Africa is a Country

We are angels, victims of everybody

I am a Gujarathi Kenyan. I never ever ever criticize Kenyan Gujrathis. I am a Yoruba African. Yoruba Africans have never ever done a bad thing ever. Not One. I am an Igbo African. I cannot share in public my real anger about Igbo political leaders. I am an African intellectual who is silent when my King talks genocidal shit. I am a Gikuyu. We are angels, angels! Victims of everybody. In fact everybody else is fucked up. I am a white South African – I have nothing to reconsider – if u ask me if I do I will emigrate. And somehow we all collectively believe that our intellectuals and writers will be at the forefront of looking inside ourselves and working on the dark hearts of our colonial crap. I am a White American author with power. If you brown American writers do not queue up behind our singular opinion of Charlie Hebdo – you are not loyal citizens and the powers are watching you. I am a Black South African – all the rest of you are why I am fucked. It was not apartheid. It was you. I am a Tanzanian African. Kenyans are beasts working too hard to undermine us. We prefer working for Afrikaner farmers – who by the way we give large tracts of land. All this is what animates much of our Facebook.

Annual NGO ranking shows that the “white savior” status quo remains intact

Teju Cole wrote that a white saviour is someone who, “supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening”.

Global_Geneva recently released the third annual Top NGO ranking, and unfortunately, it’s more of the same. In 2013, I reviewed the Board profiles of the previous ranking, focusing on their gender balance and diversity, and links to the tobacco, weapons and finance industries. The findings were troubling. Many of the listed NGOs were not adequately diverse or representative, and over half had links to the above industries.

This year’s ranking reveals similarly disturbing trends. Though 78% of the activities of the NGOs listed take place in the majority world, the ranking remains skewed towards NGOs headquartered in the West (64%). This once again sends signals about who has value and expertise, and reinforces the fallacy that citizens of Western countries are best equipped to change the world.

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Diversity continues to lag. Women and men of European origin are still over-represented in leadership positions (over 60% overall and by gender). The representation of women is still relatively low (40%, of whom 63% are of European origin). More disturbing, however, is the lack of ethnic diversity.

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The statistics on Africa and Africans (including the diaspora) are once again particularly disconcerting.

Only 5% (26) of the 500 NGOs listed have their headquarters in Africa, yet 33% of activity takes place in that region. Of those 26, only 7 are in the top 100 and most (9) are found in the last tier (401-500).

Only 4% of CEOs are of African descent.

People of African descent are the only group in which there are fewer male than female CEOs. This implies an institutional bias against black men.

In the regional rankings, only 25 NGOs have been selected for the top African ranking compared to 100 each in Europe, North America and Asia/Australasia. Moreover, of the 25, 8 are outside the African continent (2 in Bahrain, 3 in Israel, 3 in Jordan).

Many NGOs continue to display stereotypical and patronising images and videos that portray Africans in particular as poor and needy victims devoid of agency.

In addition, a large proportion of the ‘top’ NGOs continue to appoint leaders who are not representative of the communities and groups they claim to serve, and retain links to corporate interests that appear to be inconsistent with their mandate or public identity.

As with the previous ranking, a number have Board members as well as funders with links to the tobacco, finance and weapons industries. Some, such as Room to Read for instance, pride themselves in such links: ‘Our leadership team is comprised of veterans of such venerable corporations as Goldman Sachs…’. Others are partnered with corporations that have been accused of human rights and environmental violations: for example, Akshaya Patra with Monsanto to provide food for children, Care with Cargill to combat poverty, Vital Voices with Walmart to increase economic opportunities for women, Injaz-al-Arab with ExxonMobil to mentor Arab youth. The International Crisis Group receives support from corporate members of its International Advisory Council, including Shell and Chevron.

Some also have affiliations with individuals whose political or professional record is arguably inconsistent with the mandates of the NGOs they serve: examples include the International Rescue Committee (Henry A. Kissinger, Condoleeza Rice and Madeleine Albright, Overseers), the International Crisis Group and ONE Campaign (Lawrence Summers, Board member), and Operation Blessing (M. G. ‘Pat’ Robertson, Board member).

The rather broad failure of many of the listed NGOs to have representative leaderships is reflected in some of their publicity statements and attitudes. Some exhibit slogans that offer absurdly simplistic solutions (‘You can cure starvation’ – Concern Worldwide; ‘Change the World in 4 clicks’ – Ufeed). Others display hubristic attitudes (S.O.U.L. Foundation says that its President represents ‘a new generation of young American activists who are quickly growing into a group of enthusiastic non-profit entrepreneurs and leaders who are choosing a piece of the world and changing it’; GreenHouse’s ambition is ‘trying to save the world by developing new models of social change to better people’s lives’). FAME World even adopts a disturbingly traditional missionary approach: it takes ‘Christ to the unreached and underserved’ but provides no assistance to non-Christian organisations.

We are all incoherent. Recognising this, where is the line between incoherence and deceit?

As individuals, we can easily deceive ourselves into believing that we do not perpetuate global inequities and discriminatory attitudes we claim to oppose. Organisations are no different. When NGOs are challenged to meet standards of integrity and fail to do so, they start to fit Teju Cole’s definition of white saviours.

International aid and advocacy is a multi-billion dollar industry and the corporate structures of the largest NGOs increasingly resemble those of large businesses. At the same time, NGO appeals for public support and public money rely heavily and distinctively on their claim to moral authority. Given this, it is entirely reasonable to expect NGOs to demonstrate their institutional integrity, including accountability to those they claim to serve. Unfortunately, Global_Geneva takes neither of these criteria into account. Consequently, by choosing to rank so many NGOs with such criteria, Global_Geneva and those who support it reinforce paternalist models of decision-making and governance that should be challenged rather than lauded.

Praise poem for the photographer Omar Badsha

Emmanuel Kant would have been distraught if he were to see Omar Badsha’s work.

Neither great beauties nor scenic vistas meant to evoke sublime pleasure were the focus of Badsha’s camera. His eye—sharp and contentious as his tongue is known to be—cuts through the cultural baggage that trains us to look at the beautiful and the acceptably pretty.

Garment worker, Durban. 1986

Garment worker, Durban. 1986

When we look at Badsha’s image of a garment worker standing in a hollow of darkness, her elbows resting on piled up cardboard boxes, her fingers intertwined and resting against her face in a gesture that we associate with prayer, we see this woman’s exhaustion, her despair, her supplication to a God who may be one of the few assurances in her life. Her body is tented by a shapeless uniform meant to fit the masses, and a long apron is fitted around the lower half of her body. Her hair is covered with a cotton doek, and it is the only thing on her uniformed, be-apronned body that is decorative – we can see a pattern of flowers peeking through the folds. But mostly, her face is obscured: by the hands that sit just under her fine, small nose, and the right thumb, stretched out to cradle her lower lip and cheek. Her lower face, and the shape of her jaw are lost to the black shadow around her. But she, and the boxes from the garment factory – those objects on which her livelihood depends – are bathed in an otherworldly light. Perhaps, she is working the night shift, and the source of that light is from a fluorescent light. But here, in this moment, she is god’s child, in communion with the Divine.

Laborers, Tadkeswar 1986.

Laborers, Tadkeswar 1986.

I first encountered Badsha’s work at the International Center for Photography in New York, in December 2012 (Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, Sep 14, 2012 – Jan 06, 2013). There, in a display case, was a treasure: A Letter to Farzanah – (published in 1979 in commemoration of the United Nations’ International Year of the Child) – sixty-seven images and twenty-seven newspaper articles describing the lives of both Black and White South African children. Badsha collected this to serve as a record of the country into which his first daughter, Farzanah, was born; the cover consists of a photograph of his Tadkeswar-born grandmother with her newborn great-granddaughter in her arms: her face and body are curved in a sickle moon in their expression of doting love, the brightness from a window behind her setting alight the hopes she has for this fourth generation South African of Gujarati ancestry. She, a Nakhuda descendent of sea captains and navigators who travelled Surat, Africa and Aden, must have had hopes that her great granddaughter—this last generation on which she will lay eyes—will find a restful home here in this southern outpost. Together, the images and articles within Letter are both a love letter and an admonition to Badsha’s new daughter; it is a lamentation for the country and the historical moment into which she was born, yet also a finger-wagging exhortation: to not collapse under hopelessness, but to raise up her fist and do something.

Street performance, Durban. 1981.

Street performance, Durban. 1981.

Since that first experience with Badsha’s photographs, I learned that he is known for having fashioned a new visual vocabulary for translating the lives of those that apartheid excluded out of South Africa’s consciousness; often, the public whom he photographed may not have even realised that they were excised into the periphery of the nation’s vision of itself, nor have had the luxury of imagining themselves as part of the national narrative. The South African National Gallery’s invitation to his retrospective exhibition of drawings, woodcuts, and photographic essays from the mid-1960s to 2000s, titled “Seedtime” (Iziko South African National Gallery, 24 April until 2 August 2015) includes a characteristic Badsha photograph: that of a thin-limbed man, lying on a pallet, comatose after a day’s work. Above him, a line of drying clothes.

Migrant worker, Dalton House, Durban. 1986

Migrant worker, Dalton House, Durban. 1986

This is the first time that Badsha’s drawings are juxtaposed next to his documentary photographic essays. His work, though mostly devoted to South Africa, includes life in far-flung places as well. Included in this exhibition are images from the Walking on Water: Migrants and travelling stories project: photographs of twin communities across the Indian Ocean – one, the city of Harar, Ethiopia and the other, Tadkeshwar, a small town in Gujarat, India (and the birthplace both sets of Badsha’s grandparents who emigrated to South Africa). The ancient communities of Harar and Tadkeshwar reflect a small portion of the subaltern world: tied by the voyages that the monsoon and the dhow allowed between the two shores of the Ratnakara – the “forger of gems”, as the Indian Ocean is known to maritime people along the Indian Ocean rim – and subsequently, connected by a history of shared colonial and post-colonial displacements that continue to this day; both draw their small wealth and continuation from the remittances that family members sent back from their new homes in far away places. Their inhabitants’ energetic ire, too, over marriage partners, land disputes, and squabbles over inheritance also continue to maintain centuries-long ties between two sets of people bound by the memory of voyage and loyalty to one’s kin – no matter the distance created by time and ocean.

Tadkeshwar

Tadkeshwar

 

Though Badsha’s work has been an instrumental part of two books of photography meant to document apartheid conditions and build support abroad (notably, the Second Carnegie Commission on Poverty and Developmentsponsored South Africa: The Cordoned Heart, and Beyond The Barricades: Popular Resistance in South Africa — books of photography that fashioned a new visual vocabulary for communicating the story of South Africa), and though he can also claim books of photography bearing solely his name (A Letter to Farzanah, published in 1979, and immediately banned; and his groundbreaking book Imijondolo: a Photographic Essay on forced Removals in South Africa, published in 1984, documenting life in the massive informal settlements in the Inanda area of Durban where he worked as a political activist), and though he is the go-to person that international scholars and curators seek out when looking for information about the history of political documentary photography, he is not one of the big names with which South African photography is associated internationally. The reasons are obvious: few commercial galleries were open to exhibiting the works of black photographers, and no agents came forward to promote black photographers’ work unless it had commercial appeal or spoke to the stereotypes that apartheid – and white supremacy in general – supported. Badsha refused to exhibit in segregated studios, or state-sponsored shows, marginalisng him already as a “difficult” character who didn’t play the game of supplication properly. And during the late ‘60s and ‘70s, unless black photographers took a specific kind of photograph documenting spectacular violence, press agencies didn’t come calling, either. In response to these disparities, in 1982, Badsha and a collective of photographers founded Afrapix, an independent photographic agency that not only helped promote black photographers on the international circuit, but played a significant role in documenting South Africa’s political climate during the 1980s, and shaped the tropes of social documentary photography in the country.

 

Easter pageant play, Pondoland, Transkei, 1986.

Easter pageant play, Pondoland, Transkei, 1986.

Badsha’s work—along with that of his Afrapix contemporaries—refashioned South Africa in the global eye; and together with his passion for organizing and union work, photography became a strategy of intervention in how the South African struggle against apartheid was seen. He and his contemporaries left the traditional mandates of documentary photographers—to stand apart, and record impersonally. Instead, they began their journeys by positioning themselves first as political subjects who were part of the resistance. Because of that, they were able to gain access into the everyday workings of the anti-apartheid movement, to community meetings, funerals of those who were killed by the South African security forces, and to be witness to ordinary acts of resistance, endurance and survival. Yet, perhaps because Badsha’s interest was in collective organizing, and not personal fame, his own work was not as well recognized.

Helen Joseph, Christmas Day, 1981.

Helen Joseph, Christmas Day, 1981.

So we can blame politics for why Omar Badsha’s photographs, or why his life’s work is not known in the same realm as the careers of others. But there’s something else, too, I think. It is Kantian aesthetics that still influences us when we say that certain works have “political” value, and others are “beautiful”; Kant argued that our aesthetic judgments must be based on our disinterest in the object we are viewing: our pleasure in something should not be connected to its ability to be useful, or informative or persuasive in any way. According to the Kantian moral universe, artists who produce with aesthetics as their guiding principle provide us, in these godless times, with the ability to discern and experience beauty as part of an ordered, natural world, and enjoy a moment of transcendence.

Women at celebration, Harar, 2001.

Women at celebration, Harar, 2001.

However, though Badsha sought to reveal the extraordinary lengths to which the apartheid state went to in order to dispossess black South Africans of land and ability to make a viable living, recording life in the margins of racialised ghettoes where the brutality of apartheid was most evident, his images are not simply those typical in the repertoire of the photojournalist. Rather than following violent flares between black South Africans and the apartheid regime’s police forces, he recorded the dynamics of daily life under apartheid. His images in Imijondolo is a calendar of everyday existence on the frontlines of powerlessness and poverty: here, we see a girl in an ancient hand-me-down dress – the flowery pattern adding little pleasure to her impossible task – carrying small lumps of mud to plaster the walls of her house. Her face and arms are smeared in mud. She balances the ball of mud on her head, with her small arms and hands reaching up, steading herself and the mud on her head. Her expression is that of the Sisiphean warrior: resigned, methodical, carrying on with her balancing act with as much dignity as possible. Among the images of children learning their English lesson in spare classrooms, and diligent, head-bent-in prayer Bible readings in Amouti Primary School, are mirror images of a sari-clad Indian grandmother and a young boy in her charge, and that of a milky-eyed, large-bosomed Zulu pensioner and her tiny grandchild who is busily engaged with exploring the world circumscribed by the woven mat lining the floor of their small mud house. Another is that of a shy, young Indian woman – with a low hairline and as round a face as any Tamil village beauty an ocean over – leaning on the brash confidence of her black husband; their young child scowls at Badsha’s camera. The doorway in front of which they stand is lined with a decorative flounce – the kind I’ve seen often in South Asian homes: a narrow band of cloth, gathered together by a runner of rope, and hung over to top rung of a door: it is not long enough to be a curtain of privacy, but a decorative element indicating an entryway.

