© 2005 by Elfriede Dreyer

Nomad bodies

Wintertiuin Galery, Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp

30 January - 7 February 2014. Download the catalogue

Curatorial preface to the catalogue

E Dreyer

Already in 1987 Deleuze and Guattari coined the idea of rhizomatic being, stating that the “rhizome itself assumes many diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretion in bulbs and tubers”.[1]  The metaphor of the rhizome is of particular interest to an engagement with nomadic identity in the context of a continent such as Africa. Rooted in an immoderate environment of exotic broiling and blistering cold extremes, as well as spectacular natural sights, contemporary African artists nevertheless generally reside in sprawling multicultural, cosmopolitan cities where gallery and industry networks are in proximity. Those in the rural remote parts of Africa make it their business to connect through digital and social media in order to stay connected, current and noticed.

Living on a vast continent, Africans are accustomed to long journeys; however, poverty, violence, civil wars, imperial infiltrations and oppression have resulted in a generalised nomadic condition where people are constantly moving and travelling in the search for a better life and even survival. In a wider sense, globally, Rosi Braidotti[2] states that the nomadic predicament and its multiple contradictions have come to age in the third millennium after years of debate on the “’nonunitary’ – split, in process, knotted, rhizomatic, transitional, nomadic – so that fragmentation, complexity and multiplicity have become everyday terms in critical theory.” Since the 1990s she has been engaged with the question as to what the political and ethical conditions of nomadic subjectivity are, grounded in a “politically invested cartography of the present condition of mobility in a globalized world.”[3]

South Africa has experienced turbulent histories over the last two centuries and nomadic movement was brought on by volatile and turbulent histories of a colonial, postcolonial and global kind, leading to political and social displacement and consequently hybrid identities. Having been a British as well as a Dutch colony, South Africa has since 1652 shown cultural patterns of movement in and out of the country, and from place to place. The country is also extraordinarily rich in mineral resources and gold, for instance, which has brought about massive wealth, but also instability. Johannesburg was established in 1886, due to the so-called gold rush, with fortune seekers and diggers flooding from all over the world to the country. Since then the gold mines have attracted an influx of locals as workers, which contributed to much nomadism, but ironically - especially since 1948 during apartheid - such mine workers were allowed to work underground but once aboveground they had to return to townships outside the large city. During apartheid non-whites or ‘people of colour’ were viewed as not belonging and were removed from the city; forcibly established in townships outside the city; only allowed as workers into the city; and had to carry passbooks (identity documents) on them all the time. Such marginalisation has been a cornerstone of the still presiding nomadism. Since 1994 and the end of apartheid there has been a immense influx of people from all over the African continent to South Africa in search of greener pastures. Yet, whereas during apartheid many intellectuals and people of colour emigrated from the country for political reasons (being ostracised and made to feel inferior), over the past two decades there has been an outflux of people due to a strong degree of political uncertainty and actions of political redress in the post-apartheid constitution, or to experiences of ‘not belonging’ to the new political dispensation.

Zygmunt Bauman[4] views the ontologies of identity as becoming critical when, through nomadic conditions, there is uncertainty as to where one belongs. Aligned with the idea of the flâneur, Bauman appropriates the stereotype of the pilgrim who as a stroller is on a teleological journey – ordered, determined and predictable.[5] Comparing the contemporary world to a desert through its fragmentation, Bauman views it as being inhospitable to the notion of the pilgrim, being unable to leave a footprint in the sand. The forward march of the pilgrim is equally compromised and in the context of the wind effacing footprints and the rhythmical similarity of the desert environment, the pilgrim goes in circles.[6] “The overall result is the fragmentation of time in episodes, each one cut from its past and from its future, each one self-enclosed and self-contained. Time is no longer a river, but a collection of ponds and pools.”[7]

In large cities in South Africa, including Pretoria[8] and the greater Tshwane, those in power continue to monumentalise their visions of the past and an envisioned future. Representations thereof in Tshwane include, for instance, Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument; and Church Square and the Union Buildings, representing legal and administrative seats of power. Here, as in many other cities and countries, marginalised groups contest such spaces and construct alternative meanings around them. As Joe Austin[9] argues, since the early twentieth-century turn towards the everyday, there has been an adjustment and focus of the analytic lens to look at the mundane experiences within urban walls and streets, including aesthetic experiences, and cultural artefacts have since dealt extensively with this local urban place-scale in response to the human-scaled city experience.

