The Spectacle of Poverty

A white woman sticks her nose up and sniffs the air around the gold spray-painted corrugated steel structure that is made to resemble a long drop toilet at the Brother Moves On exhibition ‘Hlabelela : It’s A New Mourning Nkush’ currently showing at Goodman in Joburg.

She tip toes around the structure, sniffing and craning her neck to peek into the clean odourless long drop not unlike a mouse sticking its snout out of a hole in the ceiling.

Until this moment I had found the show –how do I put it?– underwhelming. It lacked structure and coherence, which works well in music, I suppose, but not so much in the cube. So I watch the nose peer into the corrugated long drop and recoil with curious, near squinting, concentration…sniff, sniff.  Inside the structure is a broken ceramic toilet with a pair of blue reflective sunnies dumped in it. A splendour of dada-esque proportions. And behind the toilet is hung a video monitor. The video of The Brother Moves On’s Rainbow Child featuring the late Nkulululeko ‘Nkush’  Mthembu, who was the founder of the band, plays. The exhibition honours his memory.

Of course, I didn’t have any refrain before going into the toilet, watching the video, and trying to record something (anything) on the old cellphone hung there for that exact purpose.

What was it about that toilet that I didn’t get which so consumed the woman?

For me the halting moment of the show is the text that greets the viewer at the entrance. It speaks of migratory patterns that led to the gold mines and with those migrants, came language. And how that language blurs national borders and binds Africa to a common history and a united place. I think that’s the essence of the text, anyway. Implied in the mention of the gold mines is of course cheap black labour and death. One only has to read up on the class action lawsuit by miners against the big

The Brother Moves On 'It's a New Mourning Nkush' installation view. photograph by Anthea Pokroy

gold mining houses operating in South Africa to get a sense of the scale of the issue. However, if gold kills underground it takes on a new meaning in the mythologies it produces about Joburg, the city that birthed The Brother Moves On. Gold represents success, the accumulation wealth or being famous or both. Brett Rubin’s digital print We Are Finally On A Billboard, 2016, when juxtaposed with the text at the entrance (Rubin’s ‘billboard’ stands behind a spray-painted tyre titled Necklace) gives the depth and complexity often missing in both the thesis of Joburg as being a city of gold and that of it being a modern day dystopia. The Brother Moves On says it is all these things at once. The sombre, polemical text, the tyre and its historic meanings which are peculiar to South Africa’s blood path to democracy, the motion and speed captured in the billboard, all come to bear witness to this.

Therefore, the dazzling, crumbling gold layer spray-painted on the corrugated toilet is the necessary illusion. For beneath it something stinks. And her tilted nose, her unwillingness to enter the toilet, attests to this. And then it becomes clear to me, that underneath the mere structure (which couldn’t quite attain the abstraction it intended) lies nothing more than a repulsive existence. In any measure, as a representation, it is a tragic metaphor for black life in Joburg and elsewhere.

As repulsed as the visitor is, she is still hypnotised by the spectacle. She refuses to go inside the toilet to watch the video, and yet takes no interest in the mirror besides the structure nor the gold spray-painted analogue camera hooked on the far corner. She doesn’t turn to the New Myth tote bags and the New Myth tour poster: Nowhere, Peace, South Elsewhere, 2016 print encased in glass not too far from her. It will probably take her the entire afternoon to get to the installation of treated animal bones in yet another room titled Suspended disbelief. Watching her I am convinced she will make nothing of the Nkululeko Mthembu: Self Portrait, an image of animal fat, flesh and eye which evokes sacrifice, custom and spirituality. The latter, read with the bones, begins to formulate a metaphysics and mythology which pre-dates colonialism and, by and large, transcends it.

But why should she look there when in front of her now twitching, now sniffing nose, lies the entire spectacle onto which she gets to feed her middle class gaze? Why delve into something deeper, into a language that is of such terrifying consequence, when you can trounce about feeding your insatiable appetite on the spectacle of black poverty? The entire exhibition then collapses to this. The videos of the band on tour, the care-free-black-boy outlook of the band in their colourful tights, no doubt in its resolve to transcend markers of conventional masculinity, and their colourful peroxided hair, and their music which stitches together continents and cultures, is unable to transcend this reality so sniffed out.

The spring show and the end of history

In Johannesburg spring was rushed in by the ringing of rifles as rubber bullets and stun grenades burst throughout Braamfontein; as piles of rocks rained down on the Great Hall steps at Wits university breaking glass and bone and skull; as freedom songs boomed up into the ether in the standoff between the university and the #feesmustfall movement.

