Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art
Lerole: footnotes (The struggle of memory against forgetting), a recent large-scale installation by South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape, combined visceral materiality with historical accounts of pre-colonial revolts across the African continent to voice centuries of resistance against European invasion. Lerole, which means “active dust,” signals a spirit of agency, of doing across history. For Bopape, that agency is rooted in the soil and the human ability to shape it. Stacked bricks arranged into different forms directed the pathways of the installation, which resembled a memorial, a garden, and an abstract landscape. Six turntables filled the space with the calls of the quetzal bird. Bopape chose the bird, even though it is native to South America, because it is “mythologically known as the bird that commits suicide when held in captivity.” The bird sounds were accompanied by audio recorded along the bodies of water surrounding the African continent.
The pre-colonial revolts that Bopape drew from will be unfamiliar to most non-Africans. She worked with a history student to research and compile 100 events and presented many of them on imprinted wooden blocks incorporated throughout the installation. One account reads: “By the end of the 15th century, Mombasa had become a very important trade port along the east African coast. This made the coastal city attractive to Portuguese navigators and in 1498; [sic] Portuguese navigator Vasco Da Gama made a visit to Mombasa in an attempt to establish relations. Suspicious of the Portuguese, Mombasan ships followed the Portuguese ships very closely as they attempted to enter the harbor. The plan was to kill the Portuguese upon entering the port, but the Portuguese managed to escape the Mombasan attack before it could play out.” With all of the references to different places and times across the continent, I wondered about viewer comprehension, but Bopape succeeded in disrupting the idea of “Africa” in the abstract and subverting the commonplace misconception that the continent was colonized without much fighting.
Bopape says that Lerole was inspired by James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems. She found another important inspiration in Robert Sobukwe (1924–78), a South African political dissident and founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, who was held in solitary confinement on Robben Island. When new political prisoners arrived, Sobukwe grabbed a handful of soil, raised his fist, and saluted them. This action determined an essential element in Bopape’s installation: numerous clay pieces, formed with a fist and fired until it hardened—the embodiment of action.
With its bricks, natural and fired clay, ochre and iron oxides, and gold leaf, Lerole felt like a spooky memorial to a land and its people. The rectilinear forms were unnerving: suggesting a kind of order, they also served as a stage to present account after account of historical disorder. As I walked away from the installation, I could still hear the quetzal bird calling out in my mind, even after I was well out of earshot.