The Braam of Black Cool: Braamfontein Youth And Their Refusal To Be Unseen

It is 15h30 on a Wednesday at Daleahs in Braam. The place is full. In Cape Town, I reckon, this would be regarded as loud, but here it is just what it is – it’s called being alive. Being in Braamfontein, especially for a writer of my particular sensibilities, is not unlike stepping inside a big Nike commercial. Everything here is possible and everyone has the balls to “Just do it” – whatever ‘it’ may be. This, strangely enough, is why I keep coming back every time I find myself in Joburg. Whereas in my city – Cape Town – one finds this weird obsession with Eurocentric decorum in ones personal expression led by a fascist narcissistic Nordic Hipsterism, what one finds in Braam’s youth culture is an unpredictable, yet refined cool – black cool.  If Cape Town cool is about veneration of imported Western Hipsterism, young people in Braam seem to reach into the centre of that very hipsterism with open minds and break it in parts; the result is something not quite as aesthetically organised – it is almost menacing.

This reminds me of Toure’s book ‘Who’s afraid of post-blackness?’ In one of the chapters he speaks about there being many ways of being black and that if there were, say, 50 black people in a room, there would be 50 ways of being black, as well. One could say, then, that the creative expression of young people in Braamfontein is a cocktail of blackness.  If the French cultural theorist, Pierre Bourdieu, proposes that class positions are discernible by taste and distinction within a hierarchical structure, then Braam youth would be a terrifying contradiction for it challenges the very notion of there being a hierarchy in culture and the so called cultural values espoused by such formalist thinking.  I will put forward, here, that what has happened and is happening in Braam is not so much a protest of the established systems of culture, it is the negation of them so that Braam’s youth can express itself without the overbearing siblings of the Western and, especially, European cultural tradition, even the new age ones. So, where it fits the purpose of the collective imagination of the young creatives in Braam they will borrow from Western cultural artifacts (they are, after all, the Instagram generation), not as venerated ideals but only as artifacts that are in service of something they own, something more nebulous and more nuanced than even the Jazz era of Sophiatown’s 50s, which clearly fashioned itself after F. Scott Fitzgerald 1920s New York  jazz era.

I guess this sense of elusiveness has something do with Joburg being many parts moving at once. If in Mark Gevisser’s memoir ‘Lost and found in Johannesburg’ the historic and present spatial boundaries are still intact to one degree or the other, in Braam the youth utilise the body and how it experiences itself in space in entirely unbounded ways and to sidestep those very structural formulations. I’ve sat and drank and watched and saw that the reality of being young and black within this capitalist conundrum of violence is to live in the present. And the present is very much attached to one’s blood and flesh.

In Braam, that blood and flesh exists first as a body, unlike in Cape Town where it hinges itself of economic capital, race and class. White kids in Cape Town’s  Kloof and Bree Streets only wish they could live as presently as the youth in Braam. Even the blacks of Sandton might find this urgency discomforting, for Braam youth seem to have accepted the structural formation within which they exist, namely, that they are the servant class in the country of their birth. By accepting this fact they begin to own their blackness in ways that their upwardly mobile siblings in the north of Joburg can’t even fathom. Where interactions in the more affluent suburbs of Joburg are mitigated by a bit of bling, Braam interacts with bodily immediacy. Umswenko is not just another fashion iteration, it is bound to the history of the black servant who served (and still does) under the worst human conditions, whose body is an essay on the historic and the present violence that is experienced by black people in this country since before the 1913 Land Act, which coagulated their dispossession.

Umswenko is not an escape or a cultural fad, it is an inward dip, deep inside the language of struggle and violence, of dispossession and despair. Umswenko speaks to the manufacturing and the reduction of black bodies into units of cheap labour labour whose only existence would be for capital exploitation, which is what one must accept as one of the most crucial moments in the erasure of black lives from the face of this country. The bold, bright colours of Umswenko are, quite deliberately, a refusal to be unseen in the similar way that the big expensive car and other markers of privilege are utilized by the blacks in the north of Johannesburg.