Young woman repairing home, Inanda, 1982

Young woman repairing home, Inanda, 1982

Badsha’s images show us that forced removals recognised no difference between Indian, Zulu, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, and that the alliances forged in the poorest and most marginalised of ghettos of apartheid South Africa may be as powerful and as transgressive as those at the higher echelons of the resistance movement. But his photographs do not create fantasy-pastorals of poor South Africans, either. Here also is the fat landlord, seated on his best chair; above him, framed photographs of his bejewelled Gujarati grandmothers and suit-wearing grandfather. Here, also, is the gun displayed by the local powerbroker and induna, doling out pension payments and favors in the neighborhood.

Family, Tadkeshwar, 1986

Family, Tadkeshwar, 1986

At the core of the conversations I’ve had with Badsha is his tenacious grip on political integrity, and on directing the aesthetic, intellectual, and educative focus of his photographic projects. Controlling that intellectual authorship, and managing intentionality, despite pressures that international news organisations, local gallery owners, art dealers, and even one’s own ambition to compete with one’s friendly rivals in the world of South African photography is a daunting life project for a photographer. Certainly, challenging established apartheid tropes for art and photography, and documenting the fraying fabric of the national project had obvious risks. And Badsha’s positions and steadfastness to the mission to which he committed himself as a photographer cost him in certain ways, but this wilful desire – to record and be witness to subsumed histories, to walk in with his unapologetically political lens – also maintained his integrity as a narrator of South African history.

* A retrospective of Omar Badsha’s work is currently on show at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town until August 2nd.

Let’s talk about Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s e-book on “Corrective Rape” in South Africa

Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s ‘Corrective Rape: Discrimination, Assault, Sexual Violence, and Murder Against South Africa’s LGBT Community’ is a rather wordy title for a mere 51 page e-book. Attempting to expand upon her original article ‘Violated Hopes’ from The New Yorker, the e-book claims to shed ‘light on the practice of corrective rape’ and examine ‘the wider social context of anti-LGBTI sentiment in South Africa’, and the ‘search for equality in a post-apartheid nation’. Lofty goals by any standard, the e-book does not quite manage to accomplish it. The 2012 New Yorker piece was accompanied by Zanele Muhoni’s photographs of black lesbian women, which added depth and nuance to the article; something that feels as though it’s missing in the longer e-book. 

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is undoubtedly a gifted writer. She tackles a complex and tricky subject with obvious compassion, handling interviews-whether with survivors, activists, or police officers- with care and stays well away from the tired ‘saviour’ trope. Weaving these voices, experiences, and examining these incidents within a larger narrative of South Africa’s much-heralded constitution, country interventions at the United Nations, and public comments from politicians and leaders including Jacob Zuma and Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini; she attempts to move beyond just murder and rape statistics and understand the contexts, histories, and power struggles that surround them.

Hunter-Gault contrasts South Africa’s equality law that recognises and protects the rights of LGBT persons with the rest of the continent, positioning South Africa as a ‘unique’ model.  While narrowly avoiding the ‘South African exceptionalism’ trap, she juxtaposes the progressive laws and commitment to human rights enshrined in the South African constitution with the increasingly restrictive laws being enacted across the continent. There is some reference to the impact of apartheid on South Africa and its evolving identity, but she overlooks the colonial legacies that contributed to many of the anti-homosexuality clauses in penal codes across the world; also affecting LGBT and queer struggles in very particular ways.

LGBT and queer struggles intersect and grapple with multiple oppressions and power dynamics and can be an intimidatingly contentious space — this is true not just globally but within national struggles as well. The book, while bravely attempting to decode and unpack the complexities of South Africa, suffers from a lack of nuancing of LGBT movements themselves. In post-apartheid South Africa, race and class are just two of the intersections that queer organisers must work at, as evidenced by certain groups boycotting Cape Town’s 2014 Pride March as ‘apolitical’, and the ‘die-in’ organised by the One-in-Nine campaign during the 2012 Joburg Pride. Although the majority of interviewees and incidents that Charlayne Hunter-Gault refers to are black, she never directly addresses or engages with the issue of race within ‘corrective rape’. By treating it as peripheral — however unintentionally — it overlooks the continued silencing of (and inaction around violence against) black voices and bodies, and the fault lines of race within LGBT organising itself.

The e-book does little to dispel some of the questions and concerns raised around the original article, including the use of the questionable terminology, ‘corrective rape’. A deeply contested term within LGBT and feminist groups, the term refers to the assault and rape of persons because of their (perceived or real) sexual orientation or gender identity to ‘cure’ them. A loaded term, it does not just advantage and lend credence to the perspective of the perpetrator; it adds another layer of silencing of victims and survivors. The term is also criticised for making sexual orientation/gender identity the point of discussion, rather than the structures of violence- heteropatriarchy, classism, and racism- that manifest in sexual violence and assault. Other critiques of the term also find a burgeoning mythology along race lines, with repeated assertions of ‘Black South African (men) believe that raping a woman can make her heterosexual’. Instead, it has been suggested that these forms and acts of sexual violence be understood within the rubric of ‘hate crime’, with an analysis of the misogynistic and heteropatriarchal frameworks embedded within it. It is curious that despite numerous conversations with LGBT and gender justice organisations, Hunter-Gault continues to use the term without explaining the reasoning or positioning behind it. 

While the e-book was a quick read, it does not offer new perspectives or critiques to the ongoing discussions around ‘corrective rape’ in South Africa or globally. The original article was a succinct read as a standalone piece and showcases Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s impressive writing skills, which raises the question of why an e-book was needed given that the additional material does not really elaborate on the points already made within the article. The article and the e-book do not venture into the murkier and deeper waters that surround the issue of ‘corrective rape’ but are a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the South African LGBT context and are interested in learning more about it and exploring some of the contested spaces and issues.

Black Film, White Masks

As most young ambitious filmmakers, I of course decided that my first feature length film would be an epic sci-fi post-apocalyptic piece that was somehow going to have these incredibly deep Terrence Malick roaming camera type moments in the Namibian desert. Complete with African narration mouthing something deeply profound about black existentialism in the face of certain death. But at the same time we were gonna have these swashbuckling warriors complete with afrocentric costume vibes and future neon space shit battling our sadistic baddie who just happens to have a German accent. Not that there are any colonial metaphors here. Anyway, suffice to say we’re still trying to raise the gazillion dollar budget and in the mean time I’ve sort of acknowledged that I might do a slightly smaller film first. You know, something that takes place entirely in an elevator, or something similar, before taking on the impossible.

Whilst trying to raise funds for my sci-fi extravaganza I quickly realized how small we were. Not just the fact that I simply don’t get the right hits when googled or IMDB’d, but that our story about a bunch of blacks in Africa going on an adventure, the apocalypse, colonialism, no white leads, etc — it just wasn’t big enough. Or rather it just wasn’t white enough. I was told by a sales agent in Cannes that she’d rather we’d replace our black lead with a dragon. A dragon, yes a dragon! In another meeting an excited Canadian producer was ready to sign on the dotted line provided I insert a terrorist plot in the film and a plane full of Europeans stranded in the desert. This went on for some time. I knew we had a fresh original take on the old mass produced apocalypse thing but the gatekeepers just weren’t buying this story so long as it took place in an African context. I realised that these sort of films simply don’t get made. Ever. The black voice in cinema occurs on the margins and is filtered, distorted, watered-down, negotiated, corrupted. It’s as if Hollywood operates as brothel-keeper to the omnipresent empire. You only have to watch Exodus: Gods & Kings to witness how  stories set outside the West are skewered so as to preserve the myths that justify Eurocentricity.

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What I found was that the most damaging of these myths is the idea that Africa is the bogeyman — Full of both exciting and depressing examples of thugs, rapists, druggies and flashy hustlers. This myth allows the west to ascribe all its fears, whether real or unfounded, on Africa to justify white supremacy. The most notable films to have been made by or staged in Southern Africa have all been directed by white men. They include The Gods Must be Crazy (1980) dir. Jamie Uys; Mr. Bones (2001) dir. Leon Schuster; Tsotsi (2005) dir. Gavin Hood; District 9 (2009) dir. Neil Bloomkamp; Jerusalema (2009) dir. Ralph Ziman;  Zulu (2014) dir. Jérôme Salle.

When Frantz Fanon wrote his seminal work Black Skin, White Masks, he presented a sociological study of the psychology of racism and the dehumanization experienced by the African diaspora. He suggests that black people experience a trauma related to an unconscious indoctrination from a young age that teaches them to associate “blackness” with “wrongness.” This is experienced in a variety of ways: Through the workplace, society, media, and elsewhere. My primary concern is that as a Namibian filmmaker, I still find cinema’s depiction of black masculinity as hyper violent, one-dimensional, poor, diseased, unduly sexual and antithetically opposed to white mainstream examples of “goodness.” By deconolizing the screens Africans might experience the world without the limitations imposed by centuries of dehumanizing constructs of “blackness.” In what remains a Eurocentric patriarchal world whose foundations are built upon the subjugation and disenfranchising of mostly black and brown populations, such a “new” reality remains out of reach.

Jérôme Salle’s Zulu gave us yet another exoticised African despot with a mostly colonial narrative: Angry natives, diseased black children; shanty towns; a heroic white male; a broken black man; a lustful black woman; a beautiful untainted white woman; machete wielding thugs; and a few white supremacists. Ali (Forest Whitaker) has renounced his ethnicity. Or as writer J E Kelly puts it “he has discarded his ethnicity, to overcome not only his experience of violence but an inherent tendency of his people to beat on the drums, perform war dances, and of course, act violently.”  For in this Zulu there are no lion skin donning warriors, instead we find a neutered man unable to sleep with his girlfriend and incapable of voicing his frustrations with both past and contemporary South Africa. In a word, emasculated. For the patriarchy to succeed it thrives on a kind of infinite virility, therefore on a genital level the castrated Whitaker represents a kind of sexual revenge. An insurance against black superiority. There remains very little room for an honest engagement with what being black truly is in contemporary South Africa.

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Current socio-cultural attitudes towards identity seem more strongly influenced by economic factors rather than simply racial implications. It is only the idea of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined community” masked today in South Africa as the “rainbow nation” or in Namibia as the policy of reconciliation that thinly holds together this faux republic. By taking a closer look at the portrayal of black masculinity in African films, and the fact that these films are made by white male filmmakers one might consider how they contribute to Fanon’s assertion that the black man sees himself not through the eyes of a black man but through the mask of a Eurocentric construct. How then could I have been so naive as to expect a sales agent in Cannes to wholeheartedly embrace my vision. She too, was seeing through that old mask. The one that encourages a watered down synthetic kind of culture. The culture of empire. The problem with empire is that it creates a one dimensional world rather than a polycentric one. Therefore it does not concern itself with what a different voice might look like. The fact that our films are still formulated by this one dimensional view means that the majority of our populace remain, not just economically disenfranchised but, culturally under represented.

The trials of black filmmakers like myself are simply a reminder of the importance of nurturing our systems here at home. We must find ways to develop and nurture a more imaginative African cinema. While we all wish to have our films screen at festivals around the world and in cinemas abroad we must also be allowed to make films on our terms. By doing so we have the opportunity of rewriting the script that has so often cast black men in damaging degrading roles on screen. It is a call to decolonize not just the continent but the screens as well. Let us commit to deconstructing every film in order that we might learn more about ourselves. We must pay close attention to how we portray each other on screen, so that the films we make might breathe new life into old tropes and on screen representations of “blackness.” With this we might help to restore and re-imagine Africa.

Check out Perivi’s film reel on his Vimeo page, and his short film “My Beautiful Nightmare” on SnagFilms.com.

To be young, privileged and black (in a world of white hegemony)

Today is March 19. Tension fills the Rhodes University campus in the small South African university town of Grahamstown. The university’s student representative council had announced a day earlier that a meeting would take place today to allow the student populace, the various student representative societies, and university management to discuss the ructions taking place at the campus and at other universities across the country.

Students run rhythmically through the university’s passages and alleyways, spilling out onto the main road leading to the Great Hall, where the meeting is to be held. They sing protest songs and struggle hymns with passion and an intuitive harmony. One group of students chant “Yinde Le Ndlela Esiy’hambayo” (the road we are traveling is long) as they pass by. The group immediately behind them, sing the elegiac Senzeni Na. I step aside to bear witness to the cacophony, as though trying to recall the days of a revolution I was born too late to witness.

The Great Hall is filled to capacity with students brandishing cardboard signs bearing different phrases. Life is hard without a laptop, goes one. #WeCantBreath, goes another. #RhodesSoWhite and #RhodesMustFall, also feature. As the crowd settles, the hall turns from a place of protest to one of testimony. Students line up on stage to express their concerns, with the vice-chancellor looking on. Booing, clapping and singing accompany each grievance voiced.

The meeting is approaching its third hour. A young lady is given the microphone. She steps forward and introduces herself but seemingly can’t find the words to articulate her concerns. She stutters, tucks her lips into her mouth and closes her eyes. The room falls silent. She draws her face into one hand while the other falls from the microphone and comes to rest at her side. Resignation. She is in tears.

“Be strong, gal!” someone shouts from the back of the hall.

“We got you, sweedaat!” another voice shouts.

The hall breaks into a chorus of encouragement as the young lady gathers herself. Finally, she speaks.

“I am black. I am a woman. I was raised by my grandmother. I come from a working-class background,” she begins.

She strikes me as someone who has lost something important, yet cannot afford to mourn. Her strength and resolve menace me. It is as though she is calling on a part of myself I refuse to think about. I sense in her testimony a confrontation of this refusal. The hall is too full and too still to exit unnoticed. I am trapped for my own good and I know it. So I sit and listen.

“I come to Rhodes and the culture tells me that we are not enough,” she says.

Her voice begins to shake again, but she maintains her posture.

“The culture here tells us that we need to qualify ourselves each and every day to maintain the fact that we deserve to be here,” she says.

In that single sentence she captures one of the most elusive and violent experiences endured by souls in black skin. I feel something in me relax. A cryptic muscle that has been working faithfully to maintain the burden of perpetual conviction comes to rest. Her words unlock a cache of emotion now available for my claim. An unusual reassurance. I smile.

“It is through our lecturers, who are condescendingly patronizing towards us; the white students on this campus just don’t understand,” she continues.

She is now governed by the story she’s telling. Her narrative surpasses her tears. I place my hand on my chest to feel the resonance of her words, for these are truths I have been living to negate and disregard for as long as I can recall.

“They hurl insults at us. They call us stupid. They call us angry for no reason. They call us illogical. Yet, they don’t understand the lived experience of what it means to have the color of this skin on this very campus. There is no cushion that [softens] the blow of being black in this institution!”

This final affirmation destroys the illusory freedom to which I had begun to become accustomed. I am overcome by betrayal, by being the betrayer, and the feeling startles me. My solidarity with her seems to be a farce now. We are not the same. The truth about our differences makes me feel as though I am being tricked by everything about me, once again. I pick up my camera and continue to take pictures to distract myself from contemplating this particular truth which her testimony has revealed.

ii.

It is May 1. The young lady’s words still mark my conscience, forcing me to pick apart my emotional response to her. Her testimony leads me consider the generation betrayed, and the generation made complicit. It leads me realize that the Rainbow Nation project, so proclaimed by Nelson Mandela in the year before my birth, has failed the young lady, myself and many others of my generation. It also makes me realize that the idea that some of us were ‘born free’ into this Rainbow Nation works only for some, among whom I am included.

