The History of Heroes Still to Come: An Interview with Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi / Walt Hunter

Left: Translator (After the one who may have been called “!Oro|õas”, misnamed “Krotoa” by the Dutch settlers), 2016. Oil on canvas. Right: The Unnamed (After an African Child Displaced by the Anglo-Boer War). ‘While much has been written about the [Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902], the black narrative has been silenced.’ – Historian Ntando PZ Mbatha, 2016. Oil on canvas.

The South African painter, video artist, and filmmaker Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi examines social relations by plying the aesthetic possibilities of portraiture, installation art, and collaborative performance. Her work is positioned at the intersection of urgent contemporary questions: How does historical memory reproduce structural violence? What forms of art are adequate to representing global processes of migration and border crossing? What are the ethics of collaborating with fellow artists and community members? Her recent series of paintings, Heroes, confronts the viewer with historical figures from Bessie Head to Winnie Mandela who occupy oblique positions with respect to nationalist mythologies of the hero. We had this conversation by email over a series of months in the winter and spring of 2018.

—Walt Hunter

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Let’s start with the Heroes paintings. I think it was sixty years ago that John Berger made his judgment about portraits: “It seems to me unlikely that any important portraits will ever be painted again.” Your portraits might be considered a direct response to the whole idea of the “important portrait.” How did you find the form or genre of portraiture—something we might associate with, say, Dutch painting of the bourgeois merchant family—needing to change in order to become adequate to the subjects you wanted to paint?

To answer this question fully I feel as if I need to take you back to the moment the project really began for me —without me really knowing it at the time.

It was one day in 2012. I was looking through the money in my wallet and I started thinking about the fact that all my bills (10, 20, 50) all had Nelson Mandela’s portrait on them. Which was something that had happened that year—the new South African bank notes came out and they all had Mandela’s face on them. It got me thinking about the ways in which we construct history in South Africa through the memorialisation of certain figures.

It’s clear that who gets memorialised is a political issue—and one that always has the consolidation of power as at least one of its aims.

Looking back, the idea to paint portraits was seeded in that moment: I realized that I wanted to make a gesture towards expanding our very myopic historical narrative(s). I wanted to complicate this idea of what a hero is—the term being so loaded in South Africa, and so tied to the problematic notion of “rainbow nation” we were fed as we transitioned to democracy (and still are fed, to some degree).

I started thinking of people who would subvert the prevailing idea—a very patriarchal, revisionist, exclusive ideal of “the hero”—and allow for a broader definition, a more inclusive definition, one that would point to the complexities of what it means to be a person.

And it was these people who emerged in the early portraits. Some of them were known figures, linked in some way to the “struggle” (whether against apartheid or colonialism in general) but either forgotten or downplayed; others were simply people who had been in the news who I wanted to remember; one was my grandmother, who was not a public figure at all.

So to Berger’s comment that “no important portraits will ever be painted again,” I’d offer this as one among a number of possible rejoinders: What about “unimportant portraits”? (Which, it strikes me now, is not bad as an alternative title for this series.) The notion of what is “important,” whether it is used to describe a portrait, or a book, or an idea, is of course an entirely personal matter. Despite that, we are constantly being told what is important. And who is important. That Dutch painting of the bourgeois merchant family you mention—which was telling people in that age who was important—is now replicated a hundred million times a day across thousands and thousands of channels and web pages and platforms. And I wanted to engage with that and fight against that—because “important” always serves an agenda. Whether it is a critic/intellectual like John Berger saying it or whoever else, no matter what their credentials. That kind of thinking is precisely what I wanted to engage with in this series.

So it started out as a very personal project. And as the first few portraits leaned against the wall of my studio, I started to feel a very particular sort of pride—although pride is not quite the right word. It was a feeling I hadn’t felt with other paintings I’d done. I felt like I was doing something important for myself, most of all. I was creating a personal pantheon. These people are important to me. People I was thinking about, reading about, dreaming about, and increasingly, most of the figures became women. Women that were conventionally seen in relation to the powerful men they married, women who I wanted to remember publicly for their actions, or words, or for what they represented to me.

