KEYAN G. TOMASELLI
The Nomadic Mind of Teshome Gabriel: Hybridity, Identity and Diaspora
Reading the essay, Ruin and the Other: Towards a Language of Memory, reproduced from Teshome Gabriel’s website in herri 6 reminded me of one of Africa’s most creative intellectuals. An Ethiopian, later working in a film school at the University of California (UCLA), he stood out amongst film and theatre scholars and practitioners who themselves stood out.
Nomadism, whether voluntary or involuntary, is an increasingly common experience in the global world of the 20th and 21st centuries. One result of both personal and intellectual nomadism is an ever-fluid identity hybridity. However, as will become clear, the ability to evade socially and officially imposed identities reductively fixed in time, place and history, requires the courage, curiosity and willingness to explore and navigate a post-ideological nomadic cultural consciousness.
Three main themes characterised Teshome’s studies. First, were the “unique styles of films made in the non-aligned nations of Latin America and Africa (the ‘Third World’)”. Second, are issues of relating and representing ‘the Other’ (that is, people ‘not like us’). And third, is the unique situation of filmmakers and scholars who have left the countries of their birth and who occupy and reflect on their marginal, in-between places in the world — a more and more common situation (Nicholas K Browne).
My intention in this short essay is to pay tribute to Teshome from a South African perspective. My first meeting with Teshome occurred in the late-1980s when I was visiting Ntongela Masilela, who was then teaching at Claremont Colleges in California. Ntongela, then in exile, had, like Teshome, also interacted with the Los Angles School of Black Filmmakers. Masilela had additionally made his mark in analysing the work of the 300 intellectuals in what he called the New African Movement, who he argued helped chart South Africa’s entry into modernity. South Africa’s premier early cinema historian, Thelma Gutsche (1972), for example, is located by Ntongela (2000) within this broad movement that includes Sol Plaatje, HIE Dhlomo, Bessie Head and others.
What distinguished Teshome and Ntongela was that they both evaded debilitating conceptual path dependencies and imprisoning categories. They could see beyond the present, beyond the past, and beyond socially static identities into the future. They were unencumbered by fixed gazes, limiting classifications and suffocating political correctness. How we ‘see’ depends on who we are, what we have been taught to look for, and what to accept, negotiate and/or reject, depending on our location in time and space. Seeing is an interpretive mechanism, one that does not have to be imprisoned within strict pre-ascribed meanings. Seeing can be dialogical – both/and – and not always binary, either-or, to be censored, managed or denied.
Teshome composed words visually, he wrote poetry with images, and he imaged arguments through prose. He played with space and time, identity and personality. He was one-of-a-kind. The piece reproduced in herri on ruin and memory is testament to his empathy, spiritual insight and kindness when dealing with how we affect cinema and how cinema affects us. Also, Teshome always questioned the common-sense flow, trying to understand by putting himself into the shoes of the other. He questioned well-meaning but narrow-minded intellectual gatekeepers who try to protect the supposedly vulnerable from themselves.
Third Cinema and the Cold War
Teshome literally wrote the book on Third Cinema in the Third World (1982), derived from his PhD thesis, a revolutionary statement on films made by directors in the Third World that opposed neocolonialism, capitalism and First Cinema Hollywood entertainment (Gettino and Solanas 1970). Second cinema is art film, interrogatory but not necessarily revolutionary. Third Cinema was a set of exhortations, premised on the static ideas of the nation-state, national culture, and class struggle that were prevalent during the Cold War, 1946-1990. Third Cinema film makers in Africa and especially South America, had during the latter half of the 20th Century opposed Western imperialism. Their aesthetic strategies had, however, often subjugated the individual and associated humanism to the interests of the collective, the masses, substituting one set of deterministic structures for those already in place. One hegemony, regrettably, would be substituted for another. In practice, however, all three kinds of cinemas are constantly exchanged in the doing and the theorising (Wayne 2001). Teshome’s later writings navigated these categories via the concept of nomadism.
Third Cinema instrumentalism, criticism and associated production practices, which in Mike Wayne’s (2001) terms, needed rescuing from “an internment in the past”, is ring-fenced by Ken Harrow in his theoretically transgressive book Postcolonial Africa Cinema. Harrow (2007: 24) elaborates: “The construction of African film criticism around the categories that were developed by [Ferid] Boughedir and Gabriel depended on modernist and nationalist models that continue to inform, prescribe, and limit our thinking.” This, he continues, can be seen “in Gabriel’s three-stage Fanonian model for Third World films that leads from domination to liberation – a Hegelian model of progressivist development.” Frantz Fanon, from the Island of Martinique, was educated in France and studied the role of culture in psychopathology.
