“when I felt like I just wasn’t being heard”: Sharlene Khan’s Nervous Conditions

This text was published in the catalogue I Make Art: Sharlene Khan, 2014. The catalogue was published by Khan on the occasion of her PhD exhibition I Make Art at Goldsmiths College, London.

Video: Sharlene Khan, Nervous Conditions I, 2013, Three channel black and white video projection with sound, one freestanding TV DVD display with sound, 30 minutes, 7 seconds. Stills reproduced courtesy the artist.

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What then did you expect when you unbound the gag that had muted those black mouths? That they would chant your praises? Did you think that when those heads that our fathers had forcibly bowed down to the ground were raised again, you would find adoration in their eyes? Jean-Paul Sartre, Orphée Noir [1]

When my half-closed eyes slid open and my ears popped open what did you think my mouth would say? [Third screen overlay: Thank you, thank you, thank you]. Did you think that I would sing your praises? Did you expect me to thank you for knowing you fucked me over? Sharlene Khan, Nervous Conditions [2]

A woman (not fully visible) rubs her hands together without pause. Her hands (their repetitive action) registers, and then performs, psychic unsettlement. There are temporal displacements as the phantom traces of hands, their movements, linger. Sometimes it seems as though a hand detaches from the body to which it belongs. As I look, I hear a woman’s voice and background noise reminiscent of analogue radio and television static – white noise. The woman speaks as if on the telephone. We neither see nor hear her interlocutor. Sometimes her speech trails off or breaks before the completion of a sentence or a thought. She begins: “Yeah so I’m not sure the meeting went very well [pause]. Well she doesn’t like the direction I’m taking.” A formal conversation is implied: a mode of address familiar to institutional environments: “I understand, but I really don’t think we share a common, you know, kind of methodological or conceptual approach. It’s just, you know, we’re different people.” A conversation about university pedagogy perhaps. Spoken words, phrases and sentences (how these are delivered) suggest the anxieties attached to the precarious position of speaking critically and forcefully to an institutional power.

The wringing hands are the opening sequences of Nervous Conditions I, a three-channel digital video installation by Sharlene Khan, which runs for 30 minutes, 7 seconds. [3] The title derives from the novel Nervous Conditions (1988) by Zimbabwean author/filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga.[4] The woman whose body and voice figures in Khan’s Nervous Conditions is the artist herself. Filmed in black and white, the video suggests a material relationship to histories of documentary film or photography which attach objectivity and truth-telling to the absence of colour: of course, the artist’s deliberate displacement of history’s relation to objective detachment, evidence and truth is rendered unstable.[5] Ambiguity is threaded through the experience of the work rendering obscure the borderlines between what is staged and imagined and (through devices reminiscent of autobiographical narration, memoir or testimony) actually known and experienced by the artist herself.

In the second filmed sequence only Khan’s eyes are visible.[6] She speaks as if reading from a text: she variously looks down, looks up, faces us, moves in closer, frowns and tilts her head. The presence of the addressee is ambiguous: it is not necessarily clear whether he/she/they exist solely in the imagination of the artist, or as a public to be mobilised and called into being.[7] In the audio we listen to the artist trace and retrace her meeting (real or imaginary) with an authority figure. Her narrative, at first, performs a seemingly matter-of-fact analysis of this occasion which forms the departure point for this work: “During the meeting I found myself even more carefully trying to convey my feelings. And then starting to stumble over my words when I felt like I just wasn’t being heard.”[8] But this performed (apparently rational) self-analysis is fragile. This sequence is linked both visually and affectively to the filmed hands: the same temporal displacements are visible – again we see phantom traces and overlays, as movements linger. The first sequence of the twisting and turning hands reiterate and reinscribe the work’s affective and bodily relay of the psychic and emotional trauma of not being seen and not being heard.

The ‘authorising’ figure is unseen and present only through the medium of Khan’s voice and body. Khan performs the moment at which traumatic memories are ignited: past and present blur and overlay, becoming indistinguishable.[9] As Griselda Pollock writes of trauma’s no-time-space: “Psychic trauma knows no time. It is a perpetual present, lodged like a foreign resident in the psyche.”[10] The artist’s staging of psychological distress (within the context of psychiatric containment) appears on a third screen. But this staging makes visible, depending on who looks and how, the historical incarceration within psychiatric institutions of women who transgress the boundaries of what can or cannot (shouldn’t?) be spoken.[11] More specifically, through her deliberate, knowing enactment of the signs and symptomologies of psychological distress, Khan brings gender, race and power-laden institutional discourses into a critical relation.[12] From the staged locus of a padded cell in the third screen the artist deploys mimicry and repetition as a disruptive strategy.[13] Khan mimics, in a parodic sense, symptoms associated with human subjects of psychoanalysis and psychiatric assessments that relate – even in popular knowledge circulated by film, literature and the media – to states of exhaustion and sleep, infantile behaviour, dishevelled hair, the potential for self-harm and so forth.[14] These stagings are viewed simultaneously and we have to turn to see the performances on the first and second screens, the anxious hands with their ghostly residues and the eyes that look either at us or at what we cannot see.

