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.
Police fire rubber bullets at protesters at a hostel in Soweto. The protest had started in the morning with the hostel residents standing by the stop-sign (in the second image). However, around midday, when they piled rocks on the streets, the police began shooting indiscriminately at the crowd.
I had intended to take a landscape picture of Johannesburg (North) from just above Houghton Estate but then I saw this man looking out at the landscape (it’s just behind me in this picture) and I thought that he made a perfect representation of a picture of the wide Johannesburg landscape from this point-of-view.
“Same Mdluli is an artist, arts administrator, and writer living in Johannesburg. She has recently completed her PhD in Art History at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg”
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.
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.
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 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**
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.
‘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**