South Afrian artist Tracey Rose's searing performances raise tough questions around history and race
How do you mourn a life that was not just snuffed out but purposefully disappeared with corrosive acid? In a recent performance, the South African artist Tracey Rose proposed a simple yet efficient plan: you repeat the name of the owner of that life, over and over, until you’re exhausted – and then you keep going. She did this shortly after the 55th anniversary of the torture and assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first democratically elected leader, by Belgian security agents on 17 January 1961; Lumumba’s body was later exhumed from its shallow grave, dismembered and dissolved in sulphuric acid by Gerard Soete, a senior Belgian policeman. Rose’s seven-kilometre walk took her from WIELS, a contemporary art centre in Brussels, to Our Lady of Laeken, a neo-Gothic church where Belgium’s royal family are interred in a crypt. During the walk, she chanted Lumumba’s name through a plastic megaphone. At first, the artist’s voice was strident and angry but, as she walked further north, her calls became plaintive and searching as exhaustion kicked in.
I want to parse Rose’s performance, not fleetingly but in detail, to a point of exhaustion. Titled Die Wit Man (The White Man, 2015) and premiered as a 42-minute video projection in Cameroon-born curator Koyo Kouoh’s exhibition, ‘Body Talk: Feminism, Sexuality and the Body in the Work of Six African Women Artists’ at WIELS in 2015, this work speaks directly to the essence of Rose’s incisive and luminescent practice. Spanning two decades, the artist’s approach is motivated by her can-do attitude, improvisational aesthetics and carnivalesque ethos, as well as her insistence on asking hard questions of the post-racial idyll conjured by desegregation in the US, decolonization in Africa and the fall of apartheid in South Africa, where Rose grew up classified ‘coloured’ because of her mixed-race ancestry.
Throughout her Brussels performance, Rose – who wore red face-paint, a safety helmet and a paint-splattered tunic – was an effigial cipher. With her eyelids painted blue and wearing a trashy costume, she resembled some fictional Catholic saint from the Caribbean or, perhaps, a Congolese ‘fetish’ wrestler, those elaborately costumed strongmen and fabulists who entertain Kinshasa crowds in the Democratic Republic of Congo (hereafter Congo) a half-century after Lumumba’s death. But, above all, she was simply Tracey, a chaos queen who, in her particular guerrilla style, set out to celebrate the memory of a man whose ‘complicated bequest to history’, according to Harvard University historian Caroline Elkins, ‘is a potent concoction of myth-making, sainthood, martyrdom and demagoguery’. It is a dispassionate view corroborated by another US historian, Didier Gondola, who last year wrote that the death of Lumumba has ‘elicited a cottage industry of books, plays, songs, films and paintings’. Rose’s work forms part of this febrile canon.
Rose has deployed a carnivalesque spirit of mockery and laughter to confront eduring issues of gender and race.
For the duration of her performance, the artist dragged a trolley loaded with an improvised totem fashioned out of branches retrieved from nearby Duden Park. The ritual object was a crude metonym for Lumumba, who – together with his comrades, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo – was tortured and then shot near a clump of trees on the outskirts of Lubumbashi in southern Congo’s copper and cobalt mining region. A modest, red-brick memorial today marks the spot where Lumumba was initially buried before being exhumed. But Rose’s performance did not revisit this site near the border with Zimbabwe; rather, the artist trudged past disinterested and bemused Brussels pedestrians to the crypt where Congo’s one-time owner, King Leopold II, is buried. There she continued with her minimal incantation: ‘Patrice – Lumumba!’
Throughout Rose’s walk, a loudspeaker on her trolley broadcast a looped recording of a female voice calmly reading the names of some 30 political figures. They included Black Panther Party cofounder Huey Newton, the 16th-century Congolese King Afonso I Mvemba a Nzinga and Martinique-born psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon, whose writings on race were a touchstone for Rose during art school in 1990s Johannesburg. Some of the individuals named – such as the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg, the American gay rights activist Harvey Milk and Burkina Faso president Thomas Sankara – also died violently for their political views. Like Lumumba, their bodies became objects through which the 20th century’s pitiable politics was enacted.
Rose first explored the list as a form of incantation in a studio-based performance titled The Black Paintings: Dead White Man (2012). Produced while pregnant with her son, this looping, 12-minute video shows the artist naked – a familiar performance mode for Rose (one that locates her in the tradition of feminist body artists such as Carolee Schneemann). Her back turned to the camera, her skin covered with black paste, Rose intones a series of names hand-painted in a medley of black and white on grey card on a wall. A dark and brooding piece (‘I was whacked out on [pregnancy] hormones most of the time,’ she told me), Rose invokes, amongst others, the murdered singers Tupac Shakur and Lucky Dube, as well as political figures including Salvador Allende, Muammar Gaddafi, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X and Lumumba. The artist then interrupts her chant and repeats the word ‘white’. It is a rehearsal of a 2010 editorial she wrote for Art South Africa magazine featuring the word ‘white’ written 750 times. I was editor of the magazine at the time and read her submission as an elegant criticism of the quarterly’s stilted mix of content as much as a self-inflicted punishment for the artist. To put it in simpler terms: it was incursive and funny, which is true of much of Rose’s work since her inclusion in Harald Szeemann’s ‘Plateau of Humankind’, at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001.
