It all starts with an inquisitive child, eyes wide open, head tilted forward, right on the edge of the frame. The problem with children – or at least mine own biggest problem with them – is that they always ask the difficult questions. It is no surprise that in some of our cultures children are usually discouraged, sometimes violently, from asking too many questions. It is even worse, I found out on Wednesday evening at Blend Restaurant & Bar, when the question is a silent one. A stare.
That is, when one is tasked with interpreting a child’s silent stare. Which is exactly what Mo Matli’s lens burdened us with at her maiden exhibition “Intrinsic Melanin” for Bloem First Fridays. The photograph of the boy is one of many adorning the Blend’s meshed wall. The boy with the menacing poser is staring down at us as we ask Rashid Vries, the main model of this exhibition, if as a person living with albinism he feels black, or black “enough”.
What is blackness vele? And what are the degrees to blackness – how much of it is enough? Is it the melanin perhaps? I choose to go with the photographer on this last one; ‘Intrinsic Melanin’. Blackness is not just – to correct Biko’s formulation – a question of pigmentation. It is intrinsic in the centuries of dispossession (of land, labour and sense of being) that mark us all. No amount of pigmentation variations – be it natural as in the case of albinism or cosmetic as in bleaching – can alleviate blackness. Try as you might! (And I secretly root for those who try; who wouldn’t wanna escape?). I hear the boy whisper Fanon’s sagacious words to my ears; “I am over-determined from without. I am a slave not of the ‘idea’ that others have of me but of my own appearance.” Kids and their bloody questions!
I panic; can we move past the albinism of Rashid? Is he not a beautiful man – of course he is! That is the reason Mo shot him. Did he not just say he’s an engineering student? How did he manage to make the transition to being a model? And would he be doing more of this modelling thing? Can. We. Just. Not. Make. Him. A. Slave. Of. His. Appearance? We all know what that is like – it is our collective pain. We enter and nervousness engulfs the room. We attract security escorts in shops. We don’t get served in restaurants. Then why do we do it to him! But alas, we were enslaved by his appearance – do albinos make albino babies? The boy in the top right corner of the wire mesh quizzically, even whimsically, asks a question that would’ve saved us four centuries of msunery had we knew the power to pose the question when the three ships docked at the cape; ‘aninyi perhaps?’
A question Ayanda Mabulu asks of white patrons of the #Amandla![Re]form,Debate,[Re]dress? exhibition catalogue book launch at the Oliewenhuis Art Museum the very next evening. The exhibition has been running from December last year, and it is one of the few that is decidedly black – in both the artists and the subject matter. Also curated by a black woman – another “milestone” in the museum’s history. Laughable really, the whole thing, were it not so painful. And indeed the artwork was painful. On opening night in December I thanked my imposed masculinity for not breaking down in tears when I confronted Reatile Moalusi’s photograph – titled #FMF III – of protesting students holding a placard with the words “police we are your children”. I was, in the words of Ayanda, paining. And this pain permeated through most of the artwork on display. This was, after all, ‘resistance art’. On the Thursday however, as I walked up to the Museum, I was joyously singing Makeba’s version of ‘Bahlelibonke etironkweni’. I was dancing even. Not one iota of my being told me there was something intrinsically wrong about finding joy in a song – a lamentation really – about black people (someone’s parent, child, lover) languishing in jail for daring to be. Enter Ayanda! I got to the museum and like a dog wishing to mark territory headed straight to the loo. The song still ringing in my head. I went straight for Moalusi’s photograph afterwards – it elicited fokol in me. I moved right along. All the artworks were quite. Boring even. So I gave them all a cursory look just to maintain my lie as a cultured person (we are responsible for the upkeep of our lies). One oil painting did manage to insult me though; Martin Steyn’s ‘Die land is ons land.’ A white man laying languorously on a large expanse of land. But only enough for a ‘Nxa!’ I went and took a seat and waited for the show – for that’s what it was, pre-Ayanda, a show – to get started. Sooner it ends, sooner I can check-in and say something banal like “what a lit time we had at Oliewenhuis” and live another day known as the patron of the arts. But Ayanda wasn’t about that life. When asked to introduce himself, after the flurry of self-congratulatory speeches from those involved for doing something so “radical” and other artists had literally just stood at the podium and said “Hi my name is….” and left, Ayanda recited ithakazelo zakhe. At their tale end he excused the ‘unsophisticated juvenile tongues’ of our paler counterparts and gave them a pass to just call him Ayanda. It got uncomfortable; but the kind of discomfort that makes things ‘lit’, that will have us tweet ‘bars!’, but threatens very little. He too must have noticed he was playing into the masochism (we seem to enjoy performing our pain) of the zeitgeist; a candidate for a meme. He went further. “We are not entertainers…we are not going to dance for you.” Some uncomfortable laughter could be discerned. Loso logolo ditshego akere? But how long will we hide behind laughter? He goes deeper. “You are worthy to be protested.” He tells the 1652s. We are now lodged in Fanon’s black abyss. There is no way we could laugh our way out of this one. Someone attempts to clap him off the podium. “Wait I am not done!” He must have heard IceBound on how applause kills. “This is not art…this is our pain!” He stands in front of Asanda Kupa’s “Situation right now.” A painting that painfully reminds one of the haunting line “the children are flying, bullets are dying” in Makeba’s ‘Soweto Blues’.
Indeed this is our pain, it is not something to pretty up some dining room in Woodlands. “Fuck that! And fuck you.” He leaves the mic and walks away. “Thank you,” the curator, Tshegofatso Seoka, walks calmly to the stage, smiling away all that just happened. Time for the formalities is over, we hear, now let’s go mingle. But clearly her smile and infectious charm are not enough, she comes back after leaving the podium to disclaim that “Ayanda’s views” (not our collective pain, our immutable truth; just one man’s views in the melee of our wonderful freedom of competing ‘views’) do not represent the museum nor anyone who cares to distance themselves from such ‘anti-nation building’ sentiments. So much for encouraging debate!
