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Author: Evan Mwangi
Title: Painted Metaphors: The Use of Visual Arts in Contemporary African Novels
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Source: Painted Metaphors: The Use of Visual Arts in Contemporary African Novels
Evan Mwangi

vol. 3, no. 1, 2006

Painted Metaphors: The Use of Visual Arts in Contemporary African Novels

Evan Mwangi

A notable trope in emerging African narratives is the visual artistic media as a figural terrain on which desire is expressed, hegemonic practices contested, and identities renegotiated. Although the visual artistic expressions are sometimes portrayed as not terribly interesting or intellectually valuable objects if viewed from certain dogmatic positions, the novels point to the importance of art and its interpretation in indicating why African arts, their creators, and consumers should be seen as constitutive subjects, rather than objects of anthropological colonial gaze. Evoking the pre-colonial cave paintings in various parts of Africa, some contemporary novels attempt to reinstate traditional values facing the threat of erasure by modern lifestyles and a cynical tourism industry. This is without privileging closure from modernity, which the novels seem to view as necessary to free society from certain forms of feudalistic hegemony. What follows in this paper is a preliminary survey of the trope of visual arts as employed in contemporary African novels. Considering the works of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Zakes Mda, Nadine Gordimer, Ben Okri, Bessie Head, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Yvonne Vera, and Nuruddin Farah, I offer a description of how contemporary African novels refer to visual arts as cultural codes to signal the individual novels' desire to be read as modern pieces of art with intractable links both to the African past and to global aesthetics. Despite a tremendous temptation to focus on a few novels to allow me engage with various interesting philosophical formulations on art, colonialism, and nationalism, I've opted to describe different novels in a brief span as an attempt to come to terms with the proliferation of contemporary African novels that utilize visual arts as a technique and theme in their presentation of the postcolonial condition. Using W.J.T. Mitchell's ideas on ekphrasis and otherness, Roland Barthes's interrogation of visual cultures, and some of Frantz Fanon's and Ann Laura Ann Stoler's views about the colonial and postcolonial situation, I tender a reading of the African novels' fictionalization of visual representation as a means of stationing the authority of artistic enterprise in the desires of marginalized and peripheral subjects to free themselves from feudalistic, masculinist, colonial, and postcolonial hegemony.

W.J.T. Mitchell argues that the very silence of a painting makes it the "other" to the vocalized description. To realize an ekphrastic moment, Mitchell notes, is to engender liminal spaces which serve as sites upon which the narrative negotiates with the object portrayed and the category addressed in the narrative. African novels have exploited ekphrastic descriptions to not only negotiate with particular paintings as intrinsic artistic objects but also blur the boundaries between where the novel comes from and the societies from which those portrayed artistic objects come. There has also been an attempt to disrupt the temporal and spatial difference between when and where the object was produced and the current conditions in African societies. Thus, despite positioning themselves in postmodern aesthetics and playful discourse of the migrant subject, most of the novels that use visual arts as a trope attempt to situate themselves in the rank and gritty conditions in Africa. A case in point is Ben Okri's In Arcadia. In this magical realist novel, Okri manages to disturb the perceived opposition between negritude and migritude art—the former being that art that celebrates the essence of Negroid communities and bemoans the fragmentation of the continent by colonial modernity, and the latter being artistic expression that lionizes the postmodern diasporic subject without any firm mooring in specific African origins.

Like Kwame Appiah's and J.M. Coetzee's novels, Okri's In Arcadia draws attention to itself because it make no direct reference to Africa and is published by a metropolitan firm in London. Further, in its form and content postmodern style is both treated as a theme and used as a technique. Thematizing the visual form as a strategy of recovering the past, the novel shows the contested and fictional nature of origins to underscore the provisional status of identity and to locate Africa within a wider global and postmodern milieu. The novel does not deal directly with Africa; instead it uses as its setting Virgil's Arcadia, a real historical site that a team of six characters visit to come up with a TV program aimed at capturing humanity's lost innocence. Though itself an intensely self-conscious narrative, the novel playfully links the "self conscious" with "strange, phoney?greedy, egoistical, and childish people" (19). Its skepticism towards self-consciousness and playfulness is itself a playful exercise in the sense that the novel proceeds to demonstrate the productive ways in which self-awareness, especially in visual forms, can be used to help the world achieve a semblance of harmony. Dreamily theorizing the nature and function of painting, the novel's first person narrator seems to have no words to describe the enchantment of visual representation that he presents to the readers unmediated through the contemplative gaze of one the characters. He utters a series of abstract authorial ruminations whose coherence is secured only by repetition of the word "painting" to express the subject matter. Removed from the narrative, and presenting the section in third person like somebody viewing a painting from a distance yet drawn into the puzzling life of art, the narrator expresses the poetry and mystery of painting as a mode of self-presentation and self-inquiry: "Painting is the tentative deciphering of destiny, the visual haiku of human history, musing of life deep in dimensions. Painting is the illusion impacting on the real, becoming the real, insisting on its ability to be the real than which has vanished" (188). The poetic language with which Okri's narrator paints Arcadia, to which the novel's characters have traveled, expresses the wish to capture even the mythical in concrete language.

In the same breath, In Arcadia articulates in philosophical authorial statements, its open support for the global underprivileged:

The homeless all across the globe. Tribal peoples deprived of their land. Invisible imperialism spreading the cancer all over the earth. Diseases ravaging unloved millions. Poverty multiplying like bacilli?Human freedoms eroded by giant powers. Injustices and inequalities raging across the globe, but concentrated in the vast continents that are also the poorest and most exploited. (219)

In speaking for the global south, the novel counters the hegemonic desires of the metropolitan centre through the use of fragmentary and hallucinatory narrative, using myths and settings of western culture to give voice to societies that culture has suppressed. It recognizes the west as not a continuous single whole but fragmented and multiple; some of the western artistic creations can be used for liberatory purposes in other parts of the globe. In the novel, the primitive and distant past symbolized by Arcadia and the technologized global present are brought together to lend support to the cause against deprivation. In showing the West as possessing a primitive past that it wants to recover using postmodern techniques, the novel subtly disrupts the racist Eurocentric notions of the global south as primitive.