It was indeed a fine day for mischief: a warm, cloudless spring day. And by mischief, I mean the dirty job of manufacturing history and, dare I say, of ending it. Beyond the programmatic demands (re: fees, insourcing etc) by the students, it is history that is in question and the protests are, I suppose, one way to try set history right, to take it off its current phallic trajectory, and to imagine it anew, in ways that might help re-imagine what a post-modern, post-apartheid society might look like.

Further away from the chaos in Braam, in a quaint space surrounded by oaks and pepper trees in Parktown North, Gallery MOMO is showcasing its Spring Group show that features Ayanda V. Jackson, Mary Sibande, Joël Mpah Dooh,Raél Jero Salley, Andrew Tshabangu and Kimathi Donkor. Many of the works on show deal with this question of the end of history and modernity, and the current state of a post-modern reality with an unsettling anxiety.

Andrew Tshabangu from Under The Bridge

Take for one Andrew Tshabangu’s images of Christianity in Africa. With religion being the modernising tool of the colonising project with its attendant erasure of pre-existing cultural identities and practices, often replacing them with a new, racialised social hierarchy, one cannot help but see in the diffident women in white in Tshabangu’s brilliant images – brilliant for their composition and his use of natural light and shadows – a surrender that is antithetical to, perhaps, what one might associate with the post-modern Africa of Mary Sibande in which ‘black woman’ takes on a more robust, active form.

Sibande’s Right Now! becomes the near perfect articulation of this new language, which veers away from Tshabangu’s scenes. It is worth noting that where Tshabangu’s frames and documents, Sibande creates and frames. And perhaps the resilience outwardly expressed in Sibande’s work agitates somewhere beneath the women in white, behind their closed eyes and the worn hands clutching candles whose frozen fragile light give the black and white images a palpable, internal glow. This glow is disturbed by the round smiling face of a corpulant priestly gentleman sitting on a couch as if on a throne and spotting and bejeweled crucifix, which doesn’t scream ‘servant of god’ but rather ‘self-serving power’.

Tshabangu’s From the Bridge series and Sibande’s Right Now! appear to exist on different timelines, one fixed in the past and the other evolving with the now. And here then lies the crisis in which the student protesters find themselves – that while evolving with the tide of late capitalism and its demands and pressures, one is structurally stuck outside present world as a kind of fixed fetish of a monomaniacal modernity that refuses to come into the present.

Timelines cross again in Kimathi Donkor’s For Moses had Married an Ethiopian Wife. Two figures dressed according to the times caress lovingly on a bench foreground the image. Two black laptops on either side of them, indoubtably a couple savvy in new technologies and social media. However, behind them is unlikely structure for such a progressive scene: a zinc shack such as one sees in Nyanga in Cape Town. This juxtaposed coupling of the two timelines, of late capitalist societies as signified by the technology and the shack that was created for blacks by modernity, again points to the crisis of the present moment. Donkor’s When Shall We 3? and You will never have me are both images that spoke speak to frustration, desire and anxiety of the unfinished business of history. However, both paintings are centered around men – black and white – and, as much as both scenes depict servile white women, they still re-edify patriarchy as being the pre-eminent, pre-ordained, societal order.

Ayana V. Jackson Sarah Forbes, 2016.

One is then forced to move from such static work to that of Ayana V. Jackson, which opens up, for the viewer, new histories and possibilities. Here, Jackson continues with her study of the black experience, both African and diasporic. In one of the series of performance portraits Jackson grapples with the life and legacy of Sara Forbes Bonetta of Yoruba royalty, who was enslaved, then liberated from slavery to become the goddaughter to Queen Victoria. Jackson’s re-imagining of Sarah Forbes takes the form of dark, rich, laced fabric and a posture both stern and seemingly uncomfortable. Perhaps this is the effect of the mixed legacy of her subject: that of royalty and slave, of being a princess and a black woman, of being Yoruba and British, of being great part of history and, at the same time, being outside of it. Such is the nervous condition that subsumes Jackson’s portraits in this exhibition.

It is with my foot inside the gallery and the other outside, in Braam, covering the student protests that I’ve been able to appreciate the crisis at hand. It is useful, I dare say, that one not assume that history has been concluded, that the modern world as we experience it is the only possibility. The presence of historic structural inequities should point, then, to any imaginative person, that humanity hasn’t produced its best version of itself just yet. And art, for all its limitations, often than not, points us to this simple fact.