So then when these portraits started to find public recognition, particularly when they were chosen to be part of the Being There exhibition at Foundation Louis Vuitton’s “Art/Africa, le nouvel atelier,” I had a very strange sense, at first. Like: what are these very personal paintings doing in that space? What do they mean now? Do they lose their meaning? Are they compromised in some way?

But before very long those feelings, those misgivings, gave way to an excitement. I liked what happened to them. I liked that they were there. It became a game, etc. for the viewers. A game of recognition. I liked that viewers would be asking: Should I recognize this person? What if I don’t? For that reasons I enjoyed the title, Heroes.

The paintings themselves served this provocative and subversive game well. I had been drawn intuitively to a particular kind of subversive source image. These weren’t traditional posed images. I was drawn to the off-handed shot, the unguarded pose—stills from film sequences.

This was a gesture that was echoed in the dimensions of the canvas I was working with. The size 50cm x 50 cm were not heroic proportions, by any means. I wanted it to be roughly the dimensions of the standard ID photo. The dimensions immediately nod to the reality that we don’t need painting to make portraits anymore—but there’s something important for me about the way power collapses in the ID photo format. We are all standardized within it. An ID photo doesn’t give you much opportunity to express anything about yourself. There’s something intensely democratic about the format (Nothing in the background. “Please don’t smile,” we’re told. “We need to read the most basic information about your face, etc.”). The “we,” the faceless officials who need to view that image, who need to make decisions based on that image, are somehow also implied in the image.

The way I have handled the faces—the flatness and the treatment of color—compounds this distancing. I wanted there to be a space between the viewer and the portrait. Because portrait usually wants to give something of the subject to the viewer. And I do too, some essence, but then it’s also taken away. It’s flattened. The detail is removed. If you look at all of them the detail painted in dark brown, the most contrasted detail is really just a smiley face — “eyes, nose and a mouth”. Portraiture, historically, I think has been about describing people to the viewer — presenting them. You’re trying to bring them into the present moment. But I’m not doing that. There is deliberately in these works a space between you, the viewer, and the subject. I want these faces to be suspended in this in-between space, an impossible but hopeful space, maybe, of presence and memory—even the ancestral realm—but also in an imaginary realm of the future.

I want this because that is the space these faces, these people occupy for me. They are part of my own memory, part of my own education, and I want them to be remembered. But they are also aspirational for me—I draw all sorts of different kinds of inspiration and challenge and direction from them, separately, and as a strange group, that keeps changing.

So I am the intermediary and I want you to know it. I’m allowing access. But I guess there’s something about not giving you everything. I’m giving you something of them and keeping something for myself. I suppose in this way I made sure it remained a personal project.

I love these paintings. I was immediately struck by them and by the gallery of figures whose presence they summon. And portraits are always enchanting to me because I really have no idea where to begin thinking about them. One of the painterly elements I love about many of the paintings is the large swath of monochromatic color that takes up the bottom of the painting—like in The Unnamed. Can you tell me about your work with color in these paintings?

The Unnamed (After an African Child Displaced by the Anglo-Boer War). ‘While much has been written about the [Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902], the black narrative has been silenced.’ – Historian Ntando PZ Mbatha, 2016. Oil on canvas.

I guess with all painting, and portraiture in particular, you’re always going to be in a conversation with what has gone before. With portraiture there are many levels to that conversation: you’re thinking about whose portraits have been painted before; how have they been painted (format, pose, many different sub-questions here); and then, also, what settings they have been painted in; where have their images been hung. It goes on. The history of portraiture reveals class shifts and ruptures and continuities. With the twentieth-century explosion of photography and the continuing rise of celebrity culture, portraiture today raises questions of fame and celebrity (which of course stretch back in time in various guises).

You have raised a very specific question—about color, which I’m glad you’ve done, because for me color is always a fundamental concern; usually starting out on a less-than-conscious level but, as the painting or series develops, becoming a place where I’m making very particular decisions with specific outcomes in mind. This series has been no different.

In these portraits, color has come to operate in a few important ways. These swaths of color that you’re referring to have to do with the setting—and the fact that I’m trying to take these faces, these characters, out of time and place, and place them side by side in a sort of timeless, contextless space. The flat, single-color background is one of the ways (among several) that I am hoping to achieve this flattening of time, and space. They could be anywhere—geographically—and also anytime, past, present or future. The aim, I suppose, of this flattening, is not only to take them out of time and place, but by including them in the series to create a new context for them, a new way of considering them and history in general. So in this sense I’m using flat color shapes to replace signifying detail—and not only in the background.