As I begin the task of freeing my mind from these ideologies of the South African democracy, I have no choice but to reflect explicitly on my intimate relationship with white hegemony.

The story of who I am should make me the idea sop for the propaganda that has sold an optimistic yet inaccurate story about the quality of South Africa’s reconstruction and reconciliation project. I am a black child born after 1994 and whose parents’ affluence has allowed me to transcend the absolute and relative poverty that is the norm for other black children so born. I was born and raised within the meters of Africa’s richest square mile. I am not the first in my family to go to university and I am unlikely to inherit the financial obligation of supporting extended family members. While I am proficient at three indigenous South African languages, I am more proud of being able to speak the kind of English that astonishes even white people. The extent of my fluency in white culture has afforded me experience in the corporate sector, even at my young age. I have even defied stereotypes by being one of the few blacks to compete in aquatic competitions at a national level for two consecutive years. I am socially, economically, politically and even epistemologically of value to whiteness. White hegemony has recognized my capability to understand its culture; it has praised me for participating in it. And, more so, it has rewarded me generously for assimilating into it.

How I relate to white hegemony is undoubtedly rare, though not exceptional. And it is becoming less rare by the year. It is similar to the stories of others of my generation who have consciously or unconsciously assimilated into whiteness. However, to avoid generalizing and grossly simplifying this topic, I will speak only of my own experience. In that experience my relation to white hegemony contains three main elements: exclusion, comfort, and fear.img-20150429-wa0012

iii.

The exclusion

The exclusionary nature of my assimilation into whiteness encourages me to think of myself as a survivor who is set apart from inheriting grievous disadvantages passed on to the average young black person in this country. It forces me to consider myself (and to be considered by others) different in many material and unquestionable respects. It forces me to think of myself as the exceptional black, taking from me the right to speak from my own perspective on issues such as #RhodesMustFall. I am beloved by the gate keepers of this hegemony, yet resented by those who have yet to be accepted into it. Therefore, I am in a difficult predicament whenever I attempt to articulate the ways I relate to the symbolic, cultural, economic and institutional remnants of a colonial past.

The comfort

The comfort in my assimilation to whiteness is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it releases me from certain psychologically and emotionally taxing ‘fixtures of blackness’, such as having acute concerns about topical social issues such as poverty, and participation in political and social organizing on campus. I don’t, in other words, have to define myself as black and to unite with other blacks to overthrow the hegemony as I have been accepted into the hegemony. The price I pay for this, the price white hegemony demands, is that I remain silent, preferably ignorant, about certain aspects of civil life. My assimilation into white culture requires that ‘being black’ become an occasional fixture of my identity instead of an integral part of it.

When the March 19 meeting took place, I was faced with a conscience-threatening dilemma: Do I attend the meeting and commit to the cause, risking ideologically betraying the hegemonic project I have unapologetically, but uncritically, endorsed my whole life? Or do I not attend the meeting, comforted by the assurance that I will not be chastised and labeled morally irresponsible for abstaining from the conversation in its entirety? Ultimately I attended, and the young woman’s testimony uprooted my comfort. Her state of insecurity on campus, owing purely to the fact of her blackness, is evidence that the presence of black bodies in an institution such as this is not enough to transform it into a place not only tolerant but welcoming of and changed by difference.

Her words devastated me. Had I not passively and successfully learned to mimic whiteness, I, too, would share her concerns and insecurities about being black on such a campus. My sense of security is nonetheless hollow because I have been preoccupied with trying transcending the psychology of inferiority by assimilating into the culture that imposes it: I internalize, then set myself apart from those condescending words of the patronizing lecturers against which she protested. I endorse my privileged silence when white students dehumanize their black peers for not conforming to the norms of white etiquette. I am welcomed into spaces of social, corporate and political engagement without challenge, as I am symbolic proof that the white hegemony’s project of ‘civilizing’ the native is not a myth.

The punitive

The fear-oriented element of assimilation dictates that punitive consequences be taken should there be defiance of any kind that threatens the unity between this hegemony and I. While I have not experienced significant losses from renouncing my participation in whiteness, the element’s aim is to instill the kind of fear that impairs rational thinking. Therefore, the thought or act of questioning, challenging or offending any part of this hegemonic project is inhibited by my phobia of doing so. The comfortable and exclusionary natures of this hegemony create, for me, a prison whose bars I have been indoctrinated to not break.

I realized this when my journalism and media studies tutor asked the group recently:

“Who feels at home here at Rhodes?”

The majority of the room raised their hands. Only three hands were missing from the gaggle eager to say why they considered Rhodes University a home away from the homes they came from. The three hands were all black. I took a look at my own hand raised unconsciously in the air and felt guilty. I guess, in truth, I did consider Rhodes as my second home.

My lecturer picked me to start the conversation. I can’t remember what I said but I know I was sarcastic and amusing, because fear barred me from being forthright and raw in challenging the comfortable lives of the majority of the room. What was supposed to be a fierce debate about the contemporary legacies of figures such as Cecil John Rhodes became, with my assistance, an unreflective and safe discussion. My complicity in this resigned me to silence for the rest of the discussion.

Had I been the kind of person in whom the redemptive power of honest and inconvenient conversations trumped the fear of rebelling against the hegemony, the appropriate answer I would have given to that question should have been: Yes! I feel most comfortable at Rhodes University, because it is more than an escape from the pretenses of northern Johannesburg where I am from. There is neither defeat nor victory nor struggle for me here. The institution does not dare challenge my identity in ways which matter. As a black member of the elite, Rhodes University is a secluded and affluent space that affords me the ability to unconsciously refine my mimicry of white hegemony, in peace.

iv.

My relationship with white hegemony does not solely refer to my interaction with white or black people. It does not directly refer to my attitude towards race and class issues. Nor does it speak about an experience which can be regarded as a norm. It is merely one of many examples that reflect the state of South Africa’s transformation project. My relationship with white hegemony speaks about the inequalities between advances in the structural transformation and regressions in the quality of lived human experience. It speaks about the disparities between material equality and psychological poverty. It speaks about how hegemonic systems of oppression mutate and subsequently continue thrive within eras of democracy.

South Africa is not a phenomenal country. It is a country famous for its phenomenal events and supposedly miraculous transition from white-minority rule. However, we are misguided in thinking that the story this country ought to continue telling is one wherein we are survived by our ability to reproduce these events globally regarded as admirable and miraculous. The Rainbow Nation and Born-Free ideologies are contemporary examples of these induced miracles. These two ideological projects have distracted us from doing the hard work of healing our society from the core. The endorsement of these ideologies has inhibited us from having necessary, honest and inconvenient conversations about our experiences and collective identity. The unfortunate reality is that these democratic ideologies belong irreducibly to a time where freedom still has the power to choose its proprietors.

We think we are free, yet all we have ever done is cover gunshot wounds with plasters.

*This essay is an edited version of a post that originally appeared on the author’s blog, SuburbanZulu. The title of this essay is mildly influenced by notions of engagement relating to an academic paper which is still in the process of development. That particular paper is researched, developed and written by Siseko H. Khumalo.

Fresh Eyes: Amaal Said’s portraits of belonging

“Images”, as the Chilean visual artist Alfredo Jaar has said, “are not innocent.” From their creation, to their distribution to their interpretation, images are conveyors of power and influence. While traditional media channels have been consolidated in the hands of a few, the rise of the Internet has offered people unprecedented means to access and publish visual content.

As a more inclusive image-delivery outlet, the web has offered diverse, creative visions a place to thrive, visions which had previously been rendered nearly invisible by parochial corporate media architecture. Developing her work in this new cultural wave is the photographer/poet Amaal Said. Born in Denmark to Somali parents and having came of age in London where she now lives, Said has created space in the digital landscape to offer humanizing photographs and poems of people in her community, frequently young people of the diaspora who are far too often under- or misrepresented.

One only has to do a Google image search for the words “beauty” or “immigration” to see the dominant narratives Western audiences are usually subjected to. In contrast, through her deeply intimate portraits, Said captures lives in plain sight (including her own), and in so doing, expands her viewers’ very understanding of beauty, belonging, migration and youth through perceived similarities and differences.

Just as photographic film was not originally designed to capture the details of darker skin and had to be recalibrated, so too must our minds be recalibrated with an enhanced sense of visual and cultural literacy. In the same vein, Dorothea Lange once said, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people to see without a camera.” In these troubled cultural times, this is precisely why Said’s counter-narratives are so powerful and necessary.

Africa is a Country spoke to Amaal Said to learn more about her creative vision.

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AIAC: Your photographs are remarkable in how they challenge and evolve notions of beauty in mainstream Western media by featuring intimate portraits of melanin-rich young people – with piercings, in headscarves and with natural hair. What experiences inform and shape the content of your photographs?

Amaal Said: I try my hardest to keep close to beauty. I grew up in a neighbourhood referred to as a ghetto in Odense, Denmark. I went back two years ago and all I can remember is how many shades of green I saw. I wish I had captured more of it. My own memories of Odense are at odds with what I read about it and hear from family. It’s always been a beautiful place to me, which doesn’t mean that a lot of sadness and tragedy didn’t happen there, it just means that both elements can exist at the same time.

I’ve spent most of my life in London and I’ve had the pleasure of being in communities with other artists who are doing really important work in the world. I never felt alone in that case. Negative opinions of the countries we came from and the communities we lived in existed. I was in classrooms with other children who claimed that people that looked like me were dirty immigrants who stole jobs and cheated the system. I feel like I spent a lot of time at secondary school fighting people’s opinions. And I’m not in those particular classrooms anymore, but I’m still trying to combat those negative portrayals.

I never saw the documenting I did as particularly hard work. I asked to take people’s pictures because I found them beautiful, because I recognised myself in them. I realise now how important the work is and how necessary it is to push against the images that do not represent us in our best light.

There are certain signatures in your portraits; natural elements, shadows, graceful everyday moments. What do you look for in an image?

There’s a huge contrast between my expectations of the photos I want to capture and the actual pictures I end up taking. There are thoughts that come to mind when I think of photographing a person. There are ways I imagine that I can photograph them while keeping their own personality in mind. My plans completely went out of the window when I would take the pictures. I’m always surprised at what I capture.

There are new obsessions all of the time, but I am fascinated by shadows at the moment. I love the feel of the photo and I find capturing something as fleeting as a shadow exciting. I gravitate towards bright colours. I’m interested in how colours clash, what works together and what doesn’t, and what it says about the person I’m photographing.

I’ve been drawn to parks more recently. I go on a walk with the person I’m photographing and we see what we can find. The walking was necessary because it allowed the person I was photographing to get comfortable with me, instead of getting straight to it. It’s incredible when I go through the pictures we just took, how it doesn’t look like we’re in London at times, but somewhere else where it’s greener and sunnier. It’s a form of escape in a way.

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You moved a number of times during your childhood. Is there a search for home and belonging that manifests itself in your images?

It’s definitely what drew me to photography in the first place. It was the homelessness I felt. I took the picture and I rooted myself somewhere. I photograph because I’m frightened of forgetting people, places and how I feel. What connects me to the people I photograph is how we’re still trying to figure out where and what home is.

There was a sense of guilt for a long time about the feeling of displacement. My parents had left their home because they wanted to give me a safe one. What does it mean to be in a so-called ‘safe’ country but not feel at home? Photography became another form of touch, a way to reach out and connect with people. My parents never really got why I chose to take pictures of people. It’s been my way of defying the feeling of displacement I didn’t know what to do with.

What has been the social response to your work?

I’m still so surprised at all of the love I’ve received. The responses that are the closest to my heart are the ones from the women that I have photographed. My friends have thanked me for capturing so many different parts of their personality, for making them feel beautiful.

The awe that they have when they see themselves also makes me feel very warm inside. I know that I stopped taking pictures of myself for a long time because I didn’t feel beautiful. I always felt that I wasn’t the same as the person in the photograph. I feel like I’ve done a good job when the person I’ve photographed recognises themself, when they are in awe because of their own beauty.

As for a broader social response, I’m so glad that it goes beyond just beauty and that people realise how necessary honest representation is. It’s important that we are documented in an intimate way. I consider myself a storyteller first and everything else is an extension of that.

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You have a series called “Proving our existence” which features young diaspora women holding photographs of older generations. What relationships and memories are encapsulated in the grasp of those old images?

There’s a reliance on family archive images that I only paid attention to this year. I didn’t realise how often I went back to my mother’s closet to pull out the bag with all of our childhood pictures. I remember being teary-eyed over a picture of my father in his teens. It was diagonally folded and looked like it would rip. Then there are the pictures of my mother that I placed on my desk next to my books, the ones where she wore the dresses that she said all the other girls wanted.

I sat with a friend in a coffee shop and she explained how all of her family pictures had been stolen. I couldn’t imagine losing all the pictures I came back to so often. I do not have my own memories of Somalia, but I’ve used my parents’ pictures to try and fill a void I felt. I started having conversations with friends about the pictures we took across continents with us, how communication occurs through pictures as well as language.

I asked them to bring a picture from the archives that had travelled with them or had been sent over. I asked how they related to the person in the picture, how that person informed their own existence, why they had kept the image and other questions. It made me want to continue taking pictures. I realise how important it is to have pictures to pass on to others.

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In addition to being a photographer you are also a poet, which explains why there is such a strong visual poetry to the sequences of images you present. Does your lyricism of the written word influence your visual art and vice versa?

I feel like I’m trying to write a very long poem when I’m a taking picture. There’s always a story being told, which I may not be aware of until I look back at the pictures. I love capturing movement, being present with a person and allowing them to move in a way that they want. There are the closed-eye moments that I especially cherish. A person asked me once how I got people to close their eyes around me. I realise now that there’s a sense of vulnerability and trust involved. It reminds me of being on a stage and telling people my shame, the family secrets I was supposed to keep a secret, the condition of my own heart.

There were events in my life that kept moving full speed ahead that I tried to stop by sitting down and writing about it. I tried to describe the moment’s power, how I felt, how it changed me. There is so much that I can’t get across with the written word, so much that I want to say that I can’t write out because it hurts too much. Sometimes it’s easier to take the picture. I had to take the pictures for the ‘proving my existence’ project before I could try and write about the first and last phone conversation to my grandmother in Kenya before she died. I kept repeating ‘I’m fine’ because my Somali refused to stretch further. That’s why I chose to take the pictures of my aunts and my mother, because I didn’t have the language at the time to try and bridge the gap between us.

I’ve used both forms as healing. I turned to writing when I was young and hurt, when I was learning English and feeling lost in a classroom with nobody that understood me. Photography has helped me to get out of myself, reach out to others. I’m usually haunted by the pictures I didn’t take because I was too far away from the camera or perhaps not brave enough to point the camera and capture the moment. I told a friend about it and he said, ‘turn the picture you didn’t take into a poem.’ Sometimes both forms blur into one another in my head. I can’t separate the two.

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You shoot some of your work with a film camera. What are the special qualities that draw you to film?

I wish I used film more often. There’s a feeling that I get from using a film camera that I don’t get from a digital. Much of it stems from the excitement of having only a couple of shots and having to get it right. It forces me to be more focused, to also trust myself more. And then it’s also about getting the prints of film back and remembering the exact moment I took it. There’s a nostalgia that I feel. I remember the weight of my father’s film camera and wishing he had kept it and continued photographing us. My mother insists on a film camera too, she’s frightened of losing digital files and doesn’t trust the computer. She likes the pictures in her hand. I feel the same way.

