Gabi Ngcobo on historical legacies – Para Site conference, Hong Kong

The Johannesburg-based artist and curator reflected on the life and death of institutions through her own projects.

On 4 April 2014, South African artist and curator Gabi Ngcobo spoke about the politics of memory and historical self-creation at Para Site’s 2014 International Conference in Hong Kong. This year, the conference title was “Is the living body the last thing left alive? The new performance turn, its histories and its institutions.”

Gabi Ngcobo at the Para Site International Conference 2014. Image courtesy Para Site.

Gabi Ngcobo at the Para Site International Conference 2014. Image courtesy Para Site.

Para Site’s three-day international forum, which featured artist and curator talks, panel discussions and plenary sessions, this year focused on performance art. Gabi Ngcobo’s talk, entitled “Dying to Live/Living to Die”, addressed the cyclical nature and conflict between life, death and existence. Using the narrative of the birth and eventual suicide of the artistic platform that she co-founded, the Center for Historical Reenactments, Ngcobo talked about her projects and the themes that her work explores.

Rope-a-Dope: Observations into everyday life

The Center for Historical Reenactments (CHR) was founded in 2010 in Johannesburg, employing artistic practices to re-interpret history and propose new narratives. Conceptualised by Ngcobo and Sohrab Mohebbi following their collaboration on the curation of a performance art project called Rope-a-Dope: To Win a Losing War, CHR aimed to question and rethink history, memory and language. According to Ngcobo,

CHR began with a question that had largely to do with historical legacies and their resonance and impact on contemporary art, and a willingness to respond to current agencies that have grown over the debris of history.

Rope-a-Dope is a metaphor for political resistance that arose from a fighting strategy employed by Muhammad Ali against reigning world champion George Foreman in an infamous boxing match in 1974. It essentially involves the endurance of repeated blows before rising up to triumph over the adversary, and the term has been revived in contemporary politics and creative strategies.

Ngcobo explains that Rope-a-Dope is not the glorification of suffering in order to create, nor is it about winning, but “an observation into an everyday practice that, for most, is an inevitable part of life.” Using this as a foundation for its projects, CHR explores the consequences of inaction, rituals of self-preservation, and the “everyday practices” such as xenophobia, violence and crime that people in South Africa still contend with.

Image courtesy Center for Historical Reenactments, taken from

Image courtesy Center for Historical Reenactments, taken from

The pink elephant and the politics of memory

CHR’s office faced the street corner on which Mozambican musician Gito Baloi was shot dead in April 2004. Many of the buildings in the area were deserted following the advent of the new democracy in 1994, and one of these buildings was a popular liquor chain store with its symbol – a pink elephant – providing a prominent landmark. In 2011, CHR declared this pink elephant a “memory bank”, from which their project Na Ku Randza arose. “Na Ku Randza”, which means “I love you”, was the name of a song by Gito Baloi. Ngcobo said that the project was

conceptualised out of a desire to not be confined to the walls of space but to be driven by the desire to come out.

Click here to see a video of Na Ku Randza on

Na Ku Randza consisted of a series of public interventions in one day, such as spatial painting, a performance by Kemang Wa Lehulere and a memorial graffiti mural by Breeze Yoko that revisited the site of trauma (the area where Baloi was murdered) and:

  • drew attention to sidelined stories and forgotten truths of history beyond grand narratives;
  • became representative of other traumas symptomatic of this area, such as xenophobia, gendered violence, crime;
  • used public sites as an exercise in giving and taking without permission, “finding a grammar to inhabit a space of trauma without duplicating it.”

In another 2011 project, Fr(agile), CHR used the de-cluttering and organising of South African photographer Alf Kumalo’s archive to “think through and push ideas of coming out even further.” The project addressed issues such as:

  • the fragility of memory
  • archives and the franchising of memory
  • hierarchies inherent in the memory industry
Donna Kukama and Kemang Wa Lehulere, 'An Unknowing Grammar of Inhabiting a Text', 2010. View of a performance at CHR, Johannesburg, as a part of the project "Xenoglossia". Image courtesy CHR, taken from

Donna Kukama and Kemang Wa Lehulere, ‘An Unknowing Grammar of Inhabiting a Text’, 2010. View of a performance at CHR, Johannesburg, as a part of the project “Xenoglossia”. Image courtesy CHR, taken from

Staging an institutional suicide

CHR staged its suicide in 2012 with an event called “We are Absolutely Ending This”, which reflected on the South African relationship with spectacles of conclusion. The event was an invitation to collectively reflect on an institution’s lifespan, revisiting the questions that foregrounded it, through performances, videos, concept food and contributions by CHR, Tony Cokes, Shahab Fotouhi and Sohrab Mohebbi, to name a few. Gabi Ngcobo explained that the ending was due to the mystery regarding audiences, expectations of deliverance and the trap of sustenance; but “staging” their own ending provided them with a new visibility.

As an artistic platform, we have kept a flexible structure that should not be mistaken for an institution even if it thinks through questions regarding the future of institutions. […] The future of a pseudo-institutional body is the same as its end; after all, being something that had the right to exist, one has also the right to die.

However, the ending of CHR was in fact a reason to re-evaluate and revisit larger institutional functions, rather than the conclusion of a phase, contemplating what it means for an institutional body “that cannot live, but does not die.”

Kriti Bajaj


Related Topics: South African artists, conferences, performance art, research, art about the human body, public art, site-specific art, historical art, art about memory, art using words, art about violence, art and the community, artists as curators, events in Hong Kong

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