Tracy Rose’s long protracted retrospective at Zeitz MOCAA has finally arrived, and like her legendary performance piece, ‘TKO’, it’s a technical knockout. Since the opening of Zeitz, it is surely the most brazenly daring show to date. Why? Because it capitalises on a deep-rooted psychic unsettlement that is peculiarly South African, because it pivots and twists about a body which resists singular definition, be it gendered or raced, and all importantly, because it is a celebration of an explosive, inflammatory, provocative, outrageous artist. In one film she sits astride a mule, trots and heaves through a jungle, her head bedecked with a papier mache hat that resembles a cock and balls. Like much of Rose’s work, this graphic distillation of colonial power and masculinity – and the artist’s tenuous relation to it – embodies, and performs, a driving concern throughout her work – the fact that History Hurts. Rose is that rare creature, someone who never hesitates, who galvanizes the corrupted paradox of creative expression. In her introductory speech for the show, Koyo Kouoh, the executive director of the museum, isolated a single word to define Rose’s work – Rage. Rose, she says, is an ‘enraged artist … a South African citizen, a woman, in rage’. Hers is ‘a cry for respect, for liberation – a productive rage’. The politics of the body and nationhood are inextricably bonded, Rose’s ‘productive’ anger understood as a potent reckoning, because as Kouoh understands it, Rose’s anger is never merely reactive, she does not fight against a problem but produces the possibility for its correction and transformation. In a country like ours, built on reactive rage, immune to criticism, violently absolutist – indeed nihilistic – what Rose offers is a mechanism and means through which to thread human complexity. If history meets the body-politic, so does ‘conspiracy, dream and desire’. In Rose’s world the material and psychological, conceptual and emotive are one. That Koyo Kouoh and Tracey Rose have a relationship spanning two decades and more – they first met at the Dakar Biennale in 2000 – further underscores the depth of their collaboration. That Kouoh is adamant in her focus on in-depth individually fuelled exhibitions is, in this regard, a vital wager. For what troubles Kouoh is the perception of black artists as a collective. Why, she asks, are group shows devoted to otherness ubiquitous? Why is it so difficult to recognise a black artist as a singularity? Furthermore, Kouoh strives to produce a more integrated – integral – vision of Africa, by ‘bringing the continent into the focus of this country’. If exceptionalism troubles her, singularity does not, which is why we have the first major retrospective on the continent of one of South Africa’s leading innovators in the spheres of performance, photography, and film. Rose’s dealer, Dan Gunn, deserves praise for his unflinching and exacting focus, because this solo show bares all the markings of a refined and austere eye, heart, and soul. True, the root of this brutal, ruthless, yet purifying vision, is the artist, however it could never have been realised without the joint effort of others – namely Gunn and Storm Janse Van Rensburg – who together with others asked how, in this toxic clime of righteousness, one could allow for radical critique. Because, of course, Rose is never one to endorse righteousness, or quietude. She will not be an ideologue or a fence sitter. Her role, rather, is to inhabit the cracks in a system, the explosive and implosive paradoxes that force one to rethink all divisive or contrarian logic. For her, the world is never so simplistically rendered or understood. For Koyo Kouoh, Rose’s art practice is ‘unparalleled amongst her peers’. If theatrical satire is key, it is because Rose, like Bertolt Brecht, understands the power of a deeply felt yet alienated and alienating performance. It is the airgap she allows, a vexed point and place between thought-feeling-action that affords both reflexive critique and a suspension of belief. In other words, we are always both inside and outside Rose’s stunts. Detachment allows for awe-horror-circumspection, connection allows for an immanent grasp of the psychic complexity of the undertaking. But not all the works – like ‘TKO’ – are as exacting, as obtuse, as gripping. Sometimes Rose chooses, after Nietzsche, to bludgeon us with a hammer. The graphic depiction of a black woman, dressed in the colours of the Union Jack, her shaved vagina exposed to the world as she straddles the dome of St Pauls, when seen, cannot be unseen. The ravages of colonialism persist – they distort what we see, feel, how we understand ourselves, how others see us. It is none other than a perversion. This is Rose’s point. Decolonisation, however, is not the answer. Not only is it dangerously naïve, it fails to grasp the inextricable paradox that defines us.
Rose ‘refuses ‘to simplify reality for the sake of clarity’. This resistance runs against the dominant dogmatic culture. Her satirical strategy, mired in calculated paradox, resists ‘the narrative of struggle and reconciliation’. Two enshrined values are contested here – the belief that sequential constructs lead to truth, and that, through this discursive process one can reconcile the wounds of history. That Rose is critical of Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory politics, underscores this pervasive doubt. We remain arrested, intestate, appallingly broken as a nation. That said, Rose is careful to remind us that she is no nationalist. Her vision echoes that of Kouoh, for whom ‘South Africa is a name to understand the world and the human condition’. Their shared vision is global yet local, all-encompassing yet ruthlessly particular. ‘As long as we can keep talking, we are not killing each other’, says Rose. The sentiment is salutary, but it is also dangerously at risk, precisely because we no longer speak each to each, because we have chosen to inhabit silos, and to isolate ourselves through cellular systems defined by Group Think. It is against this culture, rife today, that Rose holds fast to ‘Freedom of Expression’. I jokingly asked Storm Jane Van Rensburg if Zeitz had installed a sound-proofed room for the ‘Karens’ who would very likely be outraged by the show, but Van Rensburg’s answer was more understanding – that as a museum, as a retrospective, they would have to accept the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Van Rensburg is correct in stating that Rose’s solo show is ‘an emotionally charged space’ which, doubtless will spur outrage. But then, as Lesego Rampolokeng presciently noted, ‘we don’t have a culture of criticism, only a culture of bitching’. Against this reactionary drive, Rose presents us with a world vision that is as personal as it is general, one which compels us to absorb paradox, to weather the raw rub of human difficulty. Rose speaks personally of ‘an ancestral bitch slap’, the realisation that cultural inheritance is in and of itself corrupted and corruptible. Of the more recent past, the 1990s – surely the South African art world’s first great defining moment – Rose notes that then ‘the art world was more progressive and messy’.
This is an apt description of Tracy Rose’s world, even today. The tension which underlies progression and evolution is, for her, invariably ‘messy’. This is as it should be, given that Rose is a wild card, a Fauvist, a beast, as exacting as she is perverse, as reassuring as she is enraging, as confident as she is profoundly wracked by doubt. It is for all these paradoxical reasons that I strongly recommend that you see Rose’s show. Titled Shooting Down Babylon, it is, as the title suggests, a Nietzschean tour de force, a rage against the machine, a denunciation – through autocritique – of all forms of idolatry, all unquestioned values and beliefs, all rear-guard certainties. Apart from the depth of the creative works on show, spanning decades, there is the added delight one experiences when entering a bling sparkly emerald-green corridor, which suggests a mirror ball, or Rose’s many-sided refracted personae. We enter worlds within worlds, the richly complex and protean world of Tracy Rose, which, for Koyo Kouoh, remains ‘unparalleled’.