Alfredo Jaar: images as instruments of power

At the Museum of Modern Art in 2002, Alfredo Jaar created a text-based polemical installation that reproached the West for its egregious abuse of power through its monopoly ownership of images.

The installation was called Lament of the Images and revealed that more than 17 million historical photographs and artworks were de facto owned by one man – Bill Gates, through his private company, Corbis.

The photographs are buried 67m below the surface in a subzero storage vault in western Pennsylvania and include a collection of images of Nelson Mandela in prison. While it’s accepted that the works are there to be preserved, the act carries with it an insidious suggestion for those whose history and heritage has long been “preserved” in British museums, and whose land is still preserved in neo-Dutch and British hands.

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Further, as Jaar suggests, this kind of preservation is merely a metonym for dispossession, since the images are totally inaccessible to anyone who doesn’t own the vault. Of course, it has become clear to anyone with a modicum of intelligence what dispossessing people of their images actually means. One only has to look at Jaar’s 2006 work called From Time to Time, in which the only images of Africa in his selected collection of Time magazine covers are of our big cats, a gorilla, starving children, deprivation and famine.

The Sound of Silence

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One of the images owned by Corbis is the infamous picture taken by Kevin Carter of a vulture stalking a collapsed famished child on her way to a feeding centre during the Sudanese famine in 1993. This image, since its publication, has served as a vexed metaphor for Africa’s despair.

On the one hand, one finds the argument that takes the image for literally what it is – a document of a time and place, and its attendant realities. Another school of thought frames the image within the debate of the way in which the Western gaze has historically presented Africa as a basket case, Joseph Conrad’s Dark Continent begging to be rescued. This school finds its expression in Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s seminal work, How to Write about Africa.

Jaar, in his exhibition The Sound of Silence at the Wits Art Museum, creates an uneasy dialectic between these two schools and almost suggests that the two binaries reproduce each other in the moment that the image itself is materialised. He formulates this conversation inside an illuminated cube. Each group coming to see the exhibition gets eight minutes in which they learn about Carter, his infamous image and the details surrounding his suicide in 1994 after winning a Pulitzer prize for said image.

When the rhythmic text-based video reaches the moment of reveal, when the audience will see the picture, there’s a moment of frozen anticipation followed by a flash of blinding light. It is precisely this moment of image production itself that is whitewashed by blinding white light, thus locating Carter’s picture itself in the moment of revealing (the first school of thought) and concealing (the second).

Needless to say, the image remains unresolved and contentious, and the timing of Jaar’s exhibition is appropriate as the West brazenly extends its commercial interests ever more firmly on African soil, and as the atrocities in the youngest African state, South Sudan, begin to escalate with acute terror.

Amilcar, Frantz, Patrice and the Others

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Running concurrently with his exhibition at the Wits Arts Museum is Amilcar, Frantz, Patrice and the Others at the Goodman Gallery, where Jaar explores how images are used to socialise the world in a way that perpetuates myths that sustain the immorality of Western capitalism.

Jaar’s artistic practice has always concerned itself with the politics of images. Through his work, he draws the “structural link between ethics and aesthetics”.

“Images aren’t innocent,” he writes.

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They are instrumental in altering not only the political landscape of a country and the world, but also serve to set the agenda of what we, the public, might consider priorities of modern society. He illustrates this in Untitled (Newsweek). The work shows 17 covers of Newsweek magazine during the five months of escalation of genocide in Rwanda, in which more than 1 million people had already perished by the time the publication decided to dedicate its first cover to the carnage. Erasure forms the haunting subtext in his work.

There are two works that grapple with creation and evolution of images of blackness, both here and in the US, on covers of two seminal works by black authors in the international publishing industry. The first series of prints trace the modulations in covers of the reprints of Irving Wallace’s The Man – a book about the likely political and social consequence if a black man became president of the US. The book was first published in 1964. The second book is Things Falls Apart by Chinua Achebe.

Needless to say, both evolutions discharge iterations of black fetishising. In Achebe’s book, with or without the black body, the fetishist gaze lingers over the covers. The logical explanation is, of course, that this possessive or, rather, dispossessing gaze prefixes the image. It is the tool as much as it is within the tool that constructs the images.

It follows that, for as long as the concentration of ownership of these media and the control of the dissemination of these images is in the same old white hands, little can really change.

Black and white

As such, I find the black consciousness argument about the impossibility of true solidarity between the materially oppressed and the liberally conscious quite instructive, especially when confronted by the work titled Life Magazine, April 19, 1968, which shows three prints of Martin Luther King, Jr’s funeral procession. A sea of black dots and the sprinkle of red marks designate black and white attendees, respectively.