How do you see your work continuing to evolve?

There are so many projects that I want to work on. There are things I’ve been struggling to write that I want to explore through photography. I want to experiment more with film photography. I want to continue being as honest as I can possibly be, connecting with more people as well as travelling. London feels so small all of the sudden. I feel a huge responsibility to continue the work, to follow it wherever it wants to take me.

Find more of Amaal Said’s work at amaalsaid.com and instagram.com/amaalsaid

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Weekend Music Break No.73

Here’s our selection of tunes for the weekend of May 9th, 2015

It’s mother’s day weekend in much (but not all) of the world… so let’s start out with Vusi Mahlasela’s “Thula Mama”.

Burna Boy turns in a really cool video for “Soke”.

Brooklyn artist Teleseen shoots a video on the coast of Brazil, documenting the lives of fishermen on Ilhabela for “Outlines”.

Sahel Sounds has a new Balani show album out. Here is “Danbe” from Supreme Talent Show, read up on them on the Sahel Sounds blog.

Danbe by Supreme Talent Show

Stones Throw artist Knxwledge goes “In the Dungeon” for a live performance of some of his beats.

This week Meklit Hadero realeased a clip for “Kemekem” dedicated to your beautiful afro.

Ismael & the Radiant Select is playing around New York these days. Here is their song “Sa Diatale”.

I can’t wait for the clip for Young Fathers’ crazy good neo-rap tune ‘Old Rock N Roll’, so here’s the song in a youtube stream… This one might get a double posting on the Weekend Music Break if the video ever comes out.

“Canto da lavadeira, Prelúdio das águas” from As Ganhadeiras de Itapuã sounds like it’s coming from an island in the middle of the Atlantic equidistant between Cabo Verde and Brazil.

As Ganhadeiras de Itapuã by As Ganhadeiras de Itapuã

Not a new track, but a big one that we haven’t put up yet. Here’s Kiss Daniel’s Woju Remix feat. Tiwa Savage and Davido

Happy Mother’s day and have a great weekend!

 

Ruminations? Or, Ruinations? in the work of Santu Mofokeng

Santu Mofokeng’s photographs and work as a photographer have been at the center of South Africa’s historiography and its representation. In part, scholars and activists have used his pictures to both document and analyze anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the significance of the “documentary” power of photographs in such struggle. Mofokeng himself much later spoke in numerous interviews to how he was attempting to photograph something different from his contemporaries and to challenge the notion of the “documentary’ that existed at the height and end of the anti-apartheid struggle. “A Metaphorical Biography,” the title of an exhibition of his work at the Walther Collection’s NY Project Space, is an ode to reflect on Mofokeng’s efforts to photograph what he “ordinarily sees.”  Furthermore, archiving efforts, like his “The Black Photo Album,”(compiled from the photo albums of black South Africans at the turn of the 20th century) questioned stereotypes of South Africans, and Africans more generally, by using portraiture (a popular medium in practice and study) to inquire about the notion of middle-class aspirations. Thus, the displayed works are pieces of art as much as they are methodological ruminations  on photographic discourse around South Africa and Africa more broadly—the very ways the public sees and understands events in and around Africa.

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The exhibition features widely viewed photographs by Mofokeng, which the Walther Collection owns and includes: “Train Church” (1986), “Townships” (1985-2006), “Rumours: The Bloemhof Portfolio” (1988-1994), “Landscapes of Trauma” (1996-2008), and “Climate Change” (2007). Some series like “Train Church”, which feature the transformation of cramped train cars during daily commutes into hubs of spiritual readings and performances, and Climate Change, which includes scenes of a dust storm, a damn, and a beach, are from one specific year. Whereas, in Townships” and “Rumours: The Bloemhof Portfolio”, Mofokeng explores the interior and exterior worlds of life in townships in the apartheid and post-apartheid periods. The exhibition’s temporal coverage is vast. But, this span of time is also revealing for the types of questions that Mofokeng’s pictures present before South Africa’s historiography, his photographed subjects, and the viewers of his images and how these questions (and also commentaries on them) unfold over time through the collection and exhibition of his works. For instance, in “The Black Photo Album,” Mofokeng includes a slide in reference to previously displayed portraits:

Who were these people?

What were their sophistications?

What is going to happen to these aspirations at the end of the twentieth century South Africa?

Although specific to the pictures included in “The Black Photo Album,” such a query also travels with a visitor to “A Metaphorical Biography” and is something that the visitor is forced to grapple.

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One experiences an eerie and ominous felling walking into the Project Space partly because during its short run, the “A Metaphorical Biography” has, perhaps for lack of a better word, witnessed protests advocating the removal of Rhodes’s statue at the University of Cape Town and xenophobic killings in South Africa. Not necessarily unrelated, Europe is now contemplating what to do about the countless migrants from Africa and the Middle East who have drowned in its seas. Discussion of these events has been the focus of “Africa is a country” and other news and social media feeds, but few, if any have discussed he photographic images that have come out of these events or that are used as stand-ins to document and explain them.

In one respect, the exhibition displays the very spaces and peoples whose lives lie at the center of apartheid and the anti-apartheid struggle and whose lives continued to be affected by the xenophobic killings in South Africa and discussions underway from within European parliaments. In another respect, the photographs force visitors to give greater thought to spaces, such as road signs, sheebens, train cars, and building architecture, previously dismissed as insignificant or overlooked. But, there are also landscape scenes that were the very spaces that the apartheid regime used to defend itself internally and also against South Africa’s neighbors. In “Landscape’s of Trauma,” Mofokeng revisits these sites of struggle to consider South Africa’s memorialization of these places in the post-apartheid period. These photographed spaces, in addition to the trauma they come to embody through photographs of them, are at play again today in unsettling ways. For example, how is one left to think about South Africans’ killing and destroying of property of African migrants who come from the very nation’s South Africa relied on to end apartheid (see Mia Couto’s letter to Jacob Zuma)?

In light of recent events in South Africa and Europe, Mofokeng’s photographs keep visitors wondering and wanting to know the answers to a question he posed in “The Black Photo Album”: who are these people, what are their sophistications, and what is going to happen to these aspirations in the future?

Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio, New York (Mofokeng3)

Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio, New York (Mofokeng3)

*“A Metaphorical Biography” is open until May 23 at the Walther Collection NY Project Space.

Teca #4: Pura Música in San José, Costa Rica

Welcome back to Teca, Latin America is a Country’s own jukebox, where we’ll introduce you to some of the coolest, hippest, most recent music from cities around Latin America. Brought to you today by our good friend and vinyl collector Juan Felipe Pérez.

“Ay, qué rico, Costa Rica,” sings the Peruvian musician François Peglau and that is what I feel as I write about the rock/pop scene in the country’s capital, San José. Usually, when we think about the “Latin American” scene, the first things we think about are the Chilean pop boom, the huge Mexican scene, or the well-known—and historical—Argentinian scene.

But that’s not all there is. We could argue that the Costa Rican pop/rock scene is the biggest and most interesting in Central America. Bands like Sonámbulo Psicotropical, 424 and Las Robertas have played in some of Mexico’s, Colombia’s and the United States’ most important music festivals (such as Nrmal, Vive Latino, Estéreo Picnic, Rock Al Parque, Austin City Limits, or South By South West). The latter two bands have also been reviewed in the Argentinian and American press.

What’s more, there are festivals in Costa Rica, like Epicentro—which has already been organized twice—that have created dialogues between the Tico scene and the “Latin American” scene, as they have invited bands and people working in the music industry from Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and others.

So, relax and enjoy a selection of five bands from San José that will make you travel through sounds so distant from each other like afro-beat or lo-fi rock.

Sonámbulo Psicotropical

Sonámbulo formed in 2006 and they have released two albums: A puro peluche (2009) and Psicosonorama (2014). They define their sound as psicotropical, which is a mixture between merengue, salsa, cumbia, Cuban son, funk and afro-beat. Their eleven members hail from Costa Rica, but also from El Salvador, Cuba and Colombia.

Las Robertas

If you like Daniel Johnston, you will surely like Las Robertas, as they (two girls and a boy) participated, with some bands from Spain and Argentina, in a tape cassette covering the American singer. Besides, the cassette came with a fanzine titled Coloreando a Daniel Johnston (Coloring Daniel Johnston). They have released two albums: Cry Out Loud (2010) and Days Unmade (2014).

424

Both times 424 have come to Colombia, they have made young girls melt with their charms. But this rock/pop band is not only about pretty faces. Their sound is a combination between brit pop and rock en español standards, such as the Mexicans Zoé. Maybe it’s because Phil Vinall produced albums for both bands, including 424’s Oro, released in 2012.

Florian Droids

Pablo Rojas, Jorge Guri, Álvaro Díaz and Franciso Araya got together in early 2010 to form Florian Droids, a psychedelic rock ensemble. In 2011 they released their self-titled debut album, and in 2014 they released Osos de agua. They were also part of the soundtrack of the film Por las plumas (directed by Costa Rican Neto Villalobos) with their song “Bípedo implume.”

Monte

Out of the five bands in this playlist, Monte is the youngest. So far they’ve only released two Eps: Monte (2011) and San José (2014). They also participated in a compilation titled Sí, San José, in which various up-and-coming bands from the city also took part.

BONUS:

For this bonus, I would like to thank David Bolaños, from Zòpilot!, who helped me look at the Costa Rican scene. These three bands were his recommendations:

Zòpilot!

Do Not 

Billy the Kid

Did we miss anything? Want to write your own Teca? Send us your suggestions to our twitter, Facebook, or email.

See the rest of Teca here.

Why I asked for my work to be withdrawn from the inaugural FT/OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Awards

There is a new award just for people from poor countries. I came to know about it when the organisers requested proof of my nationality. My publisher promotes the prize, and I was unaware that they had submitted my work for consideration. I have a great working relationship with my publisher and value their support for my writing. I understand that when they submitted my work, it was because they valued the book. I understand the difficulty publishers face in promoting local fiction, and that international initiatives that draw attention to local writing are generally welcome. Literary prizes play an important role. Since ancient times, they have been a way of celebrating and promoting good writing. They bring recognition to artists and ensure their work gets noticed. That is what happened when my first novel, The Silent Minaret, received the inaugural European Union Literary Award in 2005. It drew a level of recognition and attention the novel might not otherwise have received. However, while I’m sure this new award was set up with those intentions, it is not one I support, and asked for my work to be withdrawn. This is why.

The inaugural Financial Times OppenheimerFunds Emerging Voices Awards 2015 is a cumbersome prize. Fiction prizes are only for Africa and the Middle East, film for Asia and the Pacific, and art for Latin America and the Caribbean. These exclusivist groupings do not reflect and cannot contain the breadth of creative production in those regions. Why create categories that exclude Indian literature, for instance, Brazilian film, and Tunisian art? While artists reach out to the whole world through their creativity, this award divides the creative world into arbitrary categories of their own making, pushing us into spaces too small to contain the full scope of our creative splendour. Of even greater concern, only writers, film-makers and artists from “emergent market countries” are eligible for entry. According to the organisers, “this list of emerging-market countries was defined by the World Bank Atlas Method (i.e. those with a GNI per capita of less than $12,746)”.

I do not believe in “emerging voices” or “emerging market countries”. Having spent enough of my life in contrived categories, I uphold the vision of just one world. By this I do not mean some chic Afropolitan ideal celebrating Africa only in so far as it emulates Europe. Consider the following travel advice from the May 2015 edition of a popular Afropolitan magazine to its Afropolitan readers about how to reduce travel stress with an “essential travel list” – a well-packed suitcase, toys for the kids, updated music and reading devices and a range of RESCUE products for gentle stress relief – a list so far removed from the experiences of African migrants being brutally attacked by xenophobic mobs in South Africa and drowning in their thousands in the Mediterranean, as to be obscene. No, I oppose such ghettoised categories because, however euphemistic the terminology and well-meaning the intentions, they overlook the reality that southern countries are already home to artistic brilliance of the best kind – despite their GNI. They simplify a complex world, so that excellence in “developing countries” is rendered as invisible, as rare, and as exceptional as poverty and human rights abuses in supposedly “developed” ones. To contrive “special” categories for artists in poorer countries, and to use their GNI to justify such tokenism is not praise, but diminishment.

Some will think me sensitive. I am. Consider the meaning of emergent: fledgling, embryonic, infant, in the early stages of development. Is the implication that in creative terms we are children? Is that what the broken egg shell on their website is meant to signify which – let us note in passing – is not how human beings are born, but oviparous animals like insects, birds and reptiles? I ask because metaphors are important in an artistic award. We have heard our male elders called ‘boys’ and our female elders ‘girls’, and to me, the language of this prize is reminiscent of that. Call a writing competition for school children “emergent” if you must, but we are men and women who have already received global accolades in the same global arenas as our European and North American counterparts. Why, given the evidence, this insistence on classifying us as “emergent”? Is the implication that northerners are “established” simply because their countries are rich, while we are eternally doomed to an “emergent” status simply because our countries are less wealthy? Do the organisers imagine that “emergent’ is what we aspire to be? That we will revel in the training wheel prizes while northerners get the real awards? This award is not a step forward. It takes us back. The implication that, as a whole, we are not yet developed enough to be admitted as equals suggests a view of Africa in which Achebe, Mahfouz and Gordimer are seen as exceptions to the underdeveloped norm. These distortions arise when the language and values of the market are imposed on art and literature. I hope the organisers will reconsider the terms of their award, for while our markets may be “emergent”, our writing, our voices and our agency are not.

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Can economics measure all? What are we to make of a prize where a criterion for entry is not the quality of one’s writing, but the GNI of one’s country? What has a GNI of exactly $12,746 got to do with the quality of one’s work? Because the World Bank Atlas Method says so? In which case, who are we to ask about a country with a GNI per capita of $12,747, to ask what reason is given to artists from such countries for their exclusion – “Your country is not poor enough?” To wonder whether this is why Equatorial Guinea is the only African country not on the list? While it is indeed an oil-rich country, most of its wealth has been siphoned off by its elite, leaving most of its people poor. Ten percent of children there die before the age of five. What kind of thinking about the world leads to such distorted conclusions – and the resolve to press ahead with implementation regardless? This is what happens when cultural production is conflated with markets, and the World Bank Atlas Method becomes the bouncer. The world is flattened out.  Who are these organisers, still drawing arbitrary lines across the creative world like powerful men drawing maps in a bygone era? What do they really know about the creative life and process, of literature and art – other than as acquisitions? 

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However well-intentioned, this is an ill-conceived award.  Also telling, is the additional requirement for artists to submit their passports or proof of nationality. Are European and North American artists ever interrogated in the same way? This distrust of southerners contradicts a key aim of the award – “to reward artists who further understanding of their region”. Why bother understanding regions when you do not trust the artists who depict them? This attitude from the organisers is in sharp contrast to that of readers. To readers, artists are known by their work. Yet, even as the organisers seek to reward the work, the work itself is not sufficient commendation. Passports and proof are paramount, which raises another issue – dual passport holders. Are Equatorial Guineans with South African passports for example, or French nationals who also have Algerian passports eligible?

