Cape Town’s exclusionary #InclusiveCity anti-racism campaign

Cape Town has a way of giving you lemons; then turns around and says it gave you honey. First, it was the open toilets. And now, the #InclusiveCity anti-racism campaign, which is led by a mostly white ad agency – King James Group.

Understandably, it’s unpopular with black people, the same people it hoped to target and reassure. This is for a simple reason, white people are so removed from the black experience that they have no insight or understanding of what it means to be black and what it’s like to experience white racism.

What became obvious about the campaign to anyone with a modicum of critical thought was that it was false, misguided, and succeeded only to further alienate black people from this lovely city.

King James Group is, simply, white. The last time I checked King James Group (Cape Town) had three black creatives and about six black staff in total. So how is a predominantly white team going to succeed in creating an anti-racism campaign when its company profile shows not a hint of transformation? It is like asking the domestic abuser to come up with an anti-domestic abuse campaign.

The result, predictably, is the silencing of the voice of the victim by his victimiser, which only agitates tempers as we’ve witnessed with the social media backlash.

This is the kind of insult Cape Town blacks have come to expect from the city. It comes from the misguided belief that there are only “incidents” of racism and not – as every black person knows and experiences – a systemic oppression of blacks.

I’m certain, in this regard, that King James has a very good excuse for not having any blacks in their company, just as #NotAllCapetonians are racist.

In March, this year, our esteemed mayor – the former Pan Africanist – Patricia de Lille, challenged the deputy president to give her examples of these “incidents” of racism after Cyril Ramaphosa had reportedly mentioned incidents where black people were refused bookings at hotels and denied flats to rent owing to the colour of their skin.

I have also experienced the difficulty of finding a flat in Cape Town because I am black, which is exposed in emails by my name. In one case I had to change my name (on email) to that of a white person so I could, at least, view the place. Still, I had to ingratiate myself with the rental agent and plead with her to speak to the owner and to tell him that I am a decent person, who works professionally, and has the manners of the queen – basically, a good black. I did so with my best version of a private school accent and the trick worked but I was left nauseated by the humiliation of the entire ordeal.

I have no doubt that the city would love to be seen as inclusive.

However, how will Cape Town become an inclusive city when obtaining a place to rent in town is still based on one’s skin colour? How is the city to become inclusive when only one race has access to the restaurants and hotels in town? How is the city to achieve this dream of inclusivity when it hires a white ad agency, with one or two black people as staff?

The city does have a diversity of races. However, the way it is organised, all the comfort and security is disproportionately allocated in favour of one race group. Public relations, however well intentioned, doesn’t change these facts. It is curious that after 20 years of democracy Cape Town operates this way.

Racism, the city must surely know, does not only occur only in interpersonal arrangements. Owing to colonialism and apartheid, it is built into the very DNA of South African society.

In its very core and structure. This is the structure that distinguishes and arranges the kind of life each race lives. Black people are always at the bitter end of that equation. I would love for Cape Town to be an inclusive city but I am afraid this will not be so for as long as the city is dishonest about the evident structural racism, as well as the mechanism that maintain it.

**First appeared in City Press**

A conversation with Roger Ballen on the Repressive Nature of Society

It is at ten in the morning in Parktown North, on a quiet Friday morning, when I arrive at Gallery MOMO to meet Roger Ballen. Having arrived ten minutes early I saunter about the gallery, stopping briefly to take in the images, an indulgence which proved impossible on the opening evening, what with the packed cross-generational audience jostling about excitedly to view the work. On this morning, however, only a single silver car is parked outside, looking gloomily onto the deserted street.

‘Your images are terrifying,’ I say to him after a brief friendly handshake upon his arrival. Surprisingly, he is warm yet removed and serious at the same time. We’re in the first room – The Basement. ‘The House Project’ is a collaboration between Roger Ballen and Italian writer, philosopher and poet Didi Bozzini. The House is treated as a metaphor for the human mind that contains four floors. Each floor is has a symbolic relation to the human mind. The Basement is the primordial part of the human mind, the ground floor deals with human absurdity, the second floor deals with trying to construct order in the world of chaos and the top floor deals with the ethereal – ‘people trying to make sense of the heavens and religion and their place in the world and their place in the universe.’

‘What they say of the human condition is a terrible indictment on humanity,’ I continue. At first, he considers me quite grimly with strained bulging eyes and then says, ‘First of all, when we talk about the human condition we’re not talking about what’s good or bad. We’re talking about what exists. That’s what it is. I think it’s a good thing that people come to understand the condition in some way or another – it has good parts and bad parts, otherwise there’s no possibility of improvements.’ I tell him that South Africa thrives on this idea of an innate humanity, on innate goodness, on Ubuntu and his images transgress the ontological premise of that idea and are almost too pessimistic, especially regarding the narratives South Africa has tried, since 1994, to construct about itself.

