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.

...

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

Somnyama Ngonyama by Zanele Muholi

“We have lost a lot of people because of hate crimes … You never know if you’re going to see this person again the following day,” says Zanele Muholi about Brave Beauties, her new, growing series of queer portraits. As with her series Faces and Phases, it is, in many ways, a protest against how the status quo marginalises and subjugates certain identities to make them its subclass.

In her new exhibition, Somnyama Ngonyama, Muholi responds to a number of other issues, which intersect, even uncomfortably, with the work she is known for. These issues are rendered with the same urgency: the placid, solemn faces that look you straight in the eye.

The effect is not only that you are gazing into the lives of her subjects, but that her subjects are aware of you, and there is a reciprocated knowing. It exchanges the position of subject and viewer, which lends it its poignancy: that it is not queerness from without but our own queerness from within that we must acknowledge as not Other, but as Same within our peculiar humanness to be any possible human variation there is.

For me, her images have a neutralising effect by not objectifying “deviant” sexuality, but bringing us closer to our innate queerness and averting the fear of being intimidated by what we find in the mirror when we’re alone.

A laminated, larger-than-life image hangs on the wall to your left as you make your way to the reception area at Stevenson. It is a self-portrait of Muholi in what appears to be sheared black sheepskin draped around her head to give the illusion of an overgrown coif. A breast is in full view.

“You see a lot of nipple. I grew up in KZN. I’m Zulu,” she says. “Where I come from, a breast is a common point of your visual space. It is not sexual.” The portrait is unforgettable and almost haunting, with the added, heightened dramatic effect of the image having been drained of light, making its blackness appear to project light from within.

“I don’t paint myself black, because I’m black anyways,” she says. The images are computer manipulated to alter the contrast and bring out the melanin buried in her skin, pouring it out on to the surface like a thick, slick, oily blackness. The piece relates to the pencil test of apartheid in the 60s and 70s. A government bureaucrat would stick the pencil in your hair and if it stuck, then it proved your blackness. It was a violent act of Othering human beings to subjugate them.

The choice to use her body as a site of critique is a move away from using her friends in portraits. Aesthetically, the images are menacing and the allusion to blackface is highly troubling. If the earlier work read as the dignified resistance of an artist who felt (and still does) the need to document Othered identities, then Somnyama Ngonyama reveals a ferocity behind that placid work. It alludes to the frustration, the anger, the disappointments that come with dedicating yourself to a country that wants to kill you in nearly every corner for reasons you can’t change even if you tried: you’re a woman; you’re queer; you’re black.

The sheared black sheepskin suggests she is the black sheep of her family.

“It doesn’t matter how useless your straight brother can be … because he can have children, your mother and father will still respect him more,” she says.

“Queer allergies start from our families before we even face the world out there. In short, I cannot divorce my queer self from the person I am. Everything I do becomes the visual politic of who I am.”

Brave Beauties, on the other hand, is more classic Muholi. The portraits are of black trans women and/or feminine gay men. The project was inspired by traditional magazine covers.

“I was thinking: would South Africa as a democratic country have an image of a trans woman as the cover of a magazine?” She pauses. “I want to see 100% visibly for the queer community in this country as a way of challenging these phobias.”

It was upon seeing Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair that the idea crystallised.

“We need to build our own archives.”

Her work takes as its subject the importance of history and memory. “The name and surname in each portrait is significant. These girls enter beauty pageants to change mind-sets in the communities where they live, the same communities where they are most likely to be harassed, or worse, which is why I call them brave beauties,” says the artist.

