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On Reenactment: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools

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Cristina Baldacci
, 
Susanne Franco

Duets

Postcolonial Swings of Memory: The Center for Historical Reenactments as a Starting Point

Gabi Ngcobo et Matteo Lucchetti

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1Gabi Ngcobo (Johannesburg based Artist, Educator and Curatorial Director at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria) and Matteo Lucchetti (Curator, Visible Project, Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto and Fondazione Zegna) started their collaboration ten years ago in the frame of the Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR), a collaborative artistic platform founded in Johannesburg, South Africa. In their conversation, they unpack the short-term history of CHR through key moments and artistic projects that attempted to crack the popular historical narratives. Speaking about the disclosure of silent and invisible parts of history through art-making, they excavate the past from a decolonial perspective valuing the swinging of reenactment between remembering and forgetting.

MATTEO LUCCHETTI: Gabi, we have known each other for quite some time, at least since 2012. When I first met you, we were at the Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR).

GABI NGCOBO: This is right, but we met even before, in Italy.

  • 1 Angelika Burtscher and Judith Wielander, eds., Visible (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010).

ML: Right, very briefly. You were already active with the CHR at the time and you took part in the first-ever program of Visible, which was a publication in 2010.1

GN: I co-founded the CHR – what I call a collaborative platform – in 2010 together with Sohrab Mohebbi. Myself, Kemang Wa Lehulere and Donna Kukama became the core of the group but collaborated with different people for different projects. We used to work in a big warehouse where I also lived, that you visited in Downtown Johannesburg. Back then, concepts were much more important than the physical space; our scope was to look beyond those walls in our responses to the demands of that moment through an exploration of the historical legacies and their resonance and impact on contemporary art. In a sense, we were interested in questions that had existed before – that were important in a particular time frame – but we also wanted to revisit those questions in order to see what dimension they could activate or produce.
We also positioned our questions alongside the history of the Johannesburg Biennale, which took place only two times, in 1995 and 1997, before becoming a phantom limb. The last edition was curated by Okwui Enwezor and is considered as one of the most important exhibitions of the 1990s. Thinking about the questions that were brought up by that Biennale – especially the one curated by Okwui – and looking at what it left behind, I was happy to discover that there is a particular generation of artists all over the world that keeps a strong memory of that event. That is why I like to call the Biennale itself a “phantom pain” or a “phantom limb”, because even if the event really shook the artistic scene in South Africa then, it left behind a lot of source material, including an extensive catalogue whose content remains relevant to the original questions. One of the questions that stood out for us was about the kind of people who were meant to receive the message of the Biennale: who was the Biennale for? Whilst this question was very important at that time, and it is still relevant to pose, the answer today is very different. For instance, the social landscape of the city at that time was very different in terms of “audience” composition.

ML: It is interesting that we started this by reenacting the first time we met. At that time, I was curating an exhibition at Cittadellarte-Fondazione Pistoletto in Biella entitled Practicing Memory: In a Time of an All-Encompassing Present (2010). One of the videos that I showed on that occasion was by the Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué. Old House (2006) was a one-minute and fifteen seconds intense video showing a house in Beirut collapsing and resurrecting in the aftermath of the 1990 civil war. After the war, the general amnesty law pardoned all crimes and the act of forgetting became an imposed one, therefore making the one of remembering a political choice. A voiceover by the artist would retell the same story swinging from the option of remembering and forgetting it. Therefore, in his video, the idea of reenacting means also avoiding or refusing to go back to the very beginning where things started, but allowing the past to change our perception of the present.
Maybe this is something you have also elaborated on in some of the projects with the CHR. I remember you were telling me about one of the initial projects you did, and it was related to the very famous boxing match of Muhammad Ali in Zaire. Do you want to tell me something about it?

