Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Talk presented on 20 April 2023 at Chisenhale Gallery London UK for Ravelle Pillay’s exhibition, Idyll.

1. The Invitation (2022) oil on canvas

“Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Ravelle Pillay, Idyll, Chisenhale Gallery

Good evening. Thank you all for coming and thank you to Olivia Ahern and the Chisenhale team for organizing the event. I’ll be walking around to each work in the exhibit and reading a kind of extended caption. Please sit where you are or accompany me sitting or standing or wander around on your own, whatever is most comfortable. The reading / performance lasts for about 45 minutes.

I say a kind of extended caption because I’m not sure what else to call the short texts accompanying each work. As you will see they are not conventionally explanatory or stuck to the wall, but rather a sort of textual assemblage or soundscape that engages Ravelle Pillay’s work — its themes and intentions — from my very idiosyncratic point of view and with my abilities, which are not art historical. Hopefully, the other writers I cite will make worthwhile additions to the reading list Ravelle prepared for the exhibition. On your seat, you’ll find an amended reading list.

If you’ve read any of the exhibition notes, you’ll know that Ravelle is descended from indentured labourers who left India to work under contract in what was then the colony of Natal. While people from India had been brought as slaves to South Africa as early as the 1650’s — and in the 17th and 18th centuries, over 50% of all slaves at the Cape were from Bengal and South India—in the 19th century the British Empire abolished the slave trade[1]. It then needed labour to work that empire and it marshalled Indian and Chinese people under arrangements of indenture, one of the largest mass migration of the 19th century. Between 1860 and 1911, when indenture officially ended in South Africa, 152,184 indentured migrants arrived to Natal from India. These origins are important to Ravelle as a South African and important to the work in this exhibition, which traffics in the haunted legacies and landscapes created by and in indenture and in the dispossession of the Zulu and the destruction of their indigenous economy and society in what’s now called KwaZulu-Natal and more broadly throughout the British empire.

The painter and writer, though they may consult the same archival photographs and documents, work in different mediums. Oil on canvas, words on paper. However, we do share something of a similar standpoint or relationship to working with colonial and state archives. That standpoint is instantiated beautifully by Aswin Desai and Goolam Vahed in their book, Inside Indian Indenture: A South African Story 1860-1914, which Ravelle kindly sent me and which is on your reading list. I quote them:

“Indentured life was trespassed with systematic violence from the outside, as well as within…. [and] lived in the context of a white ruling class that saw them through the lens of …. [racial capitalist categories]. The colonists were determined to reduce the indentured to the catch-all ‘coolie.’ …. Kuli, in Tamil, referred to payment for menial work for persons from the lowest levels in the industrial market. In the ‘transformation of kuli to coolie, the distinct humanity of individual Indians was appropriated and eliminated as the person collapsed into the payment.’ [And yet indentured life] had its resisters and its collaborators, its class fighters and its caste defenders. The indentured, as much as the system tried to control and confine them, carved a number of different spaces in the new environment, prayed to a myriad of gods and swayed to the beat of many dances…”[2]

Desai and Vahed, sociologist and historian respectively, have produced a remarkable book in which they restore that complex humanity — with all its ambiguities and complexities — to the people whose stories they center in a social history that “extends beyond the boundaries of institutions, yet is situated in the social web of indenture itself, especially the …intense world of the plantation” with its unrelenting misery and subordination[3]. They are stories of the ordinary in all its registers, of resignation, of resistance, of collaboration, of improvisation, of both the success and the failure of the colonial “overlords” to impose their will.

Desai and Vahed find the voices of the indentured where Ravelle Pillay finds them too: not so much in but “beyond their presence” in a vast archive of documents, ship’s logs, magistrate proceedings, photographs and contracts where X marks a name, a signature, an uncertain life to come. Kuli, coolie, Passenger 122. Muniyammah. Female. Single. Aged 16. 22 October 1882: Muniyammah reported missing. Allegedly committed suicide. Andi Sinnan, cobbler, her betrothed, gives testimony.[4] And from that testimony, the archive leaks that which it thought it could contain. As Ravelle says, “I think about … refus[ing] to compound the indignity of apartheid with the further indignity of not allowing space for life beyond it. I think about that a lot in my own work — the people in the photographs having lives beyond their presence in the image. I try to carefully imagine their existence beyond being documented in the Colonial Office Archives.”[5]

To insist on our ability — our obligation — to imagine an existence beyond what’s given for us, given in the papers and images that contain traces of our history and our life; beyond what’s given in the deeper frameworks that organize how we even conceive of an individual life, a family, a larger collectivity, this obligation and invitation is one Ravelle and I share and which joins us in solidarity and perhaps in a kind of friendship across the sea and across the work we each do. I’m sorry Ravelle isn’t here tonight but I offer up these words to her paintings in this spirit.

