The ACT Warrior Wall showcases trans-generational resilience of South African female photographers

By Siphumelele Gumede

The Arts and Culture Trust (ACT)Lifetime Achievement Award is presented to arts professionals whose careers have shaped the culture of South African art in a significant way. This award recognises excellence in arts advocacy, literature, dance, theatre, music and the visual arts. To celebrate heritage month in this, its 21st year, the ACT is launching the Warrior Wall Heritage Project to highlight five previous recipients of this award: Miriam Makeba (Music), Sylvia Glasser (Dance), David Koloane (Visual Art), Don Materra (Literature) and Dr. John Kani (Theatre). These legends are being celebrated for their unique contributions to the heritage of the arts and culture landscape in South Africa.

Legacy and impact are at the heart of this project which strategically places contemporary artists in conversation with these world-renowned arts and culture legends. It is essentially highlighting the value of making artists visible to society and the impact that art has on heritage n  our country. It also foregrounds the success of our most recognised legends, as the young minds they influenced take on the baton and shape culture in their own ways.

Five contemporary photographers have been selected to produce photographic interpretations of the five icons. This project has entailed these emergent black female artists (all trained at the Market Photo Workshop, Newtown) representing their own understanding of heritage through their unique lenses coloured by  personal contexts. They have found many personal and creative parallels between themselves and the legends they are honouring, resulting in trans-generational creative conversations in their works.

One of the strongest parallels between contemporary culture and these legends has been explored by TsepisoMahooe. Mahooe is fascinated by John Kani (b.1943) who became one of the driving forces behind South African theatre at the height of apartheid. As she read extensively on Kani, Mahooe was inspired by his braveness and resilience to choose theatre when he lived in an oppressive regime that tried to thwart him at every turn.

Mahooe’s own journey has been riddled with many obstacles that she has had to overcome to be a photographer. She moved from Lesotho at a young age to pursue photography in Johannesburg despite resistance even from  her own family. She has had to live in informal settlements and struggle to keep herself alive but has never accepted that struggle as her final destination.

Today, Mahooe uses photography to reclaim her identity and to show the youth that we don’t have to accept the identities society inscribes on us because of where we come from.

She believes that we need to accept ourselves as the youth in order to overcome our challenges. She notes that Kani too accepted himself as a black man and fought for his right to live and to make art. He dedicated his career to fighting apartheid through theatre.

Mahooe’s concern is the state of inertia that renders the youth stagnant. She believes that the youth is not using the freedom people like Kani fought so hard to give us:“As the youth today, we are not using what we have; we have a voice, but we don’t use it.” Kani himself has also lamented the sense of defeat in the post-apartheid youth and attributes it to a corrupt government and inequality. Mahooe hopes to send a message through her work – that it is in our hands to shape culture like the courageous artists who fashioned it before us.

In the photographs she has produced, she has photographed men and women posing in front of the shacks they call home. Mahooe says that she thought of each photograph as a set on a stage where she could allow the character to recreate him or herself. Each photograph is vibrant with the bright colours of different plants vivid against the crisp sharpness of the zinc metal shacks. She borrowed this theatrical approach to her work from Kani’s work as an actor and playwright. The people in Mahooe’s photographs not only embody a sense of acceptance of where they inhabit, but seem to also have pride and hope that they can still reach their dreams?

A second aim of this project has been to make the history of South African art and its relationship to resistance visible. Cultural spaces like the Market Theatre have not only introduced new styles to various genres but were also very active in toppling an oppressive regime. The Market Theatre was started in 1974 by a small group of theatre enthusiasts including Barney Simon who called themselves “The Company.” They refurbished what had originally been the Indian Fruit Market dating back to 1913, doing most of the renovations themselves.

It was also during this time that the international boycott of South Africa was intensifying. The South African government was under immense pressure to reform the apartheid laws. When the Market Theatre opened its doors officially in 1976, it was in the wake of the Soweto Uprising. The Market Theatre started operating in sensitivity to this climate and staged plays that quickly earned it the name “The Theatre of the Struggle.” It was one of the very few spaces where black people and white people interacted as equals.