GN: I actually co-curated this project with Sohrab in New York City when we were still studying at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. Sohrab came to me and said: “Let’s do a boxing match”. While I was a bit confused at the beginning, we started to research and look very closely at the 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which at that time was called Zaire. During the many matches fought by Ali – even the famous one Rumble in the Jungle – he employed some techniques to defeat his opponent, like the rope-and-dope.
Rope-and-dope consists in drawing non-injuring offensive punches until an opponent fatigues himself, and then the contender can execute devastating offensive movements and thereby win. This technique has been used to describe many competitive situations, as for instance, the Obama campaign against McCain. Thinking about the theme of the fighting strategy and trying to bring it into the curatorial field, we invited two artists not to necessarily perform the boxing match, but to pick up on certain things that were taking place in the match. Consequently, the idea of the CHR came after having done this project.
Since the actual boxing match was eight rounds, we had the idea to stage the performance with different artists in different cities ending up in Kinshasa, but we managed to do only two of the performances, one in New York (2010) and the other in Johannesburg (2012), ironically at the event in which we declared CHR over.

  • 2 Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis (Durham: D (...)

ML: When you were mentioning the Johannesburg Biennale, you referred to it as a “phantom limb”. This is a very interesting image that has been also used by Kader Attia. He made a video called Reflecting Memory (2016), where he visualized something that we often tend to ignore. Working with people who were missing a limb, he put a mirror perpendicular to their bodies in order to let the existing limb mirror itself as if the missing one was actually present. The idea was to visualize something invisible even if it still has an effect on a person’s life – after all, people who have a missing limb keep on perceiving it. It was a very powerful image for considering how much things from the past still affect and influence the present, almost like ghosts. Therefore, what is important is to reenact them not in their original form but in a way that releases their ghost status in order to make them less influential in the present life. Kader uses this image as a metaphor to talk about the colonial approach to life and to propose a way to decolonize it. To use Mignolo’s term,2 “coloniality” is present even if we do not feel it and it exercises a powerful influence in the choices of people, institutions, artists, curators, and every social actor of our society. I was wondering if the concept of the “phantom limb” became something that you addressed, maybe through the programs at the CHR.

GN: It is interesting to reflect on things that haunt. The CHR was a collaborative artistic platform rather than a proper institution because within its programs we performed different situations. Two years after its beginning, we decided and programmed a performative end which we entitled We Are Absolutely Ending This. We invited collaborators and people not to look at the end of things as a moment of crisis but as an opportunity to open up new perspectives and situations.
When the event ended, we went through a two-year-long phase in which we saw the platform as a mechanism for “haunting”. We continued working with institutions, performing, and rethinking our collaborative role.
After those two years of haunting, we recognised a moment in which the ghost of CHR was ready to be exorcised. When I think about it again – as I am talking about it now – I feel like it keeps haunting me in some ways, but I suppose this “haunting” is also important and at the same time beautiful because it became a working method and an inspiration for other projects. We all considered CHR as a rehearsal and an operational model that I still borrow from. Thinking about history allows me to understand the present and the future.

ML: Talking about rehearsals and history, during my visit in South Africa, for instance, I spoke with Ntone Edjabe, who, as the founder of The Chimurenga Chronicle journal, kept the focus on the idea of “what if” in rethinking history.3 It is something that I found interestingly happening also in the practice of Dread Scott. His Slave Rebellion Reenactment (SRR) was staged in 2019 and, after preparing it for six years, it involved more than three hundred impersonators who reenacted (theatrically) the biggest slave revolution in the history of the US, which has happened in 1811.
The rebellion was actually an interesting event, firstly because it is very little known and secondly because it was the first rebellion to abolish slavery. Through this lens, it has a very political value. When Dread speaks about the piece, he says that he wanted to generate a “cognitive dissonance” in the viewers: even a very little-known piece of history – this “what if” – could be visualized, could become possible, and eventually could go haunting back again. It is as if ghosts had agency. This can also be said for the “Chimurenga chronicles”: they visualize in a newspaper something that has never happened – but could have happened if things went differently.
This “cognitive dissonance” is very valid in the context of the slavery period in the US, but it also fits the South African situation. Due to the colonial history of Europe and all the ghosts that are present while walking around Europe, this dynamic still influences every life choice. I think that our work is extremely important as mediators of such dynamics – it makes this “haunting” palpable. As a curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale, you also worked along this line, if I am not mistaken.

