technology — and Sara Baartman.

The crowd watched as DJ Spooky cheerfully said: “People came to look at her butt. When she died, this French guy did experiments on her. And then, around 1994, they brought her butt back, man. Nelson Mandela got involved and campaigned for it to come home.” He was speaking energetically, with a smile on his face, energised by the turnout, unfazed by the whopping inaccuracies in his revisionist history.

The man in the baseball cap waited politely until Spooky’s fans had tootled his talents to the skies, and then he put his hand up and began speaking — clearly and slowly, his voice rising as he warmed up. And he was very, very cross.

He pointed out that Georges Cuvier, the “French guy”, was one of the most influential anatomists in medical history. He explained that Sara Baartman was a performance artist as well as a sideshow attraction, but refused to exhibit her privates. And then he — icily — elucidated on the body parts that were finally returned to the Eastern Cape in 2002, along with her wax cast: skeleton, genitals, brain. “Her butt had nothing to do with it.” The man in the baseball cap then suggested that Spooky read up before he tried to tell Africans about their history.

No one clapped. But they should have.

What we were witnessing was the triumph of substance over form; it was the failure of theory in the face of the real; it was restitution.

It’s one thing to live in quotation marks — but there are some things you have to take seriously. We do not live in quotation marks in this country; we can’t. Irony is a First World luxury, and South Africa threw punctuation away along with the old flag and lyrics. We aren’t far enough away from our history to be flippant about it. It’s too fresh, too close to home: true civil rights still have to take hold.

But this man in the baseball cap … he was angry. He was so angry that he couldn’t even look at Spooky afterwards; he’d gaze skywards, or over his shoulder, jaw clenched the whole time.

As J said in the car afterwards as we careened drunkenly to the next place: How cool was it that the angriest person there was a white guy?

Not just cool, J.



  • Diane Awerbuck

    Diane Awerbuck's first novel, Gardening at Night, struck it lucky. She writes textbooks and fiction (most recently, Cabin Fever) and reviews books for the Sunday Times. Her doctorate, The Spirit and the Letter: Warblogs, Trauma and the Public Sphere, is due out in 2012, along with another novel.