Featured Imaged: Dr Sharlene Khan is a Senior Art History and Visual Culture Lecturer at Rhodes University. Photo: Rhodes University website
By Athi Mongezeleli Joja
‘If one has to be “the black” in or a particular context in order to designate a racial and a racist formation, then the rug that sleeps away beneath one’s feet becomes apparent with the apparent fanonian “lived experience” of the black: Although there are people who function as “the blacks” in particular contexts, there is a group of people who function as blacks everywhere. They are called, in now archaic language – negroes. Negroes are the blacks of everywhere, the black blacks, the blackest blacks.’ Lewis Gordon.
Yesterday I went to listen to the panel on the black modernism debacle at the Point of Order gallery at Wits University. I wont bore you with the story around the misadventures of the exhibition or even my own apprehensions about the entire debacle. However I do want to bring to your attention my other apprehensions about one of the panelist’s remarks. Sharlene Khan, currently a senior lecturer at Rhodes University made the most despicable claims to a gallery full of scholars, artists, activist, students and general public. Khan is the infamous author of 2006 seminal shocker piece Doing It For Daddy, that had half of the white female art scholars in livid rage. However yesterday Khan stated as a matter of fact that unlike Wits and UCT fine art departments, Rhodes University art department was the most progressive department. She was saying this as part of her criticism of institutional racism, vacillating between her personal experience at/with Wits and UCT scholars, and the objective experiences of black scholars (including the recent Black Modernism issue) in predominantly white universities, focusing more specifically on the fine arts. citing her piece there and there to highlight how institutional racism continues to cast blacks as problems (herself included), as a way of excluding those scholars who don’t hold back on dissent. She also mentioned how this exclusion isn’t an obscure issue enacted by the walls of the university, but perpetuated by individuals because personally benefits them. Fine and good! Khan and many people in the panel, said a lot of things which i cannot fully recount here – some interesting and some quite banal. And since i couldn’t say this at the talk, let me say a few things now.
I found Khan’s claims about Rhodes art department extremely unbearable and outrageously untrue. I am saying this as a visiting lecturer at Rhodes art department. Another ex Rhodes student came to me afterwards, with shock in his eyes and congratulated us for fast tracking the decolonial agenda. We both laughed at it. (Of course I am not isolating the department from the university – but locating it as a derivative of a general university entrenched white supremacist practices.) In the last few years, the art department has had a number of black scholars leaving the place outraged by its vile racism – both from students mostly white body and from stuff. To claim that Rhodes art department is the most progressive can only come from a naive person or an accomplice – a person who somnambulantly walks unaffected. I am not yet sure where Khan fits in this but her remarks could be an index of how unaffected she is by the continuing problem. A week or so ago Dr. Phindezwa Mnyaka (a historian by training) tendered her resignation to the art department on charges on racism and transformation. To my shock first about fact that shes leaving and secondly as the only black female lecturer with a doctorate and is publishing, in a university claiming to be transforming, was greeted with indifference including Khan. A relief?
Dr. Mnyaka was not the first nor will she be the last; in fact there are stories of various black scholars (of African descent) leaving the department and others hospitalized due to this matter. Mnyaka and Zamansele, lecturers in the fine art department, have been lodging complaints to the faculty and higher management officials on the continuing crises in the department, emanating both from the teaching and the culture. And as a lecturer at the department, since last year – invited by Mnyaka and Nsele on the basis of working against the current of lily white staff body – her indifference or ignorance does not make sense here.
Recently, I was personally insulted by a first year white student in a class I was teaching on Black Popular Culture. The student descended on all the black lecturers for teaching “crap” which is to say “race related issues.” Well to put it more clearly the student said “we,” which is all the black (African) stuff teaching art history. Fine and good! There was hell in the class, but thanks to the black students in the class who held it down and stood their ground. Incidents like these aren’t unique to Rhodes or even the art department, but are pervasive in all anti-black world racist institution – they are structurally necessary offshoots of “this world.”
There are a number of anecdotes from a myriad of black studio prac students complaining about their all white studio prac lecturers – their ignorance mostly when it comes to black student proposals. Old shit previously addressed even in Mcgee and Voyiya’s film The Luggage is Still Labeled (2003). So for Khan, who clearly has an old beef with Wits and UCT and especially the old madam Prof Nettleton, to come out and say Rhodes art department is progressive is outrageous. I listened to her evoking Prof Sara Ahmed’s resignation story and decolonization back to back but couldn’t believe her reticence on racism in her own department. Yeah sure, Wits and UCT are racist universities we know this and I am sure all black staff (and white) know about this. Who would not be aware of this now, especially after student protest? We also know that the acts of racism are individual acts, but we definitely not oblivious to the self-generative maneuvers of antiblack and colonial systemic inflections, that tend to be inadvertently reproduced by the so-called progressive scholars – white and black. The issue of racism in the institution and in the entire world cannot be simply reduced to individual proactivity or individual self-reflectivity, but should be located at its objective structural interpellative essence. Sharlene Khan came to Wits to sort out her beef, but seemingly, she was completely ok with black female stuff members in her own department continually rendered to invisibility. Here one can here pace Gordon’s Fanonian gesture on the lived experience of the black and its operations on the gradations of visibility. Has Dr. Khan even gone to see or ask Dr. Mnyaka why she is leaving? By the look of things, it seems Dr. Khan does not care much. Why? I have not a clue at this point. All I can say is that Rhodes art department is not an exception and its very very far from it – from its teaching and its staffing. Last year it hosted a colloquium on social justice and art, and not even half of its prac staff and students appeared. Progressive? Who? Where? How? Whatever Sharlene was saying can never be justified by reality. From where I was sitting her intervention against Wits, justified as it is, is seriously compromised by her omission/ignorance of the Rhodes art department situation. Doesn’t the in vogue school of decoloniality emphasize “geospecifics” – realities of where one speaks from, in this case Khan’s art department?
And as I know decolonization, it is certainly not a “program” of obfuscation, but seeks to wipe off the fictionalizing cataract beholding to the doctrine of white supremacy? To perpetuate those lies under the guise of decolonization is an indication of how the term as such has been available to all sorts of appropriations that in the end work against the decolonization agenda. Fanon tells us well of the malleable character of racism (in his Culture and Racism), like Marx and Engels said of the bourgeoisie (Communist Manifesto). In essence how power hides itself on what it is not, especially that which appears as its absolute opposite. To propagate and locate decolonization in a situation where it is practically and otherwise unfeasible is to proactively participate in the concealment of the problem. And if before the problem was that of white female art scholars taking over from white males, Khan’s ignorance could be telling us about how a shift is languidly on the way via an empty appropriation of fancy like decolonization to aestheticise and further conceal the problem. Hence I find it difficult to not raise this benevolent characterization: is Khan “doing it for madam?” Bolekaja