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25 Years

Tracking 'those who work with culture': the social ambiguities of cultural workers in South Africa

Fri, 04/30/2021 - 12:00pm
Event Location: 

Presented by Lee Walters, ICGC Visiting Scholar, Centre for Humanities Research (University of the Western Cape) 

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The emergence and history of South Africa’s cultural worker, at least since the 1970s, occupies an
anxious and ambiguous relation to political power. These relations, in my view, have taken on
consensual and dissenting forms. In their constitution, cultural workers have acknowledged their
roles as intermediary and critic. The South African cultural worker also echoes an international
political subject position, where artists and cultural producers forge alliances with, or belonging in,
social and trade union movements. I begin my talk with two moments, separated by fifty years. The
first introduces “Abahlali ba se NAC”, a political arts occupy phenomenon, currently unfolding at
South Africa’s National Arts Council in Johannesburg. The second moment, comprising two
movements involving the internationally acclaimed artist Mariam Makeba, recorded at the United
Nations and aired on YLE-Finland in the 1960s, brings attention to the anti-apartheid struggle. Using
these provocations, I consider the relationship between resistance politics, the arts and cultural
work. Drawing on documented narratives from cultural workers as well as on conversations,
interviews and reports that came to light during this research, I interpret assemblages of social
dynamics and ambiguous features that consistently trouble this identification: cultural worker.