A similar strategy is used in other African novels that use the power of visual arts to support the underprivileged in the society. While the visual arts trope is much more pronounced in the metafictional novels of the 1980's onward, especially fiction of the 1990's such as Ben Okri's In Arcadia, earlier realist novels try to shore up an illusion of actuality and authenticity by graphically reproducing the phenomena presented as a photograph in words. For example, the opening paragraphs in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (1958) and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The River Between (1965) are attempts at photographic verbal representations of the society, in which actions and topographies are described with an intense attempt at reproducing them on the printed page as verbal pictures. In Ngugi's novel, the verbally painted ridges of Kameno and Makuyu facing off each other foreshadow the deep conflict between Christianity and traditional practices in the central Kenya of the 1920s and 1930s. He invokes a real hub of Christian missionary work in Kenya, Makuyu, and portrays it in opposition with a fictional place called Kameno to create a realistic picture of the tension in Kenya at the time it became a British colony. While undermining the extra-textual existence of Makuyu (in Murang'a) by a talking about Murang'a as a different place, Ngugi manages to fictionalize history and present a real place as fiction by presenting the two ridges—one real, the other fictional—in graphic visual terms as opposed categories. In Achebe's classic, the conviviality attending the graphically presented wrestling match between Okonkwo and Amalize the cat contrasts with the brutality of the contestation between Umuofia and European colonialists.

Realist novels like Ngugi's Petals of Blood (1977) contain ekphrastic moments in which painting and sketching are discussed as sites upon which subjectivity and desire are inscribed. In this novel about disillusionment with the post-independence situation in Kenya, Wanja, a prostitute and barmaid symbolizing the abused state of the nation, is presented as a playful artist who at one point accepts Munira's advances with a "playful gratitude" (32), revealing herself as a performer who takes delight in being fought over by men. Through this artist-prostitute, Ngugi stages the disillusionment in post-independence leadership that Fanon precocious anticipates in The Wretched of the Earth. For Fanon, the post-independence African elites are to betray the very values for which they ostensibly fought when seeking to dislodge colonialists from power in Africa. The conditions in post-independence nations in Africa would be the same as in colonialism, if not worse, because of the crude exploitative tendencies of the new leadership. Through Wanja's art, Ngugi expresses the dilapidated state of the nation. Although most of her sketches are not fully described, it is suggested that they are non-representational and they provoke debates on account of their ambiguity and multiple possible interpretations. At one point, there is mention of "little sketches of men" that some children in the drought-stricken village try to interpret. Driven by a desire for provision of food in times of a drought, the children end up misinterpreting Wanja's text in a misreading that brings more customers to the bar where she is serving as a waiter and has decorated with visual sketches (55). Thus, Petals of Blood, a novel rendered in representational realism, recognizes the agency of non-representational art, especially in expressing desire. People tend to interpret art subjectively to express their wishes as marginalized subjects of a failing postcolonial nation.

It is in a similar attempt to interpret a representation of a male freedom-fighter, Kimathi, as possessing breasts that the characters engage in a discussion of prioritization of the sexes in society. The novel uses this representation of Kimathi against the grain of prevailing logic to recognize women's contribution in the liberation of Africa from colonialism. The innocent misreading by the kids and the interpretive engagement with Wanjau's curving of Kimathi are productive and provide moments of comic relief in grim and tense parts of the narratives. But misreadings by an adult can be quite irritating as evinced by Munira's misinterpretation of a sketch Wanja draws to capture the dilapidated condition of peasants in the scorched village. In pursuit of a cathartic experience to vent her frustrated desires, Wanja metaphorizes in sexual terms the brutal condition in which the villagers find themselves:

One day, after a stream of invectives and careless complaints, she jumped from the counter, got an exercise book and quickly drew sketches of a group of old women raising dust as they ran from a pursuing lusty young man sun toward thin old man rain with a tiny head and legs. (75)

Wanja's sexualized visual portrayal of the drought situation is not a mere emotional purging or expression of erotic desire. The narrator has described her sexual longing, and the fact that she gives the portrait to Munira whom she desires might suggest seduction. Munira praises the peasants' resilience, but Wanja insists on a bleak interpretation of the situation she has presented. The position that comes out of the sketch and its interpretation is that art seeks to disturb the conscience of the contented. From his own misreading of the sketch, Munira realizes that he has accepted the situation as it is while Wanja wants to urge him to wake up to new possibilities. In making the artist a prostitute despite his use of prostitution as a metaphor of betrayal of nationalist ideals, Ngugi undermines obsession with fidelity to realism in art. Through Wanja as a visual artist, Ngugi reveals the possibilities of the use of modern and modernist expression to figure the degenerate state of the postcolonial nation and offer ways of interpreting the dilapidation facing the nation.