GN: How did you understand it? [laughing].

ML: The venue of the Akademie der Künste really spoke to me in that sense by letting certain ghosts have agency in appropriating spaces, ideas and discourses.

  • 4 Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, (...)
  • 5 Julia Kristeva, “By What Right Are You a Foreigner?”, in Trade Routes: History and Geography, cata (...)

GN: It was quite interesting to enter a space such as the Akademie der Künste. Being one of the oldest institutions in Europe, it has its own long history. The physical building dates from the 1950s, but its collections are about two hundred years old. The Akademie’s archive includes documents about architecture, theatre, music, film and visual arts. It is so dense that even for its staff it is impossible to understand everything contained in the archive. Interestingly, when we started to look for certain information connected with the Haitian Revolution, which is an often disregarded moment in the histories of slavery, we did not find any documents that correspond to that time in the Akademie’s archive. It is, indeed, a past that has remained silent for a long time.
Nevertheless, artists like Firelei Báez or Tessa Mars worked with that memory and approached it from a feminist perspective bringing in an unknown layer of how women were part of this revolution. Furthermore, it was also interesting to raise all these questions within a German institution, especially because we were thinking of all the silences and gaps hidden by the grand narrative. Influenced by Susan Buck-Morss’ essay Hegel, Haiti and Universal History,4 our approach and interest were to find a way to get into those cracks and point towards them. Sometimes, events that seemed really small came up with their important meaning for many people. As it is for The Chimurenga Chronicle, our concern at the CHR was to find the right way to treat each other as Africans. As Okwui himself experienced working in South Africa, questions around Xenophobia or Afrophobia, were already present in 1997. For instance, Julia Kristeva’s essay By What Right Are You a Foreigner?,5 which can be found in the catalogue of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, deals with issues that are still important to examine. As South Africans, we tend to look at our national experience in isolation, but we should now be aware that these problems have surfaced in other so-called postcolonial worlds that have dealt (or not) with them.

ML: This makes me think of a project by Congolese artist Sammy Baloji for whom I recently curated two solo shows in Scandinavia. Every time Sammy is asked, in a colloquial context, an opinion about the reopening of the Africa Museum in Tervuren, in Belgium, he replies something along the lines of: “It is your problem, not mine”. Africa Museum is in fact a Belgian and European problem, like every ethnographic museum across the continent. ​​This one was born as the personal African collection of Leopold II, who never travelled to Congo but he used it as his own personal property. In this scenario, Baloji is rather extremely interested in speaking about the little known pre-colonial time. Just to give an example: all his research during the last years has been focused on the Kingdom of Congo both in a transnational perspective and in relation to European powers during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. More specifically, he discovered that the first black bishop was ordered in 1511 by Pope Leo X and the Medici Family as a gift, because the son of the king of Congo was one of the first African persons converted to Christianity. He also discovered that all the gifts sent by the Kingdom to the Church in Rome were exhibited in the ethnographic museums of the nineteenth century as colonial material instead of being perceived as an exchange between wealthy people of equal power and right. The artist is much more interested in letting a completely unknown narrative to emerge, and in prompting us, as art historians, to rethink and revalue – or reroot – our knowledge.
This is another example of reenacting a past that is beyond what we are always busy discussing, and it coincides with an incredible strategy in terms of creating that “cognitive dissonance” that Dread speaks about.
I do not want to stray away too much from the topic of reenactment, but I am still very interested in xenoglossia – this almost mystical practice of speaking languages not acquired by natural means. We definitely go back to the ghosts that inhabit us.