*Originally appeared in City Press newspaper

**Cover image by Zanele Muholi

How to get rid of legacies of toxic white men

Recent calls for the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs finds similitude, if not echoes, in University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Rhodes Must Fall movement which succeeded, as it were, in removing the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from where it had stood on the campus grounds since 1934. The legacies of both men strike another chord in the words of William Shakespeare, who wrote that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”
Woodrow Wilson and our very own Cecil John Rhodes, one might say, were men of their time. Both were born in the middle of the 19th century, and while they came from two geographically disparate places—the former being an American from Virginia and the latter an Englishmen from Bishop’s Stortford—their dispositions and ideas about black people were congruent. Progressive gentlemen among contemporaries, both achieved acclaim even as their accomplishments depended on the sustained subjugation of people of color.
Today, the legacies of Wilson, Rhodes and other men like them are being challenged. In the US, for example, activists on the Harvard University campus are now challenging the continued use of the Royall family seal as the crest of Harvard Law School. The activists argue that Isaac Royall Junior and his family were slaveowners responsible for the torture and murder of dozens of slaves in Antigua in the mid 1730s.
So what, if anything, can this recent upswelling of protest in the US learn from South Africa?

The removal of names and the renaming of public places, streets and buildings has been a continuous project since the birth of our democracy (and downfall of apartheid) in 1994. Attempting to scrub a racist legacy from the walls of a country which was, for the longest time, under the iron fist of colonialists and their equally racist Afrikaner political progeny, is expensive business. But what is at stake, I think South Africa has finally realized, cannot be quantified in dollars and cents. The qualitative health of a nation, especially one that is still struggling to find its true national identity, must be prioritized over budgetary calculations.

Progressives among contemporaries, Rhodes and Wilson achieved acclaim—along with the sustained subjugation of people of color.

The well-intentioned project of renaming has not been easy for South Africa and I doubt it will be easy for the US. And of course, we must be careful not to assume that one country’s struggles are the same as another’s—the historical specificities of America’s racial history are not the same as South Africa’s colonial past. However, there are many intersections between these contemporary challenges.
Above all, we must remember that despite what we might like to believe, history is not fixed. It is not final and for it to be credible and to reveal some crucial aspect of the human race, it must be constantly challenged, interrogated and transformed into something that closely resembles truth. I think the process of renaming is part of this project. It is, as senior politics student at Princeton Ozioma Obi-Onuoha put it, about acknowledging history in its entirety.
In 1998, the South African government decided to help manage the national naming and renaming project under the guidance of “nation building.” This state-sponsored policy created a sense of order, and also a sense of permanence. With this permanence, South Africa could begin to restore itself and to heal in the process.

The project of renaming in South Africa was undertaken largely to restore the indigenous memory exterminated by the colonialism of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. This is not an undertaking to take lightly. The US, too, would have to acknowledge the scale of such an endeavor, while also acknowledging the role people of color have played in the founding of America.

For history to reveal some crucial aspect of the human race, it must be constantly challenged, interrogated and transformed.

Racism is an insidious cultural phenomenon, often disguised as something else. The impassioned resistance to the name changes at institutions of higher learning—bastions of progress and intellectual debate—speak to the superficial inconvenience of such changes, certainly. But more importantly, they prove how internalized these external forms of history have become. For those who identify positively with the legacies and personages of these men, revelations of racist baggage are difficult to comprehend.
To find some kind of middle ground each nation and its leaders must pour over their respective public legacies. In South Africa it has taken us nearly 20 (often painful) years to truly come to terms with this past. And yet, when the Rhodes Statue was taken down this past March, you could almost hear the country heave with relief. That visceral feeling of having just one more shackle loosened is invaluable.
The symbolic victory alone has bought the country a little more time to kick real transformation into gear. It seems the post-Ferguson US has reached an equally pivotal point—it cannot allow the concerns of protesters to fester. A few symbolic changes could go a long way towards creating an atmosphere in which the country has space to come to terms with its legacy—and how to rectify it.

Whether you’re black or someone who “believe[s] themselves to be white,” as Ta Nehisi Coates writes in his book Between the World and Me, you are an American first. The call to rename and restore America’s racial past is therefore not merely a matter of black and white but also a project through which America might finally acknowledge its own history, without the whitewashing.

*First published by Quartz.