Another prominent African writer who has used the visual arts in his prose in a realistic mode, albeit for different reasons, is Somali writer Nuruddin Farah. Although published in 2003 after Farah's successful experimentation with non-representational forms in a series of novels, his Links, uses visual tropes in its reference to modern painting to contest the identity of modern Somalia as rooted in clannish claims that it sees as the cause of civil wars in the now non-functioning state. Unlike Ngugi who uses art to bemoan the prostitution of the nation to foreign capital and the consequent spiritual drought in Kenya, Farah uses the motif of visual art to suggest parallels between Africa and western nation undergoing similar crises as Somalia and to suggest possible contribution by westerners and western-based intellectuals in recuperating a shattered nation. Although the focus in Links is on the return of an English professor to his Somali homeland after twenty years in exile, a choice that would offer immense possibilities for metafictional representation, Links uses metafiction in a less pronounced manner than Farah's earlier novels, such as Maps. But the reality that Jeebleh, who received his doctorate for writing a book on Dante's Inferno and refers to Russian symbolist Osip Mandelstam, encounters in the war-torn country is a surreal Dantean hell which shocks all the more because it is not a piece of existentialist fiction for an intellectual to write an academic treatise on; it is the concrete reality in a city taken over by terror groups that he is in one way related to despite their current adversarial stances to each other. For Jeebleh, his homeland is "a fragmented land without a unifying theme" marked by the absence of the mythic pre-Islamic "hero worthy of being elevated to solar eminence" (40). The text's immediate background is the Somalia of the 1990's where by the time the novel came out in 2003, over 300,000 people had died in fourteen years of anarchy in inter-clan and sub-clan conflicts. In talking about the past and speculating about the future, the novel mobilizes visual art as a theme and technique. A master ironist, Farah recommends in the novel that, in its visual representations of itself in insignia and flags once it becomes a functioning state again, Somalia should use the vulture as its national symbol (65). This not only indicates the novel's recognition of visual art in representing the problematic and ironic history of the nation so intent on destroying itself that a scavenger becomes its savior but it also underlines the power of visual images in constructing and consolidating the nation, even if that nationalism is vexed.

It is no wonder then that in its examination of the connection between the past, the present, and the future, Links prefigures the prospects of the Somali society in visual terms. This is in a sepulcher for Jeebleh's mother whom he came from his adopted home in New York to re-bury. Although unbelievable to Jeebleh, the chaotic state of things in the Mogadiscio presented in the novel is neither coincidental nor accidental. When Siad Barre was overthrown in 1991 after a thirty-year divide-and-rule reign and ruthless slaughter and suppression of oppositional clans, Somalia reverted to its pre-colonial clan divisions without restoring the traditional conflict management reconfigured by the British and Italian colonialism. But Links elides the colonial roots of the conflicts, only referring occasionally to the American peace-keeping "invasion" of Somalia in 1993 that ended with eighteen Americans and two Blackhawks down. The novel describes the scene in which the body of one of the eighteen rangers killed by the militiamen is dragged through the dusty streets of Mogadiscio (66). The novel tries to reproduce the picture of the lynching as it was beamed by media outlets across the world and explains why the Somali people celebrated this brutality, blaming it on the American disrespect for the Somali cultures. This is despite the fact that the narrative itself—through the visual symbol it ends with and through Jeebleh in the whole novel—is critical of the patriarchal and parochial attitudes of the Somali communities. The novel's elision of the colonial roots of Somali anarchy is mainly to avoid what Farah has termed in "Why I Write" as "blameocracy," the practice of holding outsiders responsible for the problems in Africa without accepting the local contributions to the collapse of civility in the continent. But the novel captures through metafictional devices the divisions, whatever their roots are, in the modern Somalia and expresses the unattainability of a centralized government. The fissures in the novel, as in other work by Nuruddin Farah, are symptomatic of the deep-seated structural issues behind the current fragmentation of Somalia. The realism with which the fallen city of Mogadiscio is visually rendered is so haunting and tangled that the depiction tends toward the surreal, revealing the fluid and arbitrary nature of clan politics in Somalia. The few metafictional instances in the novel pronouncedly underline the novel's vision for a new Somalia which is linked by a terrain of humanity that transcends the chaos of clan-based war. The dreamlike moments of the novel, then, have strong allegorical dimensions that hold the novel together while simulating the fragmentation of a non-functioning state. The narrative tries to resolve all the conflicts through the sepulcher as a visual symbol of regeneration.

Despite the conviviality evoked by celebration of Jeebleh's mother's reburial and the annihilation of the hedonistic war-lord, Caloosha, the narrative is guarded in its optimism, ending with Jeebleh still hazed vision but with the expectation of comprehending more clearly the realities of his homeland. The novel mediates its optimism in a silent visual icon and the foreign origins of the artist who conceives it. The description of the sepulcher Seamus, an Irish artist, designs for Jebleeh's mother evokes the allegorical status of Jebleeh's mother as the symbol of the nation and the possibilities of her resurrection and the possible regeneration of the fragmented Somalia:

Seamus had spent much of the morning drawing his women, everyone of one of these Matisse look-alike, babies suckling at the singularly massive breasts; the women's features Madonna-like...Seamus had to be there, offering any help he could, because the illiterate mason could not work from his sketches, which he found most intimidating. (288)

Seamus is a symbol of hope not only because of his involvement in creating this artistic work that signals abundance and rebirth but also because the narrative uses him to recuperate Somali dignity beyond the hellish world that it has described so far in intense visually graphic terms. He has fled Belfast for Mogadiscio, and the novel uses him to suggest that there are places in the world that are more insecure than Somalia. The invocation of Henri Matisse's painting suggests that the future of Somali lies not in the illiterate masses or in the pre-Islamic mythic world of a hegemonic solar deity but in the educated few who are able to rise above clan politics and embrace a new humanism based on beliefs not blood ties. Yet it is the ordinary people, represented by the mason working on the piece of art, who are to realize and restore the dream of preserving Somalia, a country destroyed and mutilated by the warlords.

South African Bessie Head's Maru also uses a fairly realistic mode of discourse but use a metafictional form at various levels in its deployment of the painting trope. The novel about the discrimination of the minority Masarwa ethnic community by the Batswana majority, tells the story of Margaret Cadmore, an artist and teacher, who succeeds against all odds in a society that treats her as a second-class being because she is a woman and a Masarwa. Her paintings usher in a new era in which the sub-racial hierarchies are disrupted by her marriage to Maru, the most powerful man in Dilepe. The plot ends with indications of dissolution of the Batswana/Masarwa binary opposition although events that take place in the society at the beginning of the plot but later in the narrated world of the story suggest that this liberation is far from complete. Margaret Cadmore's interactions with Maru and other members of the community are rendered using the stream of consciousness technique that makes the narrative hallucinatory. Intersubjective communication between characters that help Margaret to create images that other characters recognize disrupt the stability of subjectivities as fixed and independent. It is through the use of paintings as metafictive devices that the novel signals the intersection of identities beyond the superficially constructed differences in a racist society.

