Art, Seed Sovereignty and Activism: Weaving New Stories

Preparing for the National Seed Dialogue and Celebration, hosted by the African Centre for Biodiversity, smallholder farmers, activists and government officials are crowded into the atrium of the Women’s Jail at Constitution Hill and a drum is beating. A performer, Simo Mpapa Majola, dressed in blankets, is praying and singing and imploring the audience. He is telling the story of the women who work on a farm, who have been marginalised over and over, and yet are relentless in their search for “She-sus”, the She-God, and unswerving in their connection to the soil. Around the edges of the atrium are tables adorned with bowls and jars, hand-crafted wooden trays and woven baskets of seeds, resplendent in their diversity of colours, shapes and textures. Farmers and activists have brought the seeds from across the country to show the art of the soil – its wild excess that is still available to us – despite its depletion due to the demands of global capitalist supply chains that have destroyed agricultural biodiversity. The displays of seeds are arranged on beautiful shweshwe table cloths, interspersed with traditional tools for the preparation and serving of food: a woven beer filter, carved tools for preparing pap and bowls for sharing umqombothi.

Figure 1 Simo Mpapa Majola (performance artist) and Mojalifa Mofokeng (musician)

The tables in the main area are decorated with proteas and fynbos and strewn with seeds. It feels like a seed wedding. In fact, it occurs to me that the seeds have contrived all of this to bring us together, so that we do the work that they need us to do for their continued survival and sovereignty. And, suddenly, I imagine the seeds as the agents in this event, co-ordinating and motivating hundreds of people, from security guards, to farmers, cleaners and academics to get up in the morning and play their integral role in the unfolding of the event. Philosopher and biologist Donna Haraway describes a story that is artfully told in the right context as a “shell that can hold a little water or a few seeds. That which somehow can be collected and taken”[1].

Figure 2 Mung beans in a handwoven basket acquired from crafters at Faraday Market, Johannesburg

In planning for the National Seed Dialogue, we held strongly to the idea that the arts play an important role in activism, as a way of sharing vital messages through the heart and body, and not only the head. Writer on politics, environment and art, Rebecca Solnit, says that “the change that counts in revolution takes place first in the imagination…and cultural and symbolic acts have real political power”[2]. This is not a new idea, but the current climate of urgency demands that we employ the most effective tools we have to cut away our complacency, as well as to provide emotional sustenance for the long journey into an increasingly unstable world. The relationship between art and activism offers a platform for both artists and activists to reach new audiences and foster powerful solidarities, and for people to come to their own interpretations and feelings about things, rather than aiming for precision and literalness. These characteristics of the academic study serve certain purposes very well, but do not always reach the heart. Art allows for a multiplicity of meanings, rather than reaching for the one truth. One performer, Kela Maswabi, felt that, at the event, art bypassed the heavy dense statistics and research and went straight to that which the human instinctively knows – “that we are part of nature and not separate from it”. While the statistics, technical language and in-depth research are vital, the need for the information that they offer to be felt, tasted, danced, and understood “in the tissues of our flesh seems to me really urgent”[3]. In the process of briefing artists, each of them was excited to learn a lot of new information about the issues. They felt very strongly about them, and were immediately inspired to incorporate them into their work and to share this urgency with their own audiences and communities. Early on in the process, one performer referred to the artists as “the entertainment”, and I realised that I had not at any point thought of them in this way. To my mind, they were as integral to the content and meaning of the programme as any academic paper. Kela Maswabi described the art as the “why” and the dialogues and information as the “how”. The performances were also a way to incorporate ritual and the spiritual into the programme in ways that were not evangelical, but rather reminders of our connection to the earth, past generations and something larger than ourselves. The Friday night band performance by BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) – who use percussion instruments, tambourines, whistles, flutes and vocals, tapping into their ancestral spirits to make music that is highly political and reflects their own identity, pride and resilience – was a breath of fresh air, an opportunity to let our hair down and play. After all, why are we doing this work, if not to create a world that is more liveable, beautiful and fun, not just full of fight and struggle?

Figure 3 BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) perform at the end of a day of intense dialogue.

“We construct our world through the stories we tell about it, and the practice of magic is the art of cultural storyshifting, the conscious dreaming of a new dream,” says activist and writer, Starhawk[4]. Perhaps, to enable the scale of social change that is necessary if we are to tackle the vast and integrated forms of oppression – in this instance apparent in the draconian policy around seed and agriculture – what is needed is a new story, and artists of all forms deal in the dark arts of storytelling. Academics certainly tell stories, too, but their modes tend to work best within their own networks and discourses, among people who know the jargon, are familiar with the arguments and can decode the statistics and academese. According to philosopher and artist, Erin Manning, there is growing acceptance of the idea that “art itself activates and constitutes new forms of knowledge in its own right”[5]. Artists can be like miners, who dig deep in the ground for precious minerals. What they draw out of the ground may not look like much to start with, but the material can be processed and honed into something both evocative and useful, that still holds the essence of what it is like to have spent the last million years deep underground. By incorporating art into the conference format, we could showcase a different model of critical dialogue, aware that embedded in our tactics of struggle are the seeds of the culture that we will live into reality. Thus, it is imperative that we bring care and wisdom, love and creativity to the tactics employed, so that they reflect the values we wish to see in the world, and in order, that we might “weave something other than a shroud for the day after the apocalypse”[6]. With the National Seed Dialogue and Celebration as a starting point, ACB will strive for a conference model that is vibrant and sensuous, as opposed to dry and cerebral; one where the residue from the event speaks to your ancestors and seeps into your dreams and into your kitchen, filling your children’s bellies.

For full report on the national seed dialogue and celebration, please click here.

[1] Haraway, D. 2016. Anthropocene Consortium Series. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWQ2JYFwJWU.

[2] Solnit, R. 2017. Hope in the Dark. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

[3] Haraway, D. 2015. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulhucene. In H. Davis and E. Turpin (eds) Art in the Anthropocene. London: Open Humanities Press.

[4] Starhawk. 2002. Webs of Power: Notes from the Global Uprising. New Society Publishers.

[5] Manning, E. 2016. The Minor Gesture. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[6] Haraway, D. 1984. A Cyborg Manifesto. In D. Bell and B.M. Kennedy. The Cyber Cultures Reader London: Routledge.