2. Untitled (2023), 10 drawings on truegrain acetate

“Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Ravelle Pillay, Idyll, Chisenhale Gallery

Untitled (2023), 10 drawings on truegrain acetate. They could be studies for the foliage in the paintings, for the paintings that are haunted landscapes with looming oversized plants. Ten exercises in the composition of the banana tree leaf, ten exercises in motif, ten gestures towards the stipule, a small leaf-like appendage to a leaf. There is a deliberate attention to light and shadow, to casting phantom forms that call to each other across the room, and a noticeable absence of the colour that is everywhere else in the work carefully calibrated and sometimes running riot.

When I first see them, I think they look like photographic negatives because of the acetate and because of the relationship of light and dark. Later, I think they seem to me the most photographic element in the room, despite their being the one work in which the photograph, which otherwise plays such an important role in the paintings as prompt and as palimpsest, is less obviously present. Ravelle says that the painting could be “a misleading iteration of the photograph.”[6] This is true, just as the photograph can be a misleading iteration of itself. There is no need, I think, for a general disquisition on the archival or documentary photograph and the way it is and isn’t itself. I suspect everyone here has heard it or heard one and to be honest it doesn’t get us very far in the end. Because in the end, everything of interest is in the detail of a photograph, whether it be Roland Barthes famous “off-center detail” (the punctum) that accidently “pricks me” into a relationship with the image that somehow brings its blindfield into view, and which is, Barthes wisely insists, what I add to the photograph that is nonetheless already there. Or in the absent or missing detail that pricks similarly.[7]

The misleading photograph on my mind at the moment is in the Fiji folder. Photograph 1069-647-26-8188651122. Let’s call it 651122 for short. There are over 20 photographs in the Fiji folder Ravelle shares with me and many of them are in an album. You can see the seam of the album binding in Photograph 651122 and see what appears to be the top of a deep red tassel. Ravelle has taken a photograph of the photograph on a black background which highlights the sepia tone of the image and the red tassel holding tight to some other place in the book. I zoom in and remove the black background and the tassel, although I find the red and the shape of the tassel pleasing. In the foreground, there are trees with their tops cut off and brush coming out of the wood, down to a sandy path along the river. There is a small canoe at the left mid-horizon, and across the water at the far horizon of the image is the silhouette of a strip of land that runs to the edge of the image’s frame. The sun casts a glaring light on the trunk of the group of trees, and there are burn marks from either original overexposure or the aging of the photograph or poor storage handling. The handwritten caption reads: “View of village stockade and reach of the Reva River from Andi Kuila’s House.” Whether by stockade the caption writer meant a prison or a defensive wall of wooden posts — both common enough on plantations — I can see no stockade of any sort. I’m sure it’s there, but I cannot see it.

I begin to think there’s some mischief in photograph 651122 when I realize it looks very much like a photograph taken by Timothy O’Sullivan between 1860 and 1865 of a bend in the Savannah River, in the state of Georgia, then still fiercely confederate. As an aside, it’s probably worth mentioning — and not only because the histories of slavery, indenture and the transportation of convicts, debtors, and prisoners of war are so completely entwined in the making of the modern racial capitalist world — that the colony of Georgia was founded by the so-called reformer James Oglethorpe, a former army officer, whose intent was to settle land belonging to the 14-tribe Creek Confederacy with prisoners taken from Britain’s debtorprisons, in the name of poverty relief. Indeed, King George II, in his magnificence and arrogance, granted to Ogelthrope’s corporation the territory of Georgia “in trust for the poor.” The first settlers arrived in February 1732 on the banks of the Creek-named Savannah River and built the fortified town of the new debtor’s colony, naming it Savannah, where my great grandmother would move after marrying, having been born and grown up in a tiny rural town south of Macon called Eastman.

