EVER found yourself genuinely delighted that someone is happy, despite your opinion of the reason for their happiness?
Like how an attractive damsel would be overjoyed by shedding some kilos, you’d obviously acknowledge her achievement of reaching a personal goal, but in the back of your head know that she doesn’t need the number on a scale to validate her beauty.
That’s how I felt Monday morning, watching highlights from the 91st Academy Awards. It was when legendary film director, producer and writer Spike Lee went to accept his first ever Oscar award for his recent film, BlacKkKlansman.
One of the best films ever to be made, Do The Right Thing, which Spike wrote, directed and produced in 1989 was snubbed by the Academy awards. Earlier this month, speaking to The Washington Post Spike was quoted saying “This is not in any way disrespectful to the Academy, but after Do The Right Thing, I just said ‘you know, whatever award it is, I’m not going to let myself be in a position where I feel I have to have my work validated.”
That quote alone lets us into the pain Spike felt from the 1990 Oscar Awards. On the other side of coin, his elation on Sunday night’s ceremony demonstrates how much the award means to him. And accepted the award with a moving speech.
I have not watched BlacKkKlansman, so I can’t say if Spike deserved the award for that particular movie. But on Tuesday morning I posted on Facebook that Spike is too great to be excited by an Oscar. Without trying to throw shade at the irrepressible director, the point I was merely trying to convey was that great artists don’t need to be certified by the academy institution to sanction their prominence. Especially black artists.
But what stood out for me, was how most of the young creatives on the social site, liked, agreed, loved and even shared the post.
I get why Spike was hurt by Do The Right Thing‘s loss, and why 30 years later, he jumped on Samuel Jackson’s arms like a lil kid, in accepting his award. Think about it, Spike was 32 years-old when the awards that celebrate cinematic excellence took place in 1990, and they had been taking place for more than 60 years. So you can imagine the clout, prestige and significance of a recognition from the Academy to a filmmaker born in the 1950s.
Not to suggest today’s young creatives don’t appreciate or yearn even, for industry recognition. There’s disinterest and distrust towards “honours” from industry gatekeepers. In music and film.
I was my mother’s one year-old sweetheart when Malcom X (also directed by Spike) was in cinemas. I watched the film years later and was astonished to find out that Denzel Washington, who played the US political activist, didn’t take the Best actor award in the 1993 Oscars. Why would I trust them, if they dismally failed to celebrate Denzel’s finest piece of acting?
Young artists don’t trust these institutions. After winning his Grammy last month, Drake gave an acceptance speech that displayed the power that today’s artists have taken from these ceremonies. “We play in an opinion-based sport, not a factual based sport. It’s not the NBA where at the end of the year you’re holding the trophy, because you made the right decision or won the games. Look, if there’s people who have regular jobs coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows. You don’t need this right here. I promise you, you already won.”
Poignant words from the Canadian rapper on the Grammy stage, basically giving the prestigious music awards a polite middle-finger. And this by the way, is from an artist who a few years ago gave away his own Grammy awards on Instagram to artists who he thought were snubbed.
Social media has allowed artists direct access to their fans. Artists are continuously on the receiving end of affirmation from their followers, reminding them of the real impact their art has. Do The Right Thing grossed over $30 million in cinemas, with a budget of less than $10 million. I wonder how Spike would look at that snub, had the movie came out during the prevalence of social media. The validation that comes with seeing people from around the world, celebrating your work would have some effect on your view on awards. Black Panther director Ryan Coogler, said he appreciated how 2018’s big movie was appreciated by the audience.
While celebrating the Grammy wins of Cardi B, Jay Rock and Anderson.Paak on Twitter, J.Cole mentioned how this moment for them, is bigger than the awards could say.
Of course there are senior citizens in Hollywood who’ve had this thinking long before, like Woody Allen who has never accepted awards from the Academy. “The whole concept of awards is silly. I cannot abide by the judgement of other people, because if you accept it when they say you deserve an award, then you have to accept it when they say you don’t,” said the dodge old man.