The artist’s monologue tells of the traumatic, repetitive and insidious inscription of racial Othering in everyday life in apartheid South Africa as a subject designated, quite literally, in the language of racial erasure: ‘non-white’. As the camera scrutinises, in the third screen the deliberately dishevelled hair of the artist as she performs knowingly the imagined symptoms of psychic disorder and emotional unsettlement, we hear a narrative of childhood by a subject classified ‘Indian’: blonde-haired dolls, fairy-tale characters, beauty queens, and state-sanctioned history lessons haunt the artist’s narration, and speak affectively and powerfully to the particularities of different kinds of women’s trauma in conditions of white supremacy and its particular ideological construction of femininity.

Khan’s performance is ambiguous: imagined lines between entrapment and agency are not necessarily distinct. The artist’s imaginative, strategic excavation and re-staging of available institutional-historically constituted vocabularies (and symptomologies) run the risk of re-inscribing pervasive and often insidious and opaque power relations. In conditions of systemic institutional racism, for example, to what extent can agency be enacted and exerted in sustained and meaningful ways within the parameters of institutions which embody and perpetuate historical relations and vocabularies of power? The troubling psychoanalytic juxtaposition of femininity and hysteria, which Pollock notes is inscribed in the work of Freud and Jung, is re-visited in Khan’s enactment: “a body in trouble with language as the offered terms of being sexed and gendered, or a body whose phantasmatic elements become a kind of corporeal alphabet displacing words onto feelings, pains, anaesthesias, physical symptoms.”[15] Nervous Conditions deploys inherited languages and vocabularies bringing them to the body of the artist who stages a performance that appears to oscillate between self-conscious enactment and the more opaque territories of actual embodied, lived experience. The performed, although fragile, rationality of the work’s opening sequence develops into anger and a narrative that moves backwards and forwards between memories of South Africa (the anxieties of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa) and the performed disillusionment with Western pedagogy. A spectre of whiteness takes shape in the post-traumatic encounter with historical, sedimented prejudice from which there appears to be no escape, and recalls Frantz Fanon’s mobilisation of a psychological condition circumscribed by narcissism, although his vocabulary (grounded in the social-historical conditions of his time) is lodged in the idea of man: “The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.”[16]

Khan’s Nervous Conditions speaks to Pollock’s analysis of arts by woman artists affected by traumatic pasts or their residues.[17] The historical trauma foregrounded by Pollock’s work focuses primarily on the Holocaust.[18] In doing so, it opens up strategies for thinking through the relations between woman artists and histories that emerge out of a number of conditions of historical, political and personal trauma. Pollock writes, “The artist or, rather, the artworking as a space of encounter between art and the world and the viewer of that world mediated via the art is a ‘transport station of trauma’. This is a sign of our times that are never pre- but indelibly post-traumatic.”[19] Of relevance to Khan’s Nervous Conditions is Pollock’s conception of the post-traumatic art object’s

tribute to the shattering of existing means of comprehension and representation resulting from real historical outrages by a constant fidelity, by working towards a phrasing – not merely linguistic, but gestural, sonic or graphic – a touching or encountering of some affective elements capable of shifting us both subjectively and collectively that do not arrive at containing the event in finite forms.[20]

Khan brings lived and embodied outrage – personal, cross-generational and historic – to her practice as an artist. This is not a didactic staging offering a finite and resolved explication of events. Khan explores the particular capacities of her medium which allows for the critical and affective possibilities of temporal displacement, and the insertion into the world of the work itself of her own body and voice. Time slows and collapses in the ghostly residues of movements and gestures. Khan’s performances encountered on three screens oscillate across registers of emotion, staged appropriations of institutionally scripted psychic symptomologies, and the artist’s ambiguous embodiment-enactment.

