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How South Africa became an artistic powerhouse

A vanguard of Black creatives in South Africa are refocusing cultural sightlines on the continent. Joburg-based Zanele Kumalo meets them…




It was the night of Siyabangena – Cape Town Art Fair’s unofficial after party – and a radical, electric, joyous mix of around 900 activists, artists, dancers, designers, DJs, gallerists, image makers, stylists, vogue ballers, writers and everyone in-between and beyond had gathered at The Ramp, a centre for creative and cultural exchange on the industrial fringe of the city bowl.

As an artist-for-artist-led initiative, Siyabangena encapsulates the way South Africans are making waves on the global scene. Young Black creatives who are often pushed to the limits of what is legitimate or supported economically, continue to use art, fashion and music as forms of self-expression in the most compelling ways: unapologetic, communal and unafraid to be hyper-local.

Looking at those creatives, it is clear how their alchemy references the past. In South Africa, there is rarely any storytelling that isn’t informed or impacted by politics in some way. While state capture has left many unemployed, hungry and powerless, dancefloors offer an opportunity to digest and then spit out this lack of freedom. As the album title by Griffit Vigo, one of the headliners at Siyabengena, tells it: ‘Art is Talking’. And the world is listening.

Fashion

In 2018, Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) created a fashion retrospective called ‘21 Years: Making Histories with South African Fashion Week’. It featured 21 looks from 21 established and emerging designers, two of which were Sindiso Khumalo and Thebe Magugu. Both would go on to be awarded the prestigious LVMH prize – handed out annually by the French fashion house to the most promising young design talent – and last year Lukhanyo Mdingi joined them.

Creatives here have a history of working in isolation, brought about by SA’s geographical distance from most of the power players in their industries, and cultural boycotts during the apartheid era. While social media has narrowed that gap, international collaborations and the support of institutions such as LVMH have too.

Lukhanyo Mdingi

Born in the Eastern Cape, Lukhanyo Mdingi launched his eponymous label in 2015, winning the LVMH Karl Lagerfeld Prize six years later. His designs feature woven textiles and knitwear from crafts communities, marrying artisanal techniques with contemporary fashion.

What have been your key moments?

“Working alongside the Philani communities in Khayelitsha, and also in Burkina Faso. Being in the presence of this extraordinary group of mothers from marginalised groups, and witnessing the finesse of their craft-making – mainly with textiles – has been one of the most revealing experiences of my life.”

What is inherent in SA design?

“Coming from Africa means always moving through purpose. It’s not necessarily the style of clothes, but I think it’s the motivation behind the design that informs us as African creatives. I love seeing how younger designers are not necessarily just focused on florals and the latest cut, but really pay attention to how design can be a tool to inform social change.”

Which up-and-coming designer has your attention?

“Fikile Sokhulu. She’s based in Kwazulu-Natal and I reviewed her portfolio as a judge for the Design Indaba Emerging Creatives of 2022. It was such a delight to witness something so fresh, so beautiful, with so much potential.”

Sindiso Khumalo

The Cape Town-based sustainable textile designer founded her eponymous label in 2014, weaving the values of social equality and female empowerment into her clothes.

What are your influences?

“I’m interested in researching and communicating stories around female ‘sheroes’. It’s more important to me to channel conversations around gender-based violence or female empowerment than where hemlines will sit this season. Our muses have so far included 19th-century West African Egbado princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta, who became Queen Victoria’s godchild, SA political activist Charlotte Maxeke and US abolitionist Harriet Tubman.”

What sets SA design apart?

“The fact that many of us are telling our stories of where we are from, be it in our material usage, our prints, how we create our textiles or even in the language of our clothes. I like to think of my work as a form of social activism, trying to create more opportunities for my communities with the opportunities that are awarded to me. All our dresses and hand-embroidered pieces are made in Cape Town and celebrate artisanship and local manufacturing.”

What’s next?

“We have just completed our AW22 collection which we presented in New York and Milan. And we are part of the Africa Fashion Exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, which will take place in July. Essentially we want to focus on doing the best we can do in our corner. Sometimes it’s easy to get distracted, but the last two years have been about looking in and channelling our own voice, tapping into what inspires us as a brand – which is essentially women, history, storytelling and social empowerment.”

What are you most excited about?

“The new wave towards sustainability in fashion and amazing young female creatives such as film director Gcobisa Yako and visual poet Haneem Christian, who are really creating some dynamic work through film and photography. The brand Mmuso Maxwell I like a lot too. Its tailoring is impeccable and I love its use of wool and eco-friendly materials.”

Art

The second, and last Johannesburg Biennale in 1997 was arguably one of the most influential art exhibitions of that decade. Curated by the late Nigerian art historian Okwui Enwezor, it was based on the idea of ‘global traffic in culture’. Since that biennale, South Africa’s inaugural art fairs were launched – Johannesburg in 2008 and Cape Town in 2013 – and the game-changing Zeitz MOCAA opened in 2017, spotlighting African artists from Atang Tshikare to Zanele Muholi. Along with the growing visibility of powerful Black art collectors, players and thinkers, these have helped focus the global traffic in African art more directly on contemporary South African artists.

Simphiwe Ndzube

Now based in LA, the Cape Town-born artist addresses life in post-apartheid South Africa, weaving mythology and magical realism into his compositions.

What excites you?

“There are so many diamonds in the dirt when it comes to talent in SA. I just wish the work that myself and others do continues to inspire Black kids to see themselves in these positions. Making art, travelling the world and having an impact in the communities or life of those around them.”

What's next?

“Besides keeping my work visible in the major art fairs including Frieze and Art Basel, I’m thrilled to develop a body of work at home for my solo exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery in Cape Town in October 2022, after so long making art outside of South Africa.”

