Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS)


IAS Lies: Black in Five Minutes

by Ashraf Jamal. An excerpt from a public lecture, ‘Art & Lies’, delivered at the IAS in October 2018

black in five minutes

7 May 2019

Image: © Ed Young, BLACK IN FIVE MINUTES. Photo: Malibongwe Tylo. Featuring Athi-Patra Ruga. Courtesy of the artist


In his 1987 Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech J. M. Coetzee considers the difficulty of telling the truth. ‘There is […] too much truth for art to hold’, he says, ‘truth that overwhelms and swamps every act of the imagination’. The ‘truth’ Coetzee is speaking of is crude-naked-callous-brutal-enraged, operational at both a ‘physical’ and ‘moral level’. For beneath any messianic and sage desire for social change, a psychopathy prevails. The truth that is South Africa is one that is afflicted by repression. For what remains persistent — thirty years later — is what Coetzee rightly recognized as the inability ‘to quit a world of pathological attachments and abstract forces, of anger and violence’, an inability, willed or otherwise, which has resulted in the failure to ‘take up residence in a world where a living play of feelings and ideas is possible, a world where we truly have an occupation’. 

However, if we hold fast to Friedrich Nietzsche’s conclusion that truth is chimerical — expressed in 1873 in his essay ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense’ — then what are we to make of Coetzee’s yearning to be rid of ‘pathological attachments’? Surely, if art is to ‘truly have an occupation’ it cannot eschew the inescapability of an abusive and cruel world. Surely what matters is not art’s capacity to overcome this horror, but its capacity to think and feel through it, no matter how intestate our condition might be. If South Africa’s history is wrought through pain, then surely art’s ‘occupation’ must be to inhabit the problem? With Nietzsche, with Coetzee, then, we must reconsider the unscrupulousness of the fictions we live by — the fictions of liberty, self-possession, and self-determination. For the lie of greatest concern is the one in which we accept that we have been defrauded, a lie which champions salvation when there is none.

South Africa’s social fabric remains broken, mutilated, and ugly — deformed by the illusion of supremacy and the shackles of bondage — in which we have failed to speak each to each. Ubuntu, a founding culture in which we are whom we are because of others, has long withered. Its continued affective impact is merely chimerical. For what persists and continues to dominate the South African psyche is ‘rawness’, what Mike Nicol in The Waiting Country, published in 1995, terms ‘the evils that were practised here’, the inevitability of dissimulation — ‘how we lie to one another’. ‘We lie to accommodate’, says Nicol. ‘We lie because we believe it does not matter. We lie because we think that in the face of so many years of misery, a lie that is for the good is not a lie at all. And we lie because we have no self-respect. We lie because we are victims. We lie because we cannot imagine ourselves in any other way’. It is not only the instrumentality of lying which is the abiding problem, but the extent of the fraud perpetrated because of it — its psychic cost. 

For Coetzee, the continued problem stems from the falsity of ‘fraternity’. He criticizes ‘the vain and essentially sentimental yearning that expresses itself in the reform movement’, a movement disingenuous and corrupt in its ‘yearning to have fraternity without paying for it’. But the problem is deeper still, for what concerns me is not the confection of equality but the root problem which founds its impossibility. For what we are dealing with, when seeking to right a wrong, is not so much truth’s impossibility, but its metaphoricity — for truth, says Nietzsche, is an illusion both necessary and duplicitous. Truth comes in the way of the greater problem presented to us in-and-through the culture of lies. To better understand just how the South African art world operates, therefore, requires not merely the quest for a truth, but the greater quest to understand just how lies have operated, how they sustain us — and how, at their best, they can help us reconfigure our condition and position in this world. We need lies, therefore, that operate as enabling metaphors.

An artist who compellingly engages with the duplicitousness of the South African experience is Ed Young. Young’s word-work, BLACK IN FIVE MINUTES, is a case in point. An ironic barb, it is directed at the clichéd notion of transformation and the ruse of some instantaneous shift. While acknowledging the desire for change, Young, more critically, asks us to reflect upon the conditions which make this change seemingly possible — South Africa’s phantom democracy. The artist’s aim is not merely to spoof hope but to understand the yearning that triggers it — a yearning for a different world in a fundamentally indifferent time.

This indifferent time is not peculiar to South Africa, for as Pankaj Mishra noted in 2017, we are all irrefutably confronted by the ‘widening abyss of race, class and education’. What Mishra addresses is a global ‘Age of Anger’, an age crude, barbarous, divisive, which no moral logic can countenance, and in which ‘well-worn pairs of opposites, often corresponding to the bitter divisions in our societies, have once again been put to work: progressive vs. reactionary, open vs. closed, liberalism vs. fascism, rational vs. irrational’. More witheringly, Mishra concludes that this increasingly exacerbated conflicted realm is also one which refuses reconciliation. Indeed, says Mishra, ‘our search for rational political explanations for the current disorder is doomed’. This stark conclusion is chastening. For today one cannot, rationally, resolve an escalating conflict. Indeed, if the parsing of categories has become all the more difficult, this is because we no longer suppose it possible to make distinctions. Rather, ours is a miasmic world, foggy, filthy, which Frantz Fanon and Achille Mbembe have termed a ‘zone of indistinction’, in which it is difficult, if not impossible, to disinter being from non-being.

