Carol Becker: I think we should start from the recent Johannesburg Biennale, and go backwards. Why did you choose to do what you did at the Biennale?
Andries Botha: The Biennale was a major cultural event-the first in the new post-apartheid South Africa. It was to measure the cultural climate of the country, and South African visual artists looked to the Biennale to address two or three decades of cultural and academic isolation. The director, Okwui Enwezor, came to South Africa with a certain authority, and he articulated a clear idea around race, identity, trade routes-a post-colonial unpacking which has subsequently enjoyed a lot of negative criticism. My personal opinion is that the Biennale needed to do two things: reveal South African creativity and bring global creativity to South Africa.
South African politics is trying to present the country as a global player, to be taken seriously within the geopolitical/economic forum of the world. You cannot formulate a political persona without presenting to the world that it is also a cultural place that the world can deal with as an equal. The Johannesburg Biennale projects in the world imagination that South Africa is such a place. Having said that, you then have to look at the reality of South Africa as a place that is in fact not that.
Becker: Because it’s so unequal? Some people are so sophisticated in these ways and others are not educated at all…
Botha: Yes. It’s a question of education. We present these highly esoteric visual debates to an audience who’s never seen them before-a black and a white audience. We’re talking about a very, very small audience in South Africa. It is a Biennale for very few people and some international visitors.
Becker: Your own piece is one of the few that deal with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I think it’s important to talk about the decisions you made.
Botha: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was instituted as a part of the process whereby South Africans could deal with the past politically-a mechanism to deal with the very complex issue of memory and the very emotional issue of retribution. When I first went to a TRC hearing, I was overcome by the enormity and the political sophistication of a nation dealing with memory and its reconvening of its place in history. I had to find a way to distance myself from the enormous emotive quality of what I was experiencing. The only way I could deal with it was by recording the statements of the victims and the perpetrators. I went to the libraries, archives, newspapers and I began researching and taking quotes directly. Legally, I couldn’t quote unless I quoted directly from the newspaper. I went to the press records of the proceedings as published and I began, through the quotes, to retrace this extraordinary history of abuse. It struck me at the time that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a lot to do with the idea that one could expunge memory by making it public. I chose to make panels with a lead coating, because lead is a highly toxic material. I stamped every letter of the sentence in a deliberate manner. If you spell each word out, the gravity of the text sinks into you. The lead itself reinforces the weight, the gravity, the toxicity of those statements, documents, histories. I also wanted them to be flimsy. They’re very, very thin-pages of memory.
I was constantly trying to resolve the placement of these elements, and I finally came up with the idea of the home. The home has been a contested arena, a territory, and I thought that instead of building a home, I would simply buy or appropriate a kit home, a makeshift sort of home.
Becker: You should say something about how the structures you chose, those little houses, are used in South Africa.
Botha: Little makeshift houses appear mostly as storage units in the white areas. They are ancillaries to the home, built on its periphery. They have a kind of permanence about them. They store an excess.
Becker: It assumes there is excess?
Botha: Yes, it does. The piece also speaks about outside and inside, physical and spiritual. I wanted to create a dichotomy between the inside and the outside. That’s why I lined the inside with metal. Because of the South African heat and because of the nature of what was being said in the panels, I wanted to transform the inside into an ice-cold space. I wanted the viewer to move out of the extraordinary heat of the outside to the ice-coldness of the inside.
Becker: So you put in an air-conditioner?
Botha: Yes, but the air-conditioner was stolen on the second day, which is also a great South African irony.
Becker: Your initial training was more traditional, in the sense of producing objects, but the more recent pieces are installations.
Botha: I’ve been wanting for a long time to work with the idea of space, of occupying large arenas where the viewer would interact with the space. My last piece, which I’d been working on for three years prior to this piece, is called “What is a Home”. It has six monumental fragments-two wall pieces, four floor pieces-displayed over an area where the viewer becomes the seventh element, walking through the pieces, interacting, and articulating the space between them. The piece I’m working on now, the skin piece, is meant to have people walk on top of it. But I also find that certain aspects of the formal construction of installations-the lack of physicality and materiality in the way they are put together-are not adequate to the way I like to see the world. I like to validate the world with materiality, physicality. I am in a state of transition. I’m informed by what I see in the art world, but I’m still informed by my physical environment.