We were all still fixed in one way or another within these rigid Cold War categories. How to creatively maneuver through them into a new open-ended future has been a problem faced by all liberation governments, also found currently in the populist ‘de-colonizing’ discourses that were unleashed by the fallist movement that swept through South African campuses after 2016. Yet, the dialogical thrust of the European educated Fanon in the original is often lost as new fallist social binaries simply invert in undialectical monological form those that have been dislodged (see Frassinelli 2018). Pluriversal knowledge (Grosfoguel 2011) that integrates between north and south, and east and west, must be transformative, which is what the scholar-practitioners discussed below achieved.
Pluriversality and Nomadism
Teshome’s overall contribution was much more than just a set of Fanonesque-derived filmic exhortations and associated Cold War binary categories and now clichéd phrases, that linearly move from domination to liberation. Though working and living within the breathtakingly massive Los Angeles urban sprawl, he was always a nomad at heart. A favoured spot was his campus coffee shop, located in an open-air square. This was the micro-public sphere at which Teshome would hold court, where I first met him with Ntongela. The cultural boycott against apartheid was under debate. When Teshome arrived, we talked, and discussed the work of my former student, Andrew Worsdale, who had studied with Teshome in the mid-1990s after completing his film studies at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg.
Surrounded at the UCLA café by his ever-attentive film students, Teshome would hold them spellbound, probing, suggesting, exploring their ideas. Excitement, passion and enthusiasm punctuated the vigorous and often lengthy discussions.
This was a time when universities were engaged in education and debate, dialogue and creativity, rather than just time-driven production-line tick boxing, technical certification and performance management scheduling as they do today.
Teshome’s creativity would have been stifled in such an instrumentalist contemporary neoliberal environment that brings its own discrete categories, fixed timetables and administrative limitations to bear. He was always a free soul who evaded categories, genres and chronological thinking.
Our paths touched in other ways also. First, Teshome was Andrew’s thesis/film supervisor. Andrew had been part of the first cohort of students to pass through the newly established Wits School of Dramatic Art that was launched in 1974 in response to the introduction of broadcast TV in 1976. These were extraordinary students whose later professional contributions redefined film and theatre in South Africa. On graduating, Andrew went to UCLA to pursue his dream, to sensibly evade military service, and possibly to escape from my own Third Cinema aesthetic predilections that focused on the documentary of social issues. These related to my own advocation of materialist film making as a way, a) of documenting the social conditions of apartheid South Africa; b) inserting films and videos into discursive struggles relating to such representation; and c) using the camera as a means towards liberation (see, e.g., Tomaselli 1987; Steenveld n.d.).
Teshome was intrigued that Andrew had been a student of mine at Wits. When first looking for Ntongela and I at the café, Teshome was expecting to find two black men. He inquired from Ntongela, where is “Tomaselli?” For Teshome, my writings had identified me as being socially empathetic, indicating, he suggested, “blackness as a state of mind”. This is an identification that I valued highly; questioned, however, in some ideologically reductive circles in contemporary South Africa. Decades later, after a stalled and astonishingly re-inscribed race-based liberation, remembering Teshome’s hailing of me, when invited to write a chapter for a book on autoethnography, I asked ‘Where does my body belong?’ as I had now found myself cast into in an indeterminate identity wilderness (Tomaselli 2018).
That post-apartheid official racial fixing, still interned in the past, continued to deny me contemporary hybridity, identity fluidity and self-agency.
Identity: The Diasporic Alternative
In contrast, a useful and dynamic conceptual framework was offered by another diasporic African then working in the USA (hailing originally from Sierra Leone). Handel Kashope Wright (2002) first realized that he was ‘black’ on arrival in Canada to commence a Master’s degree. Till then, ‘human’ had covered his self-conception; it was his pale North American hosts who inscribed him as black. The conceptual framework relating to diasporic identity that Handel derived from cultural studies also helped me to evade such historical subject exclusions and to think of myself as living a dynamic diasporic nomadic identity. This nomadic hybridity, honed with my many students by working with San desert communities in the Kalahari, took me to many places across the world, including Africa, America and China, where I was openly welcomed as an African.