The exhibition Nomad bodies forms part of ‘Capital Cities’, an institutional research theme of the University of Pretoria, as well as part of a faculty research theme, ‘Visual Technologies: Critical Encounters’, both funded by the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. ‘Capital Cities’ explores cultural and artistic mappings of the social and political power geographies and complexes that dominate cities. A main research question is how urban culture can be voiced, claimed, negotiated and contested, especially in the context of capital cities as locations where there is a conflation of global and local influences. Mendieta[10] argues that cities have become the “vortex of the convergence of the processes of globalization and localization … [and] epitomes of glocalization, to use Robertson’s language (1994)”; and that the “city is the site at which the forces of the local and the global meet: the site where the forces of transnational, finance capital, and the local labour markets and national infra-structures enter into conflict and contestation over the city.”

The exhibition includes the work of twelve South African artists, the majority associated as lecturers or postgraduate students with the University of Pretoria. The curatorial aim of the exhibition is to present current African urban identity as characterised by cultural patterns and transitivity. Meta-narratives embedded in the work on exhibition include how people construct their identities psycho-geographically and how this has become evident in cultural and arts production; the city as site of change; utopian construction and world making; the continuities and discontinuities between apartheid and post-apartheid culture (evident in Senzeni Marasela’s work); the ontologies and contextualities of art production, performance and curatorial practice within the context of urban studies of capital cities; and the city as a space of cultural consumption, exchange and intervention (prominent in Simon Rush’s work). Especially the phenomenology of intermedial production in the urban context driven by technological, political and economic developments is illuminated, reconfiguring three formerly separated cultural domains — established in the nineteenth century — of the arts, politics and science, especially philosophy.[11] 

A strong focus in the exhibition is an engagement with the idea of the urban walker, the Benjaminian flâneur, historically traced in Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century male stroller in the city. Utilising Google and commercial maps of the Antwerp, Titus Matiyane presents an eight-metre long panorama of the city. The artist has never visited Antwerp and acts as a virtual ‘arm chair’ nomad that transcends international boundaries through the creation of imagined space and place. Becoming a global traveller and flâneur, the artist simulates a subjective impression of the city, which he totally believes in. The Baumanian distinction between the ‘pilgrim’ and the ‘tourist’ as human conditions become clear here as the boundaries between the real and the virtual dissolve in the traveller capacity. The act of picking places and destinations, and superficially and glancingly ‘visiting’ them reminds of Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacrum and the disappearance or disposition of the real.

Ismail Farouk’s video production traces his research on and conceptual interpretation of urban trolley pushers in Johannesburg. In this work the Baumanian idea of the teleological pilgrim is at play. The trolley pushers - refugees or jobless migrants that are working on the fringe of political and economic structures - are provided with stolen trolleys by gangsters and survive this way by delivering a service of transporting goods by foot through the city for customers or transporting goods salvaged from rubbish bins and elsewhere for recycling. They have a clear purpose: even if it is subsistence. Within a context of postmodern subjectivities, distinction should be made between the fragmented, multidimensional life of the nomad caught up in the buzz and speed of global societies as a human condition, nomadic by choice, and ‘disposable’ bodies such as the trolley pushers as ‘waste products’ of global conditions, thus becoming victims (or survivors) usually through lack of fiscal potency. Caught up in the very concrete conditions of advanced globalised societies, Braidotti [12] argues that the “disposable” bodies of “women, youth, and others who are racialized or marked off by age, gender, sexuality, and income, reduced by marginality, come to be inscribed with particular violence” in the regime of such powers. Dispossession of the embodied and embedded self takes place in this context so that the global city and the refugee camp become sides of the same coin.[13]  Braidotti[14] argues that “The contrast between an ideology of free mobility and the reality of disposable others brings out the schizophrenic character of advanced capitalism”, which is nowhere more visible than in the political and social extremities in South Africa. Nomadic identity is characterised by a sense of loss and disappearance through the volatile self where entities are continually left behind or abandoned. This condition is manifest in the works of Diane Victor, for instance, in her use of volatile media, as well as in the performance of Johan Thom, where ideas, systems, bodies even, are depicted as expendable.

Daandrey Steyn’s writhing, morphing bodies in his video production as well as Sikho Siyotula’s drawings assert the fundamental ontologies of humanly occupied space, namely that “objectification, detachment, and distancing, however, are but one existential dimension of consciousness, the basis for only a minimal definition of being”.[15] Exposed and vulnerable, Steyn’s embodied forms suggest engagement and intimate contact between several bodies, expressing the idea that meaning is created through the crossing of space and distance between bodies, or as Soja[16] argues, “To be human is not only to create distances but to attempt to cross them, to transform primal distance through intentionality, emotion, involvement, attachment.” Similarly, Siyotula’s work references the matrixial space of the body by alluding to the geometric vein system of caul fat, the membrane that protects the digestive system, thus metaphorically examining heterotopic cultural systems. Yet her own enclosed strong cultural traditions, which the caul fat refers to, is not possible without the distancing and the overcoming of detachment, since identity is established through existence in the world and interface with alterity.