The construction of the Masarwa woman and her relation with the other characters in Bessie Head's Maru offers readers an examination of the role of representation in building and contesting subjectivities. The Masarwa Margaret Cadmore's birth inaugurates an artistic moment as her mother dies at childbirth and her condition is rendered through a drawing by an artist who also serves as the orphaned baby's foster mother. The orphan, though ruthless taunted by children from the privileged ethnic group, grows up to be a formidable artist like her foster mother. The novel shows the difference between the two artists, privileging the subaltern orphan vis-à-vis her privileged white foster mother. The older artist's drawings are introduced to the reader as an act of "revenge" against the privileged Batswana people whom she knows would most likely assault her because of her support for the Masarwa community. The relationship is defined by definite power hierarchies. The European Margaret Cadmore is presented as a dominant person who exploits her position to represent the indignities of the local community and its unfair practices. If we take into account that her own drawings and her view of the local community is relayed to the reader in narrative segments told from her centre of consciousness, it should be clear that she is happy in her role as a victimizer of the local victimizer. She gains pleasure by tormenting the Batswana, by forcing them to treat well a community they hate. She contributes to the dismantling of local hierarchies by attempting to reverse the arrogance of the Batswana vis-à-vis the Masarwa. But, overall, she displays a similarly disturbing attitude in the way she views the Batswana - a sneering condescension toward the dominant native community.

It can be argued that the Batswana's denigration of the Masarwa only serves as Margaret Cadmore's rationalization of her abhorrence of the Batswana. This is why she sees them as "victims" of her gaze, and her representation of them is more of an insult than a celebration of any values they may have in the sense that the drawing activity "prevented her from hurling out a continuous stream of abuse at her objects of representation" (13). Her art serves as a testimony of the injustices meted out on a marginalized community because it elevates the victim of Batswana racism to the status of a goddess:

Margaret Cadmore was not the kind of woman to speculate on how any artistic observation of human suffering arouses infinite compassion. She put the notes down on her sketch pad. One sketch captured the expressions of disgust on the faces of the Batswana nurses as they washed the dead woman's body for burial. She scrawled a note under the sketch: 'These are not decent people.' (14)

In her paintings later, her foster child, also named Margaret Cadmore, is more cautious in her criticism of the community but, through the stream of consciousness device, the novel gives voice to even the thoughts that she does not verbalize. Thus although the writer uses the older Margaret Cadmore to make authorial statements about the irrationality of racism and the need to use art to combat all forms of discrimination, it is in the subaltern Margaret Cadmore where the narratorial agency is invested. The senior Margaret Cadmore is blindly optimistic, but the novel's sanguinity about the role of art to change the society completely is quite cautious. The narrative enacts a disjunction between the sujet and the fabula by hoisting its plot at a moment when most of the events narrated in the story have already taken place. This disjunction signals the blurred vision of the revolutionaries who have ended discrimination against the Masarwa community while the structures of domination by patriarchy are still in place. Margaret Cadmore's art, though not imposed on her by the dominant group which serves as her patron, is haunted by their expectation. As a marginalized subject, she is able to read the expectations of the majority and produce art that pleases them. At the same time, the art is subversive but the dominant people read it as an expression of their desires.

Later novels use the visual-art motif in a more haunting and hallucinatory style in narratives that are equally evocative of the paintings described by the narrators. If in her first novel, Lying Days, South African anti-apartheid novelist Nadine Gordimer examines the canon that created the character she represents within the conventional realistic mode, her My Son's Story is a more layered and self-conscious fictionalization of the writing and interpretive processes that employs painting metaphors to present issues of canonization and emerging identities in South Africa. The story thematizes not only the story it prioritizes in its title, but various characters' self-fashioning from books and art. Critical to Gordimer's metafictional project in the My Son's Story is the place of books, art and interpretation in the politics of apartheid South Africa. Published in 1990, towards the end of the apartheid system in 1994, the novel is an evaluation of the intervention of art in the struggle against racial injustices. The novel is remarkable not only because of its self-reflexivity but because it is the first novel in which Gordimer situates agency in non-white characters and narrators. Sonny, the implied speaker in the novel's title, is a mixed-race father who has been radicalized by the politics of apartheid South Africa. He names his son Will after William Shakespeare and expects him to be conscientious and politically engaged writer and not the clown that he fears the son might become. Greenstein aptly reads the novel to be about the "mystery of becoming a writer, and the construction of a myth of authoring" (201), a point affirmed by Gordimer in an interview with the New York Times Book Review (Graeber 20). Although it appears didactic and openly political in its view of the purpose for writing, the narrative is at odds with itself in way that seems to be poking fun at its own liberal ideas and its avoidance of more African-centered political imperatives. The idea of writing that overdetermines it meanings gives it a high sense of self-deconstructive efficacy as the novel lays bare the exigencies that force one into activist writing and how concrete social economic conditions shape the interpretation of prior art and future political and aesthetic practice.

The vexed relationship between the colored schoolteacher and his girlfriend Hannah Plowman and the symbolism of anti-apartheid struggle is brought out using the art motif. The text suggests that Hannah, in her artistic tastes, is an intellectually dubious person. At the moment of final breaking from her lawyer husband, Hannah ships everything to her husband except a mattress and the drawing by a "follower of Jackson Pollock" (88-89). Jackson Pollock (1912-56) is an American painter in the abstract expressionist movement, but it is peculiar that Hannah's painting is not by Pollock himself but by a follower, a derivation of surreal art. There is a sense of fakeness about her. The reason she gives for keeping the mattress is that the piece of bedding would grant her flexibility to sleep anywhere in the subversive struggle against apartheid. At the same time, the mattress becomes a symbol of her perverse sexuality which, although transgressive against apartheid's racialized control of the body, leaves a lot to be desired. She reads the apartheid situation in surreal libidonized terms, where her interest is more in the sexual than the political. Like the "all over the place" paintings of Pollock that are unconsciously created to have a life of their own, Hannah displays some kind of polymorphous perversity which suggests his love for Sonny is out of unconscious desire for the art-lover who turns out to be political. It is not incidental that we discover her by accident when Will meets her and Sonny at the movie theatre. For her, life under apartheid is just another movie to be enjoyed, an adventure as an activist without any specific program. She admirably sees in Sonny the psychic automatism of expressionist art, a form of spontaneous expression: "Words came flying to his tongue from the roosts of his private pleasures. When he was told he was good he laughed and said embarrassedly that he was a teacher, a public speaker in the classroom every day of his working life" (33). Her presentation could itself be a spontaneous misreading because it appears to be from Will who starts the section of the narrative about her with the question "Who is Hannah Plowman?" which he proceeds to answer through what appears as a fictional construction.