As I’ve noted above, Umswenko is in many ways is a language of urban struggle and  nothing can be more menacing to those whose idea of social currency is hinged upon the accrual of economic capital. So, yes, Braam is a big chunk of “Just do it” and for disenfranchised black youth squished into a corner by a shrinking economy and a youth unemployment rate that sits somewhere close to 60%, it is the sort of space that will shape South African culture and show us what is truly possible if we all try not to escape what it means to be black.

Illustration by Pola Maneli

Originally appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle Magazine*

There was a fire here: a brief sketch of Cape Town’s Bree Street

Gwendoline Elizabeth Fagan will tell you: “there was a fire here”. Her architectural firm – co-owned with her husband – Gabriel Fagan Architects, occupies one of the oldest buildings on Bree Street: No 156. “The place is still in its original condition,” she says when I visit her to speak about the History of Bree Street. “We bought it 30 years or so ago. It was up for demolition because it burnt.”

Gwen, as her husband affectionately calls her, was born on 25 September 1924. She married Gabriel in 1949. At 91 years old she and her husband still commute to No. 156 on Bree Street every single day. And he has plans for a new building on the way, just around the corner from their offices. 156 used to be a warehouse in its former life in the Cape Colony. Like a conduit to that time and place, its design is explicitly Cape Dutch and the building still retains its original form: the large round windows and the steel beam that protrudes from the top of the building, which was used to hoist up the large wooden beams that hold the structure together. Every bit of bolt and wood is still intact. A wooden blue door greets the visitor downstairs. Next to it, a modern boutique in the form of Alexander Hojer by the Swedish designer of the same name, also finds its place along this street that carries the old and the new in one hand.

“The warehouse was used to store offloaded stuff from the ships until the next round of boats took them to their destination. The whole of Cape Town was full of warehouses,” Gwen says. “And in Bree Street there were quite a number of warehouses as well.”

Down Bree, across Wale Street, one finds reincarnates of former warehouses, which have been transformed, over time, into modern spaces. Clarke’s Bar and Birds on 127 embody the quintessence of the life of a modern Capetonian. The former being famous for its chilled vibe, its cheese burger and quart beers; the latter for its free range dishes and exceptional coffee. Across the street at 122 is Nauty40, an upmarket adult venue. Brothels have been a lifeblood of this city, since the Van Riebeek days. A thirty minute session at Nauty40 is R 800.00; an hour, R1000.00. Elsewhere I’ve read that Jan Van Riebeek once wrote to the VOC’s Council of Seventeen about the alarming ubiquity of places of pleasure in the city. And it’s a pleasant discovery to find that this tradition and trade has not become extinct. That, in fact, Bree Street, hosts at least two of such bars where one can treat oneself – the other one being up at 207 and visible to the keen traveller by its blue light bulb that invites you by the entrance.

A stone’s throw from Nauty40 is St Stephen’s NGK Dutch Reformed Church; attached to the back of the church is Weinhaus + Biergarten (Wine house + Beer garden, which serves craft beer for aficionados). The genealogy of the Dutch Reformed Church or Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerek (NGK) in Cape Town can be traced back to 1663 when Johan Van Arckel arrived in the Cape Colony to become its first minister. Since its founding, different strands of the church have mushroomed throughout the country, owing to Die Groot Trek of the1830s and 1840s. The St Stephen’s building was originally a theatre built for Sir George Yonge and opened in 1801. In 1839 the building was sold to the Dutch Reformed Church to be used as a church for recently freed slaves. The church is in Riebeek’s Square.

The city walker will find Paul du Toit sculpture, titled “Into tomorrow.” The sculpture is of two figures standing arm in arm, like friends or soldiers leaving battle; one of the figures taking a title defining step “into tomorrow.” Across Shortmarket and Bree Street is Heritage Square.

Before we scurry along, across the street, dear reader, there’s a piece of very important architecture I nearly forgot to mention –The Christiaan Barnard Hospital – found opposite St Stephen’s NGK Dutch Reformed Church. Christian Neethling Barnard was a South African cardiac surgeon who performed the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant. The operation occurred on the morning of 3 December 1967 and lasted 9 hours. It is reported that in his team was a black surgeon, Hamilton Naki, who played an integral role in the procedure. However, it is said, his name was removed from the history books to erase the black spot in what was meant to Apartheid’s great contribution to medicine. The irony. Naki’s name was later included only after 1994, a little too late, perhaps. If a just history could be written, a history that takes cognisance of the contributions of both victor and victim, I imagine that this impressive edifice of medical healthcare would be called The Hamilton Naki Christiaan Barnard Hospital, today.

