During my second week living in Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa, I had the opportunity to attend the BLACK PORTRAITURE[S] III conference held at the Turbine Hall in the city. Such event occurred from 17 November to 19 November 2016 during 9:00 until 18:00ish each day. The conference itself provided a discursive space to (re)imagine the politics and poetics of blackness. Here is an excerpt from the official site of the conference:
BLACK PORTRAITURE[S] III: Reinventions: Strains of Histories and Cultures is the seventh conference in a series of conversations about imaging the black body. It offers a forum that gives artists, activists, and scholars from around the world an opportunity to share ideas from historical topics to current research on the 40th anniversary of Soweto. Presenters will engage a range of topics such as Biennales, the Africa Perspective in the Armory Show, the global art market, politics, tourism, sites of memory, Afrofuturism, fashion, dance, music, film, art, and photography.
I am wary of the capacity in which official forums, particularly in this case, a conference organized by sundry institutional powers, may regulate the discursive framework of talks and, thus, limit the emergence of radical thoughts and actions. Nonetheless, the conference became a crucial communal space to meet radical thinkers and scholars and to share, elaborate, and extend the conversations outside of institutional confines. With various afrodiasporic scholars, artists, and activists—roles that are often hybridized and infused—each day of the conference had hour-and-a-half presentations of different topics occurring simultaneously in five different rooms within the venue. Usually these presentations had one moderator and two to five panelists leading the discussions. Hence, as a participant, I had to choose which presentations I would attend.
In this and the subsequent posts, you will find my recollection, without much, if any, personalized commentaries on the content itself, of the presentations I attended. Since I decided to write more extensively about the presentations than I considered at first, each post will contain the presentations ordered under the given specific topic. That is, if four presenters presented under the topic “ Pan African Futures: Exploring Race as Technology, Afrofuturism as Methodology,” then I would compile my recollections of those four presenters’ talks into a singular post.
Day 1 of the conference, 17 November 2016
In the opening presentation titled “Passing for Black in Apartheid South Africa,” Dr. David Driskell, renowned visual artist, scholar, and former educator, examines how race plays a crucial role in its imprinting on self-actualization conceived as wholeness and self-ariseness of identity. After his introduction, Driskell foregrounds his public talk with a slide projected image of a full frontal facial portrait of a younger masked Driskell photographed by a young Vanderbilt student in the early 1970s. Inasmuch as the notion of self-actualization inspired the creation of the photograph, he outlines what constitutes and stipulates the inception of self-actualization—the (coming into) reality of self. Self-actualization, he cites, is a steady course of growth that includes the followings: self-identity, who what is; self-realization, the cognizance of self; and self-affirmation, a public assertion of self.
Subsequently, Driskell claims self-realization and self-affirmation are the main factors that deliver and evoke a sense of self, which depends on a precise definition and the awareness of our ancestral lineage. (Insofar as the conference focused on the duplicitous strains of blackness and its proliferation of representations, Driskell as well as other presenters catered their talks towards an audience of, or receptive to, that nature.) He ascribes, into full fruition, the daily struggles of African diasporans to the artificially enforced notion of racial categorization: “a sociologically imposed, unscientific construction, one that we will be forever intertwined as we are always attempting to justify where we are in the human order.” Thus, we African diasporans encounter daily exogenous, conflicting imagin(in)g of ourselves, and, thus, must continuously (re)negotiate and (re)position our identity to affirm our own humanity, even amongst ourselves. More briefly, we African diasporans participate in reforming the notion of ourselves through the intent to be full human.
As Driskell forecasts African diasporans’ continuous, sometimes powerless, struggle with an exterior definition of “who we are,” he encourages the acceptance and acknowledgement of the truth to our private and personal selves through the making of a place for “ourselves” in the larger creative world. As artists claim their place in their creative process by means of personal and individual artistry, whether visual, written, or spoken, he reminds us we all possess the will to express and, thus, to individualize ourselves creatively. Personal life artistry, not just given to anyone but gained, exists within an inherent struggle too difficult to formulate.
Winding back to the presence of the portraiture, he claims that the elements of a clearly defined portrait, more so as the sense of self, are embedded in our human faculties: speech, action, and thought. Even more, these faculties fit into the nature of naming and the right to be define in the human equation. Consequently, race naming becomes a contested ground and reductive force for those named by another without consent. Driskell announces: “Race naming is complex, particularly…within the Western world, as it sets the stage for judgment for the real person that often leaves out the truth and the reasonable definition of the real self—self without the exterior examinations.”
Towards the midway of his talk, Driskell shifts to talk at length about his experience as passing for “honorable white” in South African during his visitation there in the 1970s to lecture at Stellenbosch University. As perceived as “honorable white” within the rhetoric of the locals and legal travel documentations, he eludes the category of blacks and colours specifically designated to the naturalized inhabitants of Southern Africa and gain more “privilege” not afforded to those designated as the aformentioned groups. He then proceeds to account his experience during such visit. I abruptly stop here as my device that I used to take note on the presentation ran low.