Such tokenism is not isolated or uncommon and one almost objects to having to object – again.  In 2007, Britain’s Decibel Penguin prize for writers from African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds was accused of racial discrimination.  Novelist Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal described the prize as “a special pat on the head for Britain’s ethnic minorities”. Eventually, the prize was forced to change its ethnic entry criteria. Still, here we are in 2015 faced with the same kind of thing. I can draw little distinction between the Decibel Penguin as was and this award. One cannot disguise tokenism by replacing ethnic criteria with economics. What, after all, is the ethnic majority in eligible countries?

If we are to have international prizes, let them be truly international, open to all artists from all countries – whatever their GNI. Let the work be considered in an equal arena. That is all Africans want – to be treated as equals. But equality remains elusive and wealthy award organisers apparently unwilling to concede that books, canvases and screens in poor countries are already illuminated with brilliance, just as they are in rich ones. Why does this threaten them so?

Bantu Uhuru Continua Consciousness

Foodzone is an eatery situated in Lakeview, Soweto, right next to the Rea Vaya bus station on the T1 route. Looking outside from the interior — Foodzone’s located inside a shipping container housing a variety of musical instruments in one corner and a stove where meals are prepared in another — one can see Regina Mundi church to their right and Thokoza Park to their left.

South African afro-psychedelic future pop sextet Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC or B-Cook work just as well) are not only part-owners of the venue, they also hold their rehearsals in here, on a floor space they clear up to make room for their instruments. The band consists of Nkosi “Jovi” Zithulele, Kgomotso Mokone, Thabo “Cheex” Mangle, Mritho Luja, Lehlohonolo “Hloni” Maphunye, and Skhumbuzo Mahlangu. Mosebetsi Ntsimande of the band Uju is a featured bassist.

Between them, they rap in eloquently-phrased Sesotho verse; they howl fire and brimstone to the tune of a thousand angels; they harmonize, play nose flutes, bang bass drums; they jiva ispantsula to the shy rhythm of the tambourine; and they do the ‘tribal thing’, you know, feet-in-the-air, indlamu, Zulu warrior, live-wrangling for the hood, the ‘burbs, and the outer-skirts thing?! Word!

Thrown into the mix: whistles (izimfijoli) commonly used by amaBhaca, but also found in Lesotho where mokhibo/moribo women use them to rally up the audience’s participation and liven up the song; and imbombu, an instrument roughly 3 meters long, invented by Shembe adherents with the Biblical trumpet as inspiration.

BCUC Studio Session

BCUC Studio Session (left to right: Jovi, Hloni, Luja, Cheex)

I first saw BCUC live at Oppikoppi festival two years ago. It was on a late afernoon, Saturday, and they were performing at Skellum — a stage neither big nor too small, perfect for a band whose reputation as live performers rests on their willingness to compete against and out-match the last live show they put on. They had everyone tripping towards dizzying heights, entranced by their Nazareth Baptist-style chants. Their manic, relentless, hard-hitting zeal and their head-bopping humdrum rock-n-roll attitude turns them into miracle workers on stage.

A few months later, we were all squeezed into rapper/producer Joint Pusher’s home studio in Cosmo City, north of Johannesburg. BCUC were working towards an album and decided to decamp to JP’s in order to test out a few ideas. It was hot outside, sweltering even, mid-Summer highveld vibes. Regular swigs from a cold water bottle were vital!

The room, fitted with a couch and not much else besides JP’s studio equipment, became a hub of activity. JP started the session by programming the drum pattern under Jovi’s guidance. After getting the basic groove, an assortment of percussive instruments the crew had brought along were added — shakers first and then, ultimately, Cheex’s nimble hands producing complex sounds as they caressed the twin congas.

Chix of BCUC

Cheex of BCUC

Cheex comes across as quiet and reserved, almost reclusive, in person. He’s the antithesis to Jovi and Hloni’s hyperactive personas, almost in the same energy spectrum as Luja. Put congas in front of him, however, and these notions and comparisons cease to exist. He transforms. He becomes a beast, each percussive line feeding a style of playing so free and unhindered it sounds like he’s charting new territory, coursing along with jugular jungle styles while getting drunk in the punch of the conga gods.

The session’s well underway by the time Kgomotso adds harmonies atop the loop. At this point, BCUC’s signature imbombu, hand-crafted from the finest zinc by merchants at Kwa-MayiMayi in Durban, has also graced the song.

“She is just black,” Jovi sings, in a soft voice far from the guttural growls he reaches during a live show. Four other people join in on the chorus: 

Just like Kingston, Jamaica [she is just black]/

Lagos streets in Nigeria [she is just black]/../

Jo-hustleburg and Berea [she is just black]

The song never gets released. Jovi tells me that they didn’t like the final mix and hence left it out of their album, a live affair named The Healer recorded at the SABC studios some two months after the “…just black” studio sessions.

“When we started the band, we didn’t start it because we wanted to make money. We wanted to start the band because we felt like there is a voice that is not there, you know?!”

Jovi utters the words while cooling off under the tree shade following the second round of rehearsals for the day. Luja’s preparing food for customers who’ve just ordered and Mosebetsi, the featured bassist, has left for other missions in the city. The rest of the crew, along with a few friends, are seated on the same restaurant bench underneath the tree with Jovi, sweaty and hyperventilating.

The s’camto’s (conversation) about their roots. Back in the early 2000s, Jozi had a buzzing underground scene out of which noteworthy names emerged: Sliq Angel and MXO; Simphiwe Dana; Lebo Mashile; Tumi Molekane and his (former) band The Volume; and the now-defunct Kwani Experience — perhaps the closest to BCUC, at least in their militant, pro-black philosophies.

“We are older than most of them, obviously, in terms of how long [we’ve] been together, you know?! The difference between us and them: I reckon they wanted to make money with the music, and thina we wanted to make music and then money will follow, because obviously when you do music, then money should follow. We wanted to be this voice for the black urban [youth who] are culturally inclined [and] proud of [its] musical heritage,” says Jovi.

Luja of BCUC

Luja of BCUC

The collective wanted to become a bridge between what they call ‘muzik wa diplaas’ and ‘muzik wa ko kasi’ — essentially, an alternative to traditional music, and kwaito and house music. “Back then, we were annoyed by i-digital music, but now [it’s] got these guys who are using other machines, and they make it almost live now. You mention abo-Fantasma [and]Goldfish – at least you can respect that.”

The aim, therefore, was to play music that utilised instruments, and secondly to say something with substance.

What was the central message at that time, I ask.

“Black music, it hasn’t changed,” says Jovi and Kgomotso, almost at the same time.

Hloni calls it ‘shebeen muzik’, the type you don’t get to hear on radio. It’s the type of music sung by everyone.

“I think we’re speaking about ourselves,” says Kgomotso. “Our ideology, B-Cook’s sense of consciousness is not about us going outside of ourselves to find enlightenment. It’s about finding out who we are within our families. Ko-ntlung (at home), what’s happening? How do you incorporate it with what happens in Cheex’s place? At Hloni’s place? At Jovi’s place? [It’s about] how we build bridges and how we educate each other to be better people. For us, that is the consciousness — just being good people and putting that positivity out there.”

*

The pap and chicken giblets I’d ordered from the restaurant have been served. A few of us take turns to dip the pap into gravy and relishing it with chilli sauce. The s’camto continues; talk of the EFF’s parliament stunts, current South African rap favourites, and what BCUC are plotting next. Their next stop is Bushfire Festival in May, with Oppikoppi following in August.

* All photographs (c) Tseliso Monaheng

The Assassins of Memory

Given its crude quality, xenophobic violence in South Africa incites a Manichean, or even a caricatured, reading: in an African country, blacks are perceived as the only foreigners and are hunted down and massacred under the derisive gaze of their fellow citizens, who were once blamed for all the evils. The latter, delighted, chuckle away, but their silence does not prevent anyone from hearing, loud and clear, the words that are running through their heads: “We told you, they only know the stick!” “They are good kids,” and so on.

On social media, millions of Africans have unleashed their fury and have found in these unfortunate events evidence of some unknown ancient curse. And in the flood of comments, there have sometimes been suggestions (softly or between the lines) that instead of attacking their “brothers,” the rioters should be cutting up the whites with machetes and vandalizing their luxurious properties.

The South Africa question is far too important to accommodate an explanation that is as simplistic and childish. We cannot tell the criminals in the townships of Alexandra and Isipingo: “You’re quite right to destroy everything in your path, but you just have the wrong target.”

In the world that we live in, no one has the right to use their difficulties as a pretext to loot, rob, rape and kill, often with unspeakable cruelty. The is called the law of the jungle, and to support it would mean to believe that these idle youth are – if we dare say – a breed apart. The least we can say is that their behavior is at odds with the teaching of Mandela. However, one must hasten to add that, contrary to appearances, millions of others excluded from South African society – “the most unequal in the world,” according to experts – have invested relentlessly for two decades in civilized and intelligent struggles to improve their living conditions. Like everywhere else….

This means that the wielders of the drunken machetes of hate are, as underlined by many observers, a tiny minority.

This fact, however, does not prevent us from wondering why their singular mode of social protest has systematized itself only in South Africa, and why it has been at work for so long.

Perhaps we do not know this well enough, but the rejection of black Africans did not start in South Africa at the end of apartheid. The ANC leaders who came into power in 1994 with thanks, in particular, to the help of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique, are well aware that the citizens of those neighboring countries – and more widely all black foreigners – are looked at very badly in the townships, where they are called Makwerekwere. This word, the etymology of which is fairly controversial, appears to mean something rather neutral at first. Simply, migrants from the continent. But it has gradually become deeply contentious and, according to a 2008 article in The Mail and Guardian, a reputed newspaper in Johannesburg, it has come to mean that these Africans, whose skin is very dark, also smell bad. Its hard to believe, but this is unfortunately what it has become.

Three centuries of apartheid cannot be erased with the stroke of a pen and, as we were taught in the history of man, it is believed that the hatred of the Other is almost always the hatred of the self.

One would have hoped that, once they regained their freedom, South Africans would have looked at dark-skinned foreigners differently. In fact, the hard economic realities have weighed in far more than the ethical scruples. As disillusionment and social tensions have become clearer, the makwerekwere have become convenient scapegoats. There are traces of that hatred in Jerusalema, an ambitious film by Ralph Ziman, which paints a very unflattering portrait of Nigerians at the center of organized crime in Johannesburg.

The black ruling elite, glad to make others responsible for their own bankruptcy, have looked away, and in some cases have theorized this primary form of xenophobia with many mental contortions. Here, too, we should avoid excessive generalizations since political figures such as Thabo Mbeki or the legendary Ahmed Kathrada, to name a few, have never wanted to eat that bread.

There remains the nagging question, beyond the issue of the incapacity of the ANC to raise itself as high as the crucial historic stakes, about whether we should avoid judging the whole South African population for their almost friendly passivity towards the xenophobic gangs. After all, the killings in April were not the first. They have simply been accelerated since 1994, and if the two Senegalese were thrown from a moving train in September 2008, we should remember that the 62 dead in May 2008 comprised its bloody apotheosis. The torment of Mozambican Ernesto Nhamuave, burned alive on the street, remains an iconic image.

If these crimes have never really perturbed the South African opinion, it is also because the makwerekwere stigma has its corollary in a terribly isolationist mentality, the result of a very particular history that has spared no social class. I have often personally had the experience of this typically South African sense of being either outside the continent or being a grand exception to it. For example, I remember asking the person sitting next to me at a dinner in Kensington, Johannesburg, if she had ever visited Senegal. “No,” she replied immediately, “I have not yet had the opportunity. In fact I’ve never been to Africa.” Seeing my stupefied expression, she realized her blunder and we had a good laugh. I then wondered, deep down in my heart, if a Black person could have had the same reaction. I believe yes, even though a slip this unambiguous was quite exceptional.

Then, a few days later, I heard a somewhat nervous gentleman call in on an interactive radio show to make a small clarification: “Lets stop saying that Africa has had a successful World Cup. The only reason its worked out brilliantly is because it was organized by South Africa!”
While he was at it, this ardent patriot even rattled off some African countries where, according to him, it would have been a total disaster. These remarks confirmed something a disillusioned Mozambican filmmaker once told me: that “for the South Africans, everything north of Limpopo virtually belongs to another planet…” He added with a smile: “This strange and unknown world…well, it starts at my home in Maputo, a few short hours drive from Johannesburg.”

We can only expect the worst when these daily miseries and frustrations are grafted onto this truly national autism. We are talking about a country where the official unemployment rate, though largely underestimated, according to experts, is between 25- and 30 percent. And the fact that it reaches over 50 percent among black youth obviously cannot be without consequences for social peace. The number of asylum seekers makes for an even more surprising figure: around 220,000 in 2009 – that is to say the highest in the world, ahead of United States and Germany – although it fell to 62,500 three years later. These statistics were provided by UNHCR, which has seen a new surge in requests since January 2015, when the number was already at 246,000.

With five million foreigners – mostly African, and exactly one tenth of its total population – South Africa has quickly pronounced the pressure of migration to be intolerable. Those excluded from the post-apartheid system have had it particularly bad considering that they cannot count on the welfare state at all, and the newcomers, being more skilled or more enterprising, have literally snatched the bread from their mouths.

All the ingredients for an explosive situation were somehow in place, and everyone has been more or less resigned to cyclical pogroms perpetrated with an air of tranquility.

Yet it seems that something exceptional has taken place in the land of Nelson Mandela in the wake of the killings in these past days.

Signs suggest that. for the xenophobic criminal gangs, the end of impunity is near. The really good news is that the seven dead from Durban and Johannesburg have aroused more anger than the 62 victims of 2008. In truth, the world has come to the conclusion that “enough is enough.” We cannot offer hunger as the pretext for those stocking up on loaves of bread and crates of beer from other people’s stores with weapons in hand. Frankly, an embarrassing bestiality hurts us humans, and in the end, we have been resolutely condemned, this time even in South Africa.

Fortunately, it is not enough to level mere invective against the regime of Jacob Zuma. Nigeria, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique have reacted vigorously to these incidents. Some governments have started to repatriate their nationals, and South Africans working in these countries have felt unsafe for the first time. They have also been reminded of the very simple notions of interdependence and reciprocity, apparently never taken into account by Pretoria.

The South African economy owes a lot to the migrants upon whom so much misery has been heaped. Terry Bell noted recently on the BBC that if the Zimbabweans went away, the country’s banking sector would be unlikely to sustain its current level. It is true that we complain that Somali and Ethiopian small businesses should cut prices. Is that a reason to raze their shops and make them suffer the torment of the necklace?

It is also important to know that when we blame migrants for taking away South African jobs, it is they who often create jobs, however modest they may be. One of our compatriots, S. Sall, a native of Thies, is one of them. In the small town of Simonstown – less than an hour from Cape Town, where penguins attract thousands of tourists a year – his business of handicrafts did so well in 2010 that he employed six or seven young South African women, who are rather happy to work with him.

In the end, those who dreamed of a splendid South African isolation have realized with dread that it has yielded, in all respects, the worst scenarios. The setbacks are a measure of the impact. First the King of the Zulus, Goodwill Zwelithini, shamelessly took back his irresponsible remarks and improvised a press conference to call for calm. Then Jacob Zuma canceled a state visit to Indonesia and visited the Chatsworth camp with some of the thousands displaced. For once, the political class unanimously condemns the violence, and within this context, the media and civil society have had much less trouble being heard than in the past.

