Quiet Conversations: September 9, 2022

Zara Julius speaks to the entangled geographies and soundscapes of the machete as an object that speaks to entangled layers of labour, oppression, violence, resistance and liberation.

Quiet Conversations: September 9, 2022


Quiet Conversations are a series of conversations with artists, architects, researchers and thinkers working in and with the south, as a conceptual site and geography. Curated by Catalina Mejía Moreno and Huda Tayob, editors of this issue of Ellipses, the conversations work towards a methodology of shared sites, sounds, objects and practices through a turn to acts of remembrance, recall and repair. In this series we invite a close and intimate listening of meandering conversations; to stay with the words, silences and utterances that through conversation share entangled and implicated relationships of site, objects, people and places. Drawing upon sound and the act of speaking and listening as affective and political, together we ask, how might located and grounded practices enable us to draw out relational histories? How might creative research and associated methodologies of critique generate ways of listening, speaking to and engaging with the built environment, architectures, land and violence beyond extraction? And how might we share and build collective methodologies for working and thinking together? 

In the series of 6 excerpts shared here, we invited each conversant to share an object as a prompt for a wider conversation around methods, materials, and practices.

Jumoke Sanwo speaks to the mirror as entangled with the trans-atlantic slave trade, and her work as curator of Dúna Dúrà - A Portal of Reimagination; 

Felipe Arturo shares an Iraca palm fan, as a form of technology that exists within and outside of colonial and neo-colonial economies, material and embodied practices; 

Marcelo Ferraz shares the throne of Òsùmàrè as an entry point into a wider conversation around his immersive experience of designing with the Terreiro de Òsùmàrè, in Salvador, Bahía;  

Zara Julius speaks to the entangled geographies and soundscapes of the machete as an object that speaks to entangled layers of labour, oppression, violence, resistance and liberation. 

Sibonelo Gumede speaks to the temporalities and cartographies of Black sonic geographies in Southern Africa and beyond.

Russel Hlongwane speaks to the ‘Black interior’ as a practice of negotiating comfort and home in post-Apartheid suburban South Africa.

Ana Luisa Ramírez Flórez, Jenry Serna Córdoba, Daniel Ruiz-Serna and Catalina Muñoz Rojas speak to sound, listening and collaboration as reparative practices in the lower Atrato region in Chocó, Colombia; a region wounded by multiple forms of violence more recently affected by paramilitary violence and other extractive practices.  

As Françcoise Verges writes, ‘To dare to imagine is to reject time’s opposition of past, present, and future’ [1] in the search for an alternative temporality of repair. Across sites and methods, these conversations recall extreme violence and “quieter forms of abjection” [2] alongside numerous seemingly “small” acts of making and re-making place and space. For as Tina Campt argues in her framing of ‘quiet photography’, the possibilities of other futures are ever–present, yet “we must not only look but also listen for it in other, less likely places.” [3] In each of these four conversations, there is the consistent awareness of ongoing and ever-present violence, an engagement with structures of complicity, and an expansive generosity and commitment to sharing ways of being, voices, stories, knowledge and time.

[1] Françoise Vergès, 2022. A Feminist Theory of Violence, London: Pluto Press, p. 98
[2] Elizabeth Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment, Durham: Duke University Press
[3] Tina Campt, Listening to Images, Durham: Duke University Press, p. 17 

Launch Project


Zara Julius talks about extra-geographic sound, 9 September 2022

Zara Julius is a multidisciplinary social practice artist, social researcher, and vinyl selector based in Johannesburg, South Africa. With a background in anthropology, religious studies and photography, her work is concerned with the relationship between aesthetics, culture and African futures. Working with sound, video, performance and objects, Zara Julius’ practice involves the collection, selection and creation of archives through extensive research projects.

Johannesburg, Manchester, Brighton

In this conversation we speak to social practice artist, researcher and vinyl selector Zara Julius, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Zara is the director of Konjo, a creative research agency focused on sonic histories from the African continent and diaspora. Working with sound, video, performance and objects, Zara’s practice involves the collection, selection and creation of archives through research projects. Concerned with the ethics of representation, Zara adopts co-productive methodologies, where much of her work has focused on mapping the sonic and spiritual mobilities of religious rapture and rupture with congregants of syncretic religions, in addition to (post)apartheid narratives around race and place as they pertain to intimate archiving practices. She describes her practice as operating within the realms of ‘performativity, frequency and concealment,’ and as a way of thinking that is always ‘trans-geographic’ and ‘extra-geographic.’ In this conversation which moves from South Africa to South America, the Caribbean and back again, the sonic is a technology with the capacity to move, create recurrences, repetitions, and ultimately to confront the violence of history and time. 

19:42 The object that I wanted to discuss today is a machete. In South Africa we call it a panga, in parts of the Caribbean, it's a cutlass. In Ethiopia, I think the term is Gojira. So it's not really from anywhere specifically, but I think it really speaks to what we've touched on already, and the way so many geographies are intertwined. It's a long knife, usually used for agricultural practices, with the wooden handle and metal blade that is incredibly sharp and often curved, and quite thick. So it's not like a sword which I would say is quite long and thin, but is a bit shorter than that and has a thicker blade. … I started becoming interested in the machete as this thing that is like a stand-in for the kind of travelling that we've already done in this conversation. When I was in Colombia, in Santiago de Cali and the Valle de Cauca region, I heard about this thing called machete fighting, Grima con machete. And in my mind was like, wait, I'm sorry, what? In South Africa, you hear these really harrowing news stories of people who've been murdered with machetes or pangas, given how violent crime can look within our own context, and I think, in Colombia, quite similarly, actually. And so it was really interesting for me to hear about this kind of martial arts, for lack of a better term called Grima that was specifically practised by folks who are Afro descendant from that region along the Pacific coast.

