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?”




This is one of the homes in the hostel where police were quelling protest with rubber bullets. The protest was about a lack of basic services for the residents, such as sanitation and building renovations as some of the buildings are literally falling apart. This, to my estimate, was one of the biggest risks as some of these homes housed entire families with small children.

From the kitchen to the loo

Hope: A photo essay

When tasked to do a photo essay on symbols of ‘hope’ I ended up at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. This site, known during apartheid as ‘Number 4’, is where many anti-apartheid activists were incarcerated, tortured and humiliated for fighting for a free South Africa against Afrikaner Nationalism/Fascism. Ironically, when Paul Kruger built it in 1896 he had done so precisely to protect South Africa from British imperialism. On the day I visit the precinct I find uniformed children on a school excursion; they are excited. It’s their first time at the precinct and they can’t wait to climb on the chairs of the bar in the constitutional court. They understand little of what the constitution is all about but they know that it protects them somehow and they are here to meet it. I thought that there was nothing more hopeful than that.

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.



Continue reading “People Sleep Here”

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.


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**