“If you are hungry you eat, if you are tired you sleep, if you want land you take it”.
Masello Motana, founder and leader of Matlama Anaha which means soldiers of the land, began her journey to reconcile with land some few years ago.
She founded the task team Matlama Anaha to address issues of housing through art and occupation of abandoned buildings. Her first attempt was unfortunately met with an arrest of the dubbed, “Noorwood trio” made up of Masello, Gugulethu Bodibe and Ntsikelelo Lokwe after being criminalised for occupying an abandoned house in the Southern suburb of Johannesburg in 2016. Motana at the time had declared the arrest only heightened her quest to reunite herself and others with land.
Two years after the arrest, Azibuye was staged at what Motana calls “prime land” in Observatory, Johannesburg. The project is regarded as an experiment in emancipatory use of expression through occupation.
The artistic performance of occupying spaces seeks to address the spatial injustices that Africans still face 163 years since the first legalized act that dispossessed Africans of land. These numerous “legal” instruments through staunch legislation played a pertinent role in legitimizing systematic land dispossession.
Azibuye is meant to address concerns of the artists’ livelihood, who do not make monthly incomes but survive on hand to mouth. This industry does not enable them to pay rent on a monthly basis, nor qualify for financing or be eligible for public housing since they do work.
“The homeless artist will through occupation of land, attempt to take art practise out of standardised commodified cycle of the gallery system. It intends to bring forth a challenge to private ownership patterns in the most unequal society in the world through a class based African analyses” emphasizes Motana on the collective’s mission.
The collective of artists aims to speak to the continuation of spatial injustices not only through occupation but also through dialogues, readings, historical re-enactments and other forms; by interrogating significant historical characters and events, and their consequence in the current narrative of land reform.
The occupation of suburban private property per the collective’s reputation is to address the issues of many South Africans who work in the cities like Johannesburg, and yet are veered into the edges of the city into townships like Alexandra and Soweto. The few who live the city and pay rent Motana concludes that they participate in their own oppression.
Motana’s choice of the “prime land” is to dismiss the continuous occupation of inferior land by skwatta camp dwellers which is in areas that always underdeveloped and overcrowded. To understand such peculiarities that the indigenous people of South Africa find themselves in one must go back into the past, into the history of land dispossession and how Settlers accumulated the land and the wealth. However, one will also have to go into the current condition of the law and leadership to have a clearer understanding.
The 14 different land control system constructed by the Apartheid regime as noted on the walls of the occupied property by the collective, have not been countered by new laws to ensure a proper land reform that close the spatial inequalities long assembled by the apartheid regime.
While the occupation in Observatory by Motana maybe be considered a small act, it is essential in challenging racial land ownership patterns which continue to favour whites a quarter century after the end of apartheid.
Azibuye is a necessary and pertinent movement which not only serves to speak truth to white power, by addressing issues of dispossession within the city but also a force that edges the ruling party to address and heal the spatial wounds inflicted by the apartheid regime.
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.
THE air filled with the smell of dank blunt, omnipresent quarts of Black Label and Boom bap sounds racing out the speakers, a graffiti portrait of Ben Sharpa was the backdrop of the stage, and the DJ scratched on classic Hip Hop joints, when each speaker came forward-could’ve sworn it was one of those old school Hip Hop sessions at Ben Sharpa’s memorial service last night in Newtown, Johannesburg.
Hosted at the Stop Sign Art gallery, the service served its purpose in how it captured and celebrated who the man was. Whilst also reuniting old friends. Kgotso ‘Ben Sharpa’ Semela passed away last week due to complications from diabetes.
“The funny thing is, I knew him as Cilo, his baby nickname. Then he was Kaptin, I wasn’t there. The only thing I knew about Ben Sharpa was in the media. I knew him as Cilo when we were like 18, 19 year olds,” says comedian and foodie Tshepo Mogale. Mogale was Sharpa’s roommate at the University of Cape Town where they met around 1996.
Mogale was fortunate enough to see Sharpa just a day before his passing. “I hadn’t seen him in over 15 years. Then I got a call that he’s in hospital…I was so apprehensive to go see him- if last time I saw you was good times, then I hear you’re in a fucked up situation, it could be kinda awkward. But one of my boys said I should go and I went and the look in the guy’s face man, it’s one of those priceless moments ever.”