Jaar’s use of presence and absence has a sobering effect, even in the sparseness of the exhibition itself. In one sense, there’s this comment on loneliness and isolation from the world, or the ways in which the world has historically isolated you through robbing you of everything you were before you met the colonial grinder. And maybe all this stripping down of your sense of self, of belonging, history, identity, custom and community is the process of individuation. It is the preparation of the oppressed subject for democracy, for the libertarianism implied in capitalist societies. Perhaps the crossing out of each name in the title typography indicates a reversal of this or maybe it points to “erasure” and to the silencing of one opposing force by another.

Instead, what the spectator encounters are neon-lit typographies of these revolutionary men. The neon lights, for me, recall the nihilism of late 20th-century anti-establishment rave culture at the precipice of what would be late capitalism, or capitalism on steroids.

Do engagements with critical radical texts and thoughts still carry the transformative possibilities of the struggle years? Or are they pills we pop to assuage the guilt of the present? To maintain our sanity while we consume? In the same manner that one might put on a T-shirt displaying the face of Che Guevara or read Steve Biko’s I Write What I Like without necessarily abdicating, or even contradicting, their capitalist aspirations? Is our seemingly inescapable contemporary consumerist reality just another myth created to sustain the immorality of Western capitalism?

Black modernisms and white saviours

Tensions over who has the legitimate claim and authority to frame the black modernist tradition in our art simmers beneath the exhibition, on at the Wits Art Museum. They point to old and new debates about the exclusion of blacks from cultural institutions and the role of white art historians in black art historical narratives.

Bhekisane Manyoni’s The Dancer

 

As it is, white South African modernists, who broke from the realist tradition in art, are vastly foregrounded and more valued in the market – Alexis Preller, Irma Stern et al.

In the case of Black Modernisms, the tension also surrounds the erasure of black artists by commission or omission from cultural memory.

“If you are going to make the claim that this exhibition should be understood as black modernisms, then you have to be conscious of what your omissions are going to imply,” says art historian Same Mdluli when we meet to speak about the exhibition. “Not including someone like Ernest Mancoba, for example Z you’re in essence erasing him,” she states.

“I feel like I should make a disclaimer,” she says regarding her involvement in the exhibition. “I also feel like it should be out on the record because for me it speaks directly to the kind of experience I’ve had as a black scholar looking at black South African art.”

She is referring to being treated as a black token in South Africa’s predominantly white art world.

“The only thing I was asked to do was the biographies of these artists,” says Mdluli. Officially, the exhibition is “curated by Professor Emeritus Anitra Nettleton, in collaboration with/assisted by Dr Same Mdluli and Bongani Mahlangu”. The exhibition is attached to a colloquium that will happen in June around global modernisms.

“Anitra, the person responsible for the conceptualisation of Black Modernisms, is also one of the people who are convening [the colloquium],” Mdluli adds.

Nettleton is an art historian and was Mdluli’s supervisor for her doctorate in art history.

“I have more than 30 years of this,” Nettleton says.

By “this”, she means working on collections of South African and African art at Wits Art Museum.

“We don’t hand over curatorial responsibility to people without experience,” she says.

At the centre of the tension is what artist and writer Sharlene Khan termed “Doing it for Daddy” in an essay
in 2006. The essay argued that “a patronising white mommy has displaced the art world’s patriarchal apartheid white daddy,” to cite artist, curator and academic Thembinkosi Goniwe.

“The ascendancy of white women into positions of power suggests a glaring lack of faith in black cultural workers and intellectuals,” Khan wrote. “When asked why there are so few black writers, curators and academics staffing key institutions and projects, the rote answer is that there are no ‘qualified’ black incumbents, or simply too few. This attitude has successfully thwarted substantive racial redress in the visual arts, and also been used as a ploy to promote ‘yes baas’ blacks.”

In terms of looking outside Wits Art Museum for other “more experienced” black curators, Nettleton says there was no budget to get someone from the outside.

“Why bring in other people when we have our own people?” she asks.

Khan’s essay was completely puerile, she says.

What she finds an issue is the over-determination of race as a proxy for one to speak about certain cultural subjects. “Does the colour of your skin determine what you can talk about?” she asks. “If we’re going to go that way, we’re not going to go anywhere … We won’t put on any exhibitions by black artists if we don’t have a black curator or unless we have the budget to hire one.”