In Nervous Conditions, Khan’s racial trauma intersects with women’s histories and experiences, but there is specificity to her trauma as she mobilises her embodied experience of apartheid South Africa, and its relation to histories of colonialism and slavery that preceded and overlaid it. Khan’s personal history as an apartheid subject classified via systemic erasure informs her work and her intellectual and political life.[21] Importantly, for current debates about the meaning and significance of feminism and indeed the notion of global feminisms, is the political struggle not only against phallocentric orders, but also between feminists not necessarily alert, outside of the ambit of theoretical abstraction, to the lived, embodied power dynamics of race, class and the heterogeneity of woman’s experience.[22] Just as the Western notion of universalism predicated on the historical enlightenment figure of the European property-owning white man is to be critiqued, so is the re-inscription of feminisms that assume the universality of woman’s experience. This has particular meaning to Khan whose unambiguous lived experience of undisguised violent Othering disallows the complacency of a universal ‘we’.[23] Nervous Conditions deliberately counters the idea of a singular authoritative narrative in various ways. For instance, each of the filmed sequences appear and disappear at different intervals and there are sonic overlays. Sometimes sequences replace each other, e.g., the hands replaced by the padded psychiatric cell, upsetting the structuring sequencing. Within an exhibition space, the three separately filmed sequences are projected from floor to ceiling on three interconnected walls. The spatial disjunctures between the height of the viewer and the scale of the work are overwhelming in relation to the bodies of viewers. Nervous Conditions is imagined as a work-in-progress, always in a process of becoming:

a work-in-progress is something unstable, a state that feels akin to my thinking process about my identity, my politics, my creativity. As an artist it’s also an immensely creative space – I can still change this completely, I can completely scrap this, I can still make mistakes, this is still mine to chop and change as I choose as the producer – I can change my mind, what you see now might not be what you see one year from now.[24]

This disruption of the linear, causal narratives and historical processes are commonplace in the history of twentieth century experimental film, the critical lineages of which encompass avant-garde and feminist film-making.[25] But these have particular and continued significance to artists who, similar to Khan, are grappling with their own lived and embodied experience of late twentieth century authoritarianism and the continued re-inscription of race and gender-related violence into the present. Apartheid’s grand project of erasure, woven into the very fabric of everyday life and social relations, along with its iterations in the present, is not simply a theoretical or historical abstraction to Khan. In the video she performs her relationship to history in apartheid South Africa and its ideological erasure of narratives and voices that ran counter to the state-sanctioned construction of white Afrikaner narratives and Eurocentric epistemologies: “I had to learn about weird little girls covering their brother in the snow with their naked bodies […] But not one word about children massacred in Soweto.”[26] Nervous Conditions embodies the post-traumatic aftershock of historical and authoritarian conditions founded on ideologies of racial hierarchy. But this is not the only critical work that the video performs: it is also a critique of the post-apartheid Rainbow Nation and epistemologies and pedagogies experienced travelling and studying outside of South Africa. The violence of race enacted specifically upon women in South Africa and more particularly those classified Indian, overlays and disrupts the artist’s performed narration of a meeting between a postgraduate student and her advisor in another place and time.[27]

The work offers no closure or resolution. The anger it performs is the political and historical rage of voices still fighting to be heard despite the theoretical work, and social and political activism of innumerable twentieth century figures who responded with such critical insight and force to the historical conditions that slavery, colonialism and apartheid produced. Khan’s performed narrative reiterates this important literary and scholarly work (a critical strategy that underpins the performed traumatised talking back). Figures to whom she refers include Frantz Fanon, bell hooks, Edward Said, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Toni Morrison, Mahmood Mamdani and Chinua Achebe.

Nervous Conditions speaks to political and personal exhaustion and the traumatic aftermath of historical monoliths founded on the assumption of racial and epistemological superiority: “I have centuries of anger in me and you want me to sit down and talk to you about it?” Khan’s Nervous Conditions draws affect, performance, memory and the devices of narrating the self into a relationship with history. It leaves us with questions to which we should remain alert. The political subjectivity which Khan brings into view through her devices of personal memories and her performance speak to epistemic violence and invisibility, and invite further, self-reflexive and engaged inquiry:

What do you hear?

Can you hear?  Can you? Can you hear us speak?

Haven’t we always been speaking?


And here.

What do you hear?


What do you hear?

What did you expect to hear?

Did you think I would sing your praises when last I opened my mouth?



1. Published as the preface to Frantz Fanon (1968) Black Skin. White Masks (trans. C. L. Markman). The citation accompanies Nervous Conditions on Khan’s website and speaks both to the themes of the work and its scripted narrative which makes reference to significant figures, and theoretical work, subsumed under the category postcolonial. The ‘nervous conditions’ invoked in the work’s title and Khan’s staging suggests the post-traumatic temporal collapse of this historical periodisation.

2. Extract from Sharlene Khan’s script written for Nervous Conditions (Part 1).

3. Two other video works complete the Nervous Conditions series.

4. The idea of education is at the centre of Dangarembga’s text as the novel’s protagonist Tambu struggles against the determinations of race, gender, sexuality, class and poverty in conditions of colonialism. The novel is set in the 1960s in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but written after the country’s liberation war and its subsequent independence from British colonial rule. Khan mobilises Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions relationship to gender, race and experiences that emerge out of geographically particular conditions of colonialism.

