Kent Lindiwe Williams

Kent Lindiwe Williams

Dear ______
I have been reading, thinking, rereading and rethinking through what you wrote, and trying to find a way to respond. At the same time, I have been ploughing through Paul Gilroy’s After Empire that you recommended, noting developments in my thoughts as I read through the book, in relation to our discussion. My sense is that the different stages, or flux, of ideas I have had form the most generative basis for a response.
When I first read your observation of the original inhabitants of the British island revolting against Roman colonisation — I was simultaneously defensive and mystified. Defensive because I have grown accustomed to thinking about Europe, the ‘West’, the ‘Global North’, the ‘colonisers', and ‘Britain' (by extension) in a way that is quite singular, and anti-. So reading your email I felt that to ’sympathise’ with a narrative of Britain as also having been colonised, was to be disloyal to a kind of anti-Eurocentric approach that began to grow in real strength at the start of FeesMustFall. Then on the other hand, I felt mystified, because I have never really engaged with British history to this extent, or in this way that you outlined. I wondered what bearing this had, or could have on the ideas I am thinking through in my current work.
Reading both your email and Gilroy, I have noted a contradiction in my own thinking. In an article of mine that will be published towards the end of the year, I argue for a nuanced approach to dress, that focuses on the multitude of personal narratives that are knotted into an understanding dress, as it appears in the work of a number of artists worldwide (e.g. Judith Mason, Yinka Shonibare). I favour this kind of textured approach as a pretext to one that focuses on the macro-political (gendered, racial, cultural, national, socio-economic) identities that dress might be seen to communicate. In the macro-political, the complexity of individual identification is often arguably overlooked. 
However, in the email I wrote to you, I did quite the opposite in terms of the way I spoke about a 'European', and ‘British’ understanding of archive. So Gilroy’s paper makes me think about how easy it is to slip into a narrative of simplifying and singularising.
What has been difficult for me in articulating a response to you is exploring a position in which I complexify and nuance this idea of opposing Eurocentrism, and its hegemonic legacies. I wonder if I might be exploring a territory which is ‘disloyal’ to the cause of decolonising the university, to the cause in which I was involved as a student and now as an independent researcher?
However, I feel that is worth surfacing whether, if in the process of trying to define an African epistemology — which as you suggest can actually have problematic effects of singularity, and homogeneity —ideas of a Euro/ Western / British / Northern / White colonising force is necessarily singularised too, deleting the multiplicity of opposing individual narratives and conflicts that currently exist and have existed within and beneath those umbrella terms. 

I have really been struggling in my own work to deal with the problem of what Gilroy (p.34) calls reproducing

"the obligations of racial observance, negotiating them but basically accepting the idea of racial hierarchy and then, inescapably, reifying it.”
I keep asking myself how to oppose singular narratives of anything really without adopting a ‘comeback’ that is itself singular.
Here I want to thank you for pointing me towards Gilroy, and for your indication that:
"the archive is always determined by our sense of what the present and the future mean."
I find that kind of approach, following Gilroy, to have real force, especially in complicating the dialectics and binaries I am consistently faced with (black white centre periphery africa europe). I want to work more carefully with this idea that Gilroy (p.59) introduces of "the ability to imagine political, economic, and social systems in which “race” makes no sense”. 
I wonder if this could be used in quite an idiosynchratic way with Edourad Glissant’s call for the “right to opacity”… 
I still worry though, that the types of positions I explore in this email might lead to uncomfortable, and notably unpopular articulations — and a position that resists any kind of singular narrative, no matter where it comes from (eg. dominant ideologies emerging from FeesMustFall). This reminds me of a collection of essays edited by William Gumede and Leslie Dikeni, On the Poverty of Ideas.
So while I go back Gilroy, I must thank you for the suggestion which has pushed me in a direction that, although uncomfortable and unstable, is very very generative.
All the best,
Kent Lindiwe 
An elaborate classical Roman arch frames Raphael's School of Athens (1509-1510), behind which three more arches advance towards a vanishing point; focusing the viewer's attention on the two central male figures. The man on the left, pointing determinately upwards to the sky — the celestial realm — is the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. He casually grips a book, his own oeuvre, inscribed Timeo, and looks commandingly at the younger philosopher, Aristotle, standing next to him. Aristotle holds his oeuvre, Etica, and in contrast to Plato he splays his right hand out, gesturing towards the ground beneath him — the terrestrial realm. Marcia Hall (1997: 17) explains that Raphael's School of Athens revolves around these men and their two extremely opposite philosophies.