I personally don’t have an issue with awards per se, it’s people running these bodies that I have gripe with. Black creatives are always chasing to be recognised by Caucasian-led institutions.
Someone made a point on my post on Facebook that Spike was also celebrating the milestone because of the tireless work he’s done as an activist for the inclusion of black people in Hollywood. I honestly believe it’s through the work done by people such Spike, that Black Panther and even Jordan Peele’s Get Out won Oscars. It’s through the noise he’s been making.
That’s good and all, but do we still need to be making noise about not being appreciated by white people? why should we fight for inclusion into institutions created by Caucasians ? Our generation doesn’t want to live out its blackness through white norms.
IT was Kenyan author and philosopher John Mbiti who said “I am because we are and since we are, therefore I am.” It’s Ubuntu. I couldn’t think of anything else, as I heard the story behind the making of Cameroonian artist Blick Bassy’s music video, Ngwa.
“…it’s inspired by a Kenyan story and a South African freedom fighter, the whole album is about a Cameroonian guy…and somehow put all that in a pot and cook it and see what comes out. I think if there’s a future for African art that’s it,” said director Tebog ‘Tebza’ Malope speaking at Blik’s screening in Joburg. Hosted in a chic lower ground floor in Braamfontein, where African jazz oozes from speakers above us, under warm burgundy lights at the Untitled Basement, off kilter attendees converse in their huddles as they eagerly wait to see the video on a Thursday night.
The song Ngwa is from Blick’s upcoming album, 1958 which comes out in March. 1958 is an ode to Cameroonian trade unionist and France adversary, Ruben Um Nyobè and the heroes of the Cameroonian Independence-all in the hope of reconnecting Cameroonians with their true history. Um Nyobè was butchered in 1958 by the French government and buried in concrete to remove any remnant of his legacy in the memory of Cameroonians.
“…making this project and telling Um Nyobè’s story, it was really important for me to come to Africa, to make it here and with people from here. People don’t know my country, they just know this one view coming from one storyteller, coming from a Western country. But here you have a beautiful storyteller, this is storytelling through this video. We have to show things by ourselves,” Blick shares his thought on the Ngwa video.
“He was a fighter, a visionary…he was someone who wanted to build people, not just for freedom but he wanted everyone to be equal. Um Nyobè was fighting for this. If you look at Cameroon today, we’re just living everything he was talking about-we have a lot of tribalism in Cameroon today, he spoke about this. So if we really wana go forward, we have to be connected to the roots-that’s why trees are beautiful, because with no roots there’s no tree.”
To visually tell this story, Blick roped in South African director Tebza, who borrowed from African narratives, to tell the story of these uncelebrated heroes. “I was reading Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o’s book called Matigari and the first chapter is about a Mau Mau soldier, in East Africa in Kenya who, in the first chapter has his AK47…somebody runs up the mountain to tell him ‘yo, we don’t have to train anymore, we’re free now. So come down’…” said Tebza explaining the inspiration.
After burying his rifle and descending from the mountain, the soldier grows a sense of disenchantment with this new world, as it seems he was sold a dream only for him to lay down his arms. “Same narrative with South Africa, same narrative with Cameroon. So when I started chatting with Blick about Um Nyobè, I realised there’s some sorta intersection between East, West and Southern Africa…”
The video was shot on the mountains of Lesotho, in wet and icy temperatures. “This was probably my hardest shoot ever. The horror stories behind this; we lost a day because of someone who was stuck at the boarder gate, we lost half a day because of the rain, had some trouble finding the horses because they ran often and just one thing after another,” says Tebza, who last year won the Best Music Video for Kwesta’s Spirit.
Renowned television and movie director Roli Nikiwe, who was present on the night, drove the crew to Lesotho and upon getting there, he offered to help by being the first AD, looking for locations and even assisting with the catering. “Africans always come together to complain about the enemy, the coloniser, but put two Africans together and there’s beauty. To watch the two of you guys, get together and put your heads together, make something work, for me was a beautiful example of what we could do as a continent,” said Nikiwe.