23:54 Something that I'm really interested in which has been an obsession for many years is the idea of subversive complicity which I first encountered when I was doing research with Ama- Zion and Ama- Nazareth, which are two - I suppose anthropologists would call these church groups, syncretic African initiated Pentecostal type churches. Basically they are these massive church or spiritual organisations. We're talking millions of followers within southern Africa. In this kind of context, Pentecostal type of Christianity becomes a mode of operating, that gets subverted - all this language is kind of fraught because its ethnographic, but I'm just going to go ahead and use it for the sake of an ease of understanding here - essentially, the syncretisation of Pentecostal, protestant Christianity and supposedly indigenous knowledge systems. So there's a kind of complicity with the mode of oppression, being that of missionary based Christianity. But it gets subverted in these really interesting ways that provides moments of possibility for particular communities within this context.

And the same I think would be said with say, Santería or Candomblé. There are so many examples of really interesting syncretic religious and spiritual practices - where you are buying into a particular type of operative element that has been used to oppress you and your people historically, but it also in the same breath becomes the vessel through which your ancestral knowledge systems get taken forward. And so the idea of subversive complicity is really interesting with the machete fighting and Grima, and a very similar thing exists within Cuba and also in Haiti which is called Tire machèt. And so that's kind of what got me interested, the way in which fighting becomes a subversively complicit tool. Or the machete becomes this subversively complicit tool of oppression, through working on sugarcane plantations, say on the outskirts of Cali. I mean, Cali is surrounded by sugarcane plantations - the city in and of itself gets lit up quite literally at night by the fires of the plantations. And that's a different kind of haunting, that we could speak to later. But the machete is this thing that folks have encountered, historically in plantation contexts, and also within gold mining contexts. And then it gets used in the space of martial arts, in the context of fighting for independence. It also gets used in this context of establishing and consolidating a kind of Afro-diasporic cultural identity. … The other element that I'm also interested in, is concealment, and the strategies of how learning this type of martial art is shrouded in concealment, necessarily so, because it becomes a sacred technology for liberation.

28:53 So I’m interested in the idea of concealment and subversive complicity. And the way in which this thing that has a particular type of history gets reshaped to become something else, and to have a different type of meaning. And then kind of becomes a stand-in for various different types of violences, within different contexts.

If we're just going to speak about Colombia only, there's the history of sugarcane farming and how slavery comes with that history. And there's that a lot of black folk fought for the independence of Colombia, but their histories have been completely erased, and it's only the creoles that are championed in the history of achieving independence for Colombia. And then, more recently, the role that the machete has played within the kind of civil war in Colombia, and the narco-wars in that context. … The recurring story of Buenaventura is of these warehouses that were found with chopped up bodies. And again, the machete becomes the stand-in for this particular type of violence. How does the machete allow for the super-imposition of these different narratives within one context?

But there's also just the sound, when you hear machetes in action, it is a really interesting sound. I did a short film about the legacy of sugarcane plantations in South Africa, a very different history. The opening sequence that we put together for the film is the sound of these pangas, or the machete, cutting into mature sugarcane as the sun is rising. That sound and the scenery is really beautiful… there's a sound of this machete cutting cane, and in the background, other labourers sharpening their pangas. The contrast of the beauty and the horror is something I'm really interested in throughout my work.

43:04 There's an understanding that we are always both on the inside and the outside of oppression. Somehow we are both simultaneously the oppressor and the oppressed. Because we're operating within, I don't know how to articulate this clearly, but we're constantly dancing within and outside of various confines, even in our pursuit for some kind of freedom. And I think the machete speaks to that. When we think about indenture, within the South African context, and sugarcane, and that's a really complicated history for South Africa, and not just because of the pseudo-slavery of people from South Asia, but around what kinds of relationships that facilitates within the South African context between people of South Asian history or ancestry and AmaZulu as an example. It set into motion this really complex relationship between communities that actually should be having the same chats, but today are still not necessarily. There's a lot of anti- blackness within communities of people who are descendants from indenture. And so again, it's like the kind of simultaneity of both being inside and outside, and really having to be aware of what that means. If we are trying to use things in pursuit of some kind of resistance, or insistence on a future on our freedom or freedoms, plural. It's kind of difficult to articulate, but there's this concept called kala pani. [...]

When the British were taking people from India, to the colonies, to Mauritius, to South Africa, to the Caribbean, to work as indentured labourers on sugarcane plantations, within these contexts, Varna status became a big concern. As soon as you leave the home of the Ganges, you lose your caste placement, and you drop to kind of a so-called untouchable. Crossing of the kala pani is a thing that is really dangerous, for one’s position in society, but also on the flip-side facilitates an interesting moment of possibility, where if you are already at the bottom of the caste ranking, then losing that status provides possibility of a different sort somehow. And this idea of kala pani is interesting, because it also ties together these different contexts, South Africa, Mauritius and the Caribbean - Trinidad and Tobago. And it speaks to the kinds of freedoms that are possible in different ways.

This is a brief edited excerpt of a longer conversation where Zara emphasises that freedom is a verb, where practices of communing and gathering are a means to collectively envision a different kind of future. The conversation travels across the middle passages of the Atlantic through sonic remembrance, to the sounds and stories of the Port city of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast, returning to South African indentured labour through the Kala Pani of Indian Ocean crossings, and beyond. We are reminded of ongoing violence across geographies, alongside the insistent presence of other possible futures and freedoms as always present.

Excerpt from a Quiet Conversation with Zara Julius


This conversation series is supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, The Space for Creative Black Imagination and a University of Cape Town URC grant. It was developed in conversation with Raél Jero Salley at The Space for Creative Black Imagination, based at MICA in Baltimore, and James MacDonald. 

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