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May 15, 2013

Of Needs and Blessings

Written by Raimi Gbadamosi


Them that's got shall get

Them that's not shall lose

So the Bible said and it still is news

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that's got his own

That's got his own[1]


When Billie Holliday wrote God Bless the Child, I do not think she could have imagined it becoming an anthem for the disenfranchised. Being in control of means matters greatly when considering representation and self-actualisation. Being unable to actively engage in disseminating cultural artifacts of concern, leaves control of identity construction in the hands of those that accrue benefit from exploiting the many discourses surrounding self-construction. So as Holliday serenades, those that have control will have more, those without will lose what they do have, ironically into the hands that have already.


I have been reading about education a lot recently, radical education, strategies to change the way society functions from the inside out. Ideas put forward by Paulo Freire, Ernst Schumacher, ways of being in the world that will address continuing realities for the benefit of the many, rather than the few. These readings have had considerable relevance for my addressing Fine Arts production; display; critique; and collection in South Africa. Radical transformation will have to ensue if the mechanics of cultural production is going to cease reproducing ‘oppressive’ systems. However all is not lost, with the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o presenting a workable critique of the continuing colonization that dominates the ever-emerging culture (placed in perpetual non-arrival) that predominates in the regulated landscape that the South African art scene has come to represent. And with bell hooks pointing out that the gaze is never one-sided, the search for self-validation, often sought in the gallery space, might just transpire.


That art emerges from life is a cliché in some quarters, but a necessary realisation in others. When deemed a fundamental aspect of life, art ceases to be simply yet another consumable, it becomes a manifestation of sentience, that one is living an existence deserving and capable of expression. Cultural articulations that recognise the daily realities of the population in its many variations (race, gender, sexuality, class, age, political status, or combined designations) will better communicate the populace’s experiences, who can then take ownership and collective responsibility for Culture as representation.


It is worthwhile comparing the lack of lived life on gallery walls to present offerings that allude to a ‘homogenized’ body of spectators. If an oppositional gaze is expected, then it has clearly been discounted, demonstrated by the obvious absence of works that recognise the possibility of a complicated self seeking a self. One is forced into a slight digression on what culture within the art gallery should, or could be, hopefully expressions for and of people, not items simply made for consumption by a rarefied and lionised few.


The various system of display appears to assume that there is a set understanding of cultural codes (determined by hegemonic powers and market structures), and these are the codes that need to be satisfied. Of course this assumption ignores most of the population not schooled, or interested in these codes, actively discounting their knowledge, heritage, and consequently, their very selves.


In a country where 5% of the population still act as the main consumers of gallery culture, and most of this 5% is distinguishable by skin colour (‘race’ is another argument altogether within the South African context) then the lived experience of the larger part of the population simply act as a backdrop for the sites of cultural consumption where contemporary art emerges from, rather than discursive possibilities for addressing continued realities facing most of the population.


The gallery system itself similarly excludes the main body of the population, not by closing the doors of their building to those seeking entry, but by closing its walls to ideas and representations that will question its wholesale acceptance of extant hegemonic positions (and might simultaneously alienates - through open challenge of power structures - its ‘paying’ customers). The furore that followed the now notorious rehang of the South African National Gallery was in part inspired by feelings that established powers and norms were being callously unpicked for the proletariat.


It can be argued that the phenomenon of ignoring the main body of the population is not unique to South Africa, but the almost absolute convergence of race and class in the dissemination of regulated visual culture is. Power retains dominance through its invisibility, and this has meant a peculiar set of absences. Daily life would collapse under scrutiny, so it is left well alone, and everyone suffers as a consequence.


Unlikely that the gallery system will seek to undermine its own existence, they act as monitors on the kind of life the visitor to the gallery will see, and in so doing, define the representation of lived existence within the country. There is such a difference in the lived experience of the few who purchase artworks, and the lives of the bulk of the population, that it can be argued that the gallery functions as a window on another life. And it is this other life that is found acceptable, anything that renders the other similar poses an existential problem in a country so openly socially divided. It is a view on the world rather effectively managed. A specified interpretation that deliberately favours the ‘spectacular’ over the ‘normal’, unless the normal, in its abject banality, becomes a spectacle worthy of scrutiny. A normality absent from the daily lives of the expected gallery visitor.


The artists, realising their close relationship to the dominant system of display soon start to produce works that meet the passive desires of the gallery system, not unescapably producing works to order that address ‘complicated’ positions, but the lure of directed financial and critical rewards always seem to have a way of defining and determining action within the cultural landscape.


Yes, the strong gets more

While the weak ones fade

Empty pockets don't ever make the grade

Mama may have, Papa may have

But God bless the child that's got his own

That's got his own[2]


South Africa has a small and unified cultural marketplace: a marketplace, that as a deliberately neoliberal concern appears to define significance and worthiness of investment by saleability. This has tended to be works that pander to the notion of the international, which at the moment is indigenous representations suffused with content easily translatable into desirable placelessness, not related to the daily existence of the people. This daily existence is only of value when it can be aestheticized, and there is plenty of that to go around, the black body as seen through the ethnographic gaze still thrives, whether through auto-representation, or increasingly ‘ironic’ othering.


The African is still perceived as an idea to be fathomed, not a presence, not tangible. The African’s life is treated like a commodity awaiting revelation to the world, more importantly, to itself. To this extent, the lived life of the African remains a spectacle, to be enjoyed, gazed at in wonder, continuously revisited, lived life is never good enough a subject for the art gallery, but the imagined life is. Normality represented in popular media still renders the African life extra- or ab- normal.


The inability of international curators to understand local context, by desire or design, extends the alienation of lived life, art, and the population. Stories of the flying curator abound: they arrive, they rush around the few commercial galleries looking for the next best name that satisfies their preconceived notions of what cultural production should be. They prioritise work that will satisfy the limited audience that travels from anointed gallery space to epoch-making biennial to extravagant international art fairs seeking differentiated lifestyles to exhibit, that are not hindered by messy realities, and they end up with petty subjectivities dressed up as aesthetic/historical objectivity. This has become the order of the day, and South Africa - as a sanitized Gateway to the African hinterland - still perceived by the international visitor as dangerous at best – has been successful in providing the material desires required through its systematic aping of Western orthodoxies maintained by a powerful cultural minority.


Money, you’ve got lots of friends

Crowding round the door

When your money spending ends

They don’t come round no more[3]


The capital accrued of self-exocitisation will rapidly be exhausted, there are only so many ways to avoid over-exposure, perhaps then the gallery going gang of South Africa will see life anew, uncomplicated by expected reward, life as it is lived.

Raimi Gbadamosi is an artist, writer, curator and Associate Professor of Fine Art at the University of the Witwatersrand



Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. Penguin, London. 1972.

Foster, Hal. The Return of the Real, The MIT Press, 1996.

Holliday, Billy. God Bless the Child on Lady Sings the Blues. Chef Records, 1956.

Friere, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed Continium, 2005.

Schumacher, Ernst Friedrich. Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered Abacus. 1991.

hooks, bell. Black Looks, South End Press, Boston. 1992.

Ngfigi wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature London, 1986.


[1] Holliday, Billy. God Bless the Child on Lady Sings the Blues. Chef Records, 1956.

[2] Holliday, Billy. God Bless the Child on Lady Sings the Blues. Chef Records, 1956.

[3] Holliday, Billy. God Bless the Child on Lady Sings the Blues. Chef Records, 1956.