Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 26, 2017
Shannen L. Hill Biko’s Ghost: The Iconography of Black Consciousness Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 400 pp.; 26 color ills.; 93 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9780816676378)

The conviction and vitality with which Shannen L. Hill explores visual culture as an agent of change shaped by Black Consciousness (hereafter, BC) and embodied in ideas and images of its leading advocate, Stephen Biko, took me back to late 1980s South Africa when I, a bright-eyed freshman, optimistically threw myself into the student liberation movement at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. There I and others designed, printed, and carried protest posters informed by an aesthetic that Hill traces to late 1960s BC student activism. At the time I was unaware of the historical roots of this visual tradition, yet the forms, images, and ethos of BC clearly informed the work I was creating. October 1988 found me in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the heady Amnesty International Human Rights Now concert. Every student activist I knew had packed up and driven the dusty, hot road north to the concert. When Peter Gabriel sang “Biko”—the song then banned in South Africa—it was electrifying and liberating, and Sting’s “Every Breath You Take” had special resonance given our wariness that the South African security police was likely among us. We sang and danced to Youssou N’Dour’s “Mandela” (also banned) and Bruce Springsteen sang all his hits plus “Chimes of Freedom.” The concert culminated with the playing of Bob Marley and the Wailers’s “Get Up, Stand Up.” Through dance and music, we felt unified and empowered by a common call to action that exemplified the BC ethos, but at the time I credited it to the nonracialism resistance ethos that dominated aspects of the South African liberation movement of the 1980s.

In Biko’s Ghost: The Iconography of Black Consciousness, Hill offers a convincing reconsideration of the contributions that BC, and Biko’s legacy and meaning, make to a visual culture of liberation in South Africa, looking back to the late 1960s and up to the present. The book presents an impassioned redress, arguing that BC has been marginalized in histories of visual liberation culture, particularly from the 1980s onward, because of a willful misreading of it as a promotion of racial difference, when it in fact espoused a rejection of South Africa’s systemic racial categorizations. Hill reframes the conversation around “blackness” (as well as “consciousness”) as a tool that “enlivens opposition to new-colonial geopolitics, but rejects the ideology of difference that drives it” (xiii). As such, Hill asserts that BC was not driven by its advocates being “black,” but rather by their demands for self-liberation and the promotion of emancipation from “situations of oppression” (xvi). The coding of black as agency is at once a strength of the text and its biggest challenge. On the one hand, the focus on agency produces a successful reading of BC as an ideology or philosophy of being, rather than a political movement, which allows for a nuanced and fluid treatise of material culture. Yet, because agency can be read in almost all human actions wrought in the face of oppression, in Hill’s text a specifically BC-derived agency is not always grounded in historical specificity. Instead, the strength of the study lies in Hill’s treatment of artworks and the interdisciplinary and expanded treatise of a visual culture to include discussions of poetry, manifestos, newsletters, press statements, public letters, literature, posters, t-shirts, graffiti, sculpture, prints, painting, and installation, many of which are discussed in existing art-historical works as examples of nonracialism and here reframed through the lens of BC.

The first chapter considers the emergence of an aesthetic in the late 1960s and early 1970s that Hill identifies as rooted in BC values of common unity against oppression, pride in an ancestry of resistance, and the call to act on the consciousness these create. The seeds of this aesthetic are located within student activism, taking form in poster arts and graffiti at Fort Hare (the University of Fort Hare, a public university in Alice, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa) and the collaborations of the Cultural Committee of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO). In newsletters, calendars, and posters a visual language of “conviction” is traced by Hill through images that advocate self-help and community work and the now iconic clenched-fist motif through which the BC-minded expressed resilience and resistance (4). Through this chapter Hill clearly demonstrates that the nonracial culture of resistance of the 1980s actually evolved a decade earlier, is rooted in BC ethos, and effected massive change in South Africa prior to the brutal death of Biko in 1977. For example, in 1972, SASO produced the first example of wearable protest art when they defied a ban on printing the clenched-fist image by placing it on t-shirts.

Chapters 2 and 3 move from a consideration of the language of BC to the iconography of BC with a detailed examination of portraits of Biko dating to late 1977, following his murder while in detention. The reading from two perspectives of state-commissioned portraits of Biko published in the press as props supporting an Apartheid state agenda, but also as agents of strength, catharsis, and trauma when published in alternative press venues, is particularly noteworthy for an understanding of the context-driven and fluid nature of BC agency and Hill’s ability to hold in play competing readings. Also discussed are the best-known works about Biko dating to the early 1980s, including those by Paul Stopforth and Ezrom Legae. Though these works are extensively discussed in earlier texts by other authors, Hill provides a deep and fresh read of these pieces as artistic and social commentary through sources, techniques, images, and exhibition settings.

While the specifics of BC ideals are perhaps not entirely evident in the book’s sections on portraiture and trauma, they come to the fore in chapters 4 and 5 where Hill shows the continued relevance of BC to liberation visual culture of the 1980s, a period in which it was overtly and intensely silenced, ironically by both the apartheid state and dominant liberation movements. The underplaying of BC’s contributions to the development of liberation culture was further entrenched by its all-but-near erasure from art-historical scholarship. Media under discussion in Hill’s reinsertion of BC into the picture range from journals like Staffrider, to political posters, and an exploration of various forms of state censorship against BC philosophy. These chapters are particularly important for a rereading of South African resistance culture of the 1980s and beyond. While others, such as John Peffer, have teased out the differences between BC and nonracialism resistance culture, Hill sees BC as a foundational element and demonstrates the impact of BC image and text on the visual language of the African National Congress (ANC), the United Democratic Front, and the Mass Democratic Movement, among other groups. BC’s place in shaping the Medu Art Ensemble is equally compelling. Medu Art Ensemble was a radical collective formed in Botswana with the aim of using art to give voice to the anti-apartheid struggle. Medu designed distinctive posters for circulation within South Africa, to be used by groups dedicated to fighting against the Apartheid state. The group was founded by BC-inspired members such as Tami Mnyele, whose advocacy for cultural workers’ collective action and the importance of visual culture committed to struggle Hill reads as BC derived and evolving into the ANC’s distinctive nonracialism after he became a member of the then-suppressed political party. However, left unaddressed in these chapters is a compelling and necessary analysis for why BC ideology became so overtly marginalized by competing resistance discourses of the 1980s.

The last two chapters address the legacy of Biko, trauma, and memory in the post-Apartheid period. Hill shows the continued impact of Biko’s image as contested memorial in museum contexts. On the one hand Biko as martyr is coopted to the agenda of South Africa’s view of itself as a Rainbow Nation, thereby serving to make him an inclusive symbol belonging to all South Africans in the quest for unity. On the other, BC itself continues to be sidelined, and problematically misinterpreted as racial. In this sidelining and misrepresentation, an important, longstanding philosophy of self-agency and call to action is troublingly marginalized at a time when South Africa could greatly benefit by it. Hill’s work successfully exemplifies an art history that broadens definitions, uncovers seemingly marginal material, and demonstrates the importance of pursing the process of history-making itself, all within a context sorely in need of such attention. Most importantly perhaps, Biko’s Ghost demonstrates the need for art histories that bring together complex, competing, and sometimes discordant narratives.

Jessica Stephenson
Assistant Professor, Art History, Kennesaw State University