Like Hall, it is my sense that these men's contradictory gestures are like two opposing forces which indicate a contrast in their philosophies about celestial wisdom and terrestrial knowledge. In Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, E.H. Gombrich (1972: 92) supports this claim: according to Plato's Timeo, and as his upward pointing finger suggests, wisdom comes from an understanding of that which is up above — the divine. In contrast, Aristotle, in an earthy brown and tangibly bright blue robe, focuses on knowledge and the ethical behaviour of humans in the physical realm over which his hand is protectively splayed. Even the classical roman sculptures of Minerva, goddess of wisdom on the right and Apollo, teacher of Ethics, on the left, reinforce the antithesis of godly wisdom versus human knowledge.

Raphael enhances the energetic nature of such philosophical debate through strong visual contrasts. For example, he juxtaposes the looseness of Diogenes’s pose — who is splayed out languidly on the steps — against the tight intensity of the huddled group on the left. This group strains forward to see what Pythagorus is writing, intent on what they are learning. Despite their varying individual poses, the "v" shaped composition of these foreground clusters of figures makes the entire image seem to focus back towards Plato and Aristotle. Hall (1997: 11) notes that this energetic composition, which represents a conversation between great philosophers, seems to have roots in the sacra conversazione (sacred conversation). Raphael confronts how to visually intertwine the terrestrial and celestial realms. He does this, like in the representation of the saints from different historical periods in the sacra conversazione, through the unbelievable idea of having philosophers from all different times depicted in one space. However, this space is painted incredibly naturalistically; making it appear real and believable, and of the earthly realm. So, the artwork speaks of a multi-layered sense of continuity and change. While Raphael draws on the sacred conversation idea, there is radical change in his replacement of Holy figures with secular philosophical figures: Raphael does not depict a conversazione of saints but rather of classical pagan philosophers. Raphael's fresco is alive in its depiction of these specific, identifiable classical philosophers. The idea of continuity with past traditions, or finding new ways of depicting familiar themes, is present in Raphael's inspiration drawn from classical antiquity. In turn, the classically inspired scene then seems to oppose the painting's religious context; creating a playful duality between continuity and radical opposition.

Raphael creates a scene which explains, rather than flatly personifies, the different branches of philosophy: the group to the right shows the viewer how geometry is practiced as they gaze intently at each other and downwards at Euclid, who measures something with his compass. Glen W. Most (1996: 148) explains that before Raphael artists personified the abstract idea of philosophy through stylised figures, such as St Thomas of Aquinas and Dame Philosophy. Raphael’s tondo (fig.2) situated above the School of Athens depicting Dame Philosophy in this allegorical way, reinforces his radical break from this style. Instead, Raphael's careful treatment of form, pose, depth and perspective creates a sense of reality and harmony in this fresco. The harmony of these formal artistic elements is perhaps used by the artist to show how the classical figures depicted here can, despite their secular nature, be brought into cosmic harmony with one another within the context of the Holy Vatican Church. In other words, he draws on certain formal strategies, used to indicate the spiritual, heavenly, and religious realm, to cloak his blatantly pagan and secular subject matter. By looking closely at the individual visual indicators in Raphael’s School of Athens, and how they interact with one another, it is possible to understand the ways that High Renaissance artists drew on past traditions in their art but interpreted these traditions in a radical manner. And thus, “to understand is to look”.¹


¹ In After Babel, George Steiner (quoted in Ricoeur 2006:11) claims that “to understand is to translate”. I adopt and adapt his words in the title, ‘To understand is to look’ — putting pictures into words; is this not a form of translation?

Sources Cited:

GOMBRICH, E. H. 1972. Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of The Renaissance. London: Phaidon.

HALL, M. (Ed). 1997. Raphael's School of Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MOST, G. W. 1996. Reading Raphael: "The School of Athens" and it's Pre-Text." critical Inquiry 23(1): 145-182

STEINER, G. quoted in Paul Ricoeur, On Translation. 2006. London: Routledge.

Thursday, 18 February 2016 22:06

the nymph in motion

At once startled and intrigued, the woman twists her gaze to the top right, staring wide-eyed into the swollen face of a god, depicted in a separate snapshot. This figure, Apollo, strains his head to the left, his forehead creases as he prepares to blow out the breath which seems to fight for escape against the flesh of the cheeks and mouth which entrap it. Following the imaginary line of wind that is soon to burst from his mouth, the eye moves back towards the startled young woman. She gasps, while a string of flowers tumble from her mouth. The flowers look like a silhouette projected in motion onto the smooth background of her skin. In line with this same rush of movement, is the hair which cascades down and accentuates the spontaneous twist of her neck. The eye sails down this fountain of hair, jumping over the gaping black background, and landing on the head of a girl who dances in the middle of another snapshot. Captured mid-frolic, the girl leans her weight to the right in order to support her leg which curves slightly at the knee and carries the eye leftwards, where her toe points towards one of the two centre images in the panel.