If Hannah is a connoisseur of the surreal, in which parts do not relate to the whole, Sonny, too, reads Hannah sexually in abstract libidonized way as a painting that expresses raw desire. But while Hannah dismembers social texts to conform to her surrealist schemes, Sonny organizes her into a subject with organic unity which she lacks in the real world:

The face of a woman who uses no make-up has unity with her body. Seeing Hannah's fair eyelashes catching the morning sun and the shine of the few little cat's whiskers that were revealed, in this innocent early clarity, at the upper corners of her mouth, he was seeing the whole of her; he understood why, in the reproductions of paintings he had puzzled over in the days of his self-education, Picasso represented frontally all the features of a woman - head, breasts, eyes, vagina, nose, buttocks, mouthy - as if all were always present even to the casual glance. What would he have known, without Hannah! (102)

A Freudian consideration of the latent material in Picasso's painting the novel invokes reveals a form of sexual and/or aggressive wish-fulfilling content organized according to primary process form involving condensation, displacement, and symbolization. Sonny's gaze at Hannah connotes sexual longing, underlined by phallic references to her body parts. But in this instance, Sonny organizes the crude reality of Hannah's polymorphous existence into a sublime artistic expression that could itself be a reflection of an amorous reality. Readers will note Sonny's dependence on Hannah expressed in the last sentence that is punctuated with an exclamation mark to underline Sonny's amazement. He sees her as a miracle because under apartheid, he has been conditioned to aspire to whiteness. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon's notes the "psycho-existential complex" wrought by the juxtaposition of white and black. As a mixed-race character, Sonny is an embodiment of this complex, but he chooses to pursue whiteness and the white canon. He doesn't break out of the limitations of the canon by befriending and marveling at Hannah, who seems to be impressed that in his library he has more than "Marx, Lenin, Fanon, Gandhi and Nkrumah, Mandela and Biko always to be found as a sign of political self-education" (91). She takes notice of Kafka and D.H. Lawrence who, from the context, she seems to view as writers of texts better than the confrontational polemics a black intellectual would be expected to stock in a library. For her, Sonny is admirable because he has aspired to white tastes to be a complete being. Although he has radical Afrocentric books in his study, he does not refer to them, preferring to create metaphors out of Shakespeare, Kafka and Picasso. On the other hand, Hannah seems to look down upon African theories in favor of the liberal humanist canon of western art.

While Okri, Gordimer, and Head ground their metaphors in modern modes of visual representation, Yvonne Vera in Stone Virgins, Zakes Mda's in She Plays with the Darkness, and Hanrietta Rose-Innes in The Rock Alphabet hark back to traditional visual artistic production as a repository of ethnic and gender consciousness. Here they remind us of Fanon's call for the recovery of the past that colonialism destroyed and distorted in order to rationalize domination of the African. For Fanon, for nationhood to be effective, it must be anchored in the traditions of the people without using the traditions to obscure there present conditions in postcolonial Africa. Zimbabwean Vera's Stone Virgins, a novel about women's contribution in the liberation war in Zimbabwe and their subsequent discrimination in the post-independence dispensation, uses secret drawings on the rocks of Gulati to show the oppressed community's use of folk art as a source of inspiration to fight for political self-determination. Like Fanon in Black Skin White Masks, Vera portrays the consequences of colonial violence. Although the novel does not show the violence of the British colonialism, it suggests that the Zimbabwean freedom fighters have been psychologically wounded in combat with colonial forces. They expend that violence on local communities after classical colonialism is dislodged. The novel also reveals Fanon's thesis about the post-independence elites who create internal colonies to oppress certain social categories in the new nations. However unlike Fanon, Vera, using references of visual arts, presents women as not mere victims of colonialism or passive sites upon which national desires against colonialism are enacted; women are active combatants that disrupt gender hierarchies even after independence is achieved and they have return to the villages. The novel underlines that women's participation in guarding the sovereignty of the society is not a new thing; it is a practice that predates colonial occupation and destruction of precolonial African visual cultures. Indeed, it is the drawings of women in combat that drive the women to fight colonialism and patriarchy that has silenced and mutilated them into non-beings. The description of the "stone virgins" is graphic and told from the perspective of a man in post-independence Zimbabwe, Sibaso, who has already raped and mutilated the women alongside whom he fought:

The female figures painted on this rock, the virgins, form a circle near the burial site, waiting for the ceremony of their own burial. Here, the rock is almost pure. (95)

Contending with official history that silences women's perspectives, the novel uses the faded images that the observer's imagination would have to reconstruct as a sign that history is a mosaic of reconstructed accounts from memory. Sibaso's remembrance of the stone virgins, the later-day reincarnations he has defiled, lacerated and silenced, indicates his guilt and suggests art as an avenue of repentance and conciliation. Reflecting itself in the painting of the women in the cave, the novel executes successfully an equally wondrous painting of pre-colonial, colonial and postcolonial Zimbabwe nearly totally ruined by Mugabe's dictatorship, whose regime has sanctioned nationalistic silencing of the powerless. The novel's jerky plot signals the tumult and trauma of anti-colonial violence and the equally traumatizing violence Mugabe, hell-bent to consolidate his hold on power, has visited upon Matabeleland in the first years of Zimbabwean independence in the 1980's. That the novel came out in 2003, over two decades after independence, suggests that it uses of history to comment on the present; just as the pre-colonial paintings in Gulati comment on the experiences in the colonial situation, the novel uses pre-colonial and colonial experiences to expose the compounded silence of women and express the need for women to unite in the struggle against gender-blind nationalism. The intersecting of different stories that form the novel indicates the need for oppressed minorities to seek completion in each other as do male and female characters as the narrative comes to an end.

