By Tandazani Dhlakama, Assistant Curator at Zeitz MOCAA

The term, ‘radical solidarity’ is one that we at Zeitz MOCAA have ruminated over since our Executive Director and Chief Curator Koyo Kouoh used it during an online conversation earlier this year. Internally, we have deliberated, debated and dissected the meaning of this term as we imagine all the possible ways that radical solidarity could manifest itself in our work and outlook.

Many associate the term radical with extreme reform that shifts the fundamental nature of a thing, while the word solidarity brings to mind fellowship, unity and shared convictions amongst people. Bring these two words together, and you can see the potential to create affinities that can dismantle and challenge socio-political inequity. Radical solidarity is a form of coming together for mutually beneficial exchange, using progressive means for revolutionary ends.

Looking back

The African continent and its vast diaspora are certainly not novice to ideas of radical solidarity. We build on foundations laid before us, on the bedrock of radical movements such as Négritude, Civil Rights, Pan-Africanism, Anti-Apartheid and countless others that may have had very localised but still pertinent provocations.

These earlier forms of solidarity were catalysts for notable arts gatherings such as the 1956 and 1959 Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Paris and Rome; the Makerere Writers’ Conference in Uganda and the First International Congress of African Culture (ICAC) in Zimbabwe of 1962; the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar (FESMAN); the Pan-African Cultural Festival (PANAF) in Algiers in 1969; the Black Music Festival held in conjunction with the Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in 1974; the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Nigeria in 1977 and countless more.

In our daily practice, we are contributing to the continuum of critical discourse and our present time calls for radical solidarity. The global pandemic has exposed and widened existing societal disparities. We may all be in the same storm, however, we are kept afloat by different vessels. Some are in big sturdy barges, while others are clinging onto rafts, almost drowning.

Renewed debates around repatriation

With this crisis as a backdrop we have heard the intensified call for justice, restitution and healing. The deep-seated racial politics observed across the Atlantic have been felt widely. Their reverberations have triggered the beginnings of institutional reform in some instances, where museums are now thinking of ways to be more diverse and are reconsidering how to better present understated narratives. They have rightly brought to the fore debates about colonial-era memorials and monuments.

Recently, discussions around repatriation of African material culture have also intensified There is a problematic history of cultural violence associated with the ways in which African objects were stripped away from the continent. They were often looted or disappeared in unethical and dubious ways. Conversations around their return are often sadly still marred by patronising undertones questioning our ability to care for them. This is despite the mushrooming of cultural institutions across the continent. These are not new debates, they are merely recurring appeals for acknowledgment and correction of historical transgressions that have been presented since the time of the above-mentioned festivals. Today’s discussions around identity and culture should encourage those working on the continent to continue the inquisition of our own regimes, especially those that mimic, reflect and reference old discriminatory infrastructure.

How do we engage with uncomfortable histories?

Solidarity requires sensitivity and institutional humility. This means that as we witness what is happening around us, we must also make room for organisational introspection. How does one engage with uncomfortable histories, particularly those that indirectly implicate? This is a question many of us have pondered as we navigated around our beautiful multi-award winning Zeitz MOCAA building that we are all very proud of. We are confronted with the knowledge that its original grain silo structure was built by prisoners, essentially de-facto enslaved peoples, almost one hundred years ago. Furthermore, it was black labour from oppressive Southern African states that upraised an agricultural economy made to benefit others as far as Europe.This former grain silo is embedded in a complex historical socio-political dynamic that is the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, South Africa.

Radical solidarity requires us to move away from the convenience of sanitised presentations of history to offer more balanced, and occasionally more complicated narratives. We endeavour to reflect this in our interpretive materials such as audio-tours, didactics and programming.

Solidarity can also mean connecting with those who have similar missions for the development of the arts in Africa. As a result, when Zeitz MOCAA had to shut its doors in March 2020, we immediately opened up dialogue with colleagues who have in different ways significantly contributed to the arts in Africa and beyond.

Diverse voices for thought-provoking perspectives

One such discursive platform is the ‘Head to Head’ discussion series on Instagram Live. We have had the great honour of conversing with colleagues and institutions from Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Togo, Morocco, Zimbabwe and several at home in South Africa. So far in this series alone, each conversation has involved a live and diverse international audience. It has made room for rich knowledge exchange and the continuation of discussions around care, healing, race, justice, identity, waiting, advocacy and the ability to continuously reinvent oneself on the continent.

We would like to delve further into the idea of solidarity and hear from diverse voices that can offer thought provoking perspectives. Hence, we are particularly looking forward to our upcoming week-long online Radical Solidarity Summit. We have an excellent lineup of speakers from around the world who will offer diverse perspectives on solidarity.

In thinking about the meaning of radical solidarity, I am thankful that art and artists continue to offer us ways of rethinking understated stories in profound ways. Our upcoming solo exhibitions by Senzeni Marasela, Alfredo Jaar and Tracey Rose (slated for 2021) will open dialogue around memory, history, power, blackness, femininity and justice. They will give us unconventional methods of making meaning and continuing important dialogue, by creating work that speaks to the essence of who we are and how we can make the world a different place.