A South African Artist Made an Ex-President’s Rape Trial into Art
At the Berlin Biennale, Dineo Seshee Bopape turned the drip-drip-drip of oppressive systems into powerful films and installations.
Film stills courtesy the artist.
When I speak to the young South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape, she's lost her voice. To be fair, it’s the morning after the opening party for the 10th Berlin Biennale, where her expansive installation, Untitled (Of Occult Instability) [Feelings], 2016-18, one of the largest at the exhibition, is being shown.
We meet in the middle of this work, which comprises, among other things, smashed bricks and columns, water dripping into barrels and buckets (whose sounds, modified by a mixer to become doom-laden drum-beats, fill the hall), and a video reenactment of an interview with Winnie Mandela (the wife of the first post-apartheid South African president). In one corner, a YouTube video of Nina Simone singing Feelings plays on loop. She has also curated other artists’ works into the installation. The whole room is tinted with a dark, sickening orange light, that makes you feel you can’t quite trust your eyes.
This feeling of madness, of an upside-down logic inherent in experiencing systemic oppression, is central to Bopape’s artwork. It asks: what failings of justice, of rational sense and order, have occurred to get us here?
Elsewhere in the Biennale, Bopape is also showing a film based on the court transcript of the rape trial of Jacob Zuma, who was South Africa’s president from 2009 until earlier this year. The trial, in which Zuma was acquitted, was widely seen as symptomatic of the processes by which women are disbelieved in rape cases, particularly in South Africa, which has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world.
Having known the defendant Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo (known by the alias Khwezi in the trial, until her death in 2016), Bopape takes aspects of the trial that might be familiar to a South African audience and reprogrammes them in a hazy, hallucinatory retelling of the crime. For example, Zuma is inextricably connected in the South African mindset to the protest song “Bring Me My Machine Gun.” In her film, Bopape turns Zuma’s “machine gun” into a phallic image of power, with the actor playing Khwezi shouting into the camera, “Where’s MY machine gun?”
Today, Bopape’s vocal chords might be on their last legs, but her artistic voice rings out. VICE spoke with the artist about her powerful political art on view in Berlin.
VICE: What was it about this performance by Nina Simone that inspired you?
Dineo Seshee Bopape: It's what she says: "I cannot believe the conditions that produced a song like this!" Who is sane in a situation like this? It's like, all the drops, all the micro-aggressions that saturate one's emotion and psyche. And her emotional register in the song. In music it's more common to find musicians who are raw. But in visual art, it's rare to find somebody breaking down and crying.
I was thinking about [influential South African writer] Bessie Head. She wrote a book called A Question of Power. Head was a South African writer writing in the 50s and 60s apartheid, with a white mother and black father, when it wasn't permitted to exist as a person like that at that time. It is a maddening situation in itself. It's all those drops: saturation, the accumulation, when you break free of the logic that imprisons you. When you realize the story is not true—you don't have to be sane.
You’ve used works by other artists here too, can you talk me through these?
I wanted to borrow their work almost as a quotation. If something already exists that articulates that feeling then it’s easier to just pull in the work. There are four pieces from other artists. Like the cardboard disco ball [by Jabu Arnell] which I must have encountered around 2006 or 2007 and it just stayed with me—the materiality of it. There’s this light show piece, Justice for _____ by Lachell Workman. I just kept thinking about the emotion of that work, reflecting on the violence against African American men. For centuries, it’s always been "Justice for..." Tamir Rice… Michael Brown... It's like the drops of water.
Why did you include this reenactment of the Winnie Mandela interview from the 70s?
In the interview, she was asked if she would consider picking up a gun against the apartheid state. Because the respected way was via "non-violent revolution.” She said, “No.” She never thought that she would, but after she had seen the violence that was used against the students in 1976 in South Africa, she knew she could. It's not to say that she was crazy, but rather that it's a situation that saturates. It takes craziness, it takes being “unbounded,” to break up the saturation.
Tell me about your film Not yet titled also in the Biennale.
It's based on the court transcripts of the rape case of Jacob Zuma but it's also distorted or changed a bit. It's made with the first actors who were available for the job, so they don't look at all like the original characters. I'm not sure what it would look like to a South African familiar with the story. But it's a script that's so familiar in the world in any context... at the time I was working on it at first, in 2012, there was the story about the guy from the IMF [Dominique Strauss-Kahn] and now there’s Trump, which is funny editing it now, because [in the film] the face of one of the characters blows up and becomes orange. Also Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby—it's a script that everybody knows. Same script, different actors.
Why did you decide to show it now, after Zuma has left office?
Well, Gabi [Ngcobo, curator of the 10th Berlin Biennale] pushed me to finish it! [laughs] I've been editing it since 2012, and I just could not resolve it. I don't know how it ends. I was struggling with it. Because I know the character of Khwezi, personally. She's since passed away, but we met while she was in exile in Amsterdam. [Editor’s note: Khwezi and her mother were offered asylum in Holland, because she was harassed and threatened after the trial in South Africa. Her home was also burned down.] I wasn't sure whether the story's about her or not, because it's about that story, but it also resonates so much. There's an archetype.
The film is pretty trippy in the way it tells the story. Why did you decide to work with a kind of altered reality?
When you hear a story you imagine it in your own terms, so it becomes a fiction, because it's not true to that event. Even in memories when you reenact your own trauma. When does the fiction begin?
In a site of trauma, at the moment of experiencing, sometimes there's no way of grounding that experience because it's so out of the ordinary. I remember being in a car accident when I was 14, and all of a sudden my friend was flying out of the window. “Oh she's in the sky, but she’s supposed to be on the ground!” Where do things stop making sense? Even after, when your memory is blocked out. Logic is disrupted. And it takes a while to get the logic back.
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