When you want to enslave a people,
You steal the ability to dream.
And when you want to enslave a people,
You destroy the ability to dream.
And still, when you want slaves,
The master has to remember his place.
And the slave, hers.
And the slave, his.
And when you want to enslave a people,
You introduce a fear that is embedded in our darkest hours.1
As the sun sets on Seats of Authority, while Ancestor hovers in the background of past lives and past transformations, I reflect on the decolonial subject and its critical posturing. Art making, natural elements, and the metaphor of collapsed seats and seating in academic and other spaces, all conjoin in this consideration that decoloniality requires an unseating of ideas and an unbundling of precepts of power. It also suggests a necessary willingness to be unseated, one assumes ’for the greater good,’ though being unseated cannot be comfortable – not at all.
Dreams as R-evolution—a visual art and single-use plastic installation of sculpture, drawings, and found objects—is an installation originally created in the University of KwaZulu Natal’s Westville campus plant nursery that now speaks to dreaming as a r-evolutionary act in an old colonial gallery, the IZIKO National Gallery in Cape Town. The original location of the plant nursery, situated beneath an ancient cliff face and along the Palmiet Reserve rivulet, brackets my ‘dreamscape’ and forms a part of it. The conundrum of choice is foremost in my mind as, early on in my work there, I witness the dumping of selected plants which are considered alien in that context by the nursery manager. These plants are later rescued and become my ‘plant orphanage.’
I wrestle with the idea of the removal of alien plants which, after years of being there, grow amicably between the indigenous, replicating their growth irrespective of where their roots emanated from, morphing their species from across continents into a comfortable existence amongst those that live and are freely rooted. Sometimes this comfortable existence of the alien plants far outstrips the indigenous growth, resulting in a drought that causes the suffocation of local plants and trees until, due to intervention, there is a gradual evening out of existence to bring a balance of survival much more suited to the land. This metaphor embedded in the space where I choose to locate an artwork introduces questions of what is alien and what is indigenous; where does power reside and who makes decisions about what is acceptable and what is not?
At the campus nursery, whose role has evolved over time into something resembling a dumpsite and an emerging recycling depot, there is a metal gated entrance with a sign declaring “Dumping is Illegal.” Here, I reminisce about the many discarded and broken chairs I gathered from this site after student and union sanctioned staff protests. The notion of the seat, which through time immemorial has been associated with power and authority, bears witness to this poignant moment in time from 2019, evolving through a pandemic and culminating nine months later in May 2020 as Dreams as R-evolution, an art and environment installation covering 50 square metres.
From the time the work developed, its evolution gained momentum through and despite rain, wind, heat, storms, a tornado, a lack of resources, and unrest on campus, until it finally erupted into a dream of my making, a dream created from the relics of refuse sites filled to capacity with discarded single-use plastic. The workflow proceeded until a catastrophic virus caused everything to grind to a halt, quashing the dreams of many as well as mine. A lockdown permit issued by the university finally allowed the dream to continue its work: creating a dreamscape arguing for transformative behaviours and questioning this possibility. While questionable decisions, tension, and fear raged, I completed the installation to ensure that the dream would come to some sort of fruition. Not slavery, not economy, not abuse, not fear…should halt an ability to dream, as dreaming projects one into the future and is owned by the dreamer alone. The dreamscape then becomes a place of power and possibility.
What does it mean to dream freely, as free people, when freedom is not available to everyone equally? The colonial mindset usurps our ability to be free people who dream freely, both as the colonised or the colonizer. By colonial mindset, I suggest that without considerations of where our conditioning begins and ends, we may find that we possess elements of the colonizer which do not serve us. We may not even realise that we carry this mindset in the first place. There is not always a clearly defined ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized’ in the presence of capital power and modernity which have, at their foundation, a colonising incentive. The mind of the colonizer and those who are like the colonizer have devastated our ability to dream through the systemic removal of indigenous cultures and the SELF as we know it. Conditioning the SELF to remain subservient is an important element of any colonial strategy. This strategy lies not only in the past, but lies at the heart of the mind which is already captured and enslaved. The SELF is not free unless it is able to view its conditioning from a distance. A looking which is different to seeing may allow the possibility of a renewed presence of SELF. A different and free SELF that can dream in any form, in any language, in any cultural shape, where the voice of the subaltern becomes autonomous, the voice of a person who can speak for herself.
The question embedded at the heart of the Dreams as R-evolution installation reiterates itself like a well-tuned note stuck on repeat. I ask, “Who am I?” and “What is this conditioned SELF? “Am I able to transform and change myself?” The question, “Who is this SELF?” is all the more perplexing as we consider that, to answer this question, we must find definite proof that the SELF exists and in what form it does so.
Who, then, is this ‘free-thinking’ SELF? Does she exist? Is she subaltern? Investigations on where my conditioning began lies deeply embedded in the heart of what was considered knowledge at the time of my birth. Around the 1960’s, man stepped on the moon, the first satellite was launched, labour and human rights protests abounded, plastic was created, and Apartheid was in place. My race was determined and, as such, the level of education I would receive…and now, somewhere around 2021, we are preparing to colonize Mars, we have introduced sophisticated AI robots and robotics, and we are fed a plethora of Trump-ed up information as truth. “It is what we are fed,” I say, while donning a spoon garment created from collections of discarded takeaway plastic spoons picked up from my many early morning beach walks before the clean-up teams arrive. It is what we are fed. As free people, we can choose to swallow what we are fed, but the choice lies in our knowledge of SELF and our ability to refuse or accept that which is fed to us.
Hovering on the notion that not all my SELF knowledge came from this external source that fed us, I endeavoured to extract myself from these layers of conditioning that have shaped me over time, accepting the very real possibility that I may possess embedded elements of the colonial mind. I recount in a reflexive narrative: To undo this conditioning is a difficult, dangerous and delicate operation. You may discover that there’s nothing there to find – nothing that you recognise or want – and you may find that you’d rather stay enslaved, because the alternative is just too painful.2
The implication that the removal of this conditioning is a difficult, dangerous and delicate operation acknowledges the truth of fear that resides in us all. This fear keeps the conditioned SELF firmly in place. There is also much to lose if we remove the conditioning embedded within us, the extent of which we will not know until it happens. However, the greater implication is that without an attempt to unravel what has shaped us so dastardly for so long, we may never know our true selves, our true SELF. This then is the even more dangerous and more difficult option.
I built this installation to investigate SPACE as context, access, and land, as well as POWER and AUTHORITY, SELF as the conditioned, and eventually the possibility for a RETURN TO INNOCENCE in Cocoon. Cocoon is a disused and neglected outdoor space without doors, teaming with life that evolves daily and is atypical of the academic premise that knowledge is certain. It is atypical of art installations and is atypical of my role. Daily, I entered the space, not knowing if my work of yesterday would still be there or my musings, still valid. I crossed over the precipice of decay and planted and replanted into dead plastic-ed matter until a Life Sciences student reminded me that nothing ever really is…dead. It is ultimately always evolving, changing, shifting, but in blindsight, we fail to see. The installation invites us to look as it is different to seeing.
The visual language encapsulates the 9-months of interrogation, engagement, loss and gain, hurt and healing, innocence and compromise. It concludes simply by reflecting on a return to innocence knowing full well that we can never, but we will try nonetheless. Because not to try is just too dangerous.