Buhlebezwe Siwani

The multidisciplinary artist was the 2021 Standard Bank Young Artists (SBYA) Award winner for visual arts – her work explores African spirituality and its effect on the Black female body and indigenous practice.

What motivates you?

“I am driven by the subaltern voice being heard, the Black female voice being heard and the African medicinal voice being heard.”

What are you working on right now?

“The SBYA Award exhibition, which will debut at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda in June. I’m also looking forward to taking part in the Casablanca Biennale in September which has been postponed since 2020.”

What are you most excited about on the global art scene?

“Experiencing exhibitions in person again, seeing new pieces and watching how the digital art scene is evolving. I find the idea of VR interesting; how one can build an entire artwork in these spaces or make work using that. This, including NFTs, is only the tip of the iceberg as far as I can see.”

What are some challenges that need to be faced?

“I am curious to see how people within the cultural sector will bridge all the gaps that have been highlighted during the pandemic, especially support for the fine arts. How they will bounce back and view ways of being creative, as well as problem solving, within the creative space.”

Which young artist or curator has caught your attention recently?

“Kefiloe Siwisa, a talented curator based in Johannesburg. I am interested in how she thinks and how she sees the world.”

Cinga Samson

The Cape Town-based artist describes the thinking behind his paintings – haunting, large-scale figurative canvases – as philosophical gestures, more than questions or answers, and notes that they emerge out of his own observations of life and existence.

“Some of them touch on the magic, or mystery of life as with ‘NaluLwandle NaliKhaya’ (Blank Projects, 2018),” Cinga says of his paintings. “There was just a story that I had no answers or solutions to. My mother’s sister had an accident and drowned in a river. For some time after, my family would perform ceremonies to bring her back (there is a belief that if someone drowns they have not really died but simply been taken away). After a number of these ceremonies my aunt returned, and although I didn’t think much of it at the time – it seemed natural – looking back at what happened I felt inspired to produce a body of works. In the show I was not telling this story directly, but I used it as a starting point for creating new images with this knowledge as a context.”

Excited about what else is going on in the country right now, Cinga tips a wealth of younger artists and creatives: “Artists such as Bonolo Kavula and Bronwyn Katz, writer Lwandile Fikeni, musician Bongeziwe Mabandla, rappers Blxckie, Emtee, Kanyi Mavi, Nasty C, DJ Maphorisa, DJs and producers Blanka Mazimela and Siphe Tebeka, dancer and choreographer Mthuthuzeli November, and singer and songwriter Mlindo The Vocalist.”

Cinga Samson has an upcoming solo show with White Cube, London, in 2023.

Music

Music is the heartbeat of the youth. Whatever South Africa is going through will be heard in the sounds being produced. In the 1990s, the kwaito genre was formed around a celebration of the end of apartheid, while Durban’s darker and blistering gqom pulsed from political disillusionment two decades later. Now it’s amapiano that’s thumping from township streets and the spaces in between that stretch from Johannesburg to Pretoria. Progressive piano beats plunked down over deep-house basslines – fuelled by a need for an escape from today’s social and economic turbulence – have taken the entire country and world by storm.

Lelo Meslani

The cultural curator, DJ and writer (pictured left) is the founder of acclaimed Vogue Nights Jozi, an inclusive movement for music, fashion, art and dance. “There are a lot of people on the ground who are creating new sounds every day,” he says. “And amapiano sounds like having no worries in the world. It sounds like happiness.”

What have been your career highlights?

“DJing in cities such as Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, especially for the queer and creative communities, you realise that the one thing that connects people is good music – no matter where you come from. The beautiful thing is that South African music carries an energy that transports you into a new realm. It’s the reason why a lot of us go out every weekend, and why people from other countries want to experience our nightlife. I love spaces such as Blondie (in Cape Town and Johannesburg) and The Royale, Romeos, Great Dane and Kitcheners, all of which are in Johannesburg.”

What are you working on?

“Building a bigger Vogue Nights Jozi and the ballroom movement overall, as well as archiving and documenting the experience and its people. I’m also working on Night Embassy Johannesburg [a residency programme that supports creative communities] and am excited to be rebuilding the future of nightlife in the city alongside the other talented creatives. I also hope to release at least two EPs by the end of this year; it will be the first time my own music is out there.”

What excites you about culture in SA right now?

“To see collaborations taking place. The pandemic has forced us to connect with communities outside of our proximity and I see a lot of that happening at the moment. I’m excited for SA fashion being experienced outside of our borders too, because all the local creatives are bringing the heat.”

Which musicians, producers or DJs are on your radar?

“Yolophonik – for just pushing boundaries and going for his dream. Leo, another really talented producer from Pretoria who isn’t afraid of being diverse in his sound. And TheBoyTapes is one of the most exciting amapiano producers out there right now, while Gina Jeanz is beyond talented and puts in the work to expand electronica in this country.”

DJ Uncle Waffles

It’s Lungelihle Zwane’s infectious dance moves that perfectly accompany the beats of even unreleased amapiano tracks such as ‘Kabza de Small’ and Young Stunna’s ‘Adiwele’ that spotlight why the genre has gone viral around the world. Better known as DJ Uncle Waffles, Lungelihle says, “[ama]Piano has reached a global scale not just because of the beautiful sound but the moves; how people party and how the DJs move as well.” Of her success, she believes she’s just added to what was already there, bringing her personal flair to help create what she says “ultimately captures an audience, especially one that wants the full SA groove experience”. After touring, Lungelihle wants to focus on her own music and has worked with other new talent on an upcoming EP: “I believe in giving people the chance I needed when I was still knocking on doors.”

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