On a modest South African scale, all off this amounts to a “Never again,” the main merit of which will be that the xenophobia that tended to become routine will be seen as a moral deviance rejected with disgust by well-meaning women and men of an entire country. While not having the innocence to believe that the black foreigners in South Africa will now live in the best of worlds, we can assume that the gangs of hooligans, now less assured of the tacit complicity of much of the public, will not dare to attack them as openly.

Evil, however, runs deep, and it may well be that ordinary criminality will target foreigners more than before, and according to new patterns, the migrants be will just as vulnerable. What makes this situation even more messy is that many among these are in an irregular situation. In his response to Mozambican writer Mia Couto’s “Open Letter,” President Zuma stressed this point, pointing out that he must also take into account the legitimate complaints of South Africans themselves. Jacob Zuma is not alone in this: many of his fairly reasonable countrymen who do not even know what it means to be xenophobic are of this opinion. It is a perspective that should be heard. The counterpart to the hospitality and security that is expected of a host country is the scrupulous respect for its laws.

Despite all fears, there are still serious reasons to hope. In the end, these events have forced the silent majority to give voice and project another image – a less repulsive one – of South Africa. The symbol of this moral jolt was the march against xenophobia on April 23rd in Johannesburg, where a huge crowd gathered under the slogan “We are all South Africans.” And on this occasion, the moral debt of the “Rainbow Nation” with respect to the rest of the continent was often mentioned. Never has a reminder been so timely. The victory against apartheid was one of the few, perhaps even the only, success stories of independent Africa. Countries on the “frontlines” paid a high price for their support of Mandela’s comrades, and here in Senegal, generations of schoolchildren have seen written on the blackboard the famous phrase: “Apartheid is a crime against humanity.” Moreover, throughout the continent, artists, and especially musicians, have played their part effectively.

That is why the xenophobic violence in South Africa is as much a crime against memory as it is against body and property. We Africans often complain about the indifference of the world to our tragedies. If we would learn to remind ourselves a little more often of the tremendous outpouring of solidarity which eventually brought down the powerful South African racist regime, we would not be begging for the compassion of others in all circumstances.

The march planned in Dakar on April 17th in honor of the 147 victims of the carnage among students in Garissa was, in a sense, praiseworthy in its desire to reactivate this memory. To everyone’s surprise, the Senegalese people were forbidden to show solidarity with the Kenyan people. No matter what we say, it was not just the administration in Dakar that was opposed to the March, but the government of the Republic of Senegal. The same government that, while silent on the possible fate of our compatriots in the Mediterranean and in South Africa, is about to send 2,000 of our soldiers to serve as cannon fodder in distant Arabian lands. Almost no one agrees with the presence of Senegalese troops in Yemen. If this were to happen, it would be particularly damaging to our self-esteem. This would especially be the most mysterious and most foolish decision ever made in this country, and it will hasten to make us forget the mistakes, crimes and errors of the three forerunners of Macky Sall in the presidential palace.

* The article was originally published in Seneplus.

The art of “Unrest” –The work of Cape Town artists Hasan and Husain Essop

The Cape Town-born twin brothers Hasan and Husain Essop move beyond the expected. They play with fixed notions of place and identity as well as preconceptions of religion and tradition in a city that values keeping its apartheid era categories, especially for those it labelled its picturesque, acquiescent others: the Muslims who are the descendants of the first wave of dissenters and slaves brought to the Cape from Indian Ocean islands by the Dutch East India Company. Born in 1985 in Cape Town, both studied at Michaelis School of Fine Art and started to work together on the Halaal Art project shortly after their graduation. After Halaal Art, the young artists went through an artistic and personal journey to other projects, notably Remembrance to Unrest. Besides working and developing their art, both have teaching degrees and work as arts facilitators in the community of Hangberg and Imizamo Yethu in Hout Bay, communities shaped by poverty and threatened by or outright faced with forced removals. Shaped by their experiences, and using the concept of spaces and places in the city, the twins reflect on the unrest happening in South Africa and all over the world. The subsequent project, Unrest, will be on show at the Standard Bank Gallery in Johannesburg from the 22st of April until the 20st of June. Unrest responds to the waves of xenophobic violence, as well as the struggle for land, adequate housing, education and equality in South Africa.

This past April, I spoke to Hasan and Husain at Hout Bay, about their previous major shows, and about the specifics that influenced their new works.

Resurrection

Cornelia Knoll: Remembrance showed work that you did while you traveling, Unrest brings it back to Cape Town in a way. Did you work on this series of photographs specifically for the Standard Bank Prize and what inspired it, what was the first spark?

Hasan: You know with Remembrance we were looking at the narrative and the history of Islam and the historical locations and landscapes that represent the religion. I think with Unrest when we received the award with Standard Bank it was such an honour and a privilege. More so that it is a South African Award, we felt a comfort, you know, proudly South African, as it is an award only given to South Africans. For us the context was that we wanted to bring our work back into South Africa and specifically Cape Town. They look at your career and at what you’ve done over the years. I don’t think it is a particular body that makes you win the award. I think its what you’ve done and contributed. We looked at the beginning of where our work started, which was obviously Cape Town, and the different societies, communities and different narratives within the city. Doing a start in Cape Town, a round-trip, it felt right to come back home..

I hope like in the future that I do something different and we will explore different ways of creating work, so the show was definitely not a conclusion but a kind of summary of all the narratives that we created, at the same time, showing the climax of our technique and method.

Husain: Well, to win the Standard Bank prize was absolutely amazing, like Hasan said, you accept it as an South African Artist. More importantly it was a platform for us to create a new body. Giving us the financial backing, the support, the confidence to really push ourselves to create a new body. It was exciting, its always exciting to go back to the drawing board and to try and push yourself to create something new that attracts attention, cause you also have the pressure to produce a body of work that can either make or break you. But I think we pulled through really nicely, I think Cape Town is the best place to start or to create this body of work, keeping, staying truthful to our technique. It is also a nice stage to explore sculpture, to explore installations and to push our video elements so it gave the viewer a nice full body experience so to say where it satisfied the appetite of the eyes, the ears as well as the hands.

CK: How does the video art speak to the photographs? Can you explain a bit what the video art is about?

Husain: The way the video work relates to the photographs, very interesting question, it was actually made in conjunction with the installation that was made talking about Ashura, or self- flagellation, the Shi’a on a specific day they celebrate Ashura in order to shed blood the death of a famous Imam, Imam Husain, and we intended to initially create the videos to show the viewer or justify why we put together this installation. How these weapons are actually used to self-flagellate your self but kind of this video stood on its own. We cropped out our heads and the first represents the chest beating which is the first process of the celebration and then goes into a more advanced process where they start chain-whipping their backs. We wanted to portrait these two videos so that the viewer could see visually in a movement process how these weapons are actually used on the body.

CK: How do people from the Muslim community respond to your work? Because I know you where saying that you didn’t grow up with photographs and pictures in your family home, meaning that images are actually something you don’t really show, yet you do explore these things and bring it to an open public. What is the thought behind it?

Hasan: I think the small Muslim art community that does exist were quiet impressed and very supportive that Husain and I managed to create another form of Muslim art. I think for many years Muslim or Islamic art has just been identified as calligraphy or things that are non-figurative. Were Husain and I really opened another avenue. I think this is also a route to our success because we’ve managed to corporate our beliefs into our art. At the same time there is also a lot of misunderstanding within the Muslim community. In the larger population, the larger Islamic group, there is no history of art within the family, the way they were brought up and there is still a lot of awareness and kind of education that needs to be done. A lot of people don’t understand it, so it is more ignorance than other things that upset them… I believe. I think if people have some sort of backing or knowledge they really connect with the work and our intention. All in all it has been more positive than negative.

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CK: I am interested to hear more about the motivation behind your work. You speak about the Cape Malay ancestors, the history of the City, the Imams of Cape Town — just to give few examples — is this also because the community has previously not been seen or prevented from being seen? That you are now able to represent something that has never been shown?

Husain: That is a very interesting statement. Yes, for sure. I agree, totally. In the past people went through their own struggle and their mind was occupied by what is happening around them. You had a lot of photographers that documented it and today they still selling their work cause it represents a certain time, an oppressed time. They became really successful and built their careers at that time. History has created lots of subject matter for us to explore, it is always good to revisit your own history and learn from your mistakes, so to say. We also find ourselves history repeating itself, which is a very interesting concept. Especially today, how it is repeating itself and the same hurt and pain is inflicted on different nations. It is our food for our thoughts and we try to capture history but also capture present day. Cause, present day becomes history so to say. What happens, what we see growing up, what we see around us. What we see and experience within our communities, just try to re-enact that. Sometimes we also see ourselves a bit humorous, we recreate these scenes that don’t really exist, but what if it existed. Or maybe it does exist in another land, so we try to be a bit comical there. Humour being a good way to get the viewers thoughts.

Hasan: We come from a secular society that for many years has kind of been somewhat secretive about what they do. Be it the Muslim community, the Malay, Indian, being in the art world or showing things that happens in their home or traditions was never really documented. So I think now, more recently you have these traditions that have been passed on for generations, being represented and presented to people that have never been able to see it. So I agree with you, we are presenting these stories that have been around for many many years, for generations, in our photographs and people are now..providing our window, our view, our perception of the things, our story or our interpretation of it and you know sometimes its accurate sometimes its not. Hm, but with these …speaking about slavery, speaking about the people that came through slavery, speaking about Malay/ Indian culture, traditions, religions, the difference between religion and tradition. Some of the politics within the Islamic world, I think its all relevant issues being discussed.

CK: When I went to see the exhibition at the National Gallery in Cape Town, the first photograph that I looked at was Resurrection and it really struck me. It shows the vacant land of District Six, bodies spread on the desolated land. Could you speak a bit about the picture? What do the colours and the cloth represent?

Husain: For sure, the photograph is quiet a nice memory. Hasan and I fought quiet a lot on scene and the outcome as you can see was actually quiet amazing. The light was perfect, the symbolism of the cloth the fabric used for the Kaapse Klopse. My father supplies the fabric to them and we basically used their colours and laid it on the ground. The same way you would lay over a persons grave. You won’t really erect any sculptures or statues. You basically cover the grave with a piece of cloth to identify where the body is buried so that you don’t tramp on that ground or tramp on the body out of respect. These cloths are laid as graves to signify the people that lived there, that they were forcibly removed from their homes. The land is basically a graveyard to us because the people lived there and you know, these cloths represent these homes which was for us, kind of life itself. It was the only place here in Cape Town where people from different race groups lived together harmoniously. Resurrection also deals with the idea of being resurrected. So the way resurrection is described in the Holy Quran is that people will rise from nothing, it will rain this drop of semen so to say and once it hits the ground your little bone, your body will basically merge from this little bone. And from nothing you will rise up into something. You can see in the cloths, there is actually the stages of nothing and then the body starts to emerge and you have these people rising up and walking like Zombies. And that is the way it is described, the day of Judgement. People won’t really know that its judgement day, only afterwards they realise that they have been resurrected. So the same kind of metaphor of people being resurrected, District Six being resurrected. Bringing back people who once lived in District Six coming back to their homes. But in that also there are issues where a lot of them have passed on, now it is their siblings that inheriting the land and that is breaking up family groups because people are now fighting over the properties. It is quiet interesting that there is unrest even in something so positive.

CK: Is this also how the title of the exhibition came up?

Husain: The title was quiet interesting as Hasan and me had weeks and weeks of arguments of what the title is gonna be.  Hasan was fixed on the idea, the title unrest. He sold it to me by saying:’ you know what, its quiet a contradictory word as it has the word rest in it, yet it deals with something where you are uneasy, unsure, where your body is in a state of unrest. And we found it a very fitting title because we live in the state as South Africans, we live in the state of unrest. Being overcome by violence, by crime, by drug abuse, also where we work, we are surrounded by this, we experience this, and we felt that it fitted the body of work and it fits the time frame we are living in you know. If we should look back in 20 years time, we can say that it was a period of Unrest. The Unrest that is happening in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, you know, within the Muslim world there is this constant experience of unrest amongst Muslim people.

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CK: Where do you see the role, the power of your art in that time? Times of unrest?

Husain: I feel Unrest is just the beginning of something, there is a lot of potential to speak about. And I am hoping we can achieve photographs that really capture more of this unrest that is really been experienced, within Nigeria, within Palestine, you know, I feel that the works slowly captures it, slowly captures our experience, and our effect. How crime has effected us, how we trying to deal with it, how we internalising it. But I feel like there are more photographs that are needed to really complete the body of work.

CK: I see a lot of shadows, looking at Mandela Park and 786. Can they be interpreted as ‘shadows of the past’?  What do these shadows represent?

Husain: That’s beautiful, shadows are the reflection of the past, and that is exactly what those shadows represent in these photographs. Specifically with 786 where these photographs represent these dark entities that once existed within this special location. These dark entities, that sell drugs to youngsters, that operate with breaking into homes, etc etc. und you can see some of the shadows are emerging from urine, from dirt, highlighting that these are dark shadows, these are not good shadows. Some of these shadows don’t correspond with the people there, talking about, they basically symbolising different poses, like reaching in the back of their pants for a gun, maybe, creeping up as if you break into somebody’s car, somebody’s home. Those are what the shadows really relate to.

In comparison to Mandela Park, those shadows talk about the unrest that these communities are experiencing with regard to sanitation, housing etc. all the protest action that has been happening. So you have these ideal men, however the shadows are not idle, they are in the state of protest.

CK: Did you take these pictures while you were working with a specific community in another capacity than as artists producing work towards a project? What inspired you at the Lalela Arts Project in Hangberg and Imizamo Yethu, Hout Bay, where you were working with youth living under these circumstances about which we have been speaking?

Husain: Yes, for sure. That specific shot Mandela Park was inspired by the youth we are working with, where they live, cause this is where they come from. This is what they experiencing. Our reasons for working with Lalela, is to work with youth that are effected by domestic violence. That specific shot we had some of our students accompanying us. It was quiet nice that they were accompanying us, so it felt really safe doing it. It was also a way of us showing them how we work, with which method we working and I knew that once it was printed and framed, exhibited and shown in a magazine, I could take it back to my students and show them with pride: ‘ look here, you are part of this.’ That is what I really wanted to achieve with that.

The other location however is out of the community where we are working in, so we have a really good friend that helps us and he accompanies us with a lot of the shots. He comes from quiet a rough community in Athlone and a lot of our inspiration does come from him and our conversations with him. Those shots where kind of inspired though his interactions with us and he has been there since the beginning, so he has moulded us quiet a bit and moulded the work as well.

CK: You’ve always produced and exhibited work together. What is your typical way of working together: As you mentioned before, there is conflict. I think it must be quiet a challenge to work as a team, as twins, sometimes. Do you see it changing over the years, or are you in a routine by now?

Husain: Nah, for me, its because of that friction that we can create work. Hm…

CK: Does creativity come out of this friction?

Husain: Definitely creativity and …we are always arguing. I do hope we reach a point where we can work a bit better with each other, understand each other and keep and open mind. We both are very bull-headed.