However, Mdluli traces the tradition of liberal white curiosity in studying black South African mid-20th century artists to the 1990s, where “scholars were trying to legitimise their scholarship”, she says. “You name something, then you can speak about it; you can own it and start speaking authoritatively about it.”

Who had the right to decide or define what authentic African art is, she asks.

Nettleton, on the other hand, doesn’t see the exhibition as being definitive, but rather an explorative endeavour.

At stake, of course, is our historical cultural memory, as well the master narrative informing it.

In tracing the biographies of the artists selected for this exhibition, Mdluli has keenly observed the white Messiah complex deployed, especially those from specific art centres like the famous Polly Street.

“I’m not saying Cecil Skotnes [of Polly Street] did not have an influential role,” Mdluli says. “But for how long must we speak of Cecil Skotnes, even if he was only present for a short period in these artists’ professional lives?” she asks. “Rescuing cultural memory is important. Rescuing institutional memory is important. But how do we liberate the artists from their benefactors?”

 

People Sleep Here

The new and improved Braamfontein is a home to a vibrant artisanal culture that caters to an upwardly mobile youth who think nothing of paying R22.00 for a latte or R 65.00 for a burger. The area is possibly a model of successful gentrification in the Johannesburg CBD.

Behind this hip facade, however, lurks the world which hardly makes it to the tourist brochures and the ‘come invest in Braamfotein’s regeneration’ pamphlets. This is the world of the homeless who are also in Braam trying to eke out a living from whatever scraps of residue from the artisanal economy.

For this project, I refrain from showing the faces but rather focus on the open, often hard surfaces, on which they will spend their evenings this winter.

In this way, the project seeks to show what the regeneration project hides very well.

 

 

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Women in South Africa’s Theatre Industry vs The Status Quo

Just as the lights in Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre dim, you see the audience shift in their seats, their jewellery a distant glimmer as your eyes frisk around the impinging darkness. Breathless faces are eager to see legendary playwright Barney Simon’s hit, Born in the RSA.

Aside from the actors, there are only two other black people in the theatre tonight – the rest of the audience is white and older than 65, at a guess.

Light falls on the stage and the play opens with a monologue by Emily Child as Mia Steinman, the lawyer turned anti-apartheid activist. Moments later, in comes lead Thenjiwe, played by Faniswa Yisa, and with her a bittersweet melody – ironic and loaded – reminiscent of the days of apartheid resistance, the era in which this play was originally staged.

Afterwards, Yisa and I meet at the coffee shop downstairs.

“Did you see them?” she says, laughing. “Did you see how they were crying?”

“Yes, I did. It was strange.”

After graduating from the University of Cape Town’s school of drama, Yisa joined The Mothertongue Project, which was founded by one of her lecturers, Sara Matchett.

“We started creating work mainly for women and written by women because we felt there was a need,” she says.

“Theatre is very much dominated by white males, and most of it is written from a male perspective. Historically, the roles were very stereotypical … The housewife was a white woman who’s either an alcoholic or is constantly medicated, and the black woman is always her maid.

“My mother was a maid for the longest time and I do have respect for the job, but it’s not all that she was or all that we are. What you see in theatre is that the maid has become some kind of comic relief. She’s made to seem as though she doesn’t possess agency, isn’t complicated, just ‘ooh eh-eh’. If someone could write me a maid who had the same dignity that my mom had, the same drive and work ethic and the love that she possessed, then we would be telling another story.”

As we pay, she tells me to look up Koleka Putuma.

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I meet Putuma at Cafe Ganesh in Cape Town.

“I got into poetry first. In matric, I fell into dramatic arts. I had the belief that the universe could never put a gift inside of you for you to go in another direction.”

She is what has come to define the millennial in the age of Twitter. She is black-girl magic – young and talented with zero fucks to give.

“I was more involved in writing and directing. After putting together a theatre piece for our church, I remember the standing ovation and the feeling. Back then, it was superficial. The high you get from that affirmation is so exhilarating, especially in a world that tells black children all the time that you won’t amount to anything.”

During her final year at university, she and four classmates showed their play, titled Uhm, at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. By November, it had been picked up by Artscape to run for two weeks. One morning she woke up to the news that she had been nominated for the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards for best new director.

“I didn’t win, but it didn’t matter. Here I was, a young, black, female theatre practitioner among all these men.”

At this year’s fest, a strange play stole most of the spotlight. It was called Similar To, written by Genna Gardini, a 2012 Ovation Award winner for Winter Sweet. She’s the co-founder of Horses’ Heads Productions with her longtime friend Gary Hartley.

