Jonathan Garnham of Blank Projects and Joost Bosland of the Stevenson Gallery have pulled off a remarkable feat — a collaborative exhibition that centres on a novel, K Sello Duiker’s Quiet Violence of Dreams.

Rarely has literature played such a central role in these global postliterate times. It’s a rarity all the more painfully underscored by a conversation I was part of at the Book Lounge in which the audience unanimously began their questions to the panel with the irksome salvo: "I have not read the novel but ..." I had to restrain myself from saying "read the damn novel", or, "we’re in a book shop, how can you say that?"

In the end, however, the night resulted in a rich debate on trauma, polymorphous sex and desire, the foul stench of identity politics, the complexity of freedom and self-determination.

But the cool disregard for reading still bugged me, and was compounded at the close when a film-maker informed me that he’d be uploading the talk online, and asked if I’d like a copy. "I never watch myself on a screen," I said. Startled, he replied, "It’s like not watching the sky."

Something has gone horribly wrong when Internet culture is perceived as something elemental, or when books are reduced to trophies of some forgotten past.

Which is why the initiative of Blank Projects and the Cape Town and Johannesburg Stevenson Galleries to place K Sello Duiker centre stage in their exploration of a generational schism is not only commendable but profound.

Published in 2001, Quiet Violence remains the most raw, bracingly honest and, in my view, the most important literary anthem to freedom and its betrayal. For this is a novel which does not merely state its claim upon the world but which viscerally dramatises its tortured yet vivacious immersion within it.

In the light of youthful dissent over the past year and a half, Quiet Violence is all the more significant, for it taps into the complex yearnings of those silenced by a complacently repressive government or what Duiker dubbed the "Amabourgeois" — the "chosen" beneficiaries of the new democracy. Defined by thug-life, grotesquely failed promises and the transferential game of blaming and shaming, our social system has consequently lost its fire. And this is where the arts step in. As Duiker noted, art redeems us from the "mundane", forces us "to search inside ourselves for meaning. One of its roles is to attempt to openly and freely capture the myriad details that make us, here at the southern tip of Africa, unique."

Set in Cape Town, the Mother City with a teat as dry as Lady Macbeth’s, Duiker’s novel is a damning indictment of human disregard, cruelty, selfishness. His is not the Cape Town of the tourist brochure but a study of its rank innards. The novel’s triumph, however, lies in its ability to transfigure the grotesque, to alchemically alter the city’s dark materiality, the better to give us a way out. But this being Duiker, there are never any easy answers. Life hangs always upon a tipping point between dreams and their violation.

The artworks inspired by Duiker’s novel are as varied as the novel’s content. But it is the abject black body which dominates the arenas, with queerness and femicide, the rage of the female body against a brute masculine machine, important variations thereof. Mental illness, or "madness", also assumes a key place. Prior to his suicide by hanging in 2005, Duiker was frequently in hospital. My point here, however, and that of Blank Projects and the Stevenson Gallery, is not to dwell upon the medical basis for Duiker’s despair and dysfunctionality, but to celebrate his brilliance in reflecting and transfiguring it. After all, one could say that ours is a society greatly in need of a psychiatrist such as Frantz Fanon, who wrote insightfully about mental illness in the midst of a civil war. Because, of course, ours is a time of civil war.

It is this civil disobedience, this darker dimension amid the by now jaundiced rainbow rhetoric, which matters the more for Duiker and those inspired by him.

Buhlebezwe Siwani went for the jugular with her bloodied infirmary, while Turiya Magadlela gave us mangled hospital beds. Jody Brand chose to embrace a funereal tenderness by celebrating the life of a murdered sex-worker whose mother informed her that her daughter — all images of whom have been lost in a shack fire — loved pink and white roses.

But for me the greatest reveal was an installation by Jane Alexander titled Nativity. Housed in a container, reflected in a dim light, is a gathering of suited men, an empty manger and a lamb. The heads of the men are replaced with plastic branches and leaves. A deafening silence, a quiet violence, cuts through this morbid scene. Is this some corporate return to the church? Or some heist perpetrated by Tarantino’s reservoir dogs? For there is no doubt that this Judeo-Christian tableau is toxic.

When I walked through Stevenson in Cape Town with Bosland while the exhibition was being set up, the curator’s enthusiasm was palpable. The project, "developed in conversation with Moshekwa Langa", was a three-year-old idea, filed away by Bosland, waiting for its moment. That moment is now, for in hindsight, at this betrayed, disillusioned and fearful hour, when the fate of this country hangs in the balance, it is exhibitions such as this that will end up in the history books.

* Quiet Violence of Dreams is on at the Stevenson in Cape Town and Johannesburg and Blank Projects in Cape Town.

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