This question of timelessness has raised some interesting questions sometimes, too, and forced me to find some solutions I’ve found satisfying. Especially with clothing—which obviously speaks clearly of its time. So take for instance The Unnamed (After a child from the Anglo-Boer War) which you mention specifically in your question. There I was working with a very hard-to-read source image from the late nineteenth century, where one of the key things in the image was the odd ruffles around the neckline on her dress. That was a bit of visual information I didn’t want to lose, but at the same time I was not about to render it in a way that spoke too clearly of the nineteenth century. So after playing around I found I could reduce the ruffles to geometric shapes, so that it could be a Victorian dress or it might be some futuristic fashion.

You’ve used such an extraordinary variety of forms in your work over the last decade—from the site-specific collaborations of Border Farm, with Meza Weza, to the Afro-futurist anti-opera The DISRUPTER X Project, with Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum. I want to ask you about your earlier work and where you saw it break down, or where you saw it open up, into creating the possibilities for the Heroes portraits. In Border Farm, from 2009, you worked with migrant farmworkers on the border between South Africa and Zimbabwe, at the Limpopo River crossing. You mention, in the piece you wrote for Wide Angle, that the material for the play came from ideas developed by the community, rather than, or in conversation with, your own ideas for the film. What also seems crucial, as you point out, is that several of the actors in the fictional crossing of the river had made the crossing themselves—and wanted to reenact it. So it seems to me that there was a very thin margin, if any, between aesthetic practice and political intervention. What questions, for you, did Border Farm leave unanswered? What drove you from the making of that film into your current projects?

To speak of the questions that Border Farm left unanswered (and that drove me towards my current projects) is to speak of questions that still occupy me. In a sense the whole Border Farm project remains an unanswered question for me, to this day. (And I do think it makes sense to start there. While a lot of my concerns predate that project, so much seemed to coalesce and crystallize on the border.) Questions that felt very painful during that project, and at its completion, remain fresh, and still feel relevant, now, years later. General questions about what art is, and what it can and can’t do. Also more specific questions, such as can a project like that ever work? How does one truly engage with issues of class and access and privilege when you’re collaborating across those divides? You need to address them, sure, but even if you do, you seem to be left, invariably, with the frustrating reality that collaborating across these lines does not solve any material problem. And, considering this, what do such inventions amount to?

Moreover, when you’re working with at least one foot in the art world, which is obsessed with authorship, and thrives on the notion of the single genius, you run the risk of simply re-inscribing the very inequalities and imbalances you set out to challenge through collaborative or dialogical work. How do you convince a gallery owner who wants to show the film, for example, that they need to bring members of the group to speak at the opening and not just you, the established artist (or not you at all)? I can tell you from experience, it’s rare that anyone wants to hear from anyone but me, the artist. I think it’s a question of language. Institutions and context work in particular idioms and they want someone who can speak in that idiom.

These remain troubling concerns for me, even if they no longer keep me up at night, as they did, literally, during and just after the project. At that time, after the project came to an end, I felt like I needed to step back and start to sort these ideas out in my head. After months, years even, of collaboration, I needed time some sustained time alone—time to think about what I’d been part of, what I’d been complicit in. What did this project reinforce? What did it dismantle? And the studio felt like a safe, bounded space in which to do this thinking. So that’s where I went. I was also physically and emotionally depleted. I was trying to hold it all together in a way that was impossible to sustain. The studio felt like a very safe place to be, and painting felt like a very safe, forgiving and regenerative thing to be doing again. Even if I didn’t start painting immediately, I set up my easel and my paints and found a good chair. I was wondering generally about the relationship between art and politics, art and economics. I had to consider whether the project I’d just finished had really been active. In the sense of taking action. I was wondering whether an art project could ever take meaningful political action. And now that I was back in the studio, I wondered about painting and what painting might look like that was not deformed or in some way compromised by the market. And it was with these issues occupying me that I began working on paintings that dealt more directly with notions of power. Specifically, personal power in the face of institutional power. What is it? And is it desirable? How does it sit next to the power of the group? Of the people? Soon before I made the painting of Thomas Sankara, which would be the first of the Heroes portraits, I made a painting that I called The One and the Many. This is a painting that takes quite a troubled look at the individual hero. Where does that person fit?