“We wanted to do weird work that we liked,” she says.

“In writing Similar To, we were making a story about these two people who are seen as ‘other’ because they are queer … but at the same time both those bodies are white bodies, so they are still afforded the privilege of their whiteness.

“I can’t equate that to how different it would be if these were black bodies on stage because that is not my experience … I was raised as a privileged white person and I benefit a lot from that. I can’t attempt to write about black women’s experiences.”

The play is the brainchild of Gardini, Hartley and actress Zanne Solomon. It began with Hartley and Solomon’s obsession with online games and became a theatrical exploration of the digital space as one where you can try out identities. In many ways, it begins to shape content away from historical narratives that we’ve grown accustomed to.

A few days later, I am interviewing Sara Matchett over email. The senior lecturer at UCT’s drama department and artistic director at The Mothertongue Project is in India writing her doctoral thesis.

“The biggest challenge in running Mothertongue is funding,” Sara writes. “Perhaps there are still too many men who occupy positions of power in funding institutions, theatres, academic institutions and the like. The media and other critical commentators on theatre often support male-centric positions as the norm when addressing audiences … Women’s stories are often framed within the realm of gender activism and not considered as an experience asserted on its own terms.”

Women make up the majority of students in tertiary drama institutions in South Africa, but most drama departments are headed by men.

“If the majority of students graduating from drama programmes are women, where are they when it comes to occupying positions of power?” asks Matchett.

If we are truly invested in gender equality in this country, perhaps by phasing out the old boys’ club mentality (with the old boys in tow) in theatre and the creative arts in university, we might avert what UCT lecturer Yvonne Banning, in an article that was published in The Contemporary Theatre Review in 1999, identified as “[an] educational system [which] is male top-heavy … almost exclusively white, [where] women are employed predominantly in the lowest-paid positions”.

The women I spoke to for this story are certainly doing their part.

 

**First appeared in City Press**

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.

Black insider: being a black creative in South Africa’s ad industry

One of the things you must accept when you work in the advertising industry is that it is made up of people who don’t care much about anything (except retaining clients). You, the reader, the listener, the audience are the least of advertising’s concerns. Ironically, you are also its raison d’ etre. This schizophrenia is built into the mechanisms that make the advertising agency and the client relationship work. It is this common contempt for what marketing calls the ‘consumer,’ namely, you, that keeps agency and clients happy. If advertising agencies are generally condescending to the public, in most instances it is at the request of clients whom, I later learned, care even less. This is always true – and it’s even more true when the imagined consumer is black.

I worked for five years in advertising in South Africa. My first job was as an unpaid intern at LOWEBULL (before it became LOWE & PARTNERS) in Cape Town. Kirk Gainsford was at the helm of the agency as Executive Creative Director and Alistair Morgan was his deputy, the Head of Copy and Creative Director. Alistair was a man of words. His debut novelSleeper’s Wake had just been released to critical acclaim, and I had read his short story “Icebergs” in a Caine Prize anthology. To work with a novelist in advertising is a novelty and during my five months of unpaid labour I was frequently in Alistair’s office to pick his brain about matters related to advertising and literature. He was sensitive to prose and textual aesthetics; he was not merely an adman, he was a cultural producer and it showed. He was, after all, the Creative Director on Hansa’s “Vuyo the Business Mogul” TV commercial, the cultural significance of which is best exemplified by the fact that years later a brand named Vuyo’s was launched by Miles Kubheka in Johannesburg. It followed the exact narrative of the advert, with Miles starting off as a vendor selling his Boerie rolls in a mobile van, and culminating with him opening up the first Vuyo’s restaurant in Braamfontein. Alistair Morgan, Kirk Gainsford – two white men nearing middle age – had tapped into popular sentiment (or had they been part of the engine that was creating it?). In any case, I was impressed. What had begun merely as a commercial to sell beer had exceeded its brief.