There are actually two “Views on the Savannah River” and I know these photographs (Library of Congress 33120 and 33121) very well because they show well-known crossing points for enslaved people running away from the plantations following what Ernst Bloch called “the star of utopian destiny.”[8] Photo 651122 is taken from a closer angle to the river than O’Sullivan’s photographs and from the opposite shore — the trees are on the left rather than the right side of the image. But there’s no mistaking that this is a fugitive crossing. There’s even a small boat awaiting and a warning too about what’s across the river: the cotton regime, capture and confinement. And cotton is important here because the Civil War and the general strike of the enslaved on the plantations in Georgia, South Carolina and elsewhere disrupted the global supply of cotton, which led to the cultivation of the cash crop in Fiji by American, Australian and British colonists and led to the especially violent and cruel plantation system and war against the islands’ indigenous peoples. It’s uncanny how identical the trees and the path out from the protected woods are in these photographs separated by a very long distance and catalogued according to completely different numerical classification systems. Maybe, as Eddie Bruce-Jones writes, “all rivers are contemporaries.” I’ve no idea whether Andi Kuila was friend or foe but the house was a marker of some sort, an instruction still kept secret, a detail missing from the photographic image. I add Photo 651122 to the Hawthorn Archive where now it keeps good company with its friends 33120 and 33121.

In Ravelle’s paintings, the photograph, which is never simply itself, is the negative of the painting. The painting is a “misleading iteration of the photograph” or photographs in the plural as these paintings all have multiple negatives (and kinfolk), none of them quite themselves. Things not of themselves are misleading each other. You can see where they are misleading me.

3. Victory (flesh that weeps) (2023)

“Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Ravelle Pillay, Idyll, Chisenhale Gallery

Victory (flesh that weeps) (2023). Let’s stay in the Fiji archive for a moment longer. Mostly because this painting is very dangerous and I want to get away from it. First of all, our gentle archive yellow, “the yellow light of the young leaves,”[9] has been transformed into trophy gold, dripping victory and two-handed monuments to the sporting life, competition, the race of the races, and the sordid history of youth groups like the Boy Scouts and sporting teams stealing for their powers indigenous names and animal spirits. Second of all, that dried blood colour, not red no not red at all, along the back wall and seeping in from the sides and along the floor, enveloping the edges and reaching for the two boys in grass skirts, is an ominous harbinger of what might happen at any moment. Think of Melville’s Benito Cereno. The fewer words spent here the better.

I feel the best I can do is to keep close to the fugitive crossing and encourage the boys to escape, to run out of the painting as fast as possible, to find somewhere else to be somebody else. Otherwise, the leaders in the grass skirts are very likely to collect all the angry and unhappy faces and cut this image of victory to shreds. Yellow red black white grey, however you mix it, there is a sharp air of violent things to come, more precisely, there is a sharp air of being ready for making the last be first and the first last, a complete overturning, what, Fanon asserted, “decolonization puts into practice.”[10] There will be no accommodation, no reconciliation, no making a nice story out of it, no colouring in cultural heritage, no peaceful protests in chant, no easy refusal, no cosy critical spot for the intellectuals and the artists, no, none of that at all with those grass skirts.“How do we pass from the atmosphere of violence [endemic to the colonial regime] to violence in action? What makes the lid blow off?” Fanon asks in “Concerning Violence,” the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth.[11] He doesn’t know. Just one thing too many or too few or a set of organized and spontaneous circumstances that can never be calculated into a prediction in advance. I’d have to spend more time with these boys to give a better answer and I need to move on. But let’s add Chapters one and three too on “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness” — they should be read together — to the reading list.

4. The Instruction (a gathering of friends) (2022)

“Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Ravelle Pillay, Idyll, Chisenhale Gallery

The Instruction (a gathering of friends) (2022). Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk is an “ars poetica in 59 versos,” as she calls it. In publishing, a verso refers to the back side of a page in a bound book, the “back of a leaf,” or the left-facing page when one is reading from left to right. In The Blue Clerk, the versos are printed on both recto and verso pages, there are in fact more than 59 of them, and there are also what are called stipules, those small leaf-like appendages to a leaf, which I mentioned earlier. In general, there is lush southern hemisphere foliage in the versos, although less green than one might expect. There are two contending voices in the book, the author and the clerk, who discuss and argue over many topics, including the personal life of Charles Mingus and what will and won’t be published in the book, whose title I suspect the clerk did not approve. The author oversees “the presentable things, the beautiful things,” while the often-exasperated clerk, “in an ink blue coat on a lonely wharf,” manages the poet’s “accumulated left-hand pages — the unwritten, the withheld, the unexpressed, the withdrawn, the restrained, the word-shard.”

