Centimetre after centimetre, green, orange, and purple strips of cloth are tightly wound around the shiny, cold wire. Only the barbs pierce the cloth cladding from within again and again like clear and brutal rays. Distributed throughout the room, the coloured tangles of steel form an expansive green garden landscape from which purple and orange fields sprout here and there. Round and geometric basins ending in rust spread out amongst them like lakes on a wide, parched plain. Above them hovers the sweet and tangy fragrance of burnt imphepho. Words sound out—rhythmic, soft, muted, chirruping, clicking, and clacking—in a still-drowsy attempt to describe the nocturnal dream in isiXhosa. In Tending to the harvest of dreams, the South African artist Lungiswa Gqunta poses the question of colonialism’s continued impact thirty years after the supposed end of apartheid. How can one pick up the thread of one’s own relationship to nature, the centuries-old traditions and knowledge that lie within one but speak to one only in dreams? How can one find and carry on one’s identity, of which one was robbed bit by bit, also through land seizure?
Slowly and subtly, like the scent and effect of imphepho, the violence that comes forth from this work only on closer inspection seeps into us and stays there. The barbed wire restricts our movements and gives us a sense of what it’s like to be in a place where you could feel lighthearted if you had the right to. After centuries of colonial influence and violence, it is difficult to change these places. Two thirds of the country are still in white ownership. Ninety per cent of the wealth belongs to ten per cent of the population. In a country so rich in natural resources, the question of land is crucial and the demands for restitution ubiquitous.
The history of barbed wire began with the colonial conquest of the North American West, the prairie, and the systematic expulsion of the indigenous peoples (by way of the Homestead Act). It was during the Second Boer War that it first came into use for military purposes. The British stretched it between rapidly erected blockhouses to protect strategic points such as railway tracks and severely limit the Boers in their freedom of movement. Barbed wire also surrounded the concentration camps subsequently built for the imprisoned population. Under apartheid, it helped enforce segregation. And today it is still as typical of the South African landscape as the countless colonial gardens and parks that dot the entire country: Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Company’s Garden, Brenthurst Gardens, to name just a few. Despite its tremendously rich flora—South Africa has the greatest number of endemic plant species in the world—the Dutch and British introduced “native” plants and formed the conquered landscape according to their own tastes.
To this day, the gardens and parks are planted and cultivated primarily by Black South Africans who were prohibited from visiting them under apartheid. “They lavish their care and love on these gardens even though both are denied them in these landscapes of oppression and exploitation”, the artist observes. Hedges, walls, fences, and wires also enclose the gardens, parks, and entire landscapes of the present. “Parks, gardens, and public recreational spaces are good demonstrations of how structural segregation works. It might sound crazy, but the state of a lawn is a reliable indicator of how the people in the vicinity are treated, and how coveted the respective urban district is”, Lungiswa Gqunta comments. “If you take a look around Capetown, you find these colonial landscapes everywhere. You have the feeling of being in the wrong place, or of being watched, now in an obvious, now in an almost imperceptible manner. … That’s something I grew up with, and I don’t want to stand by and allow myself to be smothered by the legacy of apartheid, and all the things I was confronted with, and the political background of these places. With places that should feel strange and unfamiliar to me, and as if they somehow were not for me, I want to have a new and different kind of relationship. I want to assert myself in these places.”