‘That’s the issue,’ he says. ‘The construction itself. Who’s constructing it? Is it advertising agencies? Is it government? Is it the people who live in starvation? Who’s constructing this? It’s probably an advertising agency. So is this a genuine issue or is it just made up of an elite trying to serve its own interest?’ Inside the darkened cube of The Basement I can only think of the meaninglessness and the travesty of the 1994 fad of ‘rainbowism’ but gradually and tragically I see its usefulness, especially among those in middle classes, the wealthy and those who utilise it, rightly or wrongly, to navigate their way to cosier spots on the exclusive table of South Africa’s elite society. It is a useful delusion. In its own way it plays into the human condition, into modes of survival, the quest for power, comfort and control and the misshapen social desire to find comity amongst one’s countrymen.

‘When I look at a house,’ I say, ‘I think of home, you know, as an elusive space. A place that contains traces of something that once held together but has now begun to crumble and is, in fact, crumbling…’

‘It is, actually,’ he interjects. ‘That’s the truth of the matter. You’re not getting any younger. Youth is about growing up and your middle and old age is about succumbing to the forces of nature. That’s the truth. The problem with the approach that people take with something that is authentic is that it’s threatening because of the repressive nature of society, because of the repressive nature of the way people deal with reality, so the issue is if you’re talking about the crumbling nature, you’re talking about life. Life isn’t about things getting bigger and bigger and living forever and forever and everything going well. Life has its chaotic moments and has its good moments and ultimately human beings –like everything in nature– is not able to deal with the aspect of dying. People are scared of that, so when they look at these pictures [and they] resonate a sense of truth with their condition which they can’t deal with and then they call the work pessimistic, dark, depressing. But they can’t deal with the truth. They’re living an illusion and they’d rather have an advertising agency tell them what’s good and bad.’

‘But your work is also very modernist, very surreal and, as you know, South African photography has always, somehow, been centred on the idea of documentary photography…’

‘That’s the problem,’ Ballen says as we enter The Ground Floor. ‘South African photography is divided up into three parts. One, people spend their life on Instagram taking snap shots. The second part is people who enjoy taking pictures of zebras and lions and their family marriages and this sort of thing. The third part is people who spend a lot of time in photography being considered the more serious photographers in the country –most of those spend their time trying to document political-social issues. That’s never been my real concern.’

‘Which makes me think of the more primitive linguistic structures in the other room,’ I interrupt him. ‘You know, it’s strange that even those images find some kind of similitude in all of us in our collective recognition of something terrifying in them that we can’t quite put our finger on. And this sense comes through in the shapes.’

‘We’re all linked in some strange way so when you look at these pictures, the more primitive pictures, these may have something to do with the levels of the mind that existed before language came into effect. I can’t say any of these things in any objective way. These are very primary images, very archetypal images, that…’

‘…the internal repressed self is the same in all of us,’ I interrupt him briefly.

‘That’s a very good point. The images affect something deep in our own minds that we cannot really verbalise but we know that they exist in some way or another. There’s something here that goes beyond language; that goes beyond culture. It is innate in the human psyche, somehow, which we can’t explain. There’s something basic to themselves -–these pictures– which is a very crucial part of what art is about for me, at least. I’m not a political artist. I’m not a social artist. I’m not a cultural artist. I don’t do work to try make comment about South Africa. Even though people thought I did. But that’s never been my goal, so…these pictures, hopefully, have a timelessness to them. Have an international impact and they’re able to affect people in a strong psychological, positive, manner. I’m hopeful. I hope that’s the case but I can’t guarantee it.’

With the kind of polemic that met his previous work, especially Outland, his doubt and reserve is a pragmatic way of dealing with the way his work is often received.

Roger Ballen’s pictures are minimalistic. Everything detail and object in the picture appearing there for a precise reason and integrating with everything else in a very clear, focused, formalistic way. ‘That’s how I differ from a lot of other photographers who just focus on content,’ he says before we go to The Attic. ‘I focus on form as much as I do on content.  So you won’t find anything in my picture that basically shouldn’t be there. If I find anything in my pictures that shouldn’t be there I probably won’t show you the picture. If I can’t get the picture to be organic then I can’t show the picture. There’s no point in showing pictures with mistakes in them. I shouldn’t be able to find mistakes. So, you know, I’m very formalistically orientated. You rarely can find something in my pictures that doesn’t belong there.’