In The Instruction (a gathering of friends), the painter calibrates the red background to the humidity and heat of Kwa-Zulu Natal. Like the painter, the blue clerk uses and confronts colour. Blue takes over the work of the clerk. “Blue the clerk has collected from exhaustion.”[12] “This is what the clerk says, blue-ribbed. Blue quarrels, blue diastole, blue steering, blue expenses, blue mileage, blue havoc, blue appliance, blue creeks…. the sedge of blue.”[13] The blue clerk does colour in serial, also like the painter, but for a different reason. The clerk has to contend with so many things — volumes of things — since the poet has “withheld more than” she “has written” and “the bales,” which “have abilities the clerk is forever curtailing and marshalling,” “have been piling up for years.” The blue clerk does colour in serial: violet like this. “Violet. This is what the clerk thinks. Violet hand, violet notes, violet metre, violet hammer, violet bed, violet scissors, violet management, violet speed, yes with violet speed, violet washers, violet sleep, violet percent … violet incarceration, … immediate violet, violet labour, … violet transcripts, suspended violet for now, violet cancels, violet schemes.[14] And on and on.”

Like the painter, the poet doesn’t “owe” the reader “understanding” or explanation. So, no explanation just “my grandfather” and what sounds out from that filial relation.

Verso 1.1.01. And the first image that came to me after that was my grandfather’s face with his tortoiseshell spectacles and his weeping left eye and his white shirt and his dark seamed trousers and his newspaper and his moustache and his clips around his shirt sleeves and his notebooks and his logbooks…
In his notebooks, my grandfather logged hundredweight of copra, pounds of chick feed and manure; the health of horses, the nails for their iron shoes; the acreages of coconut and tania; the nuisance of heliconia; the depth of two rivers; the length of a rainy season …
My grandfather with his logs and notebooks lived in a town by the sea. That sea was like a lucent page to the left of the office where my grandfather kept his logs and his notebooks with their accounts. Apart from the depth of the two rivers … he also noted the tides and the times of their rising and falling…
And, the rain, he recorded, the number of inches and its absence. He needed to know about the rain for sunning and drying the copra. And, too, he kept a log of the sun, where it would be and at what hour; and its angle to the earth in what season. …Come to think of it he must have logged the clouds moving in. He said that the rain always came in from the sea…
The sea brought too, blue-red kilometres of Physalia physalis.[15]

5. There is water at the bottom of the ocean (2023)

“Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Ravelle Pillay, Idyll, Chisenhale Gallery

There is water at the bottom of the ocean (2023), a study in “the intimacies of the four continents,” to quote the evocative title of Lisa Lowe’s important book about the often disconnected connections between Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas in the entangled histories of settler colonialism, the African slave trade, and the trade in Asian peoples and goods.[16]

This painting reminds me of law professor and poet Eddie Bruce-Jones who is writing a book about indenture woven from a similar kind of cloth as Ravelle Pillay’s paintings. He kindly shared with me some pages from the Introduction, which opens with an epigraph from Toni Morrison: “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” The chapter is entitled “Kaala Paani” and here is an excerpt.

