By Ashraf Jamal
The Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, remarked that if you show a gun in the first act you better use it in the third. Empty threats won’t do. I’m reminded of this remark when looking at Ofentse Seshabela’s mixed media works. There’s something menacing about them, a palpable unease. If resistance aesthetics is more placard than art, a pithy visual statement in the service of a struggle, this is not what Seshabela is doing. His works are more ‘contemporary’, he says, mashed up. But like Chekhov, they trigger a latent violence.
If you are not going to fire the gun, says Chekhov, ‘it shouldn’t be hanging there’. In Seshabela’s case, the ‘gun’ is a black struggle which, through art, he has weaponised. The techniques he uses are multiple, comprising graffiti and pop art, the graphic impact of which he deliberately blurs with the aid of a candle. This is because the artist understands the precarity of a direct address, because he realises that creative protest, to be effective, must be more than reactive. You can’t just fight against something, you have to manifest the possibility of a new world. In black South Africa, the realm of the black poor in particular, this is never as simple as it seems. Co-opted, exploited, this black majority finds itself caught inside an inexpressible desperation, a bleak inheritance of suffering for which there are no simple answers. Which is why Seshabela blurs the iconographic forms he deploys and the stories he tells. This incendiary quality – traces after a fire – is the most distinctive aspect of Seshabela’s art. It suggests an event, a posture or attitude, which is alive – the artwork as the fallout of a catastrophe. Because what we are witnessing is the outcome of an event, not its statement.
A figure, faceless yet distinctive, holds a book that brandishes a question: THE NEW WORLD ORDER? What is Seshabela alluding to? The rise of black neo-fascism in South Africa which exploits the poor to further its lust for power, or the rights of the poor that will triumph despite on-going corruption? Global fascism? The ‘disruption’ and radical changes generated by a virus? The ‘chaos’ of a new world order? If all of the above is applicable, it is also the artist’s lack of clarity that is important, because what drives Seshabela’s art is unease, without which the artwork would be static, dead-on-arrival. In another work which combines pop iconography and collage, a statement in red which frames the amorphous black bodies reads: THE TYRANT SHALL GOVERN. This second work is more fatalistic, a prophecy of doom. It speaks to the artist’s unwavering dread. His challenge as an artist, however, is not to deliver easily digestible statements. It is true that menace is omnipresent – the gun we see must go off at some point – but, in the moment of seeing and experiencing an artwork, we find ourselves caught in the jaws of a dilemma.
Seshabela’s 2020 exhibition, ‘Democrazy: A demonstration of craziness’, sums up the in-built tension in the art – its design none other than the exposure of the falsity of the democratic ideal, particularly in South Africa where it remains a phantom and an illusion. Worse, or more terrifying, is Seshabela’s recognition of a constitutive insanity built into who and what we are which makes us incapable of speaking the truth, being transparent, this despite the fact that ‘truth is happening in real time’. ‘Some see it’, he adds, while others, the majority, are ‘walking zombies’. Inequality is not only economic it is also perceptual, cultural. Art’s job is to illuminate these inequalities, restore cultural capital – value, insight, feeling – to human struggle.
It is because of the complexity and perversity of contemporary life that Seshabela’s artworks are blurred, cauterized, blinded. Because there is no clarity, art must reveal the blockages which make that clarity impossible. A political leader on a billboard – Ramaphosa? – wears Napoleon’s red double-pointed hat – a bicorne – and a clown’s nose. A figure of an armed soldier is capped with an Orwellian paradox: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. Another figure – more a tendril of smoke, barely physical – is scored through with a single word that reads more as lament than belief: LORD LORD LORD LORD. Life prevails uneasily in Seshabela’s world, township life in particular. The rub of politics and humanity is inconsolable.
If, for Seshabela, the paintings are evidence – a smoking gun – it is because they tell us, in their blurred clarity, that the brutal and obscene truth is staring us in the face, but we refuse or cannot see it. What then is the task of art? In the case of Seshabela, it reminds us that we cannot unsee the obscene ambivalence that afflicts us.