The attic is the upper floor of the house in ‘The House Project.’  The pictures are filled with birds. ‘Many of these pictures come from the book Asylum of the Birds,’ Ballen says. ‘And they’re also in some cases religious iconic imagery. It also relates back to the so called heaven. We have a mixture of birds, heavens, religion in this room.  And I guess people can’t find peace looking up at the heavens, either. There’s no answer up there, either. There’s only confusion up there as well. There’s nothing wrong about it. The images of religion are there to help people cope with death and chaos. They help people feel like they have some sort of answer; they help people not think about these issues.’

In ‘The House Project’ Didi Bozzini’s text and Ballen’s photographs stand side by side without necessarily illustrating each other directly. ‘Didi wrote text to these four floors and I used photographs from my career which spans like 50 years.”

Five minutes before our conversation is over a Belgian woman from the BBC is waiting, patiently, for her turn to interview him.

‘Please give us ten more minutes,’ he says gesticulating to his other interviewer.

‘It’s okay,’ I tell him. ‘I have everything I need.’

‘Are you sure?’ He insists.

‘I’m sure.’

‘Here’s my card. If you need anything speak to my assistant.’

‘I will,’ I tell him and before stepping out I see it: the amputated cowboy mannequin pointing his gun towards the sky and I wonder if this is Ballen’s alter ego – that after so many decades of shooting people, objects, spaces, and making art he is still as sharp as before, even at the age of 65.

**Originally appeared in Artthrob**

Joburg blues and the art of Senzo Shabangu

In 2011 I collected my books into a two tiny boxes and put them on a train to Cape Town and left Joburg. The decision was as sudden as it was arbitrary. Thinking about it now, I cannot put into words the precise thoughts behind my departure except that it felt as though the city with all its baggage, was encroaching. A tightness, which was more violent than intimate, which punched the air out of one’s lungs. It was, I suppose, something to do with that madness with which Joburg so easily identifies that I felt the need to get out. It is the same madness that lured me back in. I moved to Cape Town and soon learned that I had jumped out of the proverbial frying pan and straight into the fire. Whereas I’d been living in Joburg from 2001 to 2010, it took only 2 years to realise that I had made a mistake by moving to Cape Town and two years of sizing up Joburg from a distance and meditating on exactly where I wished to land upon my return, and the rest I left to chance. And 3 months ago I came to visit and never returned to the Mother City.

Joburg is less a place than an idea. It is this idea of a place that Senzo Shabangu explores in his work. The idea of the work points to an external place or what it seeks to represent, and then it dives inwardly into what the idea is to itself, and, at a remove, to what idea might be held by the viewer about the place in comparison to the idea represented before you by the artist. The result is that the viewer becomes a participant (unwillingly, I might add) in this process of mythologizing and demystifying Joburg, the city. Senzo Shabangu’s pieces are mostly constructed of linocut, lithograph and monotype, mostly using black ink, which gives the artist’s despondency about the city an added cumulative dimness. However, in his last solo exhibition ‘My World’ at David Krut this lugubriousness was offset by bright blues, pinks, reds, yellows, orange and ochres. There is vitality in ‘My World’ even as it deals with the artist’s themes of claustrophobia with the buildings falling towards you, the spectator or to other characters in the drawn, chiselled and painted construct; or the restless anxiety of being in a place where the ideas of settling down or establishing home lose meaning as mirrored by the floating of homes into space, or homes tethered to the ground by the thinnest of strings. These conservative ideals about home or ‘settling down’ lose meaning precisely because Joburg is a city founded on money and suffering or the suffering to mine minerals that make other people rich. In the process of making other people rich by making others suffer unimaginably, forced removals begin to make absolute sense. In this city this democratic ideal of every man for himself is fully realised without pretensions. The weight that rests on the heads of the working men who gets by doing the most menial jobs while pocketing only the meagre of wages, but whose jobs nonetheless is to keep Joburg City lights on with the sweat of his brow is much a part of the city as the man whose lights are kept on because he does the least. This is the nature of the thing, eat or be eaten.

This, however, is only one perspective and one narrative of a city with more than plenty, entwining, complex, convoluted ways of being. A few months ago I returned to a city no less cluttered, no less taxing to the flesh and tiresome to the soul. But it had a newness to it or rather an oldness made new. This is true, Joburg is able to re-invent itself into new eras without losing its mining-town-ness, its excessive greed, and its brutality. It is this balance of virtue and vice, of doom and optimism, which gives Senzo Shabangu’s new work its precarious optimism.