Now, back to Heritage Square. This is a block of Dutch and Georgian architecture. In the 18th century it was famous among gunsmiths and bakers, bootleggers and cigarette makers. In the 1980s it became the largest conservation project in the city and was restored to its former glory. Today it houses The Cape Heritage Hotel, Simply Asia, HQ and Chefs warehouse among other businesses. I’ve lost a leg or two, downing one too many shots at HQ, if I may add. Going down Bree Street towards Hout Street, one ought to find the sea, I believe. Instead, one is invited by the beauty of art and culinary distinction at Young Blood and Beautiful Food on 70-72nd, the grave permanence of the edifice on corner Castle and Bree, the gentlemen’s hideout at The Embassy, the tallness of the Terraces building, which seems to hover above you like a lonesome sentinel and B@1 urban café, hidden underneath the weight of BG Bowman Gilfillan. Orinoco’s specialises in Latin American Cuisine and I LOVE MY LAUNDRY on Bree and Prestwich is where one can drop laundry and pick up Dimsum. The Vaudeville Supper Club is not too far and to be quite frank, I don’t know what people do there. A new structure, guarded by cranes and scaffolding, shoots up to the Cape Town sky on Bree and Mechau Street and Active Sushi stands next to Hard Pressed Café – a quaint, modern café on the modest side of Bree Street. In the 17th Century Freres Bistro would have been definitely submerged under water and Tsogo Sun would have been a reef.

Back at No 156, Gwen tells me, “No 156 Bree Street was one of the last remaining warehouses. All the warehouses have the same format. They’re narrow, long. Going from one street to the next street, usually.” She continues, “All these beams were so thick with charcoal and soot. We got a builder friend in who sharpened some spades and took out all the charcoal and cleaned up all the beams. The original beams were hoisted up and shoved through the windows. Because the building was originally a warehouse, the beams had to be placed very near to each other because they had to take a huge weight on top. So when we made them thinner it didn’t matter because they were still thick enough to carry a floor.”

As new buildings go up along this strip of Cape Town and other are taken down, it is important to remember Bree’s history and her people – like architects Gwen and Gabriel Fagan or the slaves who were freed into St Stephen’s NGK Church; the people who make their living in the square and the side street; the buskers and the bergies who make it their home and those enterprising souls who build their businesses or the bullhorn-moustached hipster in industrially torn tight denim jeans and an oversized sweater, who swings by for a double flat white and free Wifi at Jasons.

Listening in: A reflection on the Open Book Festival (2014)

I arrive at Fugard Annex 1 cradling a tumbler of red wine and find an empty seat on the second last row at the back. On stage is the host, Ferial Haffajee (editor of City Press), with her guest Maria Phalime, to talk about her memoir: Postmortem, The Doctor Who Walked Away.

The room is adequately packed, save for a few seats. A significant number of student doctors are in attendance. The conversation oscillates between the material conditions in state hospitals — the lack of resources to attend to the chaos of disease and wounds and infection — and the socio-economic factors that yield such a chaotic state of affairs.

Maria speaks with authority on her subject and in between the harrowing stories of trauma, fatigue and disillusion she betrays an uncanny sense of humour in the face of it all. Her debut book has won the inaugural City Press Tafelberg non-fiction award. In the book what we’re accustomed to in statistics and cold empirical facts is distilled into human stories of the stakeholders in the public healthcare system. She speaks of the need to transform the public healthcare sector, as well as the need for doctors to speak up about the dreadful conditions within which they work.

When she speaks of her years in medicine a smile creases on her face. You’d be forgiven to think she was telling a love story. In her words a firm gentleness, unlike that of my own mother, is apparent when she retells her story and experience and in the grim anecdotes she tells about the people (doctors and patients) she encountered during her four years in medicine.

When her session is over I make my way to the book-signing room where I pick up Phalime’s book, as well as Sixolile Mbalo’s Dear bullet: Or A Letter to my Shooter and Malaika Wa Azania’s Memoirs of a Born Free.

