Dan Halter: Get Out of Jail Free
Running presently at WHATIFTHEWORLD is Get Out of Jail Free, a solo exhibition of recent work by Zimbabwean artist Dan Halter.
‘It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale’, is the way Joseph Conrad described the colonial practice he encountered in the Congo. And yet what precisely were the consequences? Cecil John Rhodes, whose image and name regularly occur in Dan Halter’s work, performed some of the most grotesque and unjustified land grabs in southern African history. At the centre of Get Out of Jail Free is Rhodes’s practice of stealing farms, gold and cattle from the Ndebele in what is now Zimbabwe and his creation of ‘Native reserves’ where the Ndebele were forced to pay a 10-shilling hut tax.
Only after the Jameson Raid, in which Rhodes tried to overthrow Paul Kruger in order to control the gold mines in the Transvaal, would he be called to give evidence at two commissions of inquiry into his warmongering activities in Africa. But it was Jameson who would be sent down, spending fifteen months in prison for invading a (white) foreign state. Rhodes himself seemed to hold the cards (or capital) that got him out of a jail sentence.
Halter’s Get Out of Jail Free in many senses is the documentation of the narratives of colonial and contemporary stories of land dispossession and the lack of consequences for those who now hold monopolies. The exhibition contains multiple voices, interweaving texts, maps, photographs, designs and formats from Monopoly that create a dialogical exposition.
Among these voices are the two narratives that surround the possession of land – both of which have their roots in the Enlightenment and social contract theory. John Locke argued (with the misogyny of his time) that God had handed the stewardship of the land to man, who through his labour gains private possession of it. But Halter quotes, in two of his works (‘The Social Contract’ and ‘Monopoly Social Contract’), the Swiss Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s claim that in a state of nature, before the corruptions of modern European society, private possession did not exist:
The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellowmen, ‘Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!’
However, it was Locke’s stewardship theory that would become one of the justifications for the appropriation of the land for colonialists like Rhodes’s and his capitalist predecessor in the Cape Colony, Robert Godlonton (a man who was known by the other land-grabbing colonists, without a hint of irony, as ‘Moral Bob’). As Godloton claimed, the white man gained the empty God-given land in Africa through the ‘indomitable spirit of perseverance and enterprise.’
Of course, just who actually worked the land and possessed it through their labour was questioned by Halter’s fellow Zimbabwean Doris Lessing. Halter weaves one of her stories in ‘This was the old Chief’s Country’ onto a map of where Lessing’s farm seems to have been, north of Harare. In this, the representation of the land and the word, Halter fabricates a palimpsest of dispossession.
But the main motif running through Get out of Jail Free is Halter’s use of the game Monopoly. As Halter points out ‘the monopoly board is a map that literally represents the inequality of the capitalist system.’ Halter, in these works, points to its inventor the left-wing feminist Lizzie Magie’s reason for creating the board game she called ‘The Landlord’s Game’. That is, Magie wished to show, through a performative act, how land monopolism created inequality in society. In a story that has a hauntingly colonial air to it, Magie had her idea for the game stolen by Charles Darrow who ‘invented’ Monopoly and had her name removed from history. Halter’s Get Out of Jail Free is, in many senses, the documentation of colonial elision, dispossession, capitalist theory and how these narratives have knitted themselves into the story of southern Africa.
December 20, 2021
December 13, 2021