Turning to Marxism and art for answers

By Malibongwe Tyilo 12 May 2020

Illustrative image by Leila Dougan and Malibongwe Tyilo | sources: Unsplash / Pxhere / pngwave / pinclipart / pngguru / pngwave / EPA/Kim Ludbrook/ Nolan Dennis

The pandemic has affected most aspects of life and the world of design, art and culture is no exception. In this series, we talk to artists, creatives, designers and musicians about their work and what inspires them in these surreal times.

Socioeconomic doctrines are among the questions to ponder during the lockdown – and there are many. In South Africa, one of the great motivators of the lockdown has been to prevent the spread of the virus among our communities, especially considering the high rate of unemployment, as well as to avoid putting strain on an already constrained healthcare system. It also bears remembering that according to research by the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, 50% of South Africans are chronically poor, and 90% of individuals in South African households earn R7,417 or less per month.

Over the years, these and other socioeconomic factors have contributed to the heated debate as to which socioeconomic system would be best suited to transform South Africa into a more equal society. The pandemic shines an even brighter light on these issues as it becomes clear that even ‘physical distancing’ and ‘self-quarantine’ mean different things depending on where one finds oneself on the economic ladder.

Questions about society, support structures, and institutions are also front-of-mind for 31-year-old Johannesburg-based artist Nolan Oswald Dennis, who is currently reading three titles on Marxism while on lockdown.

Images by Nolan Dennis

“The first book, 50 fighting years, a history of the South African Communist Party from 1921 to 1971, belongs to Bogosi Sekhukhuni, a friend I haven’t seen in person in a few years and miss dearly. The second book Introducing Marx, my dad bought for me at a secondhand shop in Cape Town when I was 13… I think because Ruis [Eduardo Humberto del Río García, June 20, 1934 – August 8, 2017] – a super important Mexican political cartoonist – drew his way through Marx and Engels, and I really liked drawing. The third book, What is Marxism, was given to me by my grandmother who passed away recently and who I think about every day. I chose these books because I can’t understand the world right now, and the one thing I know is that when things make no sense, it’s a good time to reread Marx – and African Marxists especially,” says Dennis.

Making sense of the world is at the core of Dennis’ artistic practice. Born in Lusaka, Zambia, to South African political exiles, and raised in Johannesburg, he explores through his work the hidden structures that pre-determine the limits of our social and political imagination. Through diagrams, drawings and models he explores the underlying landscape of systematic and structural conditions that organise our worlds. While on lockdown, however, he is finding it increasingly difficult to create new work.

Nolan Oswald Dennis
no conciliation is possible (compensation set), 2019
wallpaper, archival notes, hand drawn notes, found objects (Image Goodman Gallery)

“It’s almost impossible to work. I am learning how to contort my mind so it can hold totally incompatible ideas together at the same time. For example: I must work as if everything is going to be okay; and simultaneously work as if nothing is going to be okay at all. That might seem dramatic, but for many people doing cultural work – artists, musicians, dancers, actors – there is a sense that the institutional and interpersonal support structures that we rely on to sustain our practices might not survive or even be viable after the lockdown,” explains Dennis.

“There are no solutions, so I try to be aware of the small acts of care happening all around me. I try to be more careful and slower and patient with the people around me. I am very easily distracted and that helps me not dwell on the uncertainty. Is distraction a solution? And I am rereading Marxist literature that reminds me that capitalism begets crisis.”

At the moment, in addition to reading, he, like many others, is “listening to music. Watching TV. Sleeping. Remembering.”

Artists, musicians, designers, and many others in creative industries, who depend on a steady flow of work for their livelihood, are among the more heavily affected by the lockdown. Yet, as much of the world stays home, it is often their output that we look to for solace and entertainment.

“Economic stimuli, rent holidays and relief funds should appreciate that art, artist labour and art infrastructure are an essential social good and must be materially supported. Remember that all the music, TV and books you are bingeing on are products of somebody’s labour, and those labouring people are deeply stressed right now.”

That said, he also acknowledges that answers are not quite clear cut: “I don’t know how people can support artists right now, particularly when we are all trying so hard to simply support ourselves. I do know that food, water, electricity, medicine and art are the most critical things in the whole world right now, but without music and TV and writing and plants and pictures, we will never be able to sustain this lockdown.”

“And while breathing through the anxiety of not knowing whether galleries, museums, art fairs, theatres, bars, clubs, classrooms will survive this crisis – and the social health and economic priorities that follow – cultural workers still have to find ways to produce work as if this infrastructure will still be there… as if this crisis is a postponement rather than a remodelling of the way things were a few months ago.

“What kind of work comes out of this? I guess we’ll see.” DM/ML

If you would like to read the previous edition of The Imaginarium, click below.

Of animals and apartment safaris

If you would like to share your stories, ideas or suggestions with us, please leave a comment below or email us at [email protected] and [email protected]

Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Maverick Life delivered to your inbox every Sunday morning.



Conversations with Annie Lennox

By Emilie Gambade