“I almost missed the chance to visit the [indentured labourers] memorial, but fortuitously a friend passed me Guatam’s personal contact information and I wrote him, without realising that he is also the informal keeper of the history of the docks. He knows Kidderpore with a detail that few others still living can possibly know it. He knows the history of buildings that no longer exist, the business aspirations of local ironmongers long since passed away, and the locations of demolished ports. He knows Kolkata’s part of the indenture story, and illustrates for me the passage of labourers from the countryside through to the area known as Garden Reach.
The Hoogly, which flows from the Ganges, is a tidal river, Gautam instructs. The British modelled their ports around the river to create a London of the East… the tides helping to move the swells of goods and people in and out. He walks with me onto a modern jetty and out over the water, to get a view of the Howrah Bridge from the river. It is silvery grey, its characteristic shape a silhouette behind its modern twin, the Kona Expressway, which resembles the Manhattan Bridge to me. Neither of these bridges existed in the time of indenture, when the waterway was jammed and throbbing with life …
There are several rivers in my life that I was bound to step into and across, haunted by them, compelled to them and constituted by them as I am. The water sculpts, refracts, it carries and holds, it destroys and nourishes, it disappears and re-emerges elsewhere. It is inside us and is us, it connects us to others and to ourselves.
One river, the Hudson, is the river of my childhood, where my parents spent early years and where my grandparents—some migrants from the British West Indies and some migrants from the southern US States—decamped and started to lay down roots…
There is a second river, the Pee Dee, by which my father’s family left, with thousands of others, during the Great Migration to the north. They were not escaping from the water, exactly, although the basin collected all the blood they managed to give the land they tilled. The were escaping by way of the water. The Pee Dee, on the northern edge of South Carolina, was the watershed for Pegues Place, the plantation that gave my great great grandmother her name…. The third river, the Rio Minho, is the river in Clarendon, Jamaica that fed the sugar estate where my mother’s family, indentured East Indians, cut cane for three generations…. The youngest of the final generation of cutters, the namesake of his older brother, fled, reconstituted himself and fled again, changing state like rain and landing, with so many others, on the Hudson
The Ganges is the fourth river, where I would eventually sit with Gautam, in the silence of an ossified port. For my ancestors there was direction of flow: Ganges first, then Rio Minho, and so on. For me, the rivers are all contemporaries. Time is a different proposition for those of us stranded, like barnacles on the rusted ship of diaspora docked forever just offshore.
Water, and more precisely, the tidal flows of rivers and oceans…are choreographed by the pull of gravity and, in turn, choreograph movement, the metamorphosis of precipitation, dark depths that resist knowing but nonetheless sustain life… Its life-giving dynamism mirrors the life cycles of all earth’s beings, and in particular ways, this applies to those processed through the machinery of colonial commerce and transport—even to the extent that death can be treated not as afterlife but rather as a temporal stage in a bigger arc of movement, a state of being. The concept of the kaala paani, in the way that it is remembered in the context of the South Asian diaspora descendants of indentured labourers, hints towards the un-knowability of the depths—the immediate danger in breaking with known societies and surrendering to unknown ones. The image conjures a dark perilous plane, a turbulent route that is meant to change the person who crosses it into someone different—someone whose connections are maimed by deliberately stepping out into the water, and who is no longer recognisable by their kin, as though history were not able to serve as a container for them.In some ways, then, water generally and kaala paani in particular have been used as frames not only for describing the physics of the indentureship journeys, but their metaphysics—of the ability to engage historically with the liminal ebb and flow of the dead, to grapple with the existence of life beyond the shallows of historical record and, though tethered, to imagine ourselves into the abyss.
Gautam is thankful for my reverence for the subject of indenture. We grapple for a language to describe my presence in India. ‘Return’ is a word he uses, but it is a proxy for something less simple or complete. We struggle to find a place for connection and stare quietly at the river.”[17]

Thank you, Eddie.

6. Did you count the months and years or did your teardrops quickly dry (2022)

“Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Ravelle Pillay, Idyll, Chisenhale Gallery

Did you count the months and years or did your teardrops quickly dry (2022), another study in the intimacies of four continents, the many middle passages and routes of indenture carrying bound labour into the service of capitalist markets and modern liberal political orders.I follow thin threads dropped by this beautiful painting, which invites a meditative stance in the pace and rhythm set by the two strolling women and the girl child. I’m rushing here. Thread one: the colour, archive yellow. The painting is in the yellow colour of the mats framing the old photographs taken in Guyana on the rubber plantations. It’s a very pale yellow that here has been oversaturated, as if the negative was overexposed. The yellow has bleached the banana tree leaves of their green, a loss that unsettles me in an odd way, and there’s the red of the tropical heat again around the edges.

Thread two, the source of the painting’s title, which is the Pogues’ great song, “Thousands Are Sailing,” about Irish migration to the United States to escape famine and British rule, whose first stanzas should really be heard sung by Shane MacGowan and read like this:

The island, it is silent now
But the ghosts still haunt the waves
And the torch lights up a famished man
Who fortune could not save
Did you work upon the railroad?
Did you rid the streets of crime?
Were your dollars from the White House?
Were they from the Five-and-Dime?
Did the old songs taunt or cheer you?
And did they still make you cry?
Did you count the months and years
Or did your teardrops quickly dry?
"Ah, no", says he, "it was not to be
On a coffin ship I came here
And I never even got so far
That they could change my name"
Thousands are sailing
Across the western ocean
To a land of opportunity
That some of then will never see

Thread three: Jamaica, the location of the photographic negative, the destination of large numbers of Irish people, including displaced and dispossessed free men and women and convicts indentured and transported as punishment for poverty, for troublemaking, for not believing in the Christian one god, and for being savages, which they remained in the eyes of the English until they accepted the wages of whiteness and its “racial regime of ownership.”[18] It’s worth recalling that in the early 17th century, the English used Ireland as a laboratory for an export-oriented plantation economy worked by labour taken as war booty in their destruction of the Gaelic clans. The plantation failed as a viable economic form in Ireland, but Derry became an important garrison town for the British in its settlement and rule of the rest of the island. Ironically, many of the New Model Army soldiers who were spared death for joining, in 1649, with the rural and urban poor in the long fight against enclosure, agrarian capitalism, and its parliamentary democracy — a fight they almost won in the other English Civil War — were punished by military service in Ireland under the commands of Oliver Cromwell and Henry Ireton. When Cromwell’s military campaign ended in 1653, the Army, unable to pay the workforce its wages, gave over 12,000 soldiers confiscated Catholic land to settle, permitting them to keep their weapons in case of future rebellions, which they used to enforce the colonization and partition of Ireland, having forgotten what they knew and opposed about the miserable relationship between money, war, private property, status and governance that Anglo capitalism enforced.

