When the Belly Is Full the Brain Starts to Think: Craft and Criticism in the Work of Daniel Halter

Andrew Hennlich
Daniel Halter, Stone Tablets/Bitter Pills, 2005.
photo : Alexis Fotiadis, permission de l'artiste | courtesy of the artist

The democratizationof technology in the digital age allows artists to produce films, music, and other media at much lower costs, purportedly allowing the user control of the means of production. Conversely, handcrafted goods often associated with the outmoded (including analogue recording technologies, vinyl records, and art such as William Kentridge’s laborious animations) not only retain their place within the digital age, they resist the totalizing technological forces creating a dialectical pairing between the new and the outmoded in contemporary art. Zimbabwean-born artist Daniel Halter works in this dichotomy between the mass-produced and the bespoke object. Halter frequently uses curio crafts to engage with the Zimbabwean dollar’s hyperinflation thus recontextualizing work and value. His work also considers the modes of production and consumption that tie Zimbabwe to Western perceptions of Africa. Halter’sYes Boss (2006) is a handwoven image displaying a map of a farming region of Zimbabwe. The warp is made of pieces of the map and the weft is formed from shredded $5,000 banknotes and gold thread. The woven image evokes a number of traditional West African ceremonial wraps that emerged when the British introduced silk to Africa. The dual European and pan-African textile is used in Yes Boss to refer to two difficult aspects of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history: inflation, and president Robert Mugabe’s land redistribution policies.

The redistribution of white-owned farmland is evoked in Yes Boss’s map of former farming plots. While initially purchased for fair prices, in 2000 Mugabe supporters forcibly seized approximately 14 million hectares of land, resulting in the beating and murder of white farm owners. Despite redistributing in the name of giving land to blacks, it has largely gone to Mugabe supporters. Because of the small size of the parcels, nepotistic redistribution, and a lack of expertise, agricultural production has declined and led to malnourishment in Zimbabwe.1 1 - David Smith, “Mugabe Allies Own 40% of Land Seized from White Farmers,” The Guardian, November 30, 2010. The second, and related, issue is the Zimbabwean dollar’s rapid inflation as the government printed the necessary currency to meet its needs, leading to estimated inflation of close to two trillion percent a year and bread prices of nearly $10,000 for a single loaf.2 2 - Sebastien Berger, “Zimbabwe Inflation hits 231 Million Per cent,” The Telegraph, October 9, 2008. In this endlessly expandable domain of inflation and the dispossession of production, Yes Boss is a specific, crafted object made from something that is itself endlessly disposable. Yes Boss as a work of art — and artworks frequently being lodged in questions of value — is made of currency that is, in essence, without value. This pairing of disposability and the handmade gives the work an ironic quality. The repurposing through a loss of value also recalls the land appropriation that led to a decline of agricultural production.

Daniel Halter, I Don’t Know What To Believe Anymore (détail | detail), 2005.
Daniel Halter, Yes Boss (détail | detail), 2006. 
photos : permission de l’artiste | courtesy of the artist

Halter’s production of outmoded forms of visual culture turns towards the antiquated in its handmade form. His work belongs to a recent past, much like the outmoded in Walter Benjamin’s “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century”.3 3 - Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland and others, Vol. 3 (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belkamp Press, 2002), 33. Benjamin’s analysis of the Haussmannization of Paris expresses anxiety over the remaking of the city as the potential for new and open movement through the streets paradoxically destroyed the potential for political resistance. Haussmannization made going to the ­barricades impossible; a refashioning of social space that highlights Mugabe’s ideology of land redistribution to open Zimbabwe to its people. In reality, land redistribution becomes an ideological screen for nepotistic control and a violent repression of dissent. The government in each instance opens social spaces while using that openness to facilitate a repression of resistance to its sovereign power. Under Hausmannization Benjamin saw art being put into the service of technology, removing traces of the everyday “imprinted” in Parisian social space.4 4 - Ibid., 39, 41-42. These imprints are preserved in Halter’s use of maps; they exist as traces of something lost and call attention to the famines in Zimbabwe today. Furthermore, Halter’s woven image does not just simply recall the loss of white farms; its “yes boss” is suggestive of a farm labourer responding to the owner, documenting a trace of colonial power paradigms within the map’s image as well.

As a handmade African object Yes Boss imagines a politics of “Africanness.” It does not advocate a return to white control, but rather, reveals the ideology of newness with which Mugabe tries to remake Zimbabwe. It is impossible to return to a pre-colonial existence, and Mugabe’s appeals to do so are made for political gain, resulting in further losses of vital goods. Yes Boss’s form highlights this dialectical problem: its weft of reproducible currency and warp of old farming maps suggest a crisis emerging from this situation of colonial power and black empowerment. Yes Boss acknowledges the colonial relationship without giving in to simple ideologies of the new.

Halter’s remaking of woven textiles considers how, in the technological and fast-paced world of the West, ideologies of the “old” (as Benjamin reminds us, the construction of new architecture in Paris represented itself ahistorically as old and timeless) persist about Africa. Halter’s curios ask how traditional forms of African culture are consumed in the West. This relationship between the West and Africa is explored in Halter’s video, Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of the Rave), whichexamines the popularity of Zimbabwean singer Rozalla’s hit song “Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good).” The video features Rozalla’s song and images of British youth dancing at raves juxtaposed with pictures of riots and protests in Zimbabwe. Both of these scenes are portrayed as dances featuring the mass movement of people and both have been associated with revolutionary politics yet they raise the question of who is free to “feel good.” Largely fueled by ecstasy and other drugs, rave culture is seen as a marginal and transgressive space in Britain, whereas the revolution for access to democratic representation, food, and land is met with violence. Few are free to “feel good” in Zimbabwe as the access to safety and sustainability is controlled by Mugabe’s regime.

