The story about artist Max Siedentopf’s sound installation piece “Toto Forever” broke a few days ago, and the internet is responding with requisite amusement or disgust. In some inexplicable reverence Toto’s inescapable and enduring 1982 super hit “Africa” (I love the song, and still cannot understand this), Siedentopf created a permanent sound installation and placed it in the middle of the Namib Desert , which, at around 55 million years old, is thought to be the world’s oldest desert. “[I] wanted to pay the song the ultimate homage and physically exhibit ‘Africa’ in Africa,” the artist explains. “Some [Namibians] love it and some say it’s probably the worst sound installation ever. I think that’s a great compliment.” The installation itself is six speakers attached to an mp3 player, all of which are positioned atop white blocks that are firmly planted into the sand.
Focusing on Zachary Small’s coverage for Hyperallergic, the installation is frivolously described as the result of “schmaltzy tune turned über-meme [that] has reached its logical conclusion, trolling its namesake continent IRL with its nostalgia-driven lyrics.” The installation is something of a tongue-in-cheek gesture at irony or humor commenting on the song’s ear worm quality; in the previous sentence, Small also describes the as an externalization of how a “song of [w]hite wanderlust for Africa has become a literal monument to the staying power of Internet memes.” In similar cheeky style, Siedentopf offers a kind of treasure map of the installation’s location, circling the entirety of the 31,000 square mile coastal desert. To those who, for whatever reason, would want to make pilgrimage (“The installation should work as a treasure that only the most loyal Toto fans can find,” he tells ArtNet), he says: “I would advise taking a lot of water along. The Namib is as big as the Netherlands and Switzerland combined, so it might take a while to find!” What a sense of humor!
Without delving too much into the particularities of post-colonial continental identity, London-based Siedentopf grew up in Windhoek and is described by Small as “German-Namibian.” This is a (perhaps/probably unintentional, but nevertheless deeply revealing) metonym for how the white artist is likely is a descendant of the German settlers who first came to then-South West Africa (now Namibia) in the 19th century. Considering the artist’s identity and historic German uses of Namibia’s deserts, the described carefreeness of the installation takes a slightly darker tone.
The Namib Desert is a graveyard. During Germany’s 1904–08 race war genocide of Herero and Nama peoples during the Herero Wars, thousands of Hereros died in this desert from starvation and dehydration and exposure because the imperial German army would not allow them to retreat. There feels like a cruel irony in a “German-Namibian” artist paying homage to this memetic tune (which, in Toto’s drummer’s Jeff Pocaro’s own words is about “a white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he’s never been there, he can only tell what he’s seen on TV or remembers in the past”) in the middle of a desert that is scattered with unmarked graves of victims of a formative colonial genocide. It would have been just as cruel to place the installation in the interior Kalahari Desert, a desert where, during this extermination attempt, German scouts reportedly found skeletons surrounding deep holes where Hereros perished whilst desperately digging to find water. The colonial publication Der Kampf wrote: “Like a wounded beast the enemy was tracked down from one water-hole to the next, until finally he became the victim of his own environment. The arid Omaheke [desert] was to complete what the German army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation.”
Beyond the work’s existence as boring meme-driven commentariat manifested as an artist littering in the desert, the impulse to extract this or any other work from the material context in which it is situated is dangerous — art is not and can never be apolitical despite its purported lightheartedness. Beyond the chuckles, how can we decouple “Toto Forever” from indigenous southern Africans in former settler colonies (i.e. Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa) struggling towards land reform? The artist apparently hasn’t yet heard from the Namibian government and did not ask permission to create this installation because, in his words, “it’s hard to give permission in a vast landscape like that.” So we might also understand this piece as an extension of enduring perceptions of African space as always being for the white taking — land and space are especially not neutral in the afterlife of a colonial episteme that did not end with Europe’s loss of its colonies. And even if the conditions of the desert do render the piece unworkable, then there remains a visual and conceptual eyesore still erected somewhere in the Namib even if we cannot see it. Just like a flag.
Poet Petero Kalulé likened Max Siedentopf to Ozymandias, invoking Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1818 sonnet about a decline of hubristic rulers and civilizations that we should only be so lucky to witness:
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said — “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away