Reading the opening pages of Mbalo’s book before going to bed doesn’t quite prepare me for the following day’s session with her and fellow author, Ekow Duker. Sindiwe Magoma hosts the session and translates to English Mbalo’s isiXhosa. Here, I must commend her on her precise translation of isiXhosa to English. Nothing is lost in translation as Mbalo shares her ordeal as if picking a scab that hasn’t quite healed. The silence in the room quivers with the trembling in her voice as though she would at any given moment break into a terrifying whimper. But she doesn’t. Instead she speaks of bravery and a need for society to protect women from rape. She implores us to understand that life doesn’t end after you’ve been raped, that she is living proof of her assertion. “I’m also writing the story of other women who have been raped,” she says about her book.

It is not the uneasy heaviness of the silence that engulfs us as Mbalo speaks or her trembling voice that slaps me into sobriety, it’s the lack of attendance. For a country whose women are violently subjected to rape and abuse nearly every second of every minute you’d hope that when the opportunity arose for us to talk about violence against women a strong presence from all faces of society would show up ready to speak. Sadly, this isn’t the case.

The handful of people in the room sit forlornly and listen in on the talk on stage — be it at an academic distance. When the Q&A section of the talk is underway only two hands go up — a contrast to the previous night’s talk with Phalime, which was well-attended and showed greater interaction.

Duker sits quietly while Sixolile speaks. His book — Dying in New York — written from a first person perspective by Lerato, the female protagonist, also deals with rape and abuse as its central themes.

Speaking of Duker’s book Magoma points out that, like Lerato’s mother in the book, we (society) are looking on, abused, stunned into silence and not speaking out about rape and abuse. In a sense, our collective silence makes us reluctant accomplices to the crimes perpetrated by those who are our friends, family members and close relatives. “We get more upset when Bafana Bafana loses,” Magoma says, “than we do when a woman is raped”.

After picking up Duker’s novel and having both books signed by the authors I make my way home with an uncomfortable lump in my throat. I think of all that was said in the session. I think of my two-year-old daughter; I think of my mother and sister; I think of Mbalo and the quivering in her voice. I try to imagine the bravery it took for her to visit her perpetrator in prison to find closure. I think of my tacit complicity with her perpetrator. I think of the many empty seats in the room.

Originally appeared in M&G Thoughtleader*

Art review: Body Of Evidence – Florine Demosthene’s exhibition “The Capture”

Images, like objects, tend to embody something of us in them; a memory, an unintelligible feeling, perhaps, that is yet to render itself to intellect. This memory – exhumed from the subconscious and enlivened by the image – becomes a threshold from which the poetry of our lives finds relief in the present moment.

Florine Demosthene’s latest exhibition, The Capture, is a timely interrogation of history and present, particularly as it is accumulated and articulated in the experience of the black body (especially, the black female body) in time and in space – that is, in culture and its imagination as much as in corporeality.

the work refutes and refuses the corrupt demands of black female representation as dictated by Europeans ideals and the ever present subtext – especially in the reading of and representation of black female bodies in art and pop culture – that panders to the white gaze.

subtly, and carefully, Demosthene constructs metaphors of literary acuity: the destruction of Haiti in 2010 and its subsequent, if not tenuous, rebuilding, which coincided with the development of this series of works, becomes a way to speak of the ways in which the western world has tried to destroy the black body – throughout history and  present –  and its resilience.

“There is a lot of trauma in what happened to Haiti,” she says about the earthquake that devastated her home country, killing more 160 000 people and displacing millions. Her current series of works is foregrounded by a voluptuous black female Heroine amid a strange world of decay and destruction.

“The proximity of Haiti to the West, the US, is only four hours. But the standards of living are pretty dismal, there. So you start looking at this quagmire of black people and begin to ask, what the fuck is going on on this planet?” It is from this this quagmire, this rubble, that her Heroine begins to emerge.

It is no secret that European society (and the West in general) have propped their economies and defined their culture through the violent destruction of the black world. They have asserted their ideals of beauty through the derision of the black body. Thus, The Capture, is as much a project of rejecting the projected western ideals on the black body as it is an objection to the hegemonic order of the world as we know it.