The video has beautiful wide shots that display the beauty of the African landscape. “…There’s rarely a close-up, because I just want you to see it. We’re talking about Africa that was taken from us, so let’s show it and see what was taken,” said the director.
The video ends off with Blick being stabbed with a spear by pursuing imperialists on open land “…The last bit is actually taken from Solomon Mahlangu’s statement before they hung him, ‘my blood will nourish the tree of freedom’…so in death, in Ruben Um Nyobè’s death, Solomon Mahlangu’s death, in the death of so many of our struggle heroes, they didn’t really die, they multiply, they became trees and they live on forever,” shared Tebza.
THE beauty about inspiration is that it feeds off who we are. Artists aren’t inspired by the same thing the same way; it’s personal experiences that they’ve gone through which trigger the inspiration into action.
For fine artist Patrick Seruwu, it’s his experiences of growing up surrounded by strong but hurt black women in Masuliita in Wakiso-a small village outside Kampala in Uganda. “There is this connection I have with women. I grew up with a single Mom and three sisters, it wasn’t easy growing up without a father. So I use to hustle with my Mom and sisters, moving up and down selling in the streets,” Seruwu tells me.
It’s a blistering hot summer’s day in Johannesburg, I’m sitting with the man in his work space at August House, room 102. I got to the studio with a tad bit of sweat, but had cooled down in Seruwu’s spacious working space, on the brown leather couch where we have the interview.
His work is appealingly dark and moves you to engage with the stories that Seruwu draws inspiration from. “My mother taught me how to plat women’s hair. Most of the customers were women and most of the people I worked with were women, so they use to talk a lot about their issues of abuse, so I could relate to that because of how I grew up.”
He witnessed the abuse of his mother, sisters and even neighbours back home in Uganda, so much so he couldn’t talk about it on record and the fear of bursting into tears. His current work is focused on women who were in toxic and abusive relationships, but are trying to move on from their past. He first sketches on the canvass and then uses acrylic paints, but he then washes the work with a brush damp from H2O, which he says represents tears of the victims of abuse.
“While doing my art, I try and recall my upbringing, the violence and what women go through. So right now, I relate to what women go through because there are thousands of women who’ve gone through all sorts of abuse, but people don’t know about it because most women keep quiet. I’m trying to bring out the images of women who are trying to recover from all sorts of violence, who wish everything could be washed away or who wish they never existed.”
Seruwu has been living in Joburg for about seven years now, after leaving Uganda to visit a friend here in South Africa for a few months. “When I came here, I saw people on the streets selling and I just told myself that I can also survive here, whatever the condition. I started twisting women’s hair on the street, because I learnt that from back home,” he tells me.
From doing people’s hair on a chair on the side of the road, Seruwu grew his business into a salon in the city. His small business was successful enough for the 32 year-old to buy himself a jalopy. It was through that car that Seruwu got closer to renowned artist and fellow Ugandan, Benon Lutaaya. “Whenever Benon needed to go somewhere, he would call me and I’d drop him off at an art gallery. I started attending exhibitions with him and after the shows, we’d come back here to the studio. I started to love art because I started to associate with artists, visiting their studios and galleries.”
In 2017, while unwinding with his girlfriend he decided to draw his partner on paper. “I started sketching her. It wasn’t a good sketch, but I tried. She appreciated it. I then went and showed it to Benon and he said ‘I see something in you, continue doing it'”. It is telling that his first ever attempt at art, was a drawing of a female.
He continued drawing on paper throughout the year of 2017, during his spare time away from the salon. After months of working on paper and encouragement from Benon, he then started working on canvass later that year.
He created a page on Facebook, of his work around the same time and immediately received positive responses from people. “I got a couple of invites to show my work at galleries, while someone on Facebook from Nigeria also wanted to buy my work. I got addicted to art, whenever I got time I would sketch or paint.”