The Stains of History: Haroon Gunn-Salie’s ‘History After Apartheid’

The stains of history remain with us long after history has passed. This is essentially the central theme of Haroon Gunn-Salie’s last solo exhibition at Goodman Gallery in Joburg. Perhaps the fault in our logic is to conceive of history as a static, discontinuous, time capsule fixed in a particular point on the timeline of human civilization, or rather, as successive points of great activity which are self-contained within a particular era of civilization. This, in any case, is how a section of violently conservative racist white South Africa, which likes to identify as liberal, and a certain sector of self-loathing black South Africa, which goes by the term ‘progressives’ likes to conceive of history. In 1994 a previous history stopped and a new one started and all that had happened right up until 27 April of that year would not make it past the ballot box. Race, too, would remain behind. We would come into the new era as clean slates ready to be invested with new data. This is what the proponents of rainbowism call ‘social cohesion.’

Haroon Gunn-Salie <i>Soft Vengeance (Jan van Riebeeck)</i>, 2015. Reinforced urethane 198 x 117 x 43cm

In ‘History after Apartheid’ Gunn-Salie complicates this project by pointing to the stains that were inscribed on the pro-democracy demonstrators, whether by paint or bullet, by the apartheid regime which had surpassed its mandate of uplifting the Afrikaner from poverty into becoming the very scaffolding of whiteness in mid- to late 20th century, thereby continuing the colonial project in equally brutal ways as the English and the Dutch. The purple shall govern protests of 1989 point to a double marking of the black masses by Western thought, thus reinforcing the stain of being black in South Africa, as it were. The first mark is made by the paint to identify the agitators as though their agitation is not implied in the previous mark of race, their blackness, which has already been criminalised in Western thought and landed a status of subhuman within the colonial reasoning and apartheid state apparatus. However, like the way the arbitrary marking is shown up when the purple shall govern protesters got hold of the hosing mechanism on the vehicle that marked them and, in turn, used it to mark the apartheid government’s buildings on that fateful day, so are the marks of the subhuman in the coloniser revealed in Haroon Gunn-Salie’s Soft Vengeance sculptures. The hands of the colonist, from Jan Van Riebeeck to Cecil John Rhodes, are soaked in red paint to denote  blood. It is this blood on their hands which betrays the difficulty with which the project of instilling inferiority in the native must have been, that the patch of land on which we stand is soaked with the blood of blacks who have always resisted oppression. It is this blood on their hands that speaks to the immolation of their own innate humanity that they and most whites had to, and must, perform in order to justify all the means to create and maintain the ideal of whiteness. The blood stains points to the ways in which white South Africa created its wealth and the ways in which it maintains it till this day. This blood also points to the legitimacy of the grievances of the #RhodesMustFall student movement, the legitimacy of the #FeesMustFall student movement and the many other black student uprising, which have exhumed the skeletons of history which bind their feet and their hands. It is the same blood which trails privileged white South Africa from Imam Haron’s 1969 torture and execution in police custody. ‘History After Apartheid’ unspools like a long rope, with which white South Africans, especially, might have to hang whiteness if ever they are to restore their humanity. A rope with which black South Africa might have to cast to drag out of that space before 1994, to undo the knots of specific historical moments, so as to uncover the episteme that instructs his condition in the post-apartheid moment.