Daniel Halter, Untitled (Zimbabwean Queen of Rave),
captures vidéo | video stills, 2005. 
photos : permission de l’artiste | courtesy of the artist

A related project is Halter’s Stone Tablets/Bitter Pills (2005) which features soapstone sculptures (a Shona artform in Zimbabwe, early sculptures represented eagles as ancestral objects, but soapstone sculptures are better known as a modern production of abstract forms), upon which are carved logos such as a star, a skull and crossbones, or the Mercedes-Benz logo commonly found on ecstasy tablets. Unlike the pills themselves these sculptures are about the size of a landmine.5 5 - Sue Williamson, “Daniel Halter,” (2010). Accessed July 22, 2011, www.artthrob.co.za/07jul/artbio.html The allusion to consumptiveness (that is, as sculptures of things one ingests) is evocative of tourists on safari purchasing these curios. Markets found throughout Africa sell curios, such as soapstone sculptures, in endless numbers to tourists willing to buy them. These items lose some of their cultural impact upon their return to the West: it is debatable if those who purchase a mask, Basotho blanket, or Shona sculpture engage with their intended meaning. Instead, they most likely return to the Western mantle as symbols of singular “Africanness” despite both weaving and soapstone carving having developed from colonial encounters and becoming ahistorical objects in the process.

Likewise, Rozalla becomes a singular image of Zimbabwe in a world of consumptive 90’s drug culture. This discord within Halter’s imagery reveals the paradoxes that arise as kids in Britain dance in fields and other venues which have largely been co-opted by business ventures, while at the same time dispossession and violence rages in its former colony’s move to redistribute land. To “take” culturally becomes sinister — the pill is no longer the guarantor of a “good night” but a landmine: it holds the potential to destroy or maim. The ecstasy tablet as an image of excess and consumption turns the discussion back towards the rates of inflation and saturation. (In the UK ecstasy tablets for most of the past decade were incredibly cheap and pills could be bought for a little over a pound.)6 6 - Jonathan Owen, “Street Prices of Cannabis, Ecstasy and Cocaine at an all Time Low,” The Independent, September 6, 2006. This market saturation, like the inflation of currency in Zimbabwe, has brought prices down, bringing one back to the conflict hailed by Halter’s project: in the UK capitalism and democracy make it “free” to feel good. The opposite is true for those in Zimbabwe where the endless reproduction of money has priced Zimbabweans out of basic goods and services. The bitter pill left for Africans to consume is surely lacking any sustenance.

Daniel Halter, More Fire, 2006.
Daniel Halter, My Last Resort, 2006.
photos : permission de l’artiste | courtesy of the artist

Halter’s reappropriation of traditional craft makes use of the outmoded but also calls attention to the flavour-of-the-month reproducibility of pop stars such as Rozalla and the culture of cheap drug consumption that accompanies it. This reproducibility and consumption within rave culture highlights the disposability of capitalism’s desire to continually make things new. To produce handmade crafts in the era of late capitalism raises the question of how these objects are consumed. They exist as specific and handmade yet cheapened in African curio markets. The curio enters a network of the synthetic consumption of Africanness, much like ecstasy, bringing to bear the endless disposability in capitalist economies.

Western nations also endured mass inflation in Europe and the United States during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Halter enters into this question of reification, asking: when everything is endlessly expandable how do people find worth in the work they produce? In Zimbabwe, the spiralling number of zeros attached to the dollar took on a life of its own, estranging the workers from the value of their labour as it yielded less ability to provide sustenance, security, or stability. Mass production and the fluctuation of value change the imprints of social relations upon these commodities when production becomes defined by money.

Daniel Halter, Mealie Pip, 2008.
photo : permission de l’artiste | courtesy of the artist

Like the Dadaists working in Weimar Germany, Halter appropriates the discarded or devalued, remaking it as a form of cultural critique. Thus the Zimbabwean dollar is no longer tied to the swirling zeros that undercut its ability to provide basic goods for survival. Halter’s specificity preserves traces of the human narratives of farms and farm labour and the loss of these histories through the denial of human rights amid the increasingly disposable approach the West takes to Africa. The use of the map in Yes Boss preserves the history present in the commodity while documenting the loss of these farmers’ livelihoods. Production, through this conscious turn towards craft, gives the previously disposable lost maps, curio craft, and even inflated money, a sense of agency in narrating Zimbabwe’s violence and dispossession.

As curios, Halter’s sculptures and woven maps change the notion of these relationships. Not only is it the intent of specificity and craft to counter the mass circulation of these items as curios and to revalue those peoples and histories that have been devalued, but to change how we think about these items as artworks. Halter’s work makes traditional craft part of a political network and considers these works as art rather than banal decoration, thus imbuing their production with a sense of agency.

Halter’s repurposing of handmade craft objects preserves traces of the past histories of loss and dispossession in Zimbabwe under Mugabe. Mealie Pip, an engraved maize kernel bearing the phrase, “When the belly is full, the brain starts to think,” strikes at the crux of his work, insisting as it does on the necessity of providing sustenance for Zimbabweans, but also shows us that political consciousness can emerge from highlighting its lack. Halter’s Benjaminian imprints sow a kernel of historicity and critique into the technological networks of financial exchange and the ideologies of a timeless Africa.

This article also appears in the issue 74 - Reskilling

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