Often, it is such sense of alterity or the attraction to the exotic other that produces nomadism. Jayna Mistry’s photographic works narrates identity in which boundaries are unclear. In her artist’s statement she says, “There is a thrill of the unfamiliar, of exotic ‘others’ and ‘alien’ exotics”. Being a South African native, Indian by birth, her academic education has been mainly Western. Her portraits present the female as well as Indian culture in the city as an exotic commodity; as inviting the male gaze by deliberately posing in seductive way, thus corroborating the elements of entertainment and mystery pertaining to flânerie. Her work shows the influence of old pin-up, new Bollywood, Gujarati folk traditions, Disney animation songs, and texts on love such as the Geet Govind. Similarly Angolan artist Joao Ladeira depicts alterity as foreignness and outsiderism, now and again erupting as xenophobia.

The transience embedded in all the works on exhibition includes that of Robert Hamblin, whose work engenders transgenderism. His photographies are of transgender sex workers in Cape Town, most poverty-stricken and HIV positive, thus falling into the category of  ‘disposable’ bodies. Being once again a heterotopic group, a third-culture, these individuals live and work – venture – on the margins of society; they are often harassed, raped and ridiculed, only to flee back to the safety of their fraternity within the larger social system. The figures are unclothed, but hide their nudity from the onlooker’s gaze. Nudity in this context is far removed from the colonial, westernised view on nude Africans, described by Benjamin Talton[17] as follows: “Within European discourses on African cultural characteristics, African women were ‘silent icons of the primitive – the ultimate “others”’. Left largely undefined by Europeans obsessed with categorising people and places, African women became the epitome of Africa’s ‘darkness’. … Public ‘nudity’ was [considered as] symptomatic of a general lack of moral restraint among Africans; an outgrowth of their unbridled sexuality, and a testament to their need for Christian redemption.” This was very far from the truth, since in many African countries limited economic and natural resources played a formidable role in determining people’s access to cloth, that had nothing to do with intellectual capacity or intelligence, and since the 1950s there were several anti-nudist internal campaigns in Ghana and elsewhere. Hamblin’s complement to the exhibition highlights the volatility of cultural perceptions and conjectures about others, as well as the socio-political changes that have occurred in Africa affecting the discourses around the clothed/unclothed body. The artist presents the nude transsexual males as liminal, floating, but also as appealing, ethereal and detached from the mundane everyday.

Nomadic identity is also represented through the use of transtechnology on the exhibition, as in the intermedial work of Heidi Fourie. Just as nomadism is grounded in shifting geographies, positions, methodologies and subjectivities, there are shifts in this work in terms of the gaze: the artist is gazing at and painting the sculptor (her subject matter) who gazes at the world and creates artworks; she moves around him in her gaze, encircling him, simulating his own gaze, and renders such encircling in her stop-motion production. Ouroboros emerges in the cyclical activity and the self-reflexivity of both subject and object; the gaze is turned inward, its origin being the outward gaze. In sweeping way the artist references othered gazing here, whilst the particularities of colonial and ongoing cultural and racial gazing in contemporary societies – especially in multicultural spaces such as those of Africa – become revived.

Likewise, ouroboros is encountered in Frikkie Eksteen’s cyclical paintings. His main intention is to destabilise the ‘static’ character of formal portrait painting through a three-step process of painting – digitising - repainting, and as such ‘returning’ it to the original medium but shifting the originary meaning through intervention and re-rendering. As the artist says in his artist’s statement, “The outcome of this process often becomes another input in an ongoing feedback loop where it consumes what it produces to spawn new physiognomic and painterly possibilities”. The artist retraces his own footprint, only to erase it and to create yet another.

Nomad bodies thus presents the ambivalent Baumanian idea of the pilgrim-tourist who keeps going in circles, driven by a non-teleological sense of survival, which might possibly lead to a ‘good ending’. Nomadic identity is essentially rhizomatic, and in South Africa - also in an amplified sense on the African continent - the drive to belong and the utopian quest for a better life have resulted in identity being redefined, renegotiated, rerooted and sprouting in many directions.

