I’m Black. Now, lets deal the social fact and the fact of my stating it together. Maybe you don’t see why we have to deal with it together. Maybe you think this is just my problem, and that I should deal with it by myself. But its not just my problem, its our problem.
For example, it’s our problem if you feel like I’m making an unnecessary fuss about my racial identity, if you don’t see why I have to announce it this way. Well if you feel like letting people know I’m not white is an unnecessary fuss, you must feel that the right and proper course of action for me to take, is to pass for white.
- Adrian Piper, 1988.
My practice is almost always autobiographical. Working across multiple disciplines, I create work based on my experiences that reflect upon, respond and question issues of identity. From a very young age I was always aware of my South African identity, though also confused by it. As a child, my mother always spoke highly of Madiba, whereas my father was hesitant to speak about South Africa at this time at all.
Largely, the confusion began from other people telling me, interrogating me and asking why I did not look like a South African, or rather, an African. I found I was continually justifying my connection and relationship with my African identity, in various contexts. During my MFA (2011-13) that focused on issues and ideas of ‘racial authenticity’, Aboriginal activist Aunty Pat Eatock commenced Federal Court proceedings against Herald Sun writer Andrew Bolt, and the Herald Weekly Times. Bolt and the Herald Weekly Times were found guilty of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act, Sections 18C and 18D regarding several online and print articles that racially vilified and humiliated Eatock alongside 18 individuals with articles that ‘conveyed offensive messages about fair skinned Aboriginal people by saying that they were not genuinely Aboriginal’. This is a historical win that continues to be debated in parliament with right wing government parties pushing to amend the act, as Brandis stated, ‘people have the right to be bigots’. Further, it also signifies the relevance and importance of addressing problematic and dominant views of identity that succumb to rigid categories of physical visualities that negate cultural experience and self determination.
Returning to South Africa always rejuvenates my sense of self, while also becoming more aware of my antipodean identity in this context. I spent most of last year in South Africa, and completed a studio residency at Assemblage studios located on the outskirts of Johannesburg’s CBD.
During this time I met amazing artists, creatives, poets and musicians, bonding through our amandla spirit and shared experiences of colonial oppression. The term deny, and in its plural forms, denial, denied resonated continuously throughout my residency and through my creative processes. It also is the name of the exhibition of works produced in this residency, first held at Workshop Newtown’s Bubblegum Club.
What struck me strongly was how engrained physical visualities informed one’s understanding of each other, with no hesitation in asking or expressing. When people saw my research, family photos, newspaper clippings, or articles about District Six, some would say ‘I didn’t know you were Coloured!’ or, ‘I knew you were Coloured when I saw you’. These initial interactions reminded me of experiences I have had in Australia, however these conceptualisations of my identity were also very different.
The works produced in this residency focus deeply on the language and legacies of Apartheid, while exploring experiences of being denied, and my personal relationship to these. I repetitively use the branding of Coloured ™ and the words deny, denial, denied in a series of tapestry works and serigraph prints; while also producing screen prints on mixed-media and a video installation during the residency. The tapestry works Coloured™ #1 and Coloured™ #2 were born in my interest in learning weaving practices, while also family nostalgia, a skill passed down by an Aunty. Extending my weaving techniques progressed as far as finding old canvas in my Aunties garage, and while being resourceful on residency, resumed the techniques she had taught me.
I also came across publications dated from 1977-1983 produced by the South Africa Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR); a private institute for research and policy, not affiliated with any political party, that recorded the country’s social, economic affairs and population statistics as well as housing and encouraging progressive activist and arts initiatives. I was extremely drawn to the Population chapter and its section about Race Re-classifications. This had also reminded me of conversations with family about people within the Coloured community who were eligible to apply for re-classification, to be White, because they were the “right” skin tone. Members of my family could of, though chose not to. Seeing the high numbers of Cape Coloured to White however made me realise the contentious and complex nature of this process. People obviously wanted to advance their social and economic standing, however this also destroyed families and relationships, further segregating the Coloured community within an already imperial system of separating of people based on ‘race’.
Black people are denied.
Coloured people are denied.
Black people were denied.
Coloured people were denied.
Coloured people are in denial?
Denial of slave ancestry? And what this looks like?
Denied to identify with Khoikhoi? San?
Denied from identifying as Black?
Denied their right to ascertain their own identity?
Denied identity through the homogenous term that is Coloured.
A new generation of South African’s recognise ‘Coloured’ as a term of colonial oppression, however also understand that in some contexts it cannot be necessarily removed so easily. Questioning and discussing the affects of colonialisation and Apartheid on the Coloured community have never been more evident, as well as a right to self-determine and connect to their slave and African identity. This reclaiming of the language of ‘Afrikaans’ is becoming known as a movement being referred to as ‘Afrikaaps’. This is all happening at a time of great awakening in South Africa and its current social, economic and political state. Such issues though specific to South Africa and explored within my arts practice, easily echo issues of identity, Aboriginal justice and experiences of colonial oppression within Australia that similarly is finally being more widely recognised and discussed.
By Roberta Rich
Deny / Denial / Denied, a solo exhibition, is the culmination of works produced by Rich while on residency in Johannesburg. The exhibition opens at Blak Dot Gallery, Melbourne August 3rd running till August 20th 2017. Works from this residency will also be exhibited in Sydney at UNSW Galleries as part of the Freedman Foundation Travelling Scholarship Exhibition, opening August 10th until 2nd September 2017.
 Transcript from Adrian Piper’s video installation Cornered, 1988. Full transcript can be found in Theory in Contemporary Art Since 1985, ed. Zoya Kocur & Simon Leung. 2015, Wiley-Blackwell.
 Transcript of Justice Mordecai Bromberg’s Summary of Eatock vs Bolt, Federal Court of Australia, September 2011. http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/1407_judgment.pdf
 “George Brandis: 'People have the right to be bigots'”, The Guardian, March 24, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/mar/24/george-brandis-people-have-the-right-to-be-bigots
 Quentin Williams, ‘Afrikaaps is an act of reclamation,’ Mail & Guardian, 16 December 2016. https://mg.co.za/article/2016-12-15-00-afrikaaps-is-an-act-of-reclamation