Hasan: Its not that, it is just that, in art you have…in a work you are trying to, for example, send a message. You have a statement you want to make. The problem comes when the statement differs. When he wants to say something, I want to say something and its different and you only have this one picture to say it. I think that is where the arguments come when you try to say too much or you try to say too little. That is the tricky part. But you see when you have a location and everything goes the way you wanted, you have the perfect props with you, you have a perfect day, the perfect light. No one is messing with you on the location, everything works out. You see with that for me, that just runs smoothly. Where as with photographs where you not really prepared, things are not right, you get some issues on the day, and you try to make something out of it, that is where we sometimes have problems. Its just what you’ve working with.

CK: And are these pictures that are the ones that are the most powerful ones?

Hasan: Sometimes you know, it happens, where it is the luck of the draw.

Husain: Yes, definitely, that is my process, I am like, lets go out without any planning and shooting and see what happens and let the magic take over. Where Hasan is more like, no you need to plan and exactly know what you going to do on site. You know that is where we at log heads with each other, because I don’t like working like that, I agree with a certain amount of planning but I know, if you, if you plan, plan, plan and you don’t become productive, then what is the point of planning. My thing is to go out there and shoot, even if you not going use the work, just keep yourself warmed up. You can’t expect to draw like a professional if you don’t draw for five years, in that time you need to keep your hand warm. That is what I feel like, just go out and shoot, keep your hand warm, keep your eye warm, so when you do have these shots that you plan so carefully for, that you ready for it. That you don’t, you not unfit, so to say, and because you are so out of production, you don’t pull it off the way you expect it to pull it off. When you remaining productive and practical you doing four shots a day, because you so warmed up, to do so. So that’s where we fight quiet a bit, yes.

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CK: Masculinity is always present in your work. Do you have plans to explore the feminine side? The role of women within the community, in Islam etc.?

Husain: We respond to this question by saying we are not women and its very difficult for us to represent a female side of Islam. Different women will differ in their interpretations of Islam, some might feel oppressed, some might feel in charge of themselves. We do feel that Islam is fair to both sexes. Hasan had his opportunity to dress like a lady, I had my opportunity to dress as a lady, we do try to portrait it but not in the light way, where we are actually being the voice for women, I think this is an interesting step forward. I know Hasan is exploring something with his new work, speaking about women, very interesting, so yes, this is something that we are keeping for future works.

10 Films you have to see at this year’s New York African Film Festival

Tomorrow sees the start of the 22nd edition of the New York African Film Festival. The festival–founded by Sierra Leone born Mahen Bonetti–is always something to look forward to with its lineup of lots of African films that Americans would not likely not otherwise have access to.  This year’s Festival is particularly special since it marks the 25th anniversary of the festival’s parent organization, the African Film Festival, Inc (AFF). This makes AFF one of the longest running African film institutions in the United States today. The festival will happen at three venues: at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (May 6-12th), Maysles Cinema Institute in Harlem (May 14-17th) and finally ending at BAM from the 22nd to the 25th.

The theme of this year’s festival is the “International Decade of People of African Descent” (which is also a theme of the UN) and particular focus is given to women of African descent. The festival organizers supplied us with trailers and synopses of some of the most interesting films being showcased below. You can also check out the AFF website to buy tickets, see the complete festival lineup, and get more information.

‘Bus Nut’ directed by Akosua Adoma Owusu, Ghana/USA, 2014, 7min.

Akosua Adoma Owusu’s latest work, Bus Nut, screens as part of the Festival’s Shorts Program. It rearticulates the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, a political and social protest against U.S. racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama, and its relationship to an educational video on school-bus safety. Actress MaameYaa Boafo restages a vintage video while reciting press-conference audio of Rosa Parks on a re-created set in New York City. This screening is particular special as Owusu and Boafo first met and subsequently shot the film during last year’s New York African Film Festival.

* Screening Tuesday, May 12th, 6:00pm (Introduction by MaameYaa Boafo) – Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln Center

‘Cold Harbour’ (N.Y. Premiere) directed Carey McKenzie, South Africa, 2014, 73min.

While investigating a smugglers’ turf war in Cape Town, township cop Sizwe stumbles upon police corruption. His boss and mentor, Venske, gives Sizwe the case but assigns a rookie, Legama, to keep an eye on him. After Sizwe discovers that a homicide is linked to Triad (Chinese mafia) through abalone smuggling, a tip from a former comrade leads to a major bust. Despite the seized contraband being stolen within hours, Sizwe is still promoted to detective. It’s a bitter triumph though—he’s being played, and he knows it. In a world where self-interest and corruption have overtaken loyalty and honor, Sizwe is left with no one to trust and integrity demands that he take the law into his own hands.

* Screening Wednesday, May 6th, 7pm (Q&A with Carey McKenzie and Tendeka Matatu) – Walter Reade Theater, Film Society of Lincoln Center; Monday, May 11th, 2pm – Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln Center

‘Love the One You Love’ (U.S. Premiere) directed by Jenna Bass, South Africa, 2014, 105min.

Across the city of Cape Town, a sex-line operator, a dog handler, and an IT technician begin to suspect that their romantic relationships are the subject of a bizarre conspiracy, involving their friends, family, and possibly even greater forces. Love the One You Love’s parallel stories question the ideals we hold too sacred: love, happiness, and the New South Africa. For more on this great film, read Charl Blignaut’s review.

* Friday, May 8th, 9:00pm – Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Mossane directed by Safi Faye, Senegal, 1996, 105min.

Every year the New York African Film Festival screens one classic film, selected based on that particular year’s theme. This year, in light of the festival’s focus on the International Decade of the People of African Descent and African women, in particular, they will be showing Mossane from the pioneering female director, Safi Faye. Mossane (Magou Seck), a beautiful 14-year-old girl from a rural Senegalese village, is the object of affection to many, including Fara, a poor university student—and even her own brother, Ngor. Although she has long been promised as a bride to the wealthy Diogaye, Mossane falls in love with Fara and on her wedding day, she defies her parents’ wishes and refuses to go through with it.

* Tuesday, May 12th, 9:00pm (Introduction by Mamadou Niang) – Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln Center.

‘The Narrow Frame’ of Midnight (N.Y. Premiere) directed by Tala Hadid, Morocco/France/UK, 2014, 93min.

Following the interlacing destinies of three witnesses to a world eviscerated by fundamentalism and violence, Moroccan-Iraqi director Tala Hadid’s brooding fiction-feature debut is an urgent, evocative mingling of reverie and nightmare. Zacaria (Khalid Abdalla), a Moroccan-Iraqi writer, sets off on a journey to find his missing brother, hoping to rescue him from the sinister clutches of jihadism and also to redeem himself for having turned a blind eye to his brother’s torture in the jails of the Moroccan secret police. Aïcha (Fadwa Boujouane), a young orphan sold to a petty criminal, escapes from captivity and sets out into the forest. Judith (Marie-Josée Croze), the lover Zacaria left behind, yearns to have a child. The respective quests of these characters intersect, giving them opportunities to rescue one another before continuing on to their unpredictable fates.

* Screening Monday, May 11th, 6:30pm (Q&A with Tala Hadid and Danny Glover), Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln Center.

‘National Diploma,’ directed Dieudo Hamadi, Democratic Republic of the Congo/France, 2014, 92min.

With a concise narrative, precise camera work and sequential oozing moments of candid (and sometimes inadvertent) humor and heartrending emotions, Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi’s second feature-length film offers a poised and engaging view of his hometown’s high-school students confronting their graduate exams. A remarkable piece of cinema vérité, which goes mightily up close to its subjects, National Diploma is proof of Hamadi as one of Democratic Republic of Congo’s (if not Africa’s) most observant documentary-makers; rarely impeding on the circumstances but readily there to capture defining moments in the proceedings. His latest film is a flowing mix of erudite socio-political reflections and outright fun. Set in the director’s home city of Kisangani, National Diploma takes its name after the fin-du-lycée examinations which would make or break a high-school student’s future; and just as some of their counterparts in other countries, the Congolese students at the center of the film takes to everything and anything to try and pass the examen d’état, ranging from intervention of the divine (bathing in shamanic holy water, having pens blessed by a Christian priest) or the dough (getting “tips” about the question papers from self-proclaimed insiders).

‘Red Leaves’ (U.S. Premiere) directed Bazi Gete, Israel, 2014, 80min.

This year’s Centerpiece Film comes from Israel and focuses on members of the country’s Ethiopian diaspora. Meseganio Tadela, 74, immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia 28 years ago with his family. He has chosen to zealously retain his culture, talks very little, and hardly speaks Hebrew. After losing his wife, Meseganio sets out on a journey that leads him through his children’s homes. He comes to realize that he belongs to a rapidly disappearing class that believes in retaining Ethiopian culture. As this harsh reality begins to hit him, he struggles to survive according to his own rules.

* Friday, May 8th, 6:45pm (Q&A with Bazi Gete); Sunday, May 10th, 4:15pm (Q&A with Bazi Gete) – Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln Center

‘Run’ (N.Y. Premiere) directed by Philippe Lacôte, France/Ivory Coast, 2014, 100min.

Run finds shelter with fellow dissident Assa (Isaach de Bankolé) after assassinating the Prime Minister of the Ivory Coast. While in hiding, Run’s story is revealed in three separate flashbacks—his childhood with Tourou, when his dream was to become a rainmaker; his adventures with Gladys, the competitive eater; and his past as a young member of a militia, amid conflict in the Ivory Coast—which together speak volumes about contemporary life in the troubled country. Philippe Lacôte’s feature-film debut is a mesmerizing coming-of-age tale, alternately dreamlike and ultra-realistic.

* Monday, May 11th, 9:00pm–-Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln Center. Following the screening, actor Isaach de Bankolé will be in attendance for an audience Q&A.

“Sobukwe: A Great Soul” (U.S. Premiere) directed by Mickey Madoda Dube, South Africa, 2011, 100min.

This film celebrates the life of Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, restoring him to his rightful place as a leading figure in South African history. Despite his pivotal role in the struggle for liberation (and as the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress), there isn’t a single piece of archive of the man who was once one of the most watched, recorded, and popular political prisoners in the world. Even the current South African government has failed to recognize his place in history and the relevance of his message today. Mickey Madoda Dube’s film seeks to fill that gap, standing as a monument to a great man, a global visionary, teacher, political leader, philosopher, and humanist who was well ahead of his time, declaring his commitment to a “non-racial” society in a racist world by asserting that “there is only one race, the human race.”

* Wednesday, May 6th, 9:00pm (Introduction and Q&A by Micky Madoda Dube) – Walter Reade Theater, Film Society of Lincoln Center; Friday, May 8th, 4:00pm – Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln Center

‘Stories of Our Lives directed by Jim Chuchu and the NEST Collective, Kenya, 2014, 62min.

Created by the members of a Nairobi-based arts collective — who have removed their names from the film for fear of reprisal — this anthology film that dramatizes true-life stories from Kenya’s oppressed LGBTQ community is both a labour of love and a bold act of militancy. Stories of Our Lives began as an archive of testimonials from Kenyan persons who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex assembled by a small Nairobi-based multidisciplinary arts collective. So compelling were these stories that the ten-member association of artists, social workers and entrepreneurs was inspired to adapt some of them into short films. Working on a shoestring budget with one small video camera, two LED lights, a portable digital recorder, a shotgun mic, and relentless courage and enthusiasm, the cast and crew shot, edited, and mixed five shorts over eight months to create this remarkable anthology film. The resultant black-and-white vignettes — Duet, Run, Ask Me Nicely (Itisha Poa), Each Night I Dream, and Stop Running Away — unfold with a graceful simplicity and beguiling charm that belie the fraught circumstances of their making.

* Thursday, May 7th, 9:00pm – Walter Reade Theater, Film Society of Lincoln Center; Monday, May 11th, 4:00pm – Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Burundi goes from peacebuilding success to a growing mess

In 2005, when President Pierre Nkurunziza rose to the presidency by indirect vote as dictated by the country’s then new constitution, Burundians and observers alike let out a sigh a relief. After decades of ethno-political violence and years of negotiations to ratify the Arusha Agreement (signed in neighboring Tanzania), Burundi had finally gone through a peaceful transition. Or so it seemed at the time.

To avoid the zero-sum politics that often characterize divided societies, the Arusha-inspired political framework established a power-sharing agreement that provided political and security guarantees for all those involved. Additionally, Burundi succeeded where others have failed in fully integrating various warring groups into a single republican army.

Right now, after nearly a week of protest resulting in at least 7 dead, dozens wounded, and tens of thousands of refugees, we are hard-pressed to understand how Burundi went from being the hallmark of power-sharing success to an increasingly polarized country.

The escalation of tensions seems to have taken many by surprise. Yet, for over a year, scholars and analysts have warned of the growing tensions in Burundi, such as in here, here, and here. In fact, there were early signs: In the beginning of Nkurunziza’s presidency, he hinted at his contempt for dissent. Early in his tenure, he shut down civil society organizations and disciplined party members who disapproved of his leadership.

But the 2010 elections should have been another, yet crucial sign of things to come. The electoral campaign was marred with harassment, intimidation and arrests of opposition members. By the end of the local elections, most of the opposition opted to boycott the remainder of the polls. This decision turned out to be a severe miscalculation. Instead of delegitimizing the electoral process, it emboldened the ruling party, which gained a crushing majority in the legislature. Burundi becoming a de facto single-party state is one of the contributing factors to the current crisis; and the fractured and, at times, ego-driven opposition is partly to blame.

What followed over the next 2 years was low-grade post-electoral violence between forces and institutions loyal to the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and the opposition. The ruling party and National Forces for Liberation (FNL), a predominately Hutu party, then headed by Agathon Rwanda, bore the brunt of the casualties. Opposition leaders such as Rwasa, and the journalist Alexis Sinduhije of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) went into exile. They returned in 2013 under robust security guarantees brokered by the United Nations to prepare the roadmap for the 2015 elections.

The current crisis over whether or not President Nkurunziza is eligible for an additional mandate is rooted in article 302 of the constitution. It stipulates that the post-transition president was to be elected by the national assembly and the senate. The aim was to minimize tensions during the post-transition period. However, article 96 states that a president is to be elected by universal suffrage, renewable once. The Arusha agreement, which was used to frame the constitution, clearly states in article 7.3 that ’no one may serve more than two presidential terms.’

The official position of the ruling party is that since Nkurunziza was not elected by universal suffrage the first time around, his first term did not fall under the limits outlined by article 96, making the post-transition president eligible for thee mandates. Moreover, the ruling party recently that some of the provisions of the Arusha agreement were “nul and void.”

Dissenters, argue that any interpretation articles 96 and 302 should be done in accordance in article 7.3 of Arusha.

The Constitutional Court recently ruled President Nkurunziza’s candidacy to be constitutional. This ruling, however, is not without controversy. Indeed, the court’s legitimacy is now tinted by allegations from its Vice President, Sylvère Nimpagiritse, who claims that supporters of the President have intimidated and threaten members of the court to support Nkurunziza candidacy. He stated what while others initially opposed gave in to the pressures, he chose to flee to neighboring Rwanda. The court decision, in light of these allegations, will likely strengthen the protestors’ resolve to remains in the streets.

