dot 34: empathy

And how does it feel as a viewer to be shown how that war felt to them that survived it?

 – Mariama Ross –

This question applies as much to us today in South Africa as it did to viewers of the exhibition Representations of Violence: Art about the Sierra Leone Civil War (2005). Here, the art coordinator for the show, Dr. Mariama Ross, questions the position of  those  ‘bearing witness’ to images of violence.

Having been exposed to the atrocities of the current South African xenophobic attacks via the media over the last 2 weeks or so, it has been horrifying to witness the level of unchecked hatred for fellow Africans by other South Africans. Reminiscent of the 2008 xenophobic upsurge I am again at a loss to understand how a nation – having exited from apartheid themselves – are able to inflict the same evil towards their fellow African brothers and sisters.

Monday April 20/2015  Photograph: James Oatway
Sunday Times: Sunday April 19 / 2015                                          Photograph: James Oatway

As a fellow South African, this image depicts one African murdering another. The victim is Mozambican Emmanuel Sithole. How, as the viewer of such an abominably violent image, should I feel? What have I borne witness to? In ‘Bearing Witness’ Ross’s article in the exhibition catalogue and conference proceedings of the afore-mentioned exhibition, she asks:

How can we attempt to grasp what these images are saying? How can we begin to understand them in ways that make sense to us and our circumstances?

Disappointingly, there seems to be little response to this issue coming from the fraternity of art and image makers. Perhaps the preparations for the South African Pavillion for the 2015 Venice Biennale has taken up time and focus. A person who has clearly spoken out however, is the political analyst, Justice Mahala. In a brutally honest article entitled ‘We are the barbarians’, Mahala takes issue with those that are guilty of witnessing the Sithole murder. Making no attempt to intervene the fatality as they watch, a singular man stands out in a heroic act to stop the killers. This man, simply referred to as ‘The man in the leather jacket’, does what no-one else does.

The Times: Monday April 20 / 2015  Photograph: James Oatway
The Times: Monday April 20 / 2015                                                 Photograph: James Oatway

The leather-jacketed man is mobilized through empathy for the victim. Moving from her position as art educator, Ross suggests the following:

I believe empathy must be achieved before understanding is possible. But in this case our empathetic reactions are also for ourselves as we contemplate the reality of our conjoined existence with the rest of the world.

As South Africans we are in this xenophobic upsurge together. We share a conjoined existence, seeped in apartheid, yet this can never excuse the current state of xenophobia. As witnesses to what is happening around us, it would stand us in good stead to remind ourselves with Ross’s parting words:

What we do with [the] information in terms of how we think, talk, teach and act is yet to be determined by each of us, but we can no longer say we did not know.

As artists, are we trying to understand …?

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