GN: Yes, it was fascinating also for us. It was not the main project of CHR, but in the end, we understood its importance. As you say, xenoglossia is that phenomenon for which a person speaks or writes in a language that they have never practiced before. It is a kind of ontology in itself. On the one hand, it was interesting to reflect on the histories of languages that we speak. South Africa has a long and complicated language policy history. We have eleven official languages, and the first biggest student protest in 1976 was against Afrikaans – a version of Dutch that was first written in Arabic, because of the inspiration from Indonesian and Malaysian people captured and enslaved in the Cape Colony. On the other hand, it was interesting to reflect on xenophobia or afrophobia, which, to some degree, emerged out of a linguistic misunderstanding. The word afrophobia has been used to describe discrimination faced by people from other parts of Africa and underlines that foreignness means something different when one has a dark skin. As a consequence, a derogatory term was and is still used against people of a darker tone who sound differently. Xenophobia is also something peculiar to us – in testing out this peculiarity, during the Na Ki Randza project, we created t-shirts with a text borrowed from a series of posters created by the Danish collective Superflex. It claims: Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Danes. We adapted the slogan to the South African context and changed it to: Foreigners, don’t leave us alone with the tourists. Most of those t-shirts we distributed to people travelling from Johannesburg to Lusaka. We do not know what questions they activated when they reached Zambia, but I am certain that they had different repercussions specific to that context.

ML: Superflex’s slogan recalled the idea of the migrant as somebody who breaks down the problematic, univocal, national identity, whilst, in your case, it is more like an invitation to unite a group of people across differences within the same context.

GN: Indeed, it is great to remember these moments with you!

ML: Indeed. Let me share one last thought. The image by Marzia Migliora that was chosen for the flyer of the conference on reenactment in which our conversation takes place is very dear to me. It portrays the artist herself lying down in a bed made of corn which is inside a family closet. For the artist, the installation was a reenactment of an image of her family’s farm, where she lived when she was very young. Thus, an intimate memory became an installation that allowed her to reflect also on the industrialization of agriculture, which completely changed the destiny of her family. In other words, an intimate memory becomes a doorway to a larger reflection, and this is interesting because, when we think about reenactment, we tend to use greater narratives instead of relating to intimate experiences – e.g. traumas. What is incredible about reenactment is that it can trigger empathy, and this is what I experienced myself in the CHR, as both an institutional space and a domestic one, where people could get together to share their intimate experiences. As a curator and artist, you were also very careful in weaving together all these aspects.

GN: Yes, and it happened in many beautiful ways because people who would come would actually be also the actors and the instigators of the artistic experiences. In the end, it was an exchange of taking energy and giving it back.

ML: In this regard, I really like that swinging gesture that the video by Rabih Mroué, which I initially mentioned, shows. We should be able to stay in between the act of remembering and forgetting without giving a dominant position to any of the two actions. While remembering can sometimes create myths we might not want, the risk of forgetting is that we would be completely unaware of the context we are operating within. Alongside a metaphorical space to inhabit, reenactment becomes the act of swinging between remembering and forgetting.

GN: I am thinking about Donna Kukama’s The Swing (after After Fragonard) now!

ML: I am glad we connected on this because that performance was really a striking moment for me. Well, do you want to say something about it?

GN: Yes, The Swing is a video by Donna Kukama that was recorded from a performance that happened under a highway bridge in Downtown Johannesburg in 2009. The video, which is shot from above, shows Donna swinging in slow motion, accompanied by very eerie sounds. While she swings dressed in a little white dress, she drops ten Rands banknotes onto the street below her, where people congregate fighting to catch the notes, until her body suddenly disappears from the frame because the swing is broken (but we don’t see this as part of the edited video).
Even if neither the audience nor the viewer knows it, the fact that she broke her leg falling during the performance was quite interesting as grounds to attempt to revisit the moment. We went back to the place where the performance was staged not to recreate the performance itself but to talk with the people who witnessed it. We created another video that gathered all that evidence to bring the performance back to life. Donna’s Swing was a reenactment in two parts because she borrowed the title from an installation by Yinka Shonibare, who, in turn, worked after the famous Fragonard’s painting of the same title. It is a reenactment within art history which gives a feminist point of view.