Regardless of where one stands on the constitutional issue, the fact that President Nkurunziza is now rejecting the very document that has allowed him to go from rebel leader to president of the Republic, can potentially have dangerous consequences for the stability of the country. By reneging on its peace treaty obligations, the CNDD-FDD may open the door for other actors who abided by the treaty, to turn their back on it. While this disregard for Arusha may or may not have domestic legal implications, a peace treaty is only as good as the trust the parties have in it and in each other. Nkurunziza and his inner circle have violated that trust and protestors are letting him know.

That breach of trust, constitutional or not, may lead to more violence in the coming days.

Whip it Good: Artist Jeanette Ehlers is using the white man’s tools to strike back 

Jeannette Ehlers’ ‘Whip it Good’ seeks to create poetry between aesthetics and the brutality of the creation of an artwork with a whip. The performance consists of a white canvas, a whip rubbed in charcoal and an audience. Her timely and poignant work deals with power structures in society through an interactive performance art piece. Danish-Trinidadian artist Ehlers uses the white canvas as a representation of hegemonic whiteness and juxtapositions this with the use of white body paint and dress from Haitian and African cultures. Her work, commissioned in 2013 by Alanna Lockward (read about Lockward’s work here and here), speaks to broader narratives of slavery, colonialism and gender. Rivington Place in London is hosting Ehlers’ first solo show in the United Kingdom, kicked off by seven days of performing and followed by a seven-week exhibition.

On the last night of the performance, Rivington Place is packed. There is a permeable tension in the gallery when Ehlers picks up the whip and strikes it against the canvas over and over again. After about ten minutes in she asks the audience to please finish the painting. The tension rises. Ehlers looks around whilst almost summoning people with her look and posture to take over the whip. There is a tangible violence in the repetitive sound of the whip against the white canvas. Every time the whip strikes the canvas hard there is a visceral reaction from both the audience as well as the artist. There is no telling who will stand up and whip the canvas next. The silence in between is powerful and creates a sense of unknowingness and hyper awareness. In the course of seven days, Ehlers created seven different canvasses all representing different experiences and narratives. The canvasses will be part of the exhibition shown at the gallery represented by Autograph ABP.

Ehler in conversation with guest curator Karen Alexander explains in a Q&A, after the final performance, one of the most important experiences of the work lies in who holds the whip. The power dynamics are embedded in who strikes and why. There is a clear difference in a Black woman holding the whip and a white man holding the whip. And there is a different bodily response to a white man taking up the whip. It is here where the complexity of the performance art piece lies. Another complexity lies in the interesting interplay between the aesthetics and poetry of the performance and the sheer violence of the creation of the canvas.

Who strikes back at whom? The artist explains the whip is used to, “strike back with the white men’s tools”. Ehler strikes back in many ways. She strikes back at the violent history of slavery and colonialism. As a Black woman artist she strikes back against the dominance of white male art and patriarchal structures. At the same time, her work stands in solidarity with the continuous violence reenacted against Black lives. Violence from Baltimore to Lampedusa informs her work and makes her angry enough to whip it good. Some days she doesn’t necessarily feel anything, and just is. The participation of the audience in her work tells us something interesting about collective consciousness and its relationship to violence. How aware are we of the legacies of colonial violence? When the performance was conducted in South Africa, no white people would hold the whip. In Denmark, a country with a contested history of slave trade, white people were eager to participate in the performance.

Ultimately, Ehlers work questions how aware we are of the reenactment of continuing colonial violence and how willing or unwilling we are in partaking in the performance of it.

We review Afripedia, “a visual guide to contemporary urban culture on the continent”

“When Africa is changing, when the world is changing and the perspective is shifting, the image of Africa and Africans needs to change too,” believes Teddy Goitom, Swedish-Ethiopian/Eritrean content producer. Goitom is founder of Stocktown, a “cultural movement” whose mission is to document urban culture throughout the world via their online video magazine and through their production company, Stocktown Films. Over the past few years they have spent a lot of time traveling across Africa, profiling artists for their ongoing Afripedia documentary project. Afripedia seeks to be a visual guide to contemporary urban culture on the continent. Each half hour documentary film presents an Africa that is hip and new, in a state of constant self-discovery. The characters featured are well chosen and could have each been the subject of their own documentary. However, as “outsiders,” are Stocktown Films able to capture these cultural scenes authentically? We got a few of our resident contributors to review the Afripedia documentary shot in the countries they call home. –Dylan Valley

GhanaWanlov The Kubolor

I am sad because I just watched a powerful and inspiring documentary that the majority of the youth in Ghana will never get to see; as fast, steady and affordable internet access is still a privilege here. The new generation of Ghanaian artists in various disciplines that intrigue me have been represented in this documentary. This may merely be an exciting, well-made documentary to many, but to the Ghanaian youth this is a very needed artistic boost and needs to be shown on all Ghanaian TV networks.

Serge Attukwei Clottey is an artist making art out of his polluted environment. Abrokwah, Computer Man & Black Fire are street boys who have managed to become the most sought after bicycle circus. Jojo Abot the afro funky singer/fashionista recycles old clothes into chic vintage fashion. And Noella Wiyaala an unannounced feminist singer/performer comes across as a Angelique Kidjo/ Grace Jones hybrid. All these artists are somehow linked to the Professor Xavier & Jean Grae of Ghana’s alternative creative scene, namely Mantse Aryeequaye & Dr. Sionne Neely of ACCRA dot ALT, Talk Party Series, Sabolai Radio & Chalewote Street Festival.

I must point out that I was not totally sold on Noella till I watched this documentary and heard her back-story as tears streamed down her resilient cheeks. Much respect to Stocktown for this very relevant contribution.

AngolaMarissa Moorman

Stocktown’s deft work brings a welcome focus to some of Angola’s most compelling and challenging young talent: Nástio Mosquito, Titica, and MC Sacerdote’s crew and collaborators at Circuito Fechado. Their conditions of production couldn’t be more different, as we see in this short film. And Mosquito is a charming guide full of biting critiques and insights. I love the clarity of the shots and the sense of being in the space with the artists. But that sense of transparency and the limitless possibilities of technology to connect us across and despite borders, languages, and politics bothers me too. What this short fails to show us is how difficult it is to do precisely this kind of production in Angola unless you are well connected. Nástio Mosquito and the producers of Geração 80 are the children of elites. While their work often cuts against the virulent accumulation and divisions of those elites, their connections grease the wheels of bureaucracy and make the work of Stocktown possible. Seeing the whole apparatus of cinematic production would open up the complex workings of music and artistic production in Angola.

KenyaPhilippa Ndisi-Herrmann

What happens, when our father, concerned with other affairs leaves us in our bedroom with a cocktail of passion, toys and dreams?

We create; for our pleasure and then we transmit our creations to the outer space of the World Wide Web. Perhaps if we hadn’t glimpsed the domestic terror of post-election violence, we would not have retreated to the comfort of our mind’s bedroom. You don’t need Dad to travel there, nor coins for a bus ticket. Now we have returned home, bearing souvenirs from the farthest reaches of our imagination, “I didn’t know they make stuff like this in Africa,” is the demonstrative response.

Featuring Bob Muchiri, Just-a-Band, and Andrew Kaggia and other young ambassadors of creative cool, Afripedia Kenya highlights curious and impressive works that tickle stereotypes.

How refreshing to see exciting work from where you are from. Creating art about ourselves is like a surprise glimpse of our reflection, “Wow, is that me? How brilliant and strong I am, is that a pot belly, perhaps I need to work on that!” So yes, we create to double take, reflect and regroup our troops, how far have we come, where are we going, are we learning something new about ourselves? Whatever the answer, it does not matter, as long as we keep along this path, reaching and pushing, because now the creation is beyond our bedroom. May we remember our bedroom beginnings; we created such work independent of our father, with no fear to express our thoughts and feelings and in this same way, may we continue. 

South Africa Mpho Moshe Matheolane

The beginning of the documentary introduces Xander Ferreira and Nick Matthews AKA DJ Invizable (of electro group Gazelle) standing on the beach in Clifton, Cape Town. They are dressed in their usual eccentric performance attire and talk animatedly about their work. The documentary, with this introduction, hints at its subject – the wave of unbridled creativity that surges through a young democratic South Africa.

It also subtly hints at the seemingly unchanged reality of things as well as the confusion that permeates this young democratic country dealing with its “new” freedom and identity issues. Ferreira is the perfect example of this cultural landscape – a white musician, trying to create something new and yet borrowing to create his aesthetic approach, which looks like a concoction of black popular and African cultural imagery. Immediately one asks, what is he selling?

But this is merely one part of the documentary. In Gauteng, young black musicians pursue what would be considered an unconventional and white sound in the form of hard rock. Strange as it appears, it is a sound whose influence goes far back in South African music history, groovy black rockers illustrating that rock is a genre that refuses exclusivity, not even in the township. Indeed, the township is alive with youngsters who see themselves as more than what their circumstances dictate. A young photographer, Musa N. Nxumalo, captures its scene. Enter the Smarteez. Fashion-Afro-futurists, not so much because they are reinventing the wheel but rather because they are infusing their unique sense of identity into what they create. Out of the confusion that dogs South Africa some are forging new ways of being seen, and go figure, it is the youth. Back in Cape Town, in a location other than Clifton beach, a rap duo with a love for arcade games, Die Getuies, makes music that expresses their joyful obsession. There is meaning in all of this. As Ferreira says at one point, “you’ve got to do something for yourself or do something yourself” – that’s fitting – it’s exactly what the documentary captures.

SenegalRicci Shryock

The film opens by spotlighting some of Senegal’s most thriving and well-known artists, such as photographer Omar Viktor Diop and Selly Raby Kane. I was glad to see Ken Aicha Sy, a cultural activist and blogger, featured as she’s an integral part of the scene here in Dakar and dedicates herself consistently to promoting both the bigger talents and the lesser-known, underground artists. The cinematography was lovely and did a fantastic job of showing off the beautiful spots of Dakar. What I find especially cool about Senegal’s arts and culture is that the artists integrate the newest styles of hip-hop, fashion, etc. with traditional Senegalese style in such an innovative way. This film captured that well – whether it was showing off Diop’s unique photographic process or Khoudia Toure‘s dance circle that showcased both b-boy and Sabar dancers. I would add I didn’t like the use of subtitles. The artists who spoke English expressed themselves perfectly well enough to not need the text. It not only distracted from the great visuals but I also found it condescending to the artists to imply their English wasn’t understandable. All in all though, a great mini-doc that shows a slice of Dakar not always recognized on the global scene.

Contributors:

Wanlov The Kubolor is a Ghanaian artist and musician; and one half of the rap group or self-proclaimed “Gospel Porn duo” The FOKN BOIS .

Marissa Moorman is a historian of Southern Africa and on the editorial committee of Africa is a Country. She is the author of Intonations: a Social History of Music and Nation in Luanda, Angola, 1945-Recent Times (2008). 

Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann is a Kenyan/German filmmaker and photographer based in Nairobi.

Mpho Moshe Matheolane is an art historian, lecturer and writer. He is currently working towards a PhD focusing on the politics of land and landscape. On most days he runs and listens to jazz as a form of meditation.

Ricci Shryock is an independent photographer and video journalist based in West Africa.

*Stocktown is currently working on compiling Afripedia into a full length documentary film. Until then, follow them on their tumblr and check out Afripedia.com

The people smugglers of the Mediterranean

The death toll on the Mediterranean in the last few weeks has been the equivalent to a sinking of a Titanic. There are no pictures of a sea of floating bodies. A composite image of the death toll of the past two decades would show tens of thousands of corpses in its water, amassed on the surface of the Mediterranean Sea.

The smugglers who arrange for the voyages have been called ‘slave drivers’ of the 21st century by Matteo Renzi. David Cameron similarly calls them ‘criminal human traffickers’ who conduct ‘this trade in human life.

European ministers of ‘security’, ‘defence’, the ‘interior’, etc. are intent on propagating the myth of the human trafficker. The British foreign secretary said: ‘We must target the traffickers who are responsible for so many people dying at sea and prevent their innocent victims from being tricked or forced into making these perilous journeys.’ The EU’s has now decided to administer an expanding blockade and to ‘capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers’. This will be an uphill battle against Libyan coastal cities and an unlimited supply of inflatable rubber dinghies. As a smuggler from Zuwara in western Libya says: ‘Anyone here who has no money can sell their apartment, buy a boat, and organise a smuggling trip. It’s a very easy formula.

Smugglers are said to purchase old fishing vessels with indifference, and to oversell tickets with a mild kind of sadism. The smugglers, a reckless motley crew of bribed Libyan coastguards, established kingpins, former fisherman, and a small crew of skippers and touts—who are usually hopeful migrants themselves—are congealed into a venal and fictive generic middleman, who ‘tricks’ innocent travellers embarking on and gambling with their own fate.

But smugglers are in most cases merely the “poor man’s” agent; a deregulated, brazen, relatively cheap and lucrative travel agency for refugees and people sans papiers. Unseaworthy vessels, bought by smugglers for a one-time use, sink and capsize whether they are overcrowded or not, whether a Mare Nostrum is there to intervene at the last minute or not. If the EU actually wanted to save lives, they could donate their fleet of FRONTEX ships to the smugglers—instead of indulging in false indignation and a predictable humanitarianism that proverbially always arrives too late.

People on the move being represented as easy prey for unspecified bands of ruthless traffickers is also a colonial script. This script assumes that migrants are ignorant and passive rather than clear-headed and strategic. Arriving in Europe with a temporary visa—the route for the vast majority of the EU’s ‘irregular’ migrants and ‘unauthorized’ refugees—can be prohibitively expensive. Waiting for or purchasing sundry documentation—applications, forged certificates and the like—is a matter of routine, but also of extravagant unofficial commissions. As most “boat people” in Spain, Italy or Libya will tell you, they could not afford a papered passage or the safer, longer and more expensive land routes through Turkey. Apart from the devastating rise of refugees from Syria and EritreaSyria and Eritrea, most people who have crossed the Mediterranean in the past decade have been, for example, graduates from Nigeria, mechanics from Senegal, tailors from Bangladesh, or dropouts from Tunisian universities. Before ‘heading out to sea, they have already crossed the Sahara – a journey that may kill more travellers than the Mediterranean’. People are not only fleeing conflict and poverty, ‘they are in revolt: against injustice, indignity, impunity and institutionalised corruption.

Akpan Udo Afia, a Nigerian migrant, wrote his local colonial officer in 1934 requesting a permit needed to move in and out of the colonially divided borders established within West Africa: ‘At the beams of your light we are protected to travel into any part of the Globe for purpose of livelyhood […] oblige our unlimited desire.’ Afia’s request for a travel permit was denied, but as the self-evident tone of his demand suggests, he took off anyway, on a small stretch that was ‘part of the Globe’. He paid his way through customs offices and hired the services of canoe smugglers in Eastern Nigeria. Afia’s ‘unlimited desire’ was a spiraling quest to make ends meet, to survive and to try to thrive by bypassing colonial border regimes. Colonial bureaucrats, like those in the EU, responded principally by installing a monstrous transnational chain of jails or ‘detention centers’. Expectations and itineraries, like Afia’s, were made possible by imperial history, and are now a reality arranged by a whole spectrum of unofficial travel agents who will keep the ‘world inexorably on the move.

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