Ridder Thirst by Abri de Swardt explores the restorative agency and limits of queer youth, facing white supremacist denialism with an inventory of its continued effects. The exhibition, comprising new work in video, photography, sculpture, sound and performance, marks the South African artist’s first solo exhibition in Johannesburg and the launch of the Ridder Thirst 12’’ LP.
As the exhibition’s starting point, De Swardt turns to photographs of Afrikaner student couples captured at the First River in Stellenbosch in the sixties and seventies by Alice Mertens. The Namibian-German ethnographic photographer was the first tertiary tutor of the lens in South Africa and Lecturer in Photography at Stellenbosch University from the mid nineteen-sixties.
Mertens’ images capture a moment of historical incongruity, as De Swardt notes: “whereas today’s Fallist movement exposes the fallacy of the generational designation ‘Born Free’, Mertens’ white ethnography spotlights students ‘Born Just Before’ or ‘Born Into’ apartheid”. The exhibition takes its title from De Swardt’s video, Ridder Thirst (2015-2018), in which the artist fantasises the Stellenbosch river into disappearance, perceiving that “if the ocean is the space of coloniality, the river is that of settlement”. By snaking from the mouth of the First River at Macassar Beach – a former separate amenity for people classified as ‘Coloured’ under apartheid, and named after the 17th century Eastern Indonesian exile, Shaykh Yusuf of Makassar – to Stellenbosch, named after Simon van der Stel who set it aside for settler colonial burghers distancing themselves from the Dutch East India Company at the first river he encountered after Cape Town – the work takes the span of the river as marker of extreme socio-political discrepancies.
For De Swardt, these geographic tensions cannot be extracted from the shifting status of tertiary education, specifically the teaching of photography as a discursive framing of subjects. As such, the artist approaches the sites of Mertens’ images along the banks of the river, inserting motion-tracked contemporary media from Die Matie student newspaper and advertising for the aspirational clothing brand Stellies amongst others, as mediations on spatial traumas which raise questions of land ownership, and of landscape, in relation to the lens. Here the vagaries of the archival gaze is met with the insatiability of eroticism as De Swardt occupies and inverts the ‘straight’ canons of documentary photography and essay film, asking how we can unlearn historic images that seek to define us.
In his photographic series, Streams (2015-ongoing), De Swardt relocates a darkroom to a riverbank, staging differentiated technologies of queer visibility as intransigent to notions of water as ‘natural’, and photography as ‘neutral’, phenomena. De Swardt is drawn to the ‘Stop Bath’ in film processing – when images ‘stop developing’, a procedure which could be understood as the violence of fixing the fluid emergence of an image.
The Ridder Thirst 12’’ LP foregrounds listening as decolonial act. The double vinyl record includes commissions by artists, student activists, academics, musicians and writers Stephané E. Conradie, Metode en Tegniek, Athi Mongezeleli Joja, Pierre Fouché, Khanyisile Mbongwa, Rachel Collet, Abri de Swardt and Alida Eloff. As sonic forum, the record approaches collective voice with desire and disassociation, proposing an ‘unwriting’ of space.
Words Beneath Bridges, a 40-minute performance first developed and realised at The Centre for the Less Good Idea, featuring performers Quinton Manning and Danie Putter, invokes graffiti scrawled beneath overpasses and along rivers as bardic writings at, and of, the margins. De Swardt draws from text he saw in 2014 spray-painted beneath Coetzenberg Bridge at the Eersterivier in Stellenbosch – a site documented by Mertens – reading Real EYES Realize Real Lies.
Ridder Thirst will feature a programme of events devised in collaboration with Abri de Swardt.
This project is supported by The National Arts Council of South Africa.
Opening 25 April 2018, 18:30
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