Teshome, Ntongela and Handel all developed hybrid conceptual frameworks that enable transnational social inclusion, as they each navigated their own indeterminate places and identities in North America. They were not simply Africans living in the North-West inescapably fixed by their Western hosts in their intact ‘black’ identities. Rather, their African identities were (and are) “always already complex” and their “dislocation from Africa and relocation in the West makes for an overlapping of already complex African/diasporic identities” (Wright 2003: 14). Seeing beyond the path dependent on limiting categories was their intellectually lived nomadic wont. This was the case also with Ntongela’s inclusive analysis of the 300 writers who constituted the New Africa Movement.
It was under Teshome’s supervision that Andrew produced his magnum opus, Shot Down (1987), a very dark treatise on apartheid’s effects on subjectivity and creativity. LA Weekly ranked the film in the top ten of that year. Andrew, along with fellow Wits students like Darrell Roodt, Kevin Yates, Gulio Biccari, Greg Latter and Harriet Gavshon, took their enthusiasm, deep knowledge of film and desire to make movies, not just to watch them.
Like UCLA, the Wits School during the later 1970s was an extraordinarily vibrant place to be teaching, as it generated the frisson, energy and creativity of the American TV series, Fame (1982-1987), one of the early programmes to be flighted on the new South African Broadcasting TV service, though the Wits School’s launch had preceded the Fame series by eight years. These were heady times as black theatre was emerging, television was alerting viewers to new horizons, and film and TV studies were now firmly on the South African university agenda.
The second interaction between Teshome and I concerned a documentary, People of the Great Sandface (1985), made by Paul Myburgh. Taking his aesthetic cue from John Grierson’s socially radical British Documentary Movement of the 1930s (see Grierson 1966), Paul created in both book and film form a poetic narrative centered on Gikwe hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert, Botswana, through which he examined his own subjectivity. The film attracted massive condemnation by anthropologists who accused it of being “the Great White Lie” (see, e.g., Gordon 1992). Though questioned by such critical scholars, in a Jungian sense, the film intrigued, perplexed and reached into Myburgh’s own shadow self, being part of the human collective unconscious.
In the wake of a growing attack by American scholars on Jamie’s Uys’s pseudo-documentary, The Gods Must be Crazy (1980), and John Marshall’s poetic documentary The Hunters (1958; see Marshall 1993), Paul’s poetic revelatory social documentary had blundered into an acerbic debate about representation of the San that was then only just emerging. These were issues of image ethics that were then bothering critics in the West more than the desert communities back in Southern Africa (see Tomaselli 2006). Marshall, an American, who worked with the Ju/’hoansi over his whole life, was inducted as a member of the Ju/’hoansi clan in Namibia. More prominent examples of such identity hybridizations and inclusions have included ‘white Zulus’ such as musician Johnny Clegg and conservationists Ian Player and Nic Steele.
Not having yet started my extensive Kalahari field research, which from 1995 included the places and communities who were the subjects of these films in Namibia, Botswana and the Northern Cape, I approached Teshome and Ntongela and documentary film maker Amie Williams, to view People of the Great Sandface and analyse it in relation to the growing criticism by American anthropologists. This was a paradoxical film that had also grabbed the approving attention of my socially activist North Carolina University film students in 1990 who saw in it an appealing reconnection with anthropos, essential man, affirming a pre-Lapsarian cultural integrity before the Fall (in the Garden of Eden).
As always, Teshome brought a refreshing analytical perspective to the viewing. He did not condemn the film or its director. He did not join the anti-Myburgh anthropological chorus, but he tried to understand the film on its own terms. He commented that the film operates, first, at the level of autobiography. “The entire narration is Myburgh’s and articulates his own personal crisis.” The second level concerns the migration in search of water in the final edited documentary. “There are instances in both where they collide,” said Teshome, and where “I feel that Myburgh is really honestly in search of something. I don’t see a conflict in some of the statements that he makes ‑ for example, when he describes the relationship of the humans to the elements ‑ fire, air ‑ it’s just the water that is missing … He gives “the film a sense of harmony, closure, linearity ‑ everything that is not nomadic.” Myburgh is dialoguing with himself, searching for his own authenticity, for his own origins, his own place in the primordial world interrupted by modernity – that offers an inevitable future. Gabriel concluded: “Just like with Americans, Myburgh’s tendency is with the future – his future is very clear. Americans have no past; they have no roots. Myburgh most likely has no roots, so that the search is always for that future, and the future is limitless. That’s the way he constructs his own world in the film.”
Are we not all nomadic, genetic products of Africa, looking for identity, belonging and meaning?
Teshome’s Third Cinema thesis was simply an initial conceptual basis, one canonized by his space-time bound contemporaries, but not by himself. Teshome himself expresses the nomadic aesthetic as extra-cinematic: “though images belong in the past, they carry simultaneously possibilities and promises, because they also belong to the future” (1988: 75). His early analytical categories were fixed to the revolutionary needs of the Cold War period, but his aesthetic, like that of Masilela (1988), Lourens van der Post (e.g., 1961) and Myburgh’s, were grounded in nomadism, the original cultures of “the San, the Nam, the Barwa Batwa of the Kalahari, the Bedouin of Arabia, the Bakhtiars of Persia, the Fulanis of East and West Africa, or the Eskimos and Indians of North and South America, or the Originals (Ab-origines) of Australia, all reach back to ‘Africa’ where the first human cry was heard” (Gabriel 1988: 70).
This kind of observation was Teshome’s genius – his PhD on cinemas of resistance might have been categorical, but his own aesthetic was transgressive, deeply insightful, and fearless. This kind of response which assess situations in terms of their own merits elicit deeper truths. In Andrew Worsdale’s words: “I’ve always wanted to thank Teshome, or rather embrace his marked contribution to my life – even now as I’m reminded of his truths; I feel calmer and yet also bolder – somehow in teaching cinema he taught you about the soul of the earth, the spoiled soul of the world and your place in it and in helping it heal or at least paying respect to the ruins I guess” (mail, 15 April 2022).
Andrew continues: “I have wonderful, inspiring memories of his teaching, guidance and real kindness towards me as a ‘white seff effrican’ at UCLA. He was my thesis supervisor although, because he was thousands of miles away in a pre-internet world, he didn’t really do much advising on what would become Shot Down. But he certainly gave me the courage to follow my point of view as a filmmaker and when I returned to show the movie, he embraced me as if I were Glauber Rocha’s Jozi equivalent.” As one of the blind peer reviewers of this essay pertinently remarked:
“It is the spirit of curiosity that enables frisson in the collaborative and exploratory space of the university film school: driving the work in Film to explore one’s nomadic relationship with self and others, with self and place: this is where films like Shot Down, which I love very much, can be created.”
It is therefore no accident that Gabriel and Worsdale found each other in a like-minded aesthetic endeavor. As was Teshome’s wont, he made everyone feel worthy, he identified innate creativity, and he practiced his generosity. His performance was not just about ticking boxes, or fixing people in terms of preconceived and ruthlessly enforced social identities and ethnic ‘not-like-us’ boxes. His theory and aesthetic transcended race, class or gender. In maneuvering through these categories, Hegelian style, he charted future trends while keeping an eye on lessons offered by materialist history.
Contemporary South Africans who continue to reify debilitating regressive path dependencies and rear-view, sometimes xenophobic, racial, ethnic and national categories, could well learn from our diasporic future-oriented African colleagues like Gabriel, Ntongela, John and Handel – intellectual trailblazers all. To conclude with Handel’s analysis, one that claims the future to cope in the present, we are all “confronted with the challenges of being and becoming. We too are engaged in the possibility and necessity of creating a new culture and identity so that we can live” (Wright 2003: 14). In a world that is increasingly a post-colonial one, where massive population migrations, whether voluntary or enforced, have become an overwhelming and stressing reality, cultural hybridity and a fluid nomadism is the most salient means to social and intellectual survival (with some possible exceptions, e.g., China, North Korea, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Japan, that are trying to retain social and cultural homogeneity).
Handel, Ntongela and Teshome hail from different parts of Africa, John from the USA, and are all part of the global diaspora. The diaspora is us, as Ntongela and van der Post always argued, since we all originated from original San culture (and, of course, their genomes) (Schlebusch et al 2011). We have the science to prove a common humanity – the globality that was put in motion hundreds of thousands of years ago, but few have the imagination to constructively harness the power of the diaspora. That is the challenge we must continue to pursue.
My thanks to Andrew Worsdale for our trip back into history, and his suggestions on the essay. Thanks also to the two reviewers. This is the first herri article that has been subjected to the blind peer review process.
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