But why focus on Lumumba, specifically? Why not create a performance, say, around Luxemburg, with whose history Rose is familiar following an extended stay in Berlin in 2012, or the murdered South African anti-apartheid activist Ruth First? ‘Don’t forget,’ her work repeatedly demands. As it is, Lumumba’s struggles are coterminous with those of women. Rose’s early fame rests on her performative reimagining of female figures, some archetypal, others lifted from history. Her first important work, Ciao Bella (2001) – a shambolic, operatic, feminist parody of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1498), which premiered in Venice in 2001 – showed Rose simultaneously and exaggeratedly performing multiple female roles. Some were fictional, like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, whilst others were historical, such as Marie Antoinette and Saartjie ‘Sarah’ Baartman, the Khoi woman exhibited in early-19th-century London as the ‘Hottentot Venus’.
Rose asks hard questions of the post-radical idyll conjured by desegregation in the US, decolonization in Africa and the fall of apartheid in South Africa.
Baartman’s passage from person to object is a central trauma of South African history, one that Rose’s impudent photographs and performances have set out to reframe critically. (Rose also works in drawing and sculpture, and produces ribald theatre pieces like Terra Beaux (2016), a new puppet work for the 37th edition of EVA International in Limerick.) Born in the port city of Durban to Catholic parents involved in trade-union politics, Rose’s ancestry is a mix of Khoi and German. For a brief period in 2011, she enrolled in a PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg with the idea of studying the relations between Khoi rituals and performance art. A DAAD artist fellowship in Berlin prompted a rethink: not of Baartman, but of her academic studies. Baartman’s tragedy – of being an object of titillation and fantasy, and, later, following her death, simply a medical curiosity whose anatomy was stored in a museum in Paris – is important in thinking about Lumumba, too, and indeed the activism aggregated around the Black Lives Matter movement.
In January this year, the Belgian weekly tabloid HUMO ran a bizarre interview (criminally under-reported in the English-language press) with Godelieve Soete, daughter of the Belgian policeman who disposed of Lumumba’s body. She recalled her father smelling of whiskey when he returned from what he later described as his ‘night at the bottom of hell’ (the alcohol apparently masked the pungent smell of the sulphuric acid). Asked by journalist Jan Antonissen about persistent allegations, which her father always refuted, that he had kept some of Lumumba’s body parts as trophies, Soete retrieved a small blue box. It contained one of Lumumba’s teeth. She plans to donate it to a museum in Tervuren at some point. Responding to a question as to whether she was in any way troubled by her ownership of this laden and macabre keepsake – a biological fragment linked to an event described, hyperbolically perhaps, by Belgian author Ludo de Witte as ‘the most important assassination of the 20th century’ – Soete replied: ‘Mais non, ce n’était quand même pas un homme sérieux.’ (‘Of course not, and anyway, he wasn’t a serious man.’)
I want to put this appalling statement, which merits rereading, into conversation with something Fanon wrote in 1952, in his book Black Skin, White Masks, when Lumumba was in his late 20s: ‘I came into the world imbued with the will to find a meaning in things, my spirit filled with the desire to attain to the source of the world, and then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.’ Fanon’s sentiments echo those expressed by the influential American civil-rights activist, Pan-Africanist, author and editor W.E.B. du Bois, decades earlier. Fanon’s next sentence is decisive: he speaks of being ‘sealed’ into a ‘crushing objecthood’ because of his race. Much of Rose’s practice has been about flagging the endurance of this position, as well as wiggling her way out of its death grip through alternately giddy and urgent performances of her own making. Her method is visceral and bodily. It also embodies what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, in his belatedly published dissertation Rabelais and His World (1965), called the ‘carnival spirit’, which the writer understood through the prism of class. Rose has deployed its spirit of mockery and laughter to confront enduring issues of gender and race.
The arc of Die Wit Man, which is currently being shown as a new, split-screen version in the 2016 Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal, suggests anti-climax. Rose exits the churchyard confused and aimlessly wanders off into silence. This image is misleading. ‘I had this overwhelming sense of joy,’ she says of the conclusion of her walk. ‘It flooded over me.’ Rose likens the ‘guerrilla-style’ quality of the work to a piece she made a decade ago. In 2005 – using money lent to her by her then-dealer Linda Givon, some of her own funds, as well as money ‘hustled’ from a contact at The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine – Rose flew to Israel, where she staged an idiosyncratic protest against the Israeli West Bank wall. Early one morning, wearing leopard-print panties, fishnet stockings and leather boots, the rest of her body painted sweetly pink, Rose headed to the wall with her cameraman and played the Hativka, Israel’s national anthem, very badly on an electric guitar. San Pedro V: ‘The Hope I Hope’ (2005) culminates with Rose urinating on the neo-apartheid barrier.
‘For most of my artistic career, I was in incredibly vulnerable positions,’ Rose told me. ‘I am a coward and not at all brave.’ She had said much the same thing to me in 2011. Rose repeatedly speaks of being possessed by her work, of being a medium for its realization, and that her performances especially have been personally ‘humiliating and mortifying’. This last phrase is not Rose’s statement, but rather Bakhtin’s, and was offered in the context of the power of the ‘carnival spirit’ to puncture authority. Not decisively, Rose knows, which is why she continues to perform and choreograph situations that enact her alienation and anger, and search for something like catharsis.
First published in Issue 179