ML: I really like it, and I think that Donna’s work enacts and embeds a lot of the ideas we discussed today.

GN: It was great to remember together.

ML: It was great to reenact our now ten years of friendship.

Notes

1 Angelika Burtscher and Judith Wielander, eds., Visible (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2010).

2 Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh, On Decoloniality: Concepts, Analytics, Praxis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).

3 See www.chimurengachronic.co.za [accessed 11 January 2022].

4 Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti and Universal History (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

5 Julia Kristeva, “By What Right Are You a Foreigner?”, in Trade Routes: History and Geography, catalogue of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale, ed. Okwui Enwezor (Johannesburg: Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council/Den Haag: Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development, 1997): 39-42.

Auteurs

Gabi Ngcobo is an artist, curator and educator living in Johannesburg, South Africa, and currently curatorial director at the Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria (Javett-UP). Since the early 2000s she has been engaged in collaborative artistic, curatorial and educational projects in South Africa, with an international scope. Recent curatorial projects include All in a Day’s Eye: The Politics of Innocence in the Javett Family Collection (2019-2020) and Handle With Care (2021-2022), both at the Javett Art Centre–University of Pretoria, and Mating Birds Vol. 2 at the KZNSA Gallery in Durban (2019). She curated the 10th Berlin Biennale We Don’t Need Another Hero (2018) and co-curated the 32nd São Paulo Biennial (2016). In 2020, she received the inaugural Santu Mofokeng fellowship. Ngcobo is a founding member of the Johannesburg based collaborative platforms Nothing Gets Organised–NGO (2016-today) and of the Center for Historical Reenactments–CHR (2010-2014). Ngcobo’s writings have been published in various collections, including The Stronger We Become, the catalogue of the South African Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale (2019); Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa (2014); We Are Many: Art, the Political and Multiple Truths (2019); and “Identity Politics Now”, special issue of Texte Zur Kunst edited by I. Graw (2017).

Matteo Lucchetti is a curator, art historian and writer based in Rome, where he has recently been appointed curator for contemporary arts and cultures at the Museo delle Civiltà. His main curatorial interests focus on artistic practices that redefine the role of art and the artist in society. Since 2010, he has curated (with J. Wielander) “Visible”, a research project that received the first European biennial award for socially engaged artistic practices in a global context by Fondazione Pistoletto and Fondazione Zegna. He worked as a curator of exhibitions and public programs at BAK in Utrecht (2017-2018). His curatorial projects include Marzia Migliora: The Spectre of Malthus, MA*GA in Gallarate (2020); Sammy Baloji: Other Tales, Lunds Konsthall and Kunsthal Aarhus (2020); First Person Plural: Empathy, Intimacy, Irony, and Anger, BAK in Utrecht (2018); Marinella Senatore: Piazza Universale. Social Stages, Queens Museum in New York (2017); De Rerum Rurale, Quadriennale 16 (Rome, 2016); Don’t Embarrass the Bureau, Lunds Konsthall (2014); Enacting Populism, Kadist Art Foundation in Paris (2012). He was curator-in-residence at Para Site (Hong Kong); Kadist Art Foundation (Paris) and AIR (Antwerp). He is a faculty member of the Accademia Unidee (Biella) and has served as a Visiting Professor at HISK (Gent); Piet Zwart Institute (Rotterdam); Sint Lucas Antwerpen (Antwerp); Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera (Milan). His texts have appeared in Mousse Magazine, Manifesta Journal and Art Agenda.

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