A black riempie chair bristling with erect sjamboks is hardly what you expect to see when you walk into a colonial museum. Then again, who still walks into those dusty old mausoleums of white power?
Well, there’s one in Cape Town that has replaced its mothballs with a retrospective exhibition of work by Mohau Modisakeng: Chavonnes Battery. This site-specific installation of the 29-year-old artist’s arresting race, violence and power-infused work is, frankly, profound.
Dug up in 1999 by the V&A Waterfront construction team, Chavonnes Battery was a heavy artillery fortress completed in 1726 to protect the Dutch’s Cape outpost from potential invasion. It remained in working condition until about 1860, when construction on the harbour saw it slowly demolished and covered up in warehouses.
The museum’s ground floor is currently home to more than 20 of Modisakeng’s sculptures, videos and photographs, 17 of which form part of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art’s permanent collection.
Curated by Mark Coetzee, the installation is arranged as a linear story emphasising the tools of control and power used as symbols of repression in Modisakeng’s work.
The first floor is little more than a passageway around the building, allowing viewers to peer down into the basement below the art installation. Gangplank-like glass walkways allow one to explore the museum’s story of “shipwrecks and isolation wards, soldiers and slaves, exiles and explorers, locals and settlers, knechts and convicts”, according to the website.
It’s hard not to see the fort’s crumbling foundations as a representation of colonialism, and Modisakeng’s lavishly produced work of art as a sign of a new era, literally floating above it. In his photographic and video work, he engages the viewer with a smirk, a cocked eyebrow, nonchalantly swinging a panga. There’s no blood or guts or gore. Everything is in perfect control; it is only the threat of violence and a sense that the tables are turned.
This potential for violence draws an interesting parallel with Chavonnes Battery, which, according to its website, only once actually fired a single weapon in anger. The strategy to build the biggest fortress with the flashiest canons to deter invaders seems to have worked.
The Quiet Violence of Dreams, the title of K Sello Duiker’s seminal novel exploring the divisive social geography of Cape Town, comes to mind. In a city that continues to struggle with spatial apartheid and the lack of redress to its predominantly colonial public sculptures, memorials and museums, this exhibition visualises ways in which a revisionist history can be realised without erasing or replacing.
As for Modisakeng, he’s one to watch after having both his first solo gallery exhibition and first museum retrospective in one year.
Published by City Press, 7 December 2014