I return often to Lorna Simpson’s ‘Waterbearer’ (1986). The work speaks to me of women and history, and the silencing of women’s voices and narratives, in different ways, across time and space. It is a work made in a particular context and at a particular time. But for me it is a point of continuous imaginative return as I grapple with my own context and the work I do as an art historian specialising in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.
‘Your work will always be dismissed in South Africa. You are a woman and you are white’. I look at him and he looks at me.You are a woman and you are white. I take another sip of wine. He the distinguished Zimbabwean filmmaker has spoken. It’s summer. The party is on a North London rooftop. Around the table men from Zimbabwe and South Africa talk easily to one another about their work, their politics, a mutual friend who recently died of alcohol. I look across at the other woman on the table. She writes for something important. Later I overhear the filmmaker asking her: ‘Do you want to come home afterwards?’ She smiles at him and laughs. She smiles a lot. She smiles at me a lot.
I’m still thinking about my whiteness. It’s 1991. I’m in Johannesburg. I have a boyfriend. He’s an English South African. These distinctions matter. The boyfriend calls up his parents to tell them about me. He teases them. Somehow I am black. Black. The next thing there they are in the University Canteen after dinner. We sit around a table: boyfriend and parents; and me. They do not greet me. They do not look at me. I do not see them look at me. They speak only to him. Later he tells me that it’s because they thought I was Indian. Indian. They are taking us out for dinner. At the restaurant I am showered with warmth. His mother likes what I’m wearing. ‘I see now. You are French. That is what you are’. French.
At around midnight it’s time to leave the party: the London rooftop of pot plants and Miles Davis. I shake the hands of a man I don’t know and say goodbye. ‘Why are you leaving?’ ‘Oh’, I say, ‘I have to get up early and work tomorrow. I’m finishing my PhD’. ‘What’s it on?’ ‘South African Video Art. I’m looking at women artists and history in South Africa’. ‘Are you South African?’ ‘Yes, well half’. He looks at me and doesn’t ask about the other half. ‘Where are you from? What do you do?’ I ask. ‘Why do you need to know where I’m from? Can we not have another kind of conversation?’ I snap at him: ‘You are making assumptions about me! You asked me where I was from!’ ‘I didn’t’, he says. ‘Yes. You did’. ‘Do you know anything about ideology?’ he asks me. We argue back and forth. Back and forth. I’m floating. High above the London rooftop and the pot plants. Our host hears us. He’s worried. My voice. Louder and louder. ‘Please. Stop. For me’, the host says. But I can’t stop. I can’t stop. ‘You are assuming things about me’. I’m shrieking now. ‘What am I assuming?’, he says. He’s cool. He’s calm. But I’m still thinking about my whiteness.
It’s 2006. I’m living in Johannesburg. There was another PhD. Things were not going well. One evening I dropped by my then supervisor’s flat. The night before I had gone to listen to a talk at the University. She was there. ‘You know’, she says looking at me. ‘Last night you looked so serious. Like a real intellectual. Not my Island Girl’. Island Girl.
‘You know very well what you’re assuming’. I say to him. ‘No I don’t’, he says. Another man. A younger one steps in. ‘So tell me what are you exactly?’ ‘I am an art historian’. ‘An art historian of Southern Africa?’ I nod mutely. He looks at me and takes it in. I turn around and walk off. I hear someone say ‘Bitch’. Bitch. I leave the flat but the light doesn’t come on. I can’t see where I’m going. I fumble down the stairs and to the street.
Yvette Greslé is a London-based art writer, art historian and (completing research) PhD candidate in the History of Art Department, University College London. Her research, which focuses on South African video art, history and memory, is supervised byProfessor Tamar Garb. In 2014, Yvette is a London-based Research Associate at the University of Johannesburg. She is a contributor to ‘this is tomorrow’; Apollo Magazine; Photomonitor; Art South Africa; Africanah and the blog of the International New Media Gallery (inmg).