Haroon Gunn-Salie, 'History After Apartheid', 2015. Installation view

Of all the work that Gunn-Salie put together for ‘History After Apartheid’ no piece is more beautiful, more plaintive than the installation that commemorates Imam Haron titled Amongst Men. The installation is accompanied by activist poet James Matthews’ hoarse, agitated voice questioning no one in particular, ‘Was he a patriot or a terrorist?’ The installation is elegiac and terrifying in measured modulations; the suspended kufiya – a conceptual recreation of Imam Haron’s funeral which was attended by over 40 000 people – is a highly imaginative device to bring past and present into a single point of simultaneity. The foreboding void beneath the kufiya left me with a terrible feeling of grief. Viscerally, the room is full, filled with the voice of the poet and the imagined presence of the multitudes of friends and colleagues, of Muslims and Christians and atheists who were cadres of struggle to realise a just society. And yet they are not there. You are left with this loss of what dreams they may have had for the South Africa we live in today. You yearn to hear James Matthews voice explore reason in the recent arrest of #FeesMustFall students in Cape Town in Bellville, as well as the #OccupyUJ students who were hurled into dingy and dark cells in Brixton, Joburg. By exhuming history and airing it in the present Haroon Gunn-Salie allows us to make the connections ourselves and to judge for ourselves with our contemporary lenses amongst which men was Imam Haron? Is it the men we see in government today or the young students who have been thrown behind bars? Was he among the privileged whose ennui finds relief in the words ‘apartheid is over, just get over it already,’ or among those whose hands are dirty from ploughing the space on which a more just society might emerge? Perhaps, in the last analysis, the question Haroon Gunn-Salie poses with this exhibition is how we – all of us, black and white – would like to be remembered by history, going forward.

Originally appeared in Art Throb.

Joburg Art Fair: Corner of Polyester &Vine

I elected to see this year’s Joburg Art Fair at the last hour of the last day for two reasons: (a) I’d spare myself the pretensions of people who weren’t even remotely interested in the art itself but rather in the social currency that comes when one poses for a selfie among such misunderstood ‘elite’ objects; (b) so that I can pretend to be above such lowly venality.

Outside the Sandton Convention Centre, where the thing was held, was a mildly temperate sky, the clouds filled with promise of rain. Inside, one was immediately assailed by a distinct smell of wine, polyester and human exertion, suffusing the entire affair with a Made in China quality. I wasn’t dissuaded in the least. Art fairs, by their very nature, aren’t about art but the business of art, which smells, no doubt, like something Made in China by tiny suicidal hands.

In spite of everything I’ve read about the ‘white cube’ and its alienating qualities I wished, for a moment, that I was inside one instead of this food market-cum-nightclub-cum-exhibition space. My heart, at that moment of confusion, was with the artists who surely had to come and do the schmoozing to pay rent. Right then I bumped into Ed Young. He was a snapshot of my imagined frustration of the artist at this affair. He seemed broken in parts I could not see, which were rendered a certain palpable quality by the cast which encased his right hand and a sanity which clung quite desperately on a warm glass of white wine, giving off an impression of salmon swimming upstream, to the final destination where it can reproduce and die.

Oh god, and then my partner, who was earnestly curious about the art, was spotted by one of those nouveau riche Joburgers in an expensive dashiki. They were about to take pictures. I ducked and went for the bar. The bartenders were a pleasure to behold. They had stood watch for nearly three days, supplying booze to a crowd of potential buyers and by the time I approached them were as eager for a glass of something poisonous as much as the patrons themselves.

I walked around for a while. I felt free to look at some work. The work on display was impressive, I must say, particularly a portrait by Zanele Muholi at the Stevenson stall. It was of herself and another subject. Her eyes directed your gaze to the subject next to her. But made you insist on training your gaze on her and when you tried her gaze rejected you and again moved you away. In a small but profound way accusing you of attempting to possess not only the woman’s body with your hungry gaze but especially the queer black woman. This kind of possessiveness made me think, for a moment, of the ‘corrective rape’ of black lesbians in townships and the black masculine idea of owning a woman, queer or not. I found in this image an intersection where as this violent social impulse is awakened the male viewer it is simultaneously rejected by the refrain of the gaze from within this self-portrait.

After 6, the fair finally came to its conclusion. Four security guards walked up to us, my partner and I, and asked us to leave. You could cut the thickness of their aggression with a blunt bread knife. So here we were, soaked in polyester and wine, being thrown out. The workmen in blue and grey overalls, who wore wrought and tired faces, were pulling apart, piece by piece, the entire production. We were ushered towards the exit doors of the Sandton Convention Centre and into a mildly temperate sky that promised rain that would not come.