Tony Morphet was an English literary scholar and a leading figure in shaping adult education in South Africa, best known for his work on South African anti-apartheid intellectual Rick Turner. In thinking of his generous spirit of scholarly collaboration, we look back at his opening remarks for the Home and Away Exhibition in 2010, hosted by the CHR and Ifa Lethu Foundation at Iziko National Museums, Old Town Market. The exhibition opened the first Love and Revolution conference. Taking the title as his starting point, Tony’s nuanced reading led us towards a sense of hope and possibility.
Tony Morphet On Love and Revolution
As a shy, old fashioned liberal I am qualified by neither experience nor expertise to address even a few words (my brief from Premesh Lalu) to an audience such as this, distinguished both by expertise and experience. I am here because I found Premesh’s formulation of the title provocative. The two concepts revolution and love do not generally find themselves so closely linked but I think they have a great deal to say to each other – and a great deal to us as South Africans. Collectively we have experience of both.
We have had, are having, a revolution – a revolution of sorts to be sure – but a revolution for certain. It normally goes under the acronym NDR – the national democratic revolution – and it is claimed to be the forerunner of the still-to-come socialist revolution. But we have also had a remarkable and justly famous demonstration of the practice of love – I’m referring to the TRC. It may seem a little odd to claim what was the result of political compromise as the practice of love, but my claim rests on the shoulders of Archbishop Tutu. It was he, as chair of the commission, who placed the process of the TRC under the sign of inclusive love. That he was uniquely qualified by both bitter experience and a life of devotion goes without saying, and that he faced many difficulties in his endeavour is also certain. Who can forget his appeal to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and his explicit naming of love for her. His presence lifted the process out of the political revolutionary realm and placed it under his spiritual authority – that is what made the expression of love possible.
Nevertheless, impressive as it was, it was love of a kind, just as the NDR was a revolution of sorts. Neither promise has been fulfilled – we have just an indication of possibility and direction, a form of social horizon clearly visible in the Constitution, certainly a very different form of horizon to anything we have ever had before. This exhibition documents and records the passage towards that new horizon.
However, important as our social drama of the last two decades has been, there is a much deeper and wider social drama in which we have only a small part. Briefly put it is the drama of the collapse of the great emancipatory project which had revolution as its primary driver – I’m referring to the Enlightenment and its revolutionary expression in the French and Russian revolutions. In the mid-twentieth century, the centuries-long-urge to establish freedom collapsed in the trauma of the Holocaust in Europe, the Stalinist horror and the nightmare of colonial dispossession. We have yet to find a way dealing with that trauma and recovering a vision of emancipatory action. This exhibition is a timely reminder of that immense task. We have made a contribution, but there is more to do.
Recently re-reading Rick Turner’s little book The Eye of the Needle written in 1972, I was struck by the intensity with which he wrote of freedom and love as the foundational values for a properly human society. Turner was a political philosopher and widely acknowledged as a leading figure in the development of Western Marxism in South Africa. He was assassinated in 1978.
In his thoroughgoing critique of South Africa of the 70s he argues that the core values for a properly human society are freedom and love. He brings the pursuit of these two together under the concept of transcendence “the idea of something … which goes beyond the present, which goes beyond what people are doing in the world at this moment and in the light of which the present is only of secondary importance.” The continuous critique of the present in the light of the way towards a human future is the path to freedom. From freedom comes the possibility of love. “To be able to love other persons is to be able to communicate with them, to be open to their way of seeing the world. And to be able to do this I must myself be free…To love the other I must lay myself open. And it is in laying myself open to the other in this way in loving communication that I become self-aware and free.”
Turner’s focus was on ethics and ideals but for his argument he might have considered art. Art embodies aesthetic critique. Its attention is both to the surface of things and simultaneously to the interior life of the subject (or object) under attention. Among the great dramas in the history of art is the discovery of the rules of perspective which enabled the representation of depth on a flat surface. It gave the capacity to see into things and to take the viewer into the interior of the scene. Once in touch with the sense of interiority the viewer was able to project the full human significance of the representation. Art has worked for centuries with these basic rules, using form, design and colour to specify and enrich the meanings of the scenes of representation.
In the collection of paintings and drawings shown here in the exhibition we can see the resources of art employed to register and represent the political condition of social trauma that we have lived through. What they show us through an extraordinary range of forms and styles is not only the grotesque surfaces of apartheid but the inner torments and resistances of the people who suffered it. The artists were fortunate (non-creative persons, like me always think of artists as fortunate no matter what their crises and sufferings were). They were fortunate in being able to draw on two intertwined traditions. Most obvious perhaps is the influence of late European modernism with its capacity to use expressive distortion to render interior experience – an influence often conveyed, as the artist’s biographies suggest, through Cecil Skotnes and the Polly Street Art Centre, and the studio school at Rorke’s Drift. Here we might mention as well the Katlehong Art School and the Cape Town Community Arts Project. But as we all know late European modernism owed much of innovative capacity to the discovery, most notably by Picasso, of the indigenous African art traditions here drawn on directly in many of the works. There is evidence too of other traditions in the works on show, some older as most notably the echoes from the High Renaissance in the Crucifixion and the Deposition, some more modern in the abstract art. Taken together it is an extremely rich collection.
If as Turner has it love is being “open to the other” one might describe the creative energy of the works as love. Here it is possible to see and to feel what it meant to be open to the other in a time of trauma. The other is framed for contemplation on the wall.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the extraordinary diplomats who were open enough to the art to buy it and preserve it and then to return it to its source, just as we owe a debt to the Ifa Lethu Foundation for building the collection and making it available to us, and to the Mayibuye Archives and the Robben Island Museum for mounting the show.
In his eloquent essay in the catalogue, Premesh Lalu discloses his intention of using the collection as a central feature of his ambitious intellectual project at UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research of redefining the relations between politics and aesthetics to give us not only a fresh interpretation of apartheid but a new beginning in the reconstruction of the Humanities in South Africa. We can only congratulate him on the vision and wish him well with the project.
My few words are done. Please enjoy the exhibition.
Tony Morphet, 2010
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