Becker: Although there were many contradictions and difficulties in South Africa, certainly the motivation that was driving so many artists in South Africa has changed. From where do you take a sense of purpose now that apartheid is over?
Botha: Apartheid created a clear logical moment, a moral, critical moment for artists to respond to. I also think that a lot of the central producers, black and white, of South African art, although they responded to the moral and political imperative of apartheid, also were very conscious of a certain international dynamic, in as much as their work was not literally didactic in response to a narrow political situation. Although apartheid was highly significant in forming my consciousness, I was aware, as I think a lot of white South African artists were at the time, that a didactic relationship with the political process wasn’t really what was important. I think what informed our work was the consequences of the day-to-day degradation of humanity that took place as a result of the political chaos in South Africa.
One of the major issues that came up as a result of the apartheid years was the way in which cultural production could inform or question the idea of cultural identity, that post-colonial debate between Africa and Europe as to where South Africa was going politically. So issues of race and identity were certainly major forums for artists. It’s very interesting for me, with the breakdown of the apartheid machine, how the principal energy of South Africa’s sculptural production collapsed, and the principal focus shifted almost instantaneously. I find that ironic because I don’t really think that the cultural conditions have changed significantly in South Africa at all. There is a major cultural, intellectual, political, and economic refurbishment that now needs to take place as a post-apartheid reality. The radical infusion of black nationalist politics and political thinking and certainly brought about a whole new way for artists to think about their social role and the way in which they, as a result of that, were perceived as artists within a social complex.
But artists are doing now exactly what they were doing in the ’60s. I am amazed. Now, because of the political emphasis on refurbishment that’s going on in our country, because of the consequences of apartheid-the complete decimation of the physical health, the well-being of its black population-the South African government has to prioritize what very little resources it has to deal with the physical realities of post-apartheid. One must question what is left to nurture a cultural debate in South Africa. Young South Africans cannot wait to get out of the country because there is nothing there for them, there’s no way their cultural production can be supported. And I’m not only talking about white South Africans, but black South Africans as well. I don’t understand what they’re going to end up doing.
Becker: You mean their role in society?
Botha: There doesn’t seem to be a way in which they can reinvent their roles. I believe personally that the legacy of apartheid or the apartheid struggle is not the legacy of young South Africans. There’s some way in which the intellectuals of the ’60s and the ’70s appropriated their particular area of activity, which makes it very difficult for young black and white South Africans to enter their cultural arena with any form of meaning.
Black young people certainly felt the economic consequences of that and certainly some of the students now were part of that struggle. But increasingly, black students come from middle class homes and not working class homes. If I look at my students, both black and white, they are more interested in what’s happening in the global debate about visual art than the way in which that global debate is relevant to local politics.
Becker: Does that mean then that this thing called “South African artists” won’t exist? That people who can, will leave, will find some international way to be an artist, that maybe they’ll live in South Africa part of the time, but their identity won’t be grounded in that South Africanism?
Botha: I fear that is exactly what will happen. I fear that’s exactly what’s happening already.
Becker: What do you feel for yourself now?
Botha: Well, I feel that my identity has already been grounded and shaped by South Africa. However, I need the international arena to express that identity. I don’t see myself as somebody who can leave South Africa. The public sphere that I desire to operate in most is South Africa, because I believe that there is a very important role to be played in forming and shaping South African cultural life. There comes a point when you won’t leave anymore because you cannot imagine yourself in another place. You cannot go home to another place.
There are two issues for me that need to play out in my cultural life. One issue is that I’d like to be in a situation financially and emotionally where I can pursue the great love I have for making sculpture. I’d also like to be engaged in the broader political arena, formulating the very important position that culture has in the forming of national identity. One has to learn how to operate in both arenas because they inform each other. I would not like to end up being a commodity-based artist who simply engages the marketplace. I’d like to see myself as someone who has just enough money to make my next sculpture.
I believe that there’s a generation of true socialistic thinking people, if you want to call them that, who are prepared to see their critical and intellectual production as something that will just provide a living and not fame or fortune. But it’s difficult to pass this on to young people-how one sees an artistic life as a process and the victory as the ability to engage in the process for a long period of time and not to be rich as quickly as possible. I think about the generation before us that spoke about hard work and time. It seems that this generation is capable of rewarding people very, very quickly, and creating superstars in a short period of time. Young people have bought into that.
Becker: Let me ask you about the new skin piece. Why don’t you describe what it is and what you’re thinking and how it’s evolved….