Like Vera, South African Zakes Mda uses traditional paintings as figural sites where characters re-orient themselves with history. In She Plays with the Darkness, Mda presents the desecration of the society, a subject pursued in the equally self-reflexive and cinematic The Heart of Redness, through portrayal of folk cave paintings as entrancing as the narrative itself. They re-affirm Dikosha's belief in sticking with her traditions in the face of encroaching modernity. The paintings are presented through her gaze as a source of charismatic power:

They left a legacy of caves with wonderful paintings on the walls, and black paintings of big-buttocked people chasing deer with bows and arrows, or dancing in a trancelike state. Dikosha was spellbound by one painting especially, which showed a dancer with the body of a woman and the head of a beast...Dikosha saw herself as the monster-woman-dancer, ready to devour all the dancers of the world, imbuing herself with the strength and stamina, and then dancing for ever and ever, until the end of time. (16)

Denied education by the male-centered society, Dikosha resorts to the magic of her community, unlike her educated brother Radisene who goes to Maseru and becomes an expert heartless ambulance-chaser. He ends up losing all his property to a Nigerian conman, while Dikosha is poised, in the magical order conjured in the novel, to live eternally. Without idealizing the mountain community vis-à-vis the modernity of the lowlands, the novel intertwines customs, legends and historical events to capture the absurdities of modern Southern Africa. The polyphony of this novel derives from its alignment with traditional Sotho modes of expression that it invokes to show the past as a contested terrain and the present as a mosaic of different cultures the rich and the powerful work to destroy. Like Dikosha, the novel nourishes itself with narratives and poetry from the past to question the possibilities of social equality in a modern Southern Africa tainted with greed and self-aggrandizement. The self-reflexivity of the novel signals not despair or entrapment in a hall of mirrors, but a rejection of monolithic power structures that encourage dictatorships and unequal development of local communities. Equally textured in its portrayal of the folk visual art that Bessie Head's Maru and Mda's She Plays with the Darkness allude to is Rose-Innes's The Rock Alphabet. It is the story of the discovery of two feral children's in a cave with wall paintings in a remote Cederberg mountain cave. The researcher is dead and the kids are found with his notes. Evocative of the folk art that propels its plot, the novel draws attention to its textuality by reproducing as tourist guide comments and newspaper cuttings about the "Bushmen rock alphabet." Although it does not resolve the conflicts about the researcher's death, the novel places the agency of interpretation in the under-developed children, criticizing western tourists' attitude toward folk art as superficial.

While these novels see art as a reflection of the material world or as a source of inspiration for action in an inequitable world, Mda's Madonna of Excelsior is unique in that it is reluctant to endorse art presented from certain ideological perspectives, calling for a mode of interpretation that would problematize the images presented. It is the first major African novel to structure its themes around the idea of producing and consuming paintings and to sustain its discourse around the theme of a painter and his work. The novel, through its character Popi, is critical of the art of Father Frans Claerhout, the real-life artist that the work is dedicated to in a prefatorial statement; this indicates the narrative's subversive project to invest agency in the reader as opposed to the painter. Mda, a professional beekeeper, activist, dramatist, professor of creative writing, composer, musician, and communication-for-development theorist, creates in Madonna of Excelsior a multi-layered text in which each chapter opens with a verbal representation of either visual art as perceived in the reality represented or of reality appearing as a painting to the characters from whose perspectives the scene is narrated. This narrative technique makes the novel a hybrid text stationed between verbal and visual media. Suggested in this trope is the complex interaction between art and reality, and between experience and interpretation.

As the title of the novel suggests, Madonna of Excelsior invokes a Western and predominantly Christian tradition of representing Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ in visual media. This is a trajectory that Giulio Carlo Argan sees to have "made a long voyage whose stations certainly cannot be reduced to the interpretations which the theme has received from the great masters" because the variations are culturally and politically motivated (19). The use of the trope of the Madonna and child is an energetic deposition of western achieves to depose it and replace it with a multiplicity of African ways of telling that have been elided by apartheid. Madonna of Excelsior is a fictional rendering of a historical event in apartheid South Africa in the early 1970s in which prominent white farmers in a small farming community were arrested alongside nineteen black women (the "madonnas") for contravening the Immorality Act. Seeking to sustain racial segregation and marginalization of non-white populations through the notion of racial purity, the government enacted the law in 1927 to make sexual intercourse between whites and blacks a criminal offense. The National Party was to later pursue this policy to its logical conclusion by prohibiting interracial marriage in 1949. In 1950, the Immorality Act was amended to make the already illicit sex between whites and Colored criminal. Laura Ann Stoler has felicitously explained the threat to white supremacy that miscegenation was in colonized regions. In "Sexual Affronts and Racial Frontiers" Stoler observes that the interracial subject is, to the colonizer, a potential source of subversion and "an embodiment of European degradation" (199). Though theorizing Asia, Stoler's argument is applicable in Africa where the colonial government had to control the populations from mixing across racial lines. In South Africa, the racist regime fears the contamination of whiteness and creates what Stoler, following Etienne Balibar, calls an 'internal frontier' in which racial categories within the same nation have to be kept apart to ensure that white nationalistic essence is secured in place. Although ordinarily it is transgressive non-white males who have to be put at bay to ensure the pure white women are not contaminated with sexual impurities of another race, we see in the South African case aggressive white males breaking from the 'internal frontiers' and undermining the very regime that privileges them both as male and white. In Madonna of Excelsior, as in the real-life event represented, the state produces the mixed-race children as proof of contravention of racial rules and to shame the whitemen for the indiscipline of sleeping with supposedly inferior black women. The fictional miner's wife Niki (the Madonna of Excelsior) is one of the nineteen women brought to book for having sex with a white man Stephanus Cronje who commits suicide to avoid the looming scandal. Popi, whose consciousness largely frames the story years later as the country enters a post-apartheid order, is the product of Niki's sexual encounter with Stephanus Cronje. Unaware that Niki was raped by the white man but conceals the details from her husband Pule to protect him from impulsively taking the law in his hand and getting shot by the all-powerful white farmer, Pule abandons his wife Niki and escapes to religion. Their son Viliki suffers paternal abandonment, while Niki is internally scarred by the trauma of rape.