The Market Theatre is a longstanding site of socio-political activism where the artistic talent of repressed communities has contributed significantly to the cultural foundations of a post-apartheid, democratic South Africa. The Market Photo Workshop is an extension of these ideals and is a centre with a praxis-based method of education where students and teachers work collaboratively.

Zegugu Ngemntu is a teaching assistant for the beginner courses at the Market Photo Workshop and expressed her pride in taking part in this project alongside two of her students (Mahooe and Simphiwe Thabede). Ngemntu has been inspired by the giant strides taken by Sylvia “Magogo” Glasser (b. 1948) for South African contemporary dance as a choreographer and dance teacher.

Glasser started Moving Into Dance Mophatong, amulti-racial dance company in 1978 with initially only her home garage for a studio. Having to raise funds on her own and sometimes shelter dancers in her home in Victory Park when the streets were not safe,she raised a generation of dancers, choreographers and teachers who have gone on to garner international success and start their own dance companies.

Most pertinent to Ngemntu’s work for this project is how Glasserpioneered a unique dance lexicon that shaped the distinctive culture of dance we have today. Glasser encouraged the fusion of African ritualistic beats and movementwith western contemporary dance, creating “Afrofusion”.Through this, shecontributed an embodied resistance to the racial and cultural divisiveness of apartheid. She encouraged a new way of moving and a new, interracial way of being.

Ngemntu is responding to this concept of blending in her practice by merging what is happening in contemporary culture with the old. She is engaging with the “Silhouette Challenge” that went viral on the social media platform Tik Tokback in February and using the new South African style of house music called “Amapiano” to represent an embodied merging of new South African sounds with contemporary dance. Ngemntu’s choice of music has been inspired by her young students who listen to it and is her way ofconnecting what is unique to South African culture with the rest of the world.

Ngemntu has also produced a photograph inspired by the poem “Braamfontein Morning” by Don Materra (b.1935). The poem deals with the transience of a romance that is sparked in the night and dies with the disappearance of the lover in the morning. In Ngemntu’s photographic interpretation of the poem, one can sense the loss of love in the materiality of a scarf flowing above two faces that have been superimposed onto each other so that one can’t focus on either one, just as the speaker in the poem cannot hold on to his lover. Materra is a poet and author whose work critiques the incitement of violence and is one of the most prominent examples of anti-apartheid protest literature.

The fiveicons being honoured in this project also used art to establish a strong sense of cultural identity when it was being suppressed. Simphiwe Thabedesees the disciplines of Makeba’s music and Koloane’s art as quests for acceptance and belonging. Thabede finds inspiration in Makeba (1932-2008) who was exiled from South Africa because of her vocal activism. Makeba was not deterred by cultural displacement and continued to fight apartheid while residing in the United States and other countries. She testified before the United Nations Special Committee against the National Party in 1962 resulting in her music being banned in South Africa and her being unable to  return, even for her mother’s funeral.

Koloane (1938-2019) on the other hand lived and practiced as a visual artist in South Africa but his passion for arts education took him to many countries. Koloane’s art was essentially tied to his social activism and he went to many countries to teach and was honoured by the Netherlands government in 1998 with the Prince Claus Fund Award. Koloane also helped build arts institutions in South Africa that still stand today such as the Fordsburg Artists’ Studios (now Bag Factory).

Makeba and Koloane both traversed foreign countries advancing South African arts when the South African government would not support culture in black communities. Thabede sees a similar occurrence in contemporary society where knowledge is still lacking about genres such as photography. Thabede, in choosing to pursue this uncommon path of photography has felt a sense of alienation from her own community and has had “…to go out there” to develop her own voice. In this project she responds to this cultural displacement through collage. She says that Koloane’s use of colour in his cityscapes such as “Ala Ponte,” reads as collage to her and is the prompt behind her own photographic collages of the city of Johannesburg.

Koloane’s use of colour is also the inspiration behind Bongiwe Phakