Doctoral projects (completed)
Of Water and Water Spirits in Southern African Literature (2022)
This project contributes to the growing scholarly work that foregrounds water as a critical tool for, and object of analysis. I am interested in how creative writers and filmmakers employ water and water spirits in forms such as novels and films from Southern Africa. While I refer to the beings as water spirits in this thesis, they are also known as water gods or deities. In this project, I explore how water spirits are used as innovative literary devices in different texts as they are re-imagined in line with changing historical contexts and authorial visions. Water is both life-giving and mortally dangerous, and water spirits often manifest similar dualities. To create a conceptual framework for this thesis, I benefitted from several theories that include water mythologies, magical realism, and post-colonial ecocritism. I argue that while the histories of the nation have been intricately tied to the land, a watery turn reveals fresh insights into our understandings of pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial conversations. Watery spaces are complex and contested sites like land territories. The complexity of watery spaces invites my exploration of the materiality of water and the representation of water spirits in the selected texts in a decolonial frame. The way the selected texts represent the entanglements between the human and non-human, land, and water, the natural and the supernatural, speaks to the many ways of being in the world.
Submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy to the Faculty of Humanities, School of Literature, Language and Media, University of the Witwatersrand, 2022.
Access the dissertation here: https://hdl.handle.net/10539/34075
The Re-Orienting Ocean: A Creative Praxis that Rearranges Human-Ocean Relations (2022)
This dissertation follows an unfolding praxis that inquires into the fluid potentials of human-ocean relations. The praxis combines embodied encounters, literature and art-making into an unmethodological, creative practice that opens up a sensorium for oceanic relations. The praxis treats knowledge-making as a necessarily messy reconfiguring process for analysing power and centring ontologies in human-ocean relations. It treats my own oceanic relations as a point of departure to reconceptualise overdetermined human figurations. These relations funnel into encounters had with high weathering systems on a voyage I undertook across parts of the Indian Ocean. By analysing the loss of broadcast signal and the associated rise of static in the radio receiver during this voyage, the praxis locates a zone for politicising discomfort through the noisy activity of terra-ocean tensions. This zone opens toward the material activities of oceanic weathering, which informs ontological understandings for oceanic relations. In the pursuit for such understandings, human-ocean figurations are rearranged via perceptions of the oceanic. Working through perceptions in this way helps to set them adrift in wayward directions from over-determined terra-associated perceptions of the oceanic. In this, the notion of singularity projected within the anthropocene shifts toward a sensuous multiplicity, which is associated with the sensitiveness of the Indian Ocean itself, and oceanic more broadly.
View images from the exhibition, Static Drift.
Doctoral projects (current)
The Intra-Active Vaal Dam: Tracing Water to Landlocked Johannesburg
This project examines the political and material implications of Johannesburg’s water and uses my art-making practice to centre the role of water within past and present human stories of Johannesburg. The Vaal Dam – the major resource and repository of water for this landlocked city – is my primary site and focal point, connected to the city which drinks from it as well as the sources of water that flow into it. Its connections via a hydrological system are somewhat controlled (via pipes, reservoirs, drains, and waste treatment plants) yet also operate outside of these human-oriented barriers (via leaks, floods, evaporation, saturation). The water that is brought to and exits from Johannesburg via this system is valued in terms of its quantity and its usefulness in human and industrial consumption. The creative process of this research is intended to encourage alternatives to this narrow modeof understanding. Johannesburg water, collected from sites along the trajectory to the city from the dam, and from the dam itself, will be used in artistic experimentation which feeds back into the creative practice and academic research in an ongoing cycle. This creates a body of written and visual work that mirrors the fluid nature of the watery subject. Through this material engagement, this project will think through the water politics in a city experiencing the impact of the Anthropocene. New ways of imagining water are, and will continue to be, essential as climate change associated with the Anthropocene alters weather patterns on which the water system relies.
Liquid Violence in African and Afro-diasporic Texts
Reading selected cultural works from Africa and its diaspora, my research interrogates the weaponisation and militarisation of water bodies. My interest lies in how liquid violence intersects with structural violence and the bio-politics of neoliberal regimes. Traversing genre, disciplinary and national borders, the project traces black people’s experiences with water as both material and metaphor. Who owns, maps, and polices liquid territories? How does the materiality of water shape aesthetics of representation? What forms of agency materialise from the non-human and human in the wake of hyper-capitalism? I make the claim that these dynamics are complicated and legible in creative works from Africa and its diaspora.
The Politics and Poetics of Dams in Chosen African Texts
The project explores the portrayal of dams in chosen texts from Africa. Reading farm and mega-dams as cultural texts, I consider the intricate assemblages and experimental forms inspired by these hydro-infrastructures that are central to the colonial and post-colonial projects. I offer that the ambivalences and complexities of dams are more amplified and clearer in popular cultural texts. Grounded in Isabel Hofmeyr, Sarah Nuttall and Charne Lavery’s concept of the hydro-infrastructural (2021), this interdisciplinary project reorients attention towards the place of water and modern infrastructures in the formation of African nations and cultural products.
(Project title and description coming soon)
Master's projects (completed)
Rabia Abba Omar
Whispers of the Deep: An Exploration of the ‘Unshackled History: The Wreck of the Slave Ship São José, 1794’ Exhibition (2021)
On 27th December 1794, the São José Parquete d’Africa wrecked just off the shores of Cape Town. Battling the rough winds, high swells and stuck between two reefs, the crew set about to rescue their most precious cargo – the 512 enslaved people held in the ship’s hold. Despite the efforts of the crew and the people on the shore, 212 enslaved people succumbed as the ship broke into pieces. For over two centuries the story of the São José was no more than a footnote, as the ship and the objects on it began to erode on the seafloor. A discovery by researchers from the Slave Wrecks Project has shed light on this story and a part of South Africa’s history that is not often discussed. In December 2018, nearly 224 years after its wrecking, the Iziko Museums’ Slave Lodge in Cape Town unveiled an exhibition dedicated to telling this part of South Africa’s slave history, entitled ‘Unshackled History: The Wreck of the Slave Ship São José, 1794’.
This exhibition was made possible through the work of a global network of researchers, divers, maritime archaeologists, conservationists and curators. Together they dredged the São José from the murky and salty realm of the forgotten and the unremembered and created an interactive exhibition with tangible touch points to slavery, both locally and globally. This research report explores the ‘Unshackled History’ exhibition, specifically the use and display of intangible and tangible heritage, the use of affect and aesthetic representations, as well as the presence of the ocean and water within the exhibition. To do this, I have employed a range of methods, including thinking of, with, and through the ocean, emotion networking, interviews with people involved in this exhibition and the São José from the Slave Wrecks Project and the Slave Lodge, and reading for water. The effect of this is a deep dive into the ‘Unshackled History’ exhibition, discussions on the production of heritage and the importance of feelings and emotions within memorywork.
Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts in Heritage Studies to the Faculty of Humanities, School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, 2021.
Access the thesis here: https://hdl.handle.net/10539/33884
Anézia António Asse
Saving or Selling Underwater Heritage? The Role and Impact of Treasure Hunting on the Island of Mozambique (2021)
Maritime archaeologists claim to be the ones with the legal rights and skills to research and determine the use of underwater heritage. This raises tension with other stakeholders such as academic researchers, local communities, governments and professional treasure hunters. I explore this situation using the case study of Mozambique Island where a large-scale commercial treasure hunting company, Arqueonautas, recovered and sold valuable underwater heritage items around the world. Under pressure from various concerned stakeholders, the Mozambiquan government terminated Arqueonautas’ hunting contract in 2014. Thereafter, maritime archaeologists stepped in to preserve and conserve what was left while some local communities took part in small commercial treasure hunting activities. To understand perceptions on underwater heritage, this ethnographic research interviewed marine tour guides, informal sellers, boat manufacturers and fisherfolk whose lives depend on the Island of Mozambique sea. Accordingly, the research contributes to underwater heritage debates arguing that it is crucial to take into consideration the interests of all the stakeholders (the government, international organizations for conservation of cultural heritage, local communities, marine archeologists, academic researchers and treasure hunters) associated with underwater heritage.
Submitted to the Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Heritage, 2021.
Access the thesis here: https://hdl.handle.net/10539/32108
Hydro-colonialism: A Hydro-critical Reading of Three Texts on Kariba (2021)
This research report offers a hydro-critical reading of three texts on Kariba dam. Kariba dam becomes a source of narrative temporality that reminds us that colonization was as much a struggle for water as it was for land, a realisation that helps us to reimagine Southern African colonization and decolonization discourse from almost exclusively land-based perspectives. Although the texts I have selected are largely binary and are informed by colonial schemas, my watery analysis aims to lay bare these structures and highlight the points at which these binaries become unsustainable. I argue that immersing colonialism in water underscores the paradoxes of colonization and decolonization more sharply. The theoretical framework for this research draws on Isabel Hofmeyr’s concept of hydro-colonialism (2019) and Rob Nixon’s notion of slow violence (2011), a combination of theories that offers ways to think about water and hydrological themes from an ecological and post-colonial perspective. The research report considers the use of water as a weapon of political terror, explores colonization of water, examines the colonization of the idea of water, critiques colonial constructions of water and reads water as a narrative technique.
Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree Master of Arts in African Literature to the Faculty of Humanities, School of Social Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, 2021.
Access the thesis here: https://hdl.handle.net/10539/33784
Bottled Seawater: A Sea Inland (2021)
This project is concerned with the wide-spread practice of using sea water for healing and spiritual purposes. Deriving from Nguni and other traditions, this practice is linked to the ‘people of water’, usually water-based diviners, for whom the sea is a realm of ancestors, a site for spiritual cleansing and grounding. The sea holds potential to heal and its curative powers live in the water. While in the past such practices occurred at the coast, with urbanisation and industrialisation the practice has been adapted and now one can purchase bottles of sea water inland. The main purpose of this research is to artistically explore and reflect on beliefs and practices involving bottled seawater for spiritual, health and healing purposes. The first chapter introduces the study, outlines its research purpose and sets out the frameworks informing the project. These are African Indigenous Knowledge, Caribbean and South African oceanic perspectives, and ritual. The second chapter explains the performative methodologies of play and ritual which have informed my ongoing series of performances. Through this framework, the body is a site of transformation. Through performance, I consider the re-positioning of rituals and their generated meaning/s within a contemporary South African context. The third chapter explores my durational performance Black is Blue (2019) and links it to the ideas set out in the first two chapters.