I moved from LOWEBULL and went to JWT  to work with Conn Bertish who was and is an activist, artist and surfer. He didn’t possess the literary qualities of Alistair, but he had the unpredictability of a visual artist and he pushed for work that pressed against boundaries – especially those set by clients. We were working on a new J&B campaign, with him being adamant that there was a way of selling the brand without appealing to the lowest common “I have arrived” denominator, which was endemic in advertising, at the time. When he left to join Quirk advertising, I stayed behind to finish the campaign. I had been thinking about Vuyo a lot and the how in that single advert black aspirations were bottled into the single, simplistic, superhuman rags to riches  narrative of ‘magical blacks’. I worried that the ad threatened to engulf every sphere of black social life – everyone was a Vuyo in the making, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps and sneering at those who seemed trapped in the doldrums of poverty. Vuyo had made his way into my work as well. The challenging new J&B advert I had started writing with Conn, which would introduce a new way of viewing what it is we’re talking about when we talk about ‘being made’ was, by the end, just another rags to riches rag. I will admit that when it came out I was depressed, but the show had to go on. This singular narrative, this social engineering project, which we churned out with unfettered abandon, slowly unspooled, at least for me, what the post-South African state would be hinged on. It made it clear that the entire premise of our democracy, like all democracies I suppose, was self-interest. And as we all know, self-interest is always at the expense of someone else. Unfortunately, in South Africa, we know very well whom that ‘someone else’ is right down to his most minute demographic detail, and instead of speaking of ways to dismantle the oppressive structural organisation of power and privilege that would set him free to enjoy his country’s democracy, we insist that he becomes a Vuyo and pulls himself out of his bad situation without his country and state doing the work of undoing the terms that produce and reproduce his particular situation, namely, without dismantling the socio-economic structure that maintains white privilege. If we were honest with ourselves, we would surely accept Vuyo as a lie meant to bamboozle instead of empower South African blacks.

A month or two after Conn’s departure I received a call from Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town. This was after my own advert had been aired. I was still anxious about Vuyo’s granny’s exaggerated “Big! Big! Dreamer!”

“Hi, Lwandile. It’s Chris.” Chris Gotz, the Chief Creative Officer of Ogilvy South Africa.

It was 2013 and Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town was the number one ad agency in all of Africa. A call from Chris Gotz meant that you left whatever it is you were doing and took his meeting. A few weeks later I was in his creative studio. And a few months later, I left the ad industry all together.

By the time I arrived at Ogilvy & Mather, I had become less interested in selling brands and more invested in the politics of representation in commercial images. I wanted to think about the extent to which advertising is a reflection of the society, or of particular articulations of society’s anxieties, and when it became a vehicle that socially engineered people’s aspirations and tastes. I wanted to think about how much of it was selling brands, and how much was it was the manufacturing of images that ill-served the people for whom they were intended? I’d sit on Chris Gotz’s couch in his office and we’d talk about books, politics, art and literature. He was an English major in varsity, but took up History in his post-graduate studies. He went to school with Eric Miyeni and Victor Dlamini, he told me one day. I don’t recall the conversation much, but it was something about upward social mobility and bourgeois blacks. I had become in some small or big way complicit in the way in which white corporate spaces were talking about blacks, rich or poor, partly because of how I emphasised my proximity to them (by virtue of pain and position in the post-apartheid socio-politico-economic drama) and partly because of how I tried to distance myself from them (by occupying nearly every conceivable elitist white space and consuming only the best of elitist culture). Owing to his wit, I’d always regarded Chris Gotz – privately – as the Noel Coward of South African advertising, without the characteristic hyperbole. I had never really regarded myself as anything in advertising, really, other than someone whom the industry created not out of want or desire but rather, out of the necessity to keep BEE scores on par with policy requirements.

Chris was happy when I resigned, I think. He saw that my heart was not in it anymore. Gradually, we’d stopped talking about the work and we talked about transformation and racism. Secondly, he knew that it was impossible to be a solitary voice of critique in an incestuous industry, which is unable to look itself in the mirror. Black creatives are in the industry, but they are in the minority and their voices are highly attenuated. At Ogilvy & Mather I was paired with a brilliant art director and illustrator from P.E.. He would leave 2 months after my early retirement from the advertising industry to become a freelance illustrator, just as I would become a freelance writer. I feel now as though we both got sick at the same time by the same disease in the same place. We had been working to pay the rent, and then Ogilvy & Mather Cape Town produced that “Feed a child” TV commercial and I lost any illusions I had about my industry. The infamous Black Twitter has become incensed. It was enough that whites were arrogant and racist, they went as far as creating an advert that depicted a black child as a dog, thus rubbing the salt into the open wound, which has refused to heal with time for time hasn’t changed their socio-economic circumstance and their servitude to white masters. Now, in his office we talked about the internet backlash. He was genuinely surprised by it. He had workshopped the idea with some black Joburg creatives and they had found nothing untoward in the advert. Then I had wished he had consulted my colleague and I, but it was too late. The damage was done. And it was for the best that things happened the way they did. At last I would be free of the position of explaining black pain to white indifference.