Popi, the child of miscegenation is the equivalent of the Métissage, the interracial figure that Stoler observes to be recurrent in postcolonial nationalism. But Popi is not only a threat to white supremacy, she is seen as aberrant by the black community that would prefer racial purity, no contamination with whiteness. As a child, Popi is the butt of ridicule because she is neither white nor black in a segregated township. When Popi overcomes her marginalization, she becomes the centre of consciousness through which the narrative is framed. Her activities such as attendance of funerals of victims of the HIV/Aids scourge are preceded by descriptions of paintings depicting a similar theme - in this instance coffins. Although it uses an omniscient narrator, the novel indicates that its actions are sifted to the reader through Popi's memory. She comments intensely on the prevailing conditions in post-apartheid South Africa as she studies the paintings of her and her mother (as Madonna and child) and other works by Father Frans Martin Claerhout. The painter, already retired by the time Popi's narrative begins, is playfully called "the trinity" because he is a priest, a painter, and human being. The fact that the framing of the story by Popi happens decades after 1971, after apartheid which ended in 1995 is over, the story can be read as a commentary on the anxieties of post-apartheid South Africa. Integrating visual commentaries on apartheid, the novel uses humor, flashbacks, memory, and self-preferentiality to indict both apartheid's irrational laws and the nepotism and corruption creeping out of the woods in the post-apartheid state.

To highlight the interpretation of a new nation, Mda deploys modes of interpreting art as the dominant trope in the narrative. Popi's interpretation and misinterpretation of Father Frans Claerhout's drawings form her understanding of the society as it evolves from apartheid. It is the political implications of this hermeneutics that we seek to illuminate in this discussion of the novel. The paintings represented verbally in Madonna of Excelsior are embodiments of the silent "otherness" noted by Mitchell as the characteristic of visual representation. But Mda goes beyond this by giving them some agency as works by a privileged white male priest whom the narrative calls "trinity" to underline his authority as some sort of a powerful God. The otherness is transferred to the silent people whom the "painter-God" creates into artistic objects - the marginalized women who pose nude for the priest to earn a living. The ultimate otherness is found in the child, who unlike the mother who consciously poses for the painter is unaware of her commoditization by her mother and the priest. Popi's otherness is underlined by her critique of the paintings as unrealistic because of their portrayal of skewed subjects; she is not aware that in their deviation from prevailing realism, the paintings are expressive of the absurdities that govern her society.

The novel underlines that the reading of the painting at present time is by Popi, one of the most silent objects of Father Frans Claerhot's paintings who later gains agency to interpret the paintings for the community:

Popi tells us that it all began when the trinity was nourished by Flemish expressionists. Theirs were ordinary subjects: sympathetic men and women living ordinary lives and performing ordinary rituals. Popi knows all these things, and shares them with all those who care to listen. We suspect that there are many other things that she knows, but keeps to herself. And there are others that she has decided not to remember. (5)

The novel uses the collective narrative voice "we" to ground the agency of interpretation in Popi. She is given a level of omniscience similar to the narrative's own authority through the collective narrator's claim that Popi knows more than she registers in her statements as a kid. However, unlike earlier postcolonial novels like, say, Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood,Madonna of Excelsior does not invest authority in the collectivity of speaking voices. The narrative indicates distance from its own collective teller when the communal "we" criticizes Niki for not participating in nepotism when her children gain power after the collapse of apartheid and when the collective "we" regales the reader with the tricks they use to take advantage of Viki and get her honey for free (229).

It is Roland Barthes who, proclaiming the death of the author and ways of reading that would encourage rigid interpretations, reminds us that a text does not transmit a single intended meaning. It subverts itself through a multiplicity of contesting meanings:

We know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single 'theological' meaning (the "message of the Author-God") but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture. (146)

If for Barthes in "The Photographic Message" a graphic representation is more of a "message without a code" because it expresses reality in a way that is analogical but that nevertheless has connotative meanings (16), a creative enterprise like painting engenders reinscription of reality in ways that are even more socially fraught. The "trinity" who creates the paintings that Popi reads is suggested to be "dead"— at least in Barthesian terms — because his interpretations of apartheid and the motivations behind the representations do not yield a single meaning that we can take to be the gospel truth. Popi's reading is subversive in the sense that she complicates the priest's portrayal of humanity. As a child, she thought the priest was unrealistic in his artistic production. Later, he notes that he participates in the dominant ideologies that structure experience. There is an element of masculinism in his paintings because, according to the narrative as relayed to us from Popi's perspective, "even the trinity's was a clearly male gaze. We do not forget that one of his threeness is a man" (13). The portrayals of the African women and their children, then, are not neutral but are conterminous with the gender of the artist. Mitchell that in ekphrastic moments, there is a sense of gendered exploitation with overtones of "pornographic writing and masturbatory fantasy" Popi seizes the male art, which tends toward the pornographic, to critique its representation of volatile subject positions in a South Africa in transition.