It makes sense to me that you would want to create a kind of egalitarian process, or as near to one as you could get, by having the community be participants in the construction of the film. Does your decision to choose a certain form or process or style emerge as a response to contemporary economic and political conditions? I ask this because, in your essay on Border Farm, you mention the Zimbabwean economy and its effects on social services for Zimbabweans. And of course, as we’re talking, both Zimbabwe and South Africa are in the middle of major political transitions.

Yes—the shape the project took, its specific form or process, was a direct reaction to the political and socio-economic conditions of the lives of migrants on the border. The idea for the project developed out of a desire I had to understand a few things: how does one make do in a life in-between—without a clear, regulated status; a very tentative work status that leaves one vulnerable to exploitation; living in a kind of exile but in such close proximity to your home, living right on the border. I also wanted to understand what place organizing could have in a space like this, under conditions like these. The research I had done—with Zimbabwean human rights lawyers and NGOs, before I even went up to the border, and then with people living on the farm—told me that community organization was hardly happening on the border. That Zimbabwean migrant workers living on farms on the border were not organizing themselves in the same ways that other migrant communities in the town of Musina were, for example. So I did wonder if there would be any interest among the members of this community in creating a community organization that might be used as a vehicle to mobilize workers to improve conditions on the farm, among other things.

But while I was interested in these things, it was crucial to me, from the outset, that any collaborative project that might take shape would be shaped by the needs and wishes of people on the farm, living under these conditions. So the form of the project, or perhaps the process of the project (because it was always fluid) was designed to be responsive, to be a place of possibility for people, a way to work with and to respond to their own conditions. Decision-making within the space of the project—from the very beginning, from the decision of whether or not to even do a project—had to be as inclusive and as horizontal as possible. Once we were up and running, we privileged process over outcome, and open dialogue and transparency. Of course, this was not always easy, at all. This determination not to impose an agenda took constant interrogation of my own desires and intentions.

This project was also happening in the wake of the so-called xenophobic attacks that had taken place across South Africa in 2008. There were (as there still are) negative perceptions among many South Africans, particularly poorer South Africans, of Zimbabweans—that they were stealing jobs, creating more crime, and generally making it harder for Black South Africans to make a living in their own county. Many intellectuals have referred to these attacks “Afrophobic” attacks, which for me is a far more accurate and telling term that “xenophobic”. It is not simply fear/hatred of “the other.” The idea is that one is not fearful of the white other, even though the white other is the one who has taken the land, enslaved, displaced. But white power is so immovable, so entrenched, that people mostly do not, cannot, rage against it. Instead, people might rage against perceived competitors, who are those who have been subject to the same or similar oppressions.

The idea of Pan-Africanism goes back a long way for me. I come from a family, from a father in particular, for whom Pan-Africanism is more than just another “ism.” My father was an early member of the Pan-Africanist Congress, a political party that broke away from more nationalist ANC. He used the Pan-African network in his escape from South Africa. The network sustained and nourished him in his 30 years of exile abroad. So this idea of Pan-Africanism is something very deeply engrained for me. The idea that our struggles as Africans need to be shared by all of us. As do our triumphs. So the wish to explore the Pan-African experience of displacement, exile, economic hardship in the face of exploitative, settler-inflicted systems, was important and moving for me. And speaking from a Pan-Africanist perspective was in direct opposition to speaking from a Afrophobic position. These ideas informed a lot of my thinking before and during the project, and these are some of the questions that I feel might have been explored in greater detail in the film.

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Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi was born in New York and has lived in Harare and Johannesburg on and off since the early 1990s. She is a painter, video artist and filmmaker who divides her time between studio work and navigating the field of art as social practice. Her work investigates power and its structures—political, social, architectural. Implicit in her examination of these structures is an interrogation of the invisible forces that create them, and an imagining of alternatives. Her paintings and films have been shown at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg, the Ifa Gallery in Berlin, the South London Gallery and Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rio de Janeiro and most recently at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Nkosi obtained her BA from Harvard University and her MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York. She lives and works in Johannesburg.