5. The idea of colour and video art emerging out of post-apartheid South Africa, and the question of how South African woman artists enter historical events through the medium of video is engaged in my PhD thesis (the provisional title is Video Art, Traumatic Memory and the Historical Event in the Work of Four South African Woman Artists) where I am looking closely at videos by artists Jo Ractliffe, Penny Siopis, Berni Searle, Minnette Vári. See also T. Garb (2011) Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography.

6. Khan’s visual strategies enter into a dialogue with discourses, which are located in literature, visual culture, film and art, scrutinising historically sedimented modes of thinking, representing, and imagining the bodies of black women. See C. Sharpe (2010) Monstrous Intimacies: Making Post-Slavery Subjects. See also texts of relevance to Khan’s emphasis in Nervous Conditions on race, gender and pedagogy, notably: bell hooks (1989) Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. On South Africa, race and gender more broadly see the work of Pumla Gqola, Desiree Lewis and Yvette Abrahams.

7. See M. Warner (2002) Publics and Counterpublics.

8. Neelika Jayawardane draws attention to prejudice, scholarship and personal/ professional relations ‘Taking Things Personally, and Publicising the Private: Encountering Erasure on the Frontlines of Academia’, Social Dynamics 33:1, 2007, 31-51.

9. See Griselda Pollock (2013) After Affects/After Images: Trauma and Aesthetic Transformation in the Virtual Feminist Museum. This text, grounded in psychoanalytic theory, feminism and art history, informs my reading of Nervous Conditions and the work’s embodiment of psychic trauma, particularly temporal displacement and post-traumatic conditions.

10. Ibid. 2.

11. There is extensive literature on this. See the classic text by S. Gilman and S. Gubar (1979/2000) The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination. See also L. Appignanesi (2009) Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present.

12. Harriet Deacon’s historical work The Island: A History of Robben Island, 1488-1990 (1996) presents some historical context for this in South Africa and the relations between psychiatry, gender and race. Zuleiga Adams’ PhD dissertation (2011) includes a historiography of madness in South Africa: Demitrios Tsafendas : Race, Madness and the Archive.

13. Khan’s PhD research is of importance to Nervous Conditions which explores performance and postcolonial masquerading and encompasses concepts such as mimicry and repetition. Her thesis, which focuses on the work of South African women of colour artists is titled Postcolonial Masquerading: A Critical Analysis of Masquerading Strategies in the Works of South African Artists Anton Kannemeyer, Tracey Rose, Mary Sibande, Nandipha Mntambo and Senzeni Marasela.

14. My exploration of these performed symptoms are based on psychoanalytic approaches to film and history of art, cited in this essay, which engage in a critical dialogue with the work of Freud.

15. Pollock (2013), 25.

16. Fanon (1967), 9-10. While Fanon’s work is important here I am flagging the critical work of Françoise Vergès, engaged in my forthcoming PhD thesis. Her text draws attention to the specificities attached to different geographical-historical conditions of race, and in particular, opens up a critical space that thinks about how foundational texts are themselves constituted and brought into being. She complicates Fanon’s relationship both to Algeria (and to his birthplace Martinique), troubling both his political narrative and the ground from which his psychoanalytic methods of analyses are formed. Vergès also reflects critically on Fanon’s own masculinity conceived of in a traumatic relationship to race, to France, and the experience of colonialism. See her article: ‘Creole Skin, Black Mask: Fanon and Disavowal’, Critical Inquiry, 23:3, 1997, 578-595.

17. Refer to Pollock (2013).

18. See her preface, ibid. xxii.

19. Ibid., 25.

20. Ibid., 26-7.

21. Of course, this erasure is at the centre of the historical work on race and Fanon’s foundational text Black Skin White Masks.

22. See, for example, Tracey Rose’s performance, drawing attention to critical perspectives on race and feminism at the curated exhibition Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum (2007). The exhibition was co-curated by Maura Reilly, Linda Nochlin and Lila Acheson Wallace.

23. Important sources for Khan’s intellectual position on gender and race include the work of bell hooks and Audre Lorde. See also Sara Ahmed (2014) Willful Subjects.

24. From an email conversation with the artist, 8 July 2014.

25. T. Leighton (2008) Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader.

26. Khan refers here to the Great Trek heroine Racheltjie de Beer. The massacre of children in Soweto refers to the events of 16 June 1976.

27. See N. Jayawardane (2012) ‘Everyone’s Got Their Indian’, Transition, No. 107, Blending Borders, 51-65.




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