I would like to thank the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of the Artesis University College, Antwerp, for extending an invitation to me to visit and to curate Nomad Bodies. My deepest gratitude goes to Prof Kris Van’t Hof for initiating the exchange between Artesis and our Department of Visual Arts of the University of Pretoria. A further thank you to Prof Norman Duncan of the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Pretoria for his support of this project, as well as to Prof Alan Mabin for opening the exhibition, and to my colleagues that form part of the research team and the participating artists.

I am profoundly indebted to the Andrew W Mellon Foundation for making it possible to realise this research project.


Elfriede Dreyer, curator. 

Pretoria, 12 November 2013


Sources quoted

Austin, J. 2010. More to see than a canvas in a white cube: For an art in the streets. City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action 14:1-2, 33-4.

Bauman, Z. 1983. Postmodern aesthetics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Bauman, Z. ‘From pilgrim to tourist – or a short history of identity’. In Hall, S and Du Gay, P (eds). 1996. Questions of cultural identity. London/New Delhi/Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Braidotti, R. 2011. Nomadic subjects: embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory. Second edition. Gender and culture: A series of Columbia University Press. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Deleuze, G & Guattari, F. 1987 [1980, French original]. A thousand plateaus. New York: University of Minnesota.

Hall, S and Du Gay, P (eds). 1996. Questions of cultural identity. London/New Delhi/Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Jackson, S, Demissie, F, Goodwin, M (eds). 2009. Imagining, writing, (re)reading the black body. Pretoria: Unisa Press.

Mendieta, E. 2001. Invisible cities: a phenomenology of globalization from below. City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action 5(1):7–26.

Oosterling, H. 2003. Sens(a)ble intermediality and interesse: towards an ontology of the in-between. Intermédialités: histoire et théorie des arts, des lettres et des techniques / Intermediality: History and Theory of the Arts, Literature and Technologies 1:29-46.

Ramoroka, MD. 2009. The history of the Barolong in the district of Mafikeng: a study of the intra-Batswana ethnicity and political culture from 1852 to 1950. Doctoral thesis. University of Zululand. [O] Available: http://uzspace.uzulu.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10530/401/Ramoroka+barolong.pdf;jsessionid=3ED1E210DE77BFD98B27859161F08EFC?sequence=1. Accessed 24 May 2013.

Soja, E. 1989. Postmodern geographies: the reassertion of space in critical social theory. New York/London: Verso.

Talton, B. ‘All the women must be clothed’: The anti-nudity campaign in northern Ghana, 1957 – 1969. In Jackson, S, Demissie, F, Goodwin, M (eds). 2009. Imagining, writing, (re)reading the black body. Pretoria: Unisa Press.




[1] Deleuze & Guattari 1987:7.

[2] Braidotti 2011:3, in Nomadic subjects: embodiment and sexual difference in contemporary feminist theory, a revised publication of the original 1996 version.

[3] Braidotti 2011:4.

[4] Bauman in Hall & Du Gay 1996:19, ‘From pilgrim to tourist – or a short history of identity’.

[5] Bauman in Hall & Du Gay 1996:21.

[6] Bauman in Hall & Du Gay 1996:23.

[7] Bauman in Hall & Du Gay 1996:25.

[8] As a consequence of colonial intervention, Pretoria was founded in 1855 by the Afrikaner Voortrekker Marthinus Pretorius who named the city after his father Andries Pretorius, a leader of the Voortrekkers who trekked mainly towards the eastern and northern parts of the country to escape British rule in the Cape. The Ndebele occupied the Tshwane river valley at around 1600 and at the time of the Mfecane (also known by the Sesotho name Difaqane or Lifaqane) in Natal from 1815 (to about 1840), refugees started arriving in this area under the leadership of Mzilikazi, but were forced to flee during a Zulu raider attack in 1832. In 1899 Pretoria was swarmed by refugees from the Transvaal which included the Fingo and Shangaans who came to Pretoria to escape the South African War (Ramoroka 2009). Tshwane is the name given to Pretoria and its surroundings townships, and there is now a disputed drive (at huge cost) to change the name of Pretoria to Tshwane in order to erase associations with apartheid and colonisation.

[9] Austin 2010:33.

[10] Mendieta 2001:15, 23.

[11] Oosterling 2003:30.

[12] Braidotti 2011:6.

[13] Braidotti 2011:6.

[14] Braidotti 2011:7.

[15] Soja 1989:133.

[16] Soja 1989:133.

[17] Talton in Jackson et al 2009:82.