They spent at least two hours together reminiscing about old times. Mogale was one of the speakers at the service, whose speech was quite emotional. “I learnt so much from him. I just couldn’t say it in front of his mother up there, but he taught me how to untie a bra with one hand. He was like an encyclopaedia who knew everything and had rhymes for days.”
Osmic was still in Grade 7 when he first saw Sharpa performing at Le Club. “I looked up to him as a kid and I was like ‘oh shit, so this is how it’s done.’ I think we all saw Ben Sharpa the same way I probably saw him. We had nothing but respect for him and I think that’s what this is, people coming to say ‘big up’. Any parent would be super happy that their son is celebrated in this manner,” the Back To the City founder says.
After the formal ceremony had wrapped up, Breeze Yoko who was the night’s master of ceremonies went outside with a cordless mic asking fellas to jump on the beat and drop some bars. The cypher went on for hours. Speaking after the formal ceremony, Sharpa’s mother got on the mic while kats were free styling to say that she’s grateful to those who came and to see who his son was and how he lived, despite the fact that Hip Hop doesn’t sufficiently reward rappers- he loved what he did.
Those in attendance included Hymphatic Thabs, former Hype magazine editor Mizi Mtshali, skater Wandile Msomi, actress Renate Stuurman with her partner Krook’d tha Warmonga and a number of other Hip Hop heads.
Co-founder of BTC Dominique Soma, was also present but rushed out to a gig soon as the formal service was done. “Ben Sharpa deserved to get this reception. I haven’t seen these people in years, I feel like it’s a bit of a time warp…kinda taking me back to another time of my life. Very nostalgic.”
Comedian, writer and film director Kagiso Lediga says he was touched and moved by the whole service. Like Mogale, he too met Sharpa in Cape Town during their varsity days. With Hegemony playing in the background, Lediga says “I wanted to come and pay my respects. He was a very wise guy, who always spoke in concepts like his sister was saying. If he spoke about his passing, would he imagine we’d be all here like this…for me this is quite special, seeing all these faces, people I haven’t seen in a long time.”
As the country’s youth month comes to a close, Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg, will host young people as they celebrate their freedom of expression at three day festival, Basha Uhuru.
In its fifth year running, the festival is guided by the theme, Join the Movement. This is symbolic of what the youth, not only in Soweto but different parts of the country, did in June 1976 through protests against the enforcement of Afrikaans, alongside English, as a compulsory medium of instruction for key subjects in all black schools through the Bantu Education Act of 1953.
Last year’s theme was We the People. These themes, says Exhibition and Events coordinator Gaisang Sathekge, are decided on by a committee that shares ideas on these. “As a constitutional precinct, we have to ensure that these brainstorming sessions are inspired by the objectives that we stand for which are constitutionalism, human rights and democracy.”
The word ‘Basha’ means youth and ‘Uhuru’ translates to freedom. “So the festival is about providing young people with the freedom of artistic expression,” says Sathekge.
Basha Uhuru kicks off on Thursday and runs until Saturday, but Sathekge tells me planning takes place a year in advance. “…to engage stakeholders, forming partnerships and fundraising. The content curation of the festival is the most important element – ensuring that each year we offer an exciting and unique line-up of activities.”
For a second year running, DJ Kenhero will be the Artistic Director of the festival.
True to their style, this year’s line-up is made up of both established and emerging eccentric artists blazing trails in their respective art forms-from poetry, visual art and music. “South Africa has immense artistic talent; most of it is yet to be explored. We believe in developing local talent and contributing the creative economy of South Africa,” Sathekge says. The festival also celebrates food, film as well as design and fashion.
Music generally has the biggest pull at the festival with its two stages. The main one located on Constitutional Square with the nation’s highest court as the backdrop, with the second at the historical Old Fort Parade Ground. Sounds of Freedom, which has in the past drawn over 8 000 youth, will sure do the same this year with a line-up that includes PRO (Kid), Samthing Soweto, spiritual ensemble Sun Xa Experience, Empangeni singer and producer Muzi as well as Skwatta Kamp just to mention a few.
But Sathekge says their team stays informed about what’s happening in the creative scene, so as to provide the best experience of the festival in its entirety through all represented art forms. “Remaining relevant in our programming ensures that we provide meaningful content and that is what draws young people – topical issues and relevance,” she says.