His work has been part of a number of group exhibitions including the August House exhibition at Absa Art Gallery, Studio Space group show, Rosebank’s Lizamore & Associates and last year he got an invite from the Cape Town Art Fair.
He’s literally been practicing art for three years and his work has been among some of the country’s best works in the most prestigious art spaces. It’s not often that you meet an artist with such overnight success as Seruwu’s. The average artists will struggle for a couple of years to find their own signature and identity in their work and a few more years to get industry recognition. Seruwu understands that his friendship with Benon has richly helped him acquaint himself with influential people in the industry.
“It means a lot to me, it’s an honour to me. It is determination and working hard, focus and knowing where you want to be and what you want. First of all I never thought I’d be an artist, not even think that I could exhibit in a gallery, but I was determined to improve my technical skills,” Seruwu says.
He’s on the verge of joining a local art gallery as their resident artist, which he says will assist his development as an artist. Women are a mainstay in his work and says in future, he’d like to incorporate his connection to females’ hair to his work, similar to friend and fellow artist Lebohang Motaung.
ECONOMIC and emotional instability, the disunity among Africans and the loss of sense of self are some of the symptoms of a colonial babalaas that most black people suffer from today in Africa.
Artists Ronald Muchatuta and Patrick Bongoy are addressing this monkey on the back of Africans in their exhibition, Feso A Thorn In The Flesh. Translated from Shona, Feso is a clandestine African plant which reveals itself through unexpected pain when stepping on it.
It’s known as the Devil’s Thorn because of its two distinct horn-like protrusions. Muchatuta and Congolese artist Bongoy see colonialism as an emotional feso etched in the lives of African people across the continent.
“The exhibition interrogates partly ‘Post-Colonial Theory’ using our places of origin including those of other African states , engaging with the effects of colonialism and current realities that post-colonialism has driven us to,” Zimbabwean born artist Muchatuta tells me.
“My work speaks in response to the global reality of literal and figurative environmental pollution. This encompasses the entire spectrum from the erosion of economic viability, the impact on community and individual behaviour and socio cultural decay of the rural and urban landscape,” said Bongoy of the exhibition. Feso A Thorn In The Flesh opens this Thursday at the Ebony Gallery in Cape Town.
A multi-disciplined artist, Muchatuta has been in South Africa for more than a decade now, based in Cape Town and hasn’t been to Zim in a number of years. “The political discourse in Zimbabwe is also an African discourse. The desire for the so called ‘sweet democracy’ that we wish as Africans affects us in many ways. The militant ways in Zimbabwe are a reflection of the oppressive apartheid era only difference is that it’s the legacy of the liberation leaders that’s devouring its citizens. That militancy inspires the proactive nature of my artworks,” he tells me.
Muchatuta is a qualified Master Mosaic Artist from Spier Arts Academy in Cape Town, where he completed his studies in 2012 and primarily works through the mediums of drawing, painting and creating mosaics. Currently, three of his artwork are up in the Melrose Gallery as part of a group exhibition Reinventing Materiality.
It is at that exhibition that renowned playwright, Mbongeni Ngema saw his work and asked to use Muchatuta’s work as his album art for his upcoming album. “I respect Mbongeni for his lifelong contribution to the South African theatre and music sectors and for the valuable contribution that his productions like Sarafina! Woza Albert and Asinamali made to promote the evils of Apartheid and the struggle for freedom to massive global audiences. It means In addition that there is a creative understanding and appreciation that my work has. The narrative of the work resonates with his music and one can only understand in that context,” Muchatuta.
Works such as this are the antidote to the hangover that a number of people suffer from because not only do the artworks aesthetically turn one one, but they spur conversations which give people the opportunity to engage with who they really truly are.
TIME and time again we hear the story of the struggling artist, but what’s never talked about is their purpose of going through that struggle.
What’s this dream which makes one put on blinkers and focus on this lifelong mission? For playwright Menzi Mkhwane, the answer is building a sustainable theatre company.