“The earthquake was symbolic in that here we are, building this nation that is constantly being destroyed and France still demands us to pay for our freedom, which further destabilizes the country,” she says. “It shows you that the colonialists don’t believe in you not paying.”

And the black body continues to pay, whether here or in Haiti, or elsewhere in the First World, especially the U.S., with blood and flesh. If anything, The Capture proves the universality of the black condition, whose destruction Demosthene reconciles with an acute creative impulse.

Her canvases read like a dream, ethereal in quality and thus abstracting the painfully obvious, rendering her Heroine unresponsive to the possessive gaze of the reader. The pieces speak to us with restraint and suspicion. A condition borne out of the internal dialogue the that the works have with the Europeans tradition of contemptuous representation of the black female body. Restrained and suspicious, each piece refuses the violent, often fetishistic, Western gaze.

What I found in the emergence of Demosthene’s Heroine is a narrative steeped on the meditation as a process of healing. Her animal motifs, which open to specific spiritual meanings in the black world construct mythologies that sail across seas; from Haiti to the rest of the Caribbean, to West Africa and to South Africa, sowing seeds for a spiritual reawakening and restoration amid the ruins and the scars which have been inscribed on the surface and inside the mind of every black body the world over.

Demosthene manages to create a very specific subjectivity with this work, defined but not destroyed by the vicissitudes of time and place. It is a daring subjectivity that forever defines itself from within (never from without) and in the world of images and their attendant meanings her Heroine challenges us to formulate new ways of seeing ourselves before we are captured by others.

Originally appeared in the Sunday Times Lifestyle Magazine, 23 August 2015* 

Art review: Of love and loss – Penny Siopis x Portia Zvavahera

Naturally, when one speaks of love, then one – consciously or not – conjures the terrifying inevitability of grief. It is grief, one could argue, that makes love even possible. The twinned exhibition of Penny Siopis and Portia Zvavahera explores the intimacy of love, the longing to connect with loved ones within the terrifying spectacle of grief.  In Penny Siopis’ work ‘Still and Moving’ love – for it is still love even in loss – is broken down into fragments that speak to the process of mourning. In 2012 she lost her husband, Colin Richards, and this current body of appears to be an attempt to make sense of that loss by formulating, in a tangible language, the weight of her grief.

Deliberately or not, the language which informs the imagery on canvas is that of a human soul and from this point of view one begins to get a sense of loss as a universal language, a kind of language that precedes all written or verbal form. This body of work has a burning intensity, accentuated by the use of the primary colour, red. Fragments of paper cutouts and clippings glued in precise locations within the dense canvas strike the viewer as having stumbled upon a process of meditation than a finished artwork.

The work is haunted by an elusive figure of a woman or women, in the present or the afterlife, standing still and yet moving, living in both worlds all at once. In ‘I tell myself’ the woman figure appears stone-like and bathe in fire, looking listless and longing, for a lover (one might rightly presume) whom she has lost forever.

Imbued with more hope that futility, Portia Zvavahera’ exhibition ‘I can feel it in my eyes’ is still burdened by the idea of loss, and the figures in the works seem to cling on to the present and to each other with terrible apprehension. While the figures swim in a fantastic  dreamscape, clinging to each other in loving embrace, the delicate protection proffered by the flower motif speaks of the delicate, and gnawing uncertainty of the future of this love (like any love between two people), which disturbs the allusions of carefreeness in the images. The lovers are happy in the present but concerned about the arrival of the inevitable and therefore the whites that normally signify marriage and a new start are contrasted with deep mauves and deep blues, which give that hope a tinge of dark.

This contrast reminds me of a stanza in a poem by the American poet Robert Frost in ‘Come In’: “As I came to the edge of the wood, thrush music – hark! Now if it was dusk outside, inside it was dark.” If the reader of the poem is tricked by that “hark” which alludes to some kind of music made by the wood Thrush before realising that the end of the stanza would be “dark”, the viewer in Portia Zvavahera’s work is tricked by the loving embrace of the lovers in figures to not even contemplate the very tragic fact that even this love is bound to an inevitable loss, whether it is separation of death.

Originally appeared in City Press*