Submitted to the Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts, 2021.
Access the thesis here: https://hdl.handle.net/10539/32235
Zoe Naledi Neocosmos
“Water Always Remembers”: Ecology and Being in Yvette Christiansë’s Literary Works (2020)
This thesis investigates two of Yvette Christiansë’s literary works. Unconfessed (2006) and Imprendehora (2009) from the twin perspectives of slave histories and oceanic studies. Themes of ecology and the ocean have not been extensively explored in her works. Placing the sea as a point of critical perspective, this project explores how an oceanic imaginary functions within Christiansë’s works. How might the sea, and related ecologies, extend modes of existence of the disfigured slave subject? Can qualities of the ocean help re-enchant a fractured world? Through close readings of the two works, the project explores the related themes of the ecological, the nonhuman and sacredness. The introduction sets out the aim and rationale of the project, followed by a literature review explaining the different strands of scholarship and theoretical work that have been used to create a scaffolding for my reading of Christiansë’s work. The first chapter explores histories of Cape slavery and oceanic perspectives in Christiansë’s works. The second chapter considers Joshua Bennett’s ‘more than human socialities’, and Mel Y Chen’s theory of ‘animacy’ as a route into investigating enslaved persons at sea and multiple compositions of the nonhuman. The third chapter deploys M. Jacqui Alexander’s notion of ‘the Sacred’ and Harry Garuba’s animist discourse as another route into Christiansë’s texts. The Conclusion returns to theories of ‘ocean materialities’ as a tool in broadening modes of thinking about literature and slavery in South Africa.
Submitted to the Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, 2020.
Access the dissertation here: https://hdl.handle.net/10539/30830
The Submarine World of Abalone (2020)
Working interstitially, or what Donna Haraway (2017) would call “tentacularly”, I will trace the lives of abalone in the sea as well the lives they have on land in farms, and the worlds their flesh animate when dried or frozen. In lieu of abalone narratives, I will look at the ways in which abalone come to be in law, government projects, the eyes of poachers, and marine biologists. To understand the underwater world of those engaged in abalone, Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader’s Poacher: Confessions from the Abalone Underworld is particularly generative. This submarine world, or in Kimon de Greef and Shuhood Abader’s (2018) words: “underworld”, allows us to see the relations that are formed through the poaching, production, and consumption of abalone, highlighting what Anna Tsing (2005) would call, “the friction of global capital”, its messiness and the connections created through it. I also look to the ways government abalone aquafarming websites commodify abalone and water through their representations of the seas. Finally, I look at the abalone-mandrax assemblage facilitated by interactions with Chinese Triads as explored in Morris’ documentary The Story of the South African Quaalude. By engaging in these readings I hope to engage in environmental questions, such as: Would interspecies justice mean taking into consideration abalone lifestyle, while recognizing that poachers are victims of an apartheid past they are trying to redress? How do we synthesize these two positions, when the ocean operates on its own time scale? The answers are unclear, but the range of worlds into which these sea molluscs have slid makes thinking of a solution more complex.
Black Aesthetics and the Deep Ocean (2019)
This thesis aims at exploring the ways contemporary black writing has contributed to the imaginaries of the deep ocean. Working with the black aesthetic as well as questions of ocean waste, the thesis looks into the deep ocean as an avenue to think with the aquatic environments emergent future, and past, as well as the ways in which perceptions of the marine environment are influenced in turn. The introduction clearly sets out the rationale of the project, in seeking to complicate simplistic received ideas of black intellectual traditions being cast as nationalistic, territorial or ‘landlocked’ modes, and to draw out the range of cultural, historical and artistic encounters with the sea, as both physical entity and mythic force. The thesis moves from historical analysis (particularly with regard to the mapping of the ocean floor), decolonial studies, feminist epistemologies and cultural / oceanic materialism (in drawing attention to the ‘agentive’ character of the oceans) towards a more fine-grained, open-ended and literary / art-historical mode of interpretation in considering the work of Claudette Schreuder, Neliswe Xaba, Wangechi Mutu, Nalo Hopkinson, Koleka Putuma, Romesh Guneskera and Kei Miller. The thesis treats these various materials sensitively, drawing out their often ambivalent reactions to the ocean with care. At its heart, the project explores the extent to which different cultural mediums (from poetry to visual art to the novel) are able to acknowledge or honour forms of agency where these have often been overlooked or denied by certain kinds of environmentalist, or even postcolonial, discourse.
Submitted to the Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts.
Access the thesis here: https://hdl.handle.net/10539/29311