“No one has built a black audience for theatre. I mean a black paying audience. I could list so many external problems such as, comedy for instance gets more support more so than theatre and so does poetry. But internally. I will say I have only began concentrating my efforts into offering consistent entertainment which is plotted on a calendar stretching all the way to November next year. I have a five year plan of how we plan to take over Durban with theatre so in a nut shell people will warm up to me,” Mkhwane confidently tells me.
An actor of eight years now, Mkhwane has seen enough in the industry to stir up his passion and desire to create something bigger than himself, from the bottom up. He was part of musical theatre Twist which travelled to Holland and Belgium late 2010 and early 2011. He made his debut with his poppa, celebrated actor Bheki Mkhwane in the production Belly of The Beast.
While in 2016 he won the Best Newcomer award at the Naledi Awards– this was for his portrayal of Sponono in the play A Voice I. Currently, he’s working with young artists who have great potential simultaneously sharpening his skill as a director and an all round playwright.
“People know more about Tira than they do about Menzi Mkhawane’s Master Classes. And I get it. This is why I am closing that gap,” Menzi Mkhwane
Last month he was overseeing a one woman comedy play Babazile, written by Aphiwe Namba starring Penny Ngayo, at the Bat Centre. Babazile tells the story of a lady who sits behind her stall in the market talking to customers about a number of things from Ben 10s and takes you right up to the pulpit of corrupt pastors. Namba asked for Mkhwane to direct the play, to which he jumped at the opportunity of directing his fourth project. “Aphiwe has something that everyone who thinks and desires to be writers has – the natural and tremendous natural flair of writing. Aphiwe can go away for a week and come back with a solid script.”
The play struggled to put bums on seats, as a measly five people attended on opening night. “These are friends including one of my friends Jayshree who is one of the main presenters at East Coast Radio. People received the show pretty well considering that this is my first comedy ever. It was hilarious and doing it with an actress who is only 22 years old and still in training stretched it even further,” Mkhwane says.
“I understand that what I am building which is a life time sustainable theatre company from the ground up is not a short term goal. So in essence it will take a long time, a couple of more shows down the line before I build a solid audience. I’ve been in the industry of theatre and performing for almost ten years now. Not a long time but not short either. In that time I have ‘studied the game’. And from what I have gathered there is no one building an audience of young black people under concentrated efforts in a company setting. I might be the first to do it in this way in the whole country.”
His foresight and ultimate vision allow for the artist’s optimism to freely roam his psyche, despite encounters on his journey. “Do I want to quit when struggles hit me? Without a doubt. But my reaction to those adversities has matured. I’m building a company…building a house that will revive theatre in Durban which is dying a slow death. No one else is a role model. I’m modelling the role for myself. So I never get surprised when extreme challenges new to other people hit me hard.”
Working with young people who don’t have a strong pull to get enough audiences could also contribute to the reason for the paucity of theatre goers in Durban. But Mkhawane believes in the young talent so much, he doesn’t want to use that as an excuse. He believes casinos are the perfect place for Babazile, he’s earmarked Izulu Theatre inside the Isibaya Casino as a platform to try.
“It’s hard to weigh the reaction of a city that hasn’t been offered consistent black theatre around the clock from all types of genres in theatre. The fact is no one is doing that. People know more about Tira than they do about Menzi Mkhawane’s Master Classes. And I get it. This is why I am closing that gap. I’m smart enough. Infact intelligent enough. Experienced enough. Influential enough. Young enough in terms of energy to drive. And just in the right head space to offer Durban audiences better theatre from black producers. So the answer is broad. They haven’t been given great quality and nothing has been communicated to them enticingly enough for them. I’ve rolled up my sleeves and through my growing influence on social media I’m offering all of that in growing degrees of perfected execution. We still make mistakes and learn.”
Currently Mkhwane is co-director together with award winning director and writer, Samson Mlambo on a play Shoe Man that opens in two weeks at Bat Centre. It stars Anele Nene, who depicts all the characters in the story.