The authority invested in the marginalized is far from absolute. Although largely told using Popi's agency, the novel embraces omniscience at moments when Popi would not know what is happening to her. A case in point is when her mother treats her like an object of art that needs painting to erase the child's mixed ancestry. Still, the incident could be a reconstruction from Popi's memory as an adult who has experienced the art produced at the time she was born. Absurdly, Niki thinks she can obscure Popi's mixed identity by holding her above an intensely smoky fire. The narrator depicts with searing irony the mother's naive attempts of "smoking the pinkness out of her" (66). To enhance the irony, the narrator presents the purpose of the act through Niki's perspective:

Both heat and smoke would surely brown her and no one would say she was a light-skinned again. The baby whooped, then yelled, as the heat of the brazier roasted her little body and the smoke stung her eyes and nostrils. Cow-dung smoke is gentle in reasonable doses. But this was an overdose. There was so much that it made even Niki's eyes stream. She assured the baby that it was for her own good. She sang a lullaby as she swung her over the fire. Rocking her from side to side. Turning her round and round so that she would be browned on all sides. Evenly. " (66)

Yet it is Niki who raises doubts whether scientific exams carried out by a doctor from Bloemfontein "to confirm that the blood [of the babies] was indeed mixed" as she wonders "how it was possible for the doctors to tell if the blood was mixed or not. Mixed with what? Was it not all red?" (64). This moment offers readers an opening to reexamine the notions of essentialist and constructed realities. The apartheid regime has created its own criteria that it claims to be science to punish and discipline those who transgress apartheid laws. The novel claims agency for the naïve woman who wants to "paint" her child black by using her to dismantle apartheid claims to scientificity. The narrative indicates that race is a social construction when through Niki it observes that all blood is red, unmixed. Indeed, the more Niki tries to erase Popi's whiteness, the more it becomes manifest. Her failure to "paint" her child into a different color, points to the narrative's celebration of strategic essentialism, where racial markers need not be changed to suit an irrational political practice.

Popi reads a postcard painting by Father Frans Claerhout with a subversive gaze. In the reading she the postcard, drawn by done Father Frans Claerhout portraying "Mother Mary with brown Baby Jesus" at a crossroads (226), the text presents a parallel between Popi and Christ; for she is the child in the most prominent of the Madonna-and-child paintings by the trinity, and she is currently experiencing the deepest dilemma in her life. As a mixed-race South African, Popi is unaccepted by the black ruling elites who now think her not black enough although she fought together with them against the apartheid regime which thought her not white enough. The messiah is given a brown body to signify his relocation from foreign and mystical mythology to the gritty reality of the South African situation. It is people like Popi, who have been marginalized by both apartheid and the post-apartheid regimes, who would be the saviors of the new republic. Significantly, Popi reads the picture as a distortion and harps on the misspelling of the painter's name:

Popi read the bottom of the postcard and laughed. She had never noticed before that they had misspelt the trinity's name. They had added an extra u, which served him right, as he had mastered the art of distorting everything. ?It was poetic justice that the printer had distorted his name too. A man who could be possessed by such beautiful madness that he placed road signs in the middle of a sunflower field deserved to have his name distorted. (226-27)

As male and white, the trinity is largely seen in the society as a figure of incontestable authority. Thus, when Popi gives his painting a subversive gaze, she is claiming some of the authority from traditional symbols of power. Ironically, in its misinterpretation of reality as Popi knows it that the postcard presents a more profoundly real South African situation. The sunflower field in the postcard painting is the site upon which miscegenation first took place in the narrative. The scene is symbolically reproduced throughout the narrative to underline its significance in the current politics; for it is in this field that not only the gestures of protest started, but its products are the victims of post-apartheid discrimination. The misspelling of the painter's name indicates a displacement of his own power to give agency to the marginalized voices like Popi's. But although much of the agency in the story is invested in Popi, it is suggested that she cannot get absolute power that would transform her into a dictatorship like the white apartheid or the black post-apartheid regimes.

Towards the end of the story, the painter is transformed and undermines the authority of the great masters:

She had tired hard to identify the Flemish expressionist influence that she had read about in the oversized books in the library. The trinity had clearly strayed away from that early influence. All for the better. His work had the robustness that escaped the Flemish expressionists. (236)

Coming at the end of the narrative, the observation is significant in transferring the power of ultimate healing from art to cosmological experience. Prior to this description, Popi is described ekphrastically from the image of herself that she sees in the mirror: "She enjoyed her own beauty and celebrated it" (266). Suggested in this depiction is that the therapeutic power of art derives from self-worth and self-determination. Niki, the bee-keeper, and her daughter Popi reject the nepotism, greed, and corruption that their friends and family have reduced themselves to; instead, they live a humble life. Niki is no longer the Madonna, but the Bee Woman, the name that the collective narrator uses as the narrative nears its close. While the use of foreign modes of representation can be transformed to articulate the conditions of post-independence Africa, the full transformative power comes from the people naming themselves and rejecting the corrupting lucre they might be invited to. Thus Popi transformation from a self-hating colored girl to a self-determined post-apartheid South African in the 21st century derives from her association with her humble mother and the collectivity of the bees that protect her. Thus, creative self-determination is not by a painter-God (trinity) but by the masses of the new South Africa.

To sum up, this discussion shows that the trope of visual arts is gaining increased prominence in contemporary African novel but it is in the novels of the 1990s and after that the artists employ the trope to signal the text's awareness of their own textuality as works of art. In the novels by Mda, Vera, Head, and Rose-Innes's, the subjectivities of Africa's traditional orate and visual cultures which did not have the facility of modern writing are reinscribed through meticulous evocation of traditional folk art which the texts proceed to simulate in their self-reflexive strokes that draw attention to the individual text's own textuality. Some contemporary novelists such as Ben Okri and Nuruddin Farah refer to modern visual art to underline their belief in subjectivities in motion as opposed to a return to a past that has bred its own types of unfair distribution of power. In most of the works that use this trope, visual art and its interpretation are seen as a mode of struggle against dominant monolithic power structures.

About the Author

Evan Mwangi is a Professor in the English Department of Northwestern University.

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