Cape to Tehran: Re-imaging and re-imagining personal history in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-revolutionary Iran
“In this empire, the art of cartography was taken to such a peak of perfection that the map of a single province took up an entire city and the map of the empire, an entire province. In time, these oversize maps outlived their usefulness and the college of cartographers drew a map of the empire equal in format to the empire itself, coinciding with it point by point. The following generations, less obsessed with the study of cartography, decided that this overblown map was useless and somewhat impiously abandoned it to the tender mercies of the sun and seasons. There are still some remains of this map in the western desert, though in very poor shape, the abode of beasts and beggars. No other traces of the geographical disciplines are to be seen throughout the land.”
Jorge Luis Borges, A Universal History of Infamy (1946)
Borges' story of an imaginary empire with the exact delineation of its borders established by cartographers, makes me consider what new generations have inherited from the past. Constituting part of my PhD research, the exhibition Cape to Tehran is an attempt to re-image and re-imagine personal history in post-Apartheid South Africa and post-revolutionary Iran.
The title of the exhibition references Cecil Rhodes’ uncompleted Cape to Cairo Railway that was embarked upon during western colonial rule in South Africa. The project was an attempt to connect African colonies of the British Empire from Cape Town, South Africa to Cairo, Egypt. Rhodes' ambitious railway was intended to enable trade and military movement to conduct war. In this project, I have drawn upon this contentious history and consider the relationship between Cape Town, South Africa and Tehran, Iran. I have done so in order to start a conversation through art that reflects upon shared personal experiences of social-political turmoil and argues for countries to be freed from borders in a movement towards peace.
Living in South Africa over the past five years has made me conscious of the many similarities between this country’s current political turmoil and that of my homeland, Iran. Both of these countries have complex histories marked by trauma. I am learning the personal and public histories of South African’s through artists who process that in their art.
In 1948, the National Party was elected to power in South Africa, which saw a strengthening of the racial segregation initiated under Dutch and British colonial rule in the 14th century. This resulted in the legally-institutionalised, racial segregation that defined the Apartheid system. Despite the legal fall of Apartheid in 1994, the aftereffects of these discriminatory laws are still present in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Unlike South Africa, Iran has never been colonised by western powers and has been ruled by a monarchy since the 6th century BC. However, this has not lessened the effects of western interference in the governance of the country due to its rich natural resources and geopolitics. While the country has a 3000 year history of upheavals, my focus for this project is on the more recent 1979 revolution. The revolution of Iran in 1979 was a populist and nationalist movement that consisted of many different opposition groups – Marxists, Islamic socialists, secularists and Shi’a Islamic groups. These diverse groups united to overthrow the monarchy and bring about democracy; however, the revolution resulted in Islamic fundamentalists taking power. Instead of a democracy, a theocracy was created under the leadership of Ruhollah Khomeini. The social and economic upheaval caused by the collapse of the old political system reached a crisis with the seizure of power by Khomeini and his supporters in 1982 (Bakhash, 1990: 57). The eight-year war with Iraq and the Iranian Hostage Crisis had dramatic effects on Iran’s international standing and politics for decades to follow, resulting in a weakened economy and disarray in military and security forces (Keddie, 2006; Takeyh, 2011).
The recent student movements in South Africa, such as Rhodes Must Fall, Fees Must Fall and Open Stellenbosch, are indicators of social and political changes in the country. These protests influenced governmental action and university fees were allegedly frozen after the Fees Must Fall campaign in 2015. However, there are still protests occurring as students are demanding a long-term resolution from the South African government. There have also been student uprisings on the other side of the hemisphere, in Iran, after the 2009 controlled presidential election that saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad come into power. This outcome of this election was pre-determined by the state, a situation that led to protestors being violently apprehended by the Iranian government. In both countries, the student uprisings and protests were characterised by trauma towards and upheaval of ordinary lives. In both countries, protests are indicative of a need for political change and transformation.
The disillusionment that my generation feels with the false promises and oppressive rule of the Iranian government is furthered by the severe measures of censorship and restrictions on Iran’s national media, to the extent that coverage of the uprisings was completely absent from the national media. The 2009 uprising in Iran was only covered by the independent media. This situation is mirrored in the South African Broadcasting Corporation's (SABC) recent refusal to report on student protests that are critical of the government.
Curating this exhibition is a way to relate (re-image or re-imagine) the personal experiences of people who live through political turmoil and transformation. The exhibition focuses on the process of creating art as a medium and method of reflecting on, rather than merely representing, these experiences of conflict and change. I intend to provide a platform to hear other voices and create new narratives. Artists from different generations and geographies will present their unique voices rather than adhere to a singular exhibition narrative. I invited artists from both Iran and South Africa to participate in this exhibition to attempt reveal what we have inherited from the political transformation that has allegedly occurred in our countries. Curating my body of work in relation to selected artists who also deal with socio-political matters of their homeland opens a space for conversations surrounding our personal experiences.