Cromwell also sent several thousand others to Jamaica, bound to the Crown’s hope of securing it as a colony, which it did in 1655. There they met up again with the thousands of Irish men, women and children who were transported, many of them sold as slaves, before during and after the English civil war, to work as domestics and wet nurses and on the sugar and tobacco plantations in Barbados, Jamaica, St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat. Many Irish sent to the West Indies still held not only to communal lifeways but also to a non-Christian metaphysics, sharing elements of the old pagan religion and its knowledges with their African brothers and sisters. The centerpole, the snake, the drum, the rhythm each god required to dance: to “hear the long snake moan” is to hear the origin of an Americas music that consistently disavowed its own syncretic non-monotheistic African Irish metaphysical origins.[19] The intimacies of the four continents sound deep and rough.

7. Cold Water (the undrowned) (2022) and The Drowned (hold your breath) (2022)

“Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Ravelle Pillay, Idyll, Chisenhale Gallery

“Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Ravelle Pillay, Idyll, Chisenhale Gallery

Cold Water (the undrowned) (2022). Cold Water (undrowned) started in blue Ravelle tells me, indigo to be exact, but then had to become red, of course. Its photographic negative, a postcard, bears the place-name Transvaal. The place-name is my cue. The painting on the other side, The Drowned (hold your breath) (2022), is a pair to Cold Water (the undrowned), same size, same style, as if two takes on a similar scene. It is also also very red and also contains a dominating white waterfall that looks like a giant jin to me. The men aren’t standing they are swimming, possibly hiding, Ravelle suspects. The photographic negative of The Drowned (hold your breath) is captioned, “The Blue Basin.” It’s from Trinidad, possibly a verso the Blue Clerk has let stray out of her sight. I’m making that up, obviously. It doesn’t matter where the negative comes from. Blue or the blues turns to red on the colonial plantation, inevitably, of course.

Starting on 16 October 1913 and continuing into November, more than 20,000 mostly Tamil-speaking Indian workers in Natal — indentured all — went on strike. The miners and railway workers at first but then domestic servants and the sugar workers who were the largest contingent and the most self-organised or headless, with no leadership “imposed from outside.”As you might expect, it was bloody: the bosses and the police were armed and many workers were killed and seriously injured. “A strike on this scale was,” as Maureen Swan writes, “absolutely without precedent among Indian workers” and an audacious and bold refusal of their terrible conditions of existence.[20]

Unprecedented but not unprepared. The long-standing grievances were obvious: first, the tax levied on the formerly indentured to force people either to return to India or back into indenture — indeed at the time of the strike, 65% of the entire indentured workforce were in their second contracts on the sugar plantations. And then a litany of grievances: destitution and indebtedness despite 17 to 18-hour work days; the slave-like conditions of the contract, signed with an X, which did not even protect the workers from wage cuts and being sacked, particularly during the 1905-1908 depression; the March court decision to invalidate marriages conducted in accordance with Indian religious rites; not to mention the civil death and racism to which the indentured were subjected.[21] The grievances were obvious and unmet. The previous attempts at redress ignored.Indeed, all the infra-political preparation for the collective mobilization — the malingering, truancy, pilfering and damaging of employer property, the secret meetings and messages passed through the cane or down into the mines — was trivialized by all parties. By the various elite Indian associations and congresses; by most historians who saw the strike as mainly Ghandi’s great handiwork, notwithstanding the fact that in 1905, “living in Johannesburg, [Ghandi] declared himself ‘not prepared to subscribe to any general charges of ill-treatment’ against indentured labourers;”[22] by the employers who saw any political awareness or organizing as aggravating but correctable by strict punishment or transfer. That is, until the rumours spread widely that “Indians were calling on” “Africans for support” or that Africans “would come out in support” or that Africans were “waiting for Indians to give the word for a general uprising against the whites.” Then the possibility of political cooperation raised the spectre of the Zulu rebellion only seven years earlier and then they listened and police violence was their answer.[23]