Fanon and Mbembe’s insight deserve greater attention, for what concerns the Martiniquan psychoanalyst and Cameroonian philosopher is the notion that blackness — the black body and psyche — has been so thoroughly obliterated, so wholly denied its self-presence, that it cannot return itself to itself. Objectified, humiliated, rendered in-existent, it is a body, an agency, which, even today, remains at the margin of being. It is not surprising, therefore, that it is the very clamour for being, for breath, for life, which has driven a humanocentric will for selfhood. My point, however, is not to champion this justifiable right. What interests me, rather, is the voided being, the in-existent limit, the abyssal horror which we choose to flee from, and which, tragically, we have misconstrued. For if we are inescapably caught up in lies, if deception is the very ground — now groundless — upon which we live, then, surely, the recovery of some solvent agency, some beneficent model for a better life, comes at quite another cost?

One cannot simply replace absence with presence, nothingness with something substantive — an in-existent body with some body. One must also reflect upon that which is worthwhile and which lies within the void — the ability to exploit the veils that cloud us, the mystery that subsists in an afflicted and recessive condition. To merely rename the black oppressed body positively, bequeath it a reason and agency which, for centuries, it was denied, is to merely invert a pathology, replace a lack with a seeming clarity. In so doing we foster a vision of black experience and black art as merely a reactive decree, and, thereby, deny them their richer complexity. For surely the black body and experience, and its artistic expression, should also be allowed its incommensurability, its perversity? If, for Mishra, reason is doomed and no longer a useful tool, if reason is on the verge of bankruptcy as a mechanism for mediation, then why should it now assume a dominant role in black expression? 

As a mechanism in-and-through which to attain a human right, reason is broken. Which is precisely why we find ourselves caught up in an era of hyperbolic excess, hysteria, and, along with it, a mounting violence. It is because, as the Marxist cultural analyst, Terry Eagleton, proposes, ‘reason has been reduced to a bloodlessly instrumental mode of rationality, which does no more than calculate its own advantage’, that we must now reconsider not only its uses but its abuses. For as Eagleton resumes, ‘Nature has been drained of its inner vitality and reduced to so much dead matter for human manipulation. What holds sway over human lives is utility, for which nothing can be precious in itself’. The art world — indeed, the world at large — has fallen victim to this cynically energised and limited utility. Reactive rather than active, declamatory rather than invocatory, this disposition, while necessary, is also enfeebled, for it blunts and contains a given struggle in scare quotes. Divisive, oppositional, monomaniacal, and hysterical, it is a mechanism which cannot save us.

© Ed Young, ALL SO FUCKING AFRICAN, Photo: SMAC Gallery. Courtesy of the artist.

In this regard, what makes Ed Young’s word-works compelling is not that they speak truth to power, but that they implicate us in a founding hypocrisy. ALL SO FUCKING AFRICAN, displayed at Frieze-New York in 2016, is precisely that, a word-work which challenges the fetishization of Africa as a continent, an idea, a principle. The tone of the work is exasperated, exhausted, numbed not only by hype but the banalization of a continent which for the past five hundred years has operated as Europe’s inverted and perverted Other. That there has been a concerted attempt to rewire this prevailing prejudicial perception has in no way stifled its prevalence. Instead, what we get is a disjunctive state in which a constitutive pathology is transmogrified. And yet, if we concur with Coetzee’s view, then it is those very pathological attachments which will prevail. For it is this very pathological attachment to a dark truth that cannot be vaulted which, for Coetzee, makes South Africa ‘as irresistible as it is unlovable’.

© Ed Young, I SEE BLACK PEOPLE, Photo: SMAC Gallery. Courtesy of the artist.

Art’s job, if it can be said to possess one, is not to solve this problem but to inhabit it in an engaging way. And I think that Young does just this — he occupies a dilemma and makes it his vocation. In this regard, however, he also goes against a grain of resistance art culture — dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, muted in the 1990s — which has morbidly resurfaced in recent years. I SEE BLACK PEOPLE, exhibited at the Johannesburg Art Fair in 2015, expresses an observation. One might assume the first-person pronoun, ‘I’, to be the subjective perspective of a white male artist. This could be true, but it is also not. The statement does not read, ‘I, Ed Young, a white South African born in Welkom in the Free State, see black people’. But because we know the artist to be white, male, and notorious, we tend to fix upon what could be a supremacist and racist abstraction of others. The generic conflation ‘black people’ is now read not as an objective sighting of a cluster, but as a derogatory diminishing of a corpus of singularities into a blurred group. And yet, given the context for the exhibition of this statement, a forum whose very culture is exclusionary and predominantly frequented by a white middle-class elite, surely this sighting is inaccurate? Surely what Young is telling us is that he does not see black people? That black people are in fact markedly absent from this forum — from the Johannesburg Art Fair, one of Africa’s leading trading centres — and, therefore, that it is their absence which is all the more palpable?  



  • J.M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).
  • Terry Eagleton, Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016).
  • Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger (London: Allen Lane, 2017).
  • Mike Nicol, The Waiting Country: A South African Witness (London: Gollancz, 1995).
  • Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense (1873) <http://www.e-scoala.ro/biblioteca/friedrich_nietzsche.html>

Ashraf Jamal presented his ideas at the ‘IAS Lies Public Lecture Series: Art & Lies’. An audio recording of this event is available here. Ashraf also presented his book In the World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art (Skira, 2017) in a conversation with Prof Tamar Garb. 
Ashraf Jamal is a Research Associate based at the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre, University of Johannesburg, South Africa. H is the author of In the World: Essays on Contemporary South African Art (Skira, 2017) and the editor and co-author of Robin Rhode, Geometry of colour (Skira, 2018). 


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