On Friday though at Pacofs “Lipstick” was looking to entertain and dance for us. But the perennial party-pooper I am (what with my constant search for meaning), what was meant to excite my baser instincts, led me to some very uncomfortable questions regarding black sensuality and femininity – the later a topic any black man must avoid like a plague in these perilous times. (Hotep policing alert!). It would seem to me, from the show and elsewhere, that black South African sensuality and femininity (I point out femininity specifically as it has been assigned by patriarchal determinism as the bastion of sensuality) is couched in white femininity on one extreme and black American sensuality at the other. It was quite telling that the women on stage all wore blond silky weaves, and displayed the Monroesque damsel in distress and non-patriarchy threatening feme fatale type of femininity. One that is very white in character. In this instance they looked to the music that’d be churned at a Mystic Boer karaoke night. All not local – important point this. When they got sensual, seductive, they looked to the Trace playlist; of course your girl B! led the pack. Again – all American. Femininity – white . Black – hypersexuality. This dichotomy is worth annals of literature. But let us not digress, the question here is where is our organic femininity and sensuality – one rooted in the soil of you will. The music says it all as to how the writer and director imagine femininity and sensuality. It is here that we need the wisdom of king Hlaudi’s 90%. Music (and culture in general) influences how people imagine themselves. Music in particular speaks specifically to how we imagine ourselves in the libidinal economy. It is worth noting that when Hlaudi took the logical decision to play 90% local music on public radio, the loudest critics where Metro FM’s Sunday’s ‘love movement’ listeners. They begged profusely that 90% not apply here; as there simply weren’t enough romantic songs locally. Dare not ask what is more romantic than Masekela’s ‘Marketplace’ or Mahlasela’s ‘Kuyobanjani’. It became apparent then that South Africans don’t deem ourselves capable loving – being romantic – on our own terms (not that we do much on our own terms, the colony we are). This is especially surprising from a people that (admittedly mostly when selling ourselves to tourists) describe ourselves as ‘musical’. We can compose a struggle song one time! – as Tatz Nkonzo ably demonstrated – but to express the love in our heart, we need to cross the sea and search for our dictionaries and twangs (the current Lesedi FM TV advert is a welcomed deviation from this abnormality). This is highly disturbing. It also explains why Babes Wodumo blew up so big; despite a largely mediocre album. She represented something that has been absent from South Africa’s popular imagination for a long time; authentic township black female sensuality. Lipstick though stuck to the colonial script; no “I love Hansa and fucking” Brendaesque ‘bad girl’ sensuality, or cheesegirl fragile femininity was invoked. Never mind a new kind of black femininity or sensuality outside the confines (be it submission or rejection) of patriarchy being imagined anew.
But because God is a lesbian and o hana ka seatla, there was another happening not too far (listen to me lie!) from Pacofs where we could surely not suffer the dearth of local music. Protential Inc. was hosting ‘Love & Hip Hop’ at Club Zanadu. The people were beautiful; all seemed to be genuinely happy to see us. We were home. We were happy. The line-up was packed, the stage was never lonely – Mafia Code especially owned that space, their energy and fresh sound (christened Koriana-Trap) puts them miles apart of most upcoming and established artists. The bar too. Conversation centred around there – a few pleasantries were exchanged, not enough insults, and mild curves all fought for space on that counter. The pool tables too had plenty of company. It was a Dostoyevsky paradise – everyone had somewhere to turn to. Local music too aplenty – but the incorrigible amongst us insisted that the DJ must play local local music, from Bloemfontein, from the Free State. “Don’t all these rappers dotting the place have EPs? Play those!” But they were sad to learn that rappers were begged to submit music for the playlist but dololo. ‘So what to can must happen?’ the organisers asked. These people and their bloody questions! We thus failed dismally to Hlaudirise that set.
CJ though – still very much part of Simple Stories! – heeded Hlaudi’s leadership somewhat on Saturday evening at the Blend. His set, an eclectic mix of original compositions and covers, had a healthy dose of South African covers. One novel thing he did was to cover a living and still active South African artist – Zahara. This was refreshing as our local artists, on the rare occasion that they do cover local songs (ironic this), stick with the dead – the “legends” (another word Rampolokeng warns us about). I guess this gives credence somewhat to Mosoeu’s gripe that all black people are good for is dying. CJ and his girlfriend also set the bar high, and simultaneously cut wings of unsupportive lovers, by Skyping throughout his performance – twas the romantic thing ever! So long as there is an IP address no lovers should be apart on such occasions. He dedicated a song to the three of us sitting in the front row, about women who bluetick us kanti they’re curving the greatest experience they could ever have. He was right, as least in my case (coz vele mna yhu ndiGreat, ndiWow, in this thing of loving), and for that I will give him a pass for (correctly, we must concede) assuming our sexuality and relationship status. We were all shocked when he confessed, on a Beyoncé classic, to having a big dick – aaram skepsel. But artist are known for revealing a bit too much of themselves. We just sang along; sans the confession. He led us through a medley of emotions and genres. We travelled from RSA to UK to USA and back home. All the time, like a good captain, he kept us in the loop. And landed us safely into the comfortable bosom of the night. A lovely cloudy cool night. We were free to do the things that made the pots disappear.
When all was said and done, all that could be done the Sunday after the Saturday was braai meat, recount our failures and plan for more so that we can fail better next time, all because #ArtLivesHere.