It was prohibited for an indentured Indian to move more than two miles from their workplace without a ticket of leave, without a pass. More than anything having to do with Ghandi, this is the significance of the the sugar workers who left the plantations without anybody’s permission and marooned in nearby townships and the significance of the remarkable 4,000 miners with family in tow who, on 6 November 1913 at 6:30 in the morning, started marching from Natal over the Transvaal border, where they were imprisoned for refusing to be deported back to Natal. Most of the miners were forced back to the mines but shut them down again, as well as most of Durban — “the imperial ghetto” as the great photographer and activist Omar Badsha called it — with the help of the sugar workers and the women domestic workers.[24] If it was not quite the general strike and mass flight of the enslaved that WEB DuBois showed was the end of the plantation system in the US South, it was at least an echo, a sounding of fugitivity across the intimacies of the four continents.

In the U.S., slavery was legally prohibited but the reconstruction plan for a life without enslavement, disenfranchisement, and racial subordination — what Du Bois called “abolition democracy” — failed and that failure set the terms for the militarized racial capitalism dominant today and the opening of other middle passages. Similarly, the 1913 strike ended the hated tax but failed the larger purposes of its rebel consciousness. The strike brought in its wake “a new [Indian] elite, who began to cohere as a distinct self conscious group — “the young colonials” they called themselves — setting the ground for later stratifications in what Indian meant.[25] The strike brought in its wake the proletarianization of landless white tenants, a divisive solution to the problem of rural white poverty and possible White — African association that the 1932 Carnegie Commission would make official.[26] And the strike brought in its wake the substitution of African workers for Indian indentured workers in the mines, on the railways and sugar plantations, and in farming when the Zulu lost their war for independence and the 1913 Native Land Act created devastating dispossession and destruction.[27]

A victory that weeps. The small gains of the strike were integrated into the infrastructure of apartheid, which cemented a division of labour and citizenship on a complex racial and ethnic basis. The “wall of defiance” and the possibility of African — Indian conspiracy which the 1913 strikers raised would be built up again but not until a new generation of radicals, who barely remembered the 1913 strike, emerged in the 1940s.[28]

8. The Chorus (2023)

“Untitled (2023) 8 captions approximately 7000 words on paper” (2023)

Ravelle Pillay, Idyll, Chisenhale Gallery

The Chorus (2023). We end here between the titular Idyll, the ideal and picturesque landscape in poetry or painting and its homonym, idle, the refusal to work in order to hold for a moment longer the thread to the idling of hands, machines and hearts in and on strike and pass it on to the “headless group” that is the chorus. Saidiya Hartman writes that the chorus “bears it all for us” as “it plays out in multiple times” with synchronized moves and sounds, feet banging away.[29] In this Chorus, we’re almost back to the riot, certainly to tumult and riotous assembly: of colour, of sound, of leaves, of underground and undergrowth, of sun and daytime, of stipule, and of the blue clerk who has clearly thrown blue to green, finally.

The last words go to the brilliant South African poet, Yvette Christiansë. She gets the last word because she can voice chorus landscape riot beauty history the water and what’s down there and much else like no one else I know. These words are from her book Castaway, an epic poetic story set on the island of St. Helena off the coast of Africa, a port for the slave trade, where Napoleon Bonaparte found his final place of exile, and Yvette’s grandmother was born.[30]

A fragment from The Prayer Books of the Girl Who Was a Cabin Boy:
Crouching under the raw wind, under the
trader’s wind — it carries the messages of continents
to other continents, of trees to the planes, of
the haloed head of a ripe plant at the foot of
a rock on the east side of that, yes that, hill—
crouching under the weight of a wish to be elsewhere,
to speak freely, each word, each
letter, the vowels that love the intricacies of
a mouth, the great moment of a throat’s opening —
always, always on the name of a god — perhaps
a god that has never been named, but slips
something of itself into your mouth in order to
be free of its terrible, its all-in-one-self—and to
feel the soft, the tender coil of an inner ear, perhaps
hers as she receives my message of love. Ah. And
then that turning point …
That haloed head
opening from its pores, a feast for the
wind, the plains, the crook where two
journeying mounds of soil meet short of
merging but make a vacant place for
filling, for taking root, for crouching
into one tight vessel that waits for just
the right moment and just the right opening.

Thank you.

Additions to Ravelle Pillay’s Reading List (in order of citation)

Dionne Brand. The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

Avery F. Gordon. The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins. Fordham University Press 2018.

Frantz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, [1961] 1963.

Lisa Lowe. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Eddie Bruce-Jones. Kaala Paani: Law, Imagination and British Colonial Indenture, book-in-progress.