In this image, placed in same line of direction as the pointed toe, is the cherub-like face of a little boy who clings to his mother's hand. Although his torso leans instinctively towards her, he cocks his head to the faded figure of a young girl who seems to be disappearing out of the right edge of the image, into the black abyss against which the image lies. The eye struggles against this tug into the nothingness of the black background and redirects itself towards the stabilising clutch of the mother's hand. Her finger points downwards into the crack of her knee which is swept upwards to the right by gentle waves of fabric which alternately cling to and billow from her figure. Thus, the eye flutters constantly in this diagonal, up-down, left-right movement. Traveling across the space, which threatens to swallow the young girl in the right of the image, a woman's thrown-out arms and slightly curved back confront the viewer. The straight, sharp corner of her elbow contrasts against the soft curve of the bow held firm by a figure on the right, which leaps towards her. The dark shadow of material against this figure's body captures the viewer's attention. Pushed down by this rectangular swathe of blackness is the figure's barely-visible left leg. The leg is cut short by the edge of the image, forcing the viewer to find a new focal point, like the embossed cluster of figures which march out from another image at the bottom right of the panel.

Where the figures in the other images seem ambiguous in terms of their position in either the viewer's space or that of the black background, the commotion of people in this image stride forth towards the viewer, refusing to be pulled back into the timeless black sky behind them. Their outstretched arms and stamping feet command the eye leftwards. In contrast, the light cautious sketch of the man in the image alongside them is hardly attention-grabbing. Thus, the viewer scans the rest of the images in the bottom row of the panel. In this row, there is a whimsical sketch of a nymph-like lady; the twirly-curly outline of another woman and at last something solid on which the eye can rest. This stability is provided by the pitch black hair of a woman who commands the centre of the image in which she stands. Her contraposto pose is rigid compared to the trembling motion in the composition of Botticelli's Minerva who is sketched in the bottom left of the panel (Michaud 2004: 79).

Bored of this right-left, up-down dance, I direct my gaze to the images that I have been saving for last; Botticelli's Primavera, in the middle of the panel, and his Birth of Venus, directly above it. All the other images in the panel seem to have been building me up for this moment. It is as if their gestures all rush in towards these two images, like a vast number of screenshots in a movie, which are depicted at the same time, coming together in what at first seems like a harmony of movement. Yet, after a moment of reflection, their perfectly captured poses react against each other, generating an up-down, left-right, centre-periphery tangle of energy.

After looking at this panel in such a close and focused manner, I take refuge in the centre of the Birth of Venus. The concave shell from which she emerges looks like it can rock me back and forth, following the motion of the carefully outlined swells of the water on which it lies. A cool gust of wind shoots from the gods' mouths on the left and it clears my mind. My eye glides down the gentle contours of Venus' body and stops to stare at the central figure in Primavera– it is Venus once again. By reappearing as the centre of this image, Venus subtly takes control of the whole panel. In a quick re-examination of the panel, it is clear that there is something linking all these images together. It is my sense that "this something" is the reproduction of Venus' figure over and over again, in slightly different forms, but always depicted strolling forward, with what at first seems like a calm, nonchalant air. However, soon after, in dramatic contrast, the viewer realises that this Venus, nymph-like figure is making her way through the panel with a controlled and determined sense of purpose.

For further reading on the Jewish-German Art HIstorian, Aby Warburg, who created the panel of which this ekphrastic poem* is an evocation, refer to the following sources:

  • Dillon, B. 2004. Collected Works: Aby Warburg's Mnemosyne Atlas. Frieze Magazine. Issue 80. Online. URL: Date Accessed: 2014. 02. 20.
  • Ferretti, S. 1984. Cassirer, Panofsky and Warburg: Symbol, Art And History. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Gombrich, E.H. 1986. Aby Warburg: An Intellectual Biography.boxford: Phaidon.
  • Gombrich, E.H. 1999. "Aby Warburg: His Aims and Methods: An Anniversary Lecture." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 62 (1999): 268-282.
  • Michaud, P-A. 2007. Aby Warburg– and the Image in Motion. New York: Zone Books.
  • Rampley, M. 1997. "From Symbol to Allegory: Aby Warburg's Theory of Art". The Art Bulletin. 79(1):41-55.
  • Willette, J, S.M. 2013. arthistoryunstuffed.comErwin Panofsky: Art History and Philosophy.  Online. URL: Date Accessed: 2014. 02. 23.

*Ekphrastic Poetry: a vivid evocation of a work of art; exemplified by poems such as Homer's description of the Shiled of Achilles in the Illiad, or Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts".