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I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Haroon Gunn-Salie’s piece at the New Museum since seeing it at Monday’s preview. It’s part of the museum’s Triennial. Titled Songs for Sabotage, the group exhibition looks at how young artists around the world use their art respond to issues of social and political importance – how for them, art is not just something to be looked at, but something urging engagement of some kind. Haroon is from South Africa, and so naturally I was drawn most to his work. But I would’ve been anyway, I think, even if I wasn’t from the same country.
When you enter the 3rd floor of the New Museum, you are immediately met with 17 black figures on their haunches, headless. They are arranged in a kind of “V” formation and their shapes cast shadows on the ground. Overhead, sounds play on an audio track. If you listen carefully, you start to hear people talking, then mournful singing. Then bullets, then police sirens.
This audio track is taken from archival footage of the day 34 mineworkers were shot and killed by police in what has become known as the Marikana massacre. The strike that happened at the Lonmin mine is a mark on South Africa’s democracy that has yet to be wiped away. It happened in 2012 and yet its reverberations are still being felt, all this time later. For those of us watching from afar, it was something we couldn’t believe had happened, and it was even harder to try understand from outside the country. But, from what I had read and heard from journalist colleagues, it was still hard to understand even from inside the country.
I’ve watched and reported on the Emmy-winning documentary, Miners Shot Down, which lays blame at those behind the scenes who fanned the strike and misunderstanding instead of communication and proper negotiation. But this art speaks to something else – it brought me to an almost unspeakable deep mourning for the lives lost. And the democracy lost. Speaking to Haroon afterwards about the piece, I felt the tears well up as I listened to him talk about his research, and how he based the piece on archival footage. It really is something to behold, and reflect upon.
You can read my story for the Mail & Guardian here.