David Dabydeen, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen and Tina K. Ramnarine. We Mark Your Memory: writings from the descendants of indenture. London: Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 2018. (Includes poem by Bruce-Jones)

Brenna Bhandar. Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

Maureen Swan. “The 1913 Natal Indian Strike.” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (April 1984): 239-258.

Omar Badsha. Imperial Ghetto: ways of seeing in a south African city (with an introduction by Abebe Zegeye and Pal Ahluwalia). Johannesburg: South African History Online, 2001.

Tiffany Willoughby-Herard. Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.

Yvette Christiansë. Castaway. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999.


[1] “Indian Indentured Labour in Natal 1860–1911.” SAHO South African History Online: towards a people’s history at https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/indian-indentured-labour-natal-1860-1911

[2] Aswin Desai and Goolam Vahed, Inside Indian Indenture: A South African Story 1860–1914. Cape Town, South Africa: HSRC Press, 2010, p. 2.

[3] Ibid, p. vi.

[4] Ibid, p. 19-20.

[5] “Chisenhale Interviews: a conversation between Ravelle Pillay and curator Olivia Aherne” at https://chisenhale.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Ravelle-Pillay-at-Chisenhale-Gallery_Interview.pdf

[6] Ibid.

[7] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. London: Fontana, 1981. See also Avery Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp. 97–109.

[8] See Avery F. Gordon, The Hawthorn Archive: Letters from the Utopian Margins. New York: Fordham University Press, 2018, pp. 281–287.

[9] Dionne Brand, The Blue Clerk: Ars Poetica in 59 Versos. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018, p. 81.

[10] Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press, [1961] 1963, p. 37.

[11] Ibid, p. 71.

[12] Brand, The Blue Clerk, p. 106. (Verso 18.4.1 ). Copra is dried white flesh of coconut from which oil is extracted. The meal is used as feed for horses and cattle.

[13] Ibid, p. 231. (Verso 59.1)

[14] Ibid, p. 214. (Verso 48)

[15] Ibid, pp. 8–11 (Verso 1.1.01); p. 13. (Verso 2.01)

[16] Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

[17] Eddie Bruce-Jones, Kaala Paani: Law, Imagination and British Colonial Indenture, book-in-progress. Pages provided courtesy of the author. See also his poem, “india has left us” in David Dabydeen, Maria del Pilar Kaladeen and Tina K. Ramnarine, We Mark Your Memory: writings from the descendants of indenture. London: Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 2018.

[18] Brenna Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

[19] See Michael Ventura, “Hear that long snake moan” in Shadow Dancing in the USA. New York: St. Martins Press 1985.

[20] Maureen Swan, “The 1913 Natal Indian Strike.” Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2 (April 1984): 239–258, p. 239. Maureen Swan’s outstanding essay is still neither common academic or 20 popular history knowledge, as Desai and Vahed attest. She provides sharp insights into Gandhi’s motivations and role, the mobility and class politics among the mercantile and educated Indian social strata, and the period up to the strike, particularly the 1907 campaign and the attempt to create a capitalist state in Transvaal. The 1913 strike is key to Desai and Vahed’s history, they provide enormous detail about it and about the people involved. See throughout but especially Chapters 18–21 and the photographs on pp. 396–399, 410.

[21] See Desai and Vahed, Inside Indian Indenture, p. 216 on the Searle judgment.

[22] Swan, “The 1913 Natal Indian Strike,” p. 240.

[23] Ibid, p. 256. In addition to the police attacks, the mines were converted into temporary prisons and the rebellious miners sentenced to “mine labour,” which led to riots. See Swan, page 257.

[24] Omar Badsha, Imperial Ghetto: ways of seeing in a south African city (with an introduction by Abebe Zegeye and Pal Ahluwalia). South African History Online, 2001. Omar Badsha is a very important photographer, unionist, political activist, and historian born in Durban in 1945. He was the founder of South African History Online. https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/omar-badsha

[25] Swan, “The 1913 Natal Indian Strike,” p. 245.

[26] Tiffany Willoughby-Herard, Waste of a White Skin: The Carnegie Corporation and the Racial Logic of White Vulnerability. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015.

[27] Ibid, pp. 33–34. On the 1913 Land Act as the “crowning moment” of the defeat of the Zulu’s refusal to become cheap labour for the British, see Desai and Vahed, pp. 366–367.

[28] Swan, “The 1913 Natal Indian Strike,” p. 252.

[29] Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, pp. 306, 175.

[30] Yvette Christiansë, Castaway. Durham: Duke University Press, 1999, p, 108.