Botha: It’s a rubber simulated-skin carpet, which is based on tattoos. The fact that rubber is a fetish is actually quite nice, and I wanted to play around with that idea. The piece came out of a time that I spent in a shelter for white men in South Africa. I spent three days and two nights in this shelter, interviewing and photographing white men. Part of the reason for looking at white working class men is that my father is one, and I wonder if the piece is not both cathartic and an attempt to understand how a political paradigm like apartheid was upheld by a generation of people. I want to create an enormous rubber facsimile of skin that people will walk on. I’m probably going to electronically sensitize the skin so that as you walk in certain areas, you will hear recorded voices of the songs that these men sing, which speak about lost romance, a yearning for another time, another place. So it is a piece about nostalgia, my own identity, and certainly a kind of unraveling of my father’s white working class identity.
Becker: Afrikaans culture is not something that’s understood very well in America. It’s so associated with apartheid and extremism that people don’t understand that many Afrikaans people were involved in the struggle to end apartheid.
Botha: My father was a white rail worker who voted for the Nationalist Party and believed sincerely in what they stood for. I was expected to be an embodiment of all that, as were most Afrikaans males in South Africa. It became apparent to me very quickly that part of my instinctive reason for choosing the cultural arena was as a means whereby I could begin to reconvene my own personal identity. I had to find a completely new relationship with the landscape, both physically and intellectually. Because I certainly couldn’t find them in my own mythology. And that’s why the enormous moral and ethical burden of the black political struggle weighed so heavily on many of the principal white progressive, political thinkers in South Africa. Each and every one of those people literally had to reinvent themselves-they sided with the morality and humanity of the black political cause. Yet they still occupied, by virtue of their skin, all the privilege that is given to white people in the political structure. The intellectual question that I constantly posed to white South Africans, and certainly the way I thought of my own involvement with cultural politics was: is it possible for white South Africans to live within the context of relative privilege without engaging the moral dilemma of apartheid? White people, as a result of their privileged position, had a very important and pivotal role as facilitators to the black political struggle.
The downside of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that it creates this illusion that it’s been possible to make the transformation from white nationalism to black nationalism without there being a significant emotional shift in the psyche of white people. White people are still anesthetized by the implication of their own privilege. They still don’t feel what it was they did. They still don’t feel what it was they did. They have lost the ability to measure other people’s suffering as a consequence of their own excess.
Becker: What are you trying to reconcile for your own self in your work? Your work has always been so grounded in the place where the individual intersects with society. What questions are you asking, and are they different from questions you could have pursued 10 years ago?
Botha: My artistic response was to a particular situation, but I’ve wondered whether it actually transcended that and questioned issues about humanity. I’m finding myself (and I don’t know whether it’s simply a process of getting older) philosophical to a certain extent. I don’t know to what extent my experience of the South African landscape confronts me with human beings in any different way than would be the case in America. I ride the public transport system in Chicago and find myself responding and looking at people in a particular way. I look at their humanity in similar way to that in which I look at people back home. And I think that informs my work.
Every South African has a longing, irrespective of their age, to be in a place where they have greater facility, greater infrastructure, to give them that extra little bit as artists, dancers, musicians, poets, whatever. There is virtually nothing there that supports your cultural production, though there’s a lot emotionally. The geographical isolation of South Africa fuels a sense of alienation, remoteness.
Becker: You have worked so organically with natural material, recycled material that you could get in South Africa. How is technology affecting what you’re doing now?
Botha: I think I’m like a child who’s beginning to play with new toys. I’m excited about the possibility of testing new things and finding out whether in fact they are relevant to me. But, I am at the cusp of another amazing adventure for myself. This new laboratory that has opened up for me does not mean that I’m going to abandon all the stuff that I’ve learned. I’m merely going to find ways, perhaps, of combining something as ancient, as timeless as weaving with computer technologies. I’m going to find ways in which to invent another language. I am quite interested in experimenting with theater, with sound, with texture, electronically. I’m not quite sure yet where that will take me. I’m interested in finding out what it is that an extraordinary arena like America can bring to my artistic production. I want to be able to produce works that I can put in the landscape and to have debates with people from all over the world. I certainly don’t want to sit in South Africa and talk only to myself.
Carol Becker is the dean of faculty and vice president for academic affairs at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and author of “The Subversive Imagination”, “Zones of Contention”, and other works.