Although I had worked with inspiring minds in advertising, they were still white minds that thought through white bodies. Being white doesn’t automatically make one automatically racist, but white culture in South Africa is defined and sustained by racism: spatial racism, cultural racism, linguistic racism, economic racism, and every other form of racism imaginable. Chris asked me back then to write something about the advert and I had reluctantly agreed. But I knew I wasn’t going to do it. I thought this was the opportunity for the South African ad industry to ask itself some serious questions and to look at the way in which it curates and produces images and how its character narratives offend those it hopes to attract to the brand or brands and companies it represents.

My hope for common sense to prevail was misplaced in any case, for the advertising industry continued as though a poor black child had not been recently produced as a dog in our televisions; as though “Eugene” that Nedbank advert with that exasperated white narrator isn’t mocking and condescending toward our erstwhile protagonist who can’t seem, for the life of him, to make the “smart” choice with his money; had it been his own conscience speaking back to him the story would’ve been different, but then it would not be as entertaining to the white world had it not pandered to the god complex of white supremacy and its messianic tendency to manufacture the native as an unthinking subject who needs to be rescued from self-destruction.

To see the attitude towards the white and black consumer from a creative perspective within the advertising industry, one only needs to look at KFC adverts. A special consideration is made when the advert has white characters in it, while all sensitivity is discarded if the same advert has black characters instead. Black lives are not allowed to have nuance. Instead, we are laughing, singing caricatures of real human beings, our diverse aspirations contained in the swill of rags to riches. We are all kind and obsequious and forever willing to lend a helping hand. Are we not cynical and unkind and indifferent to the world around us. Why is it that nearly all black characters in adverts appear more deliberate than necessary, as though they had a grotesque deformity and therefore had to be treated with the most pitying gaze by the camera?

I have often questioned the validity and legitimacy of this communication industry, in particular, whose primary producers of information (the ad agencies and creative departments) could not be more different (read: white and privileged) and more removed from the realities and existential anxieties of those for whom their messages are intended. This distance is one of the reasons South African advertising industry produces offensive work, at best. Thankfully for the ad industry, clients are equally removed (read: white, male and privileged) from South African reality and they consent to the work. Here I need to note there is also the other phenomenon, the black representatives from the client side, who are too ashamed of their own blackness and its discomforting narrative and want the agency to produce work that plays to the white gaze, even when they are presented work that potentially restores black dignity in the way in which black South Africans are depicted and scripted in adverts. I met a few in my five years as a creative in the ad industry. There are also many black creatives without a hint of self-awareness who do not understand the first thing about the content and social impact of their work, to themselves, first, and to others. I’ve found this to be prevalent among black creatives who enjoy being tokens in the world of advertising. And there are many. You might see them on billboards of their own work; many aspire only to grow out of the advertising industry, to write books of rags-to-riches-esque themes as an extension of their advertising work. And some have done so. During the weeks leading to my departure from the industry, I tried to imagine South African advertising having the kind of creative revolution that happened in Latin America. There, in the mid-to-late 2000s, the work took on a very distinct cultural slant, as did the work out South East Asia. Both then tended to win big at international advertising award ceremonies like at Cannes.

But this is South Africa, a country that works best in denial. It would probably require someone to spend 27 years in prison before the players in the ad industry would be spurred to do a proper analysis of the missteps and implement remedial action to transform the industry. Actually, that would not be enough. Knowing the industry as I do, they would probably make room just for him, market his remarkable story of perseverance and overcoming the odds, and then award each other prizes for their contributions to transformation.

So instead, here is one my favourite South African adverts of all time. It was banned soon after it appeared on television, of course. I think the advert below, more than Vuyo, articulates popular sentiment (and as a propaganda piece it works brilliantly for it appeals to a shared sense of empowerment rather than democratic individualism), and begins to hint at something felt deep down by most black people since our moment of democracy in 1994. It is a moment of reversal, of the slave becoming master, of what liberation looks like in the mind of the previously oppressed subject in a post-colony. This it does, without sneering at the present material condition of most black people. It merely complicates the aspiration and the present lived experience in equal measure. The advert was written by the brilliant Festus Masekwaneng, co-founder and Executive Creative Director of Mother Russia (now, Mojo Mother Russia) ad agency in Joburg. And it is the advert that lured me into advertising, in the first place. I only wish there were more like it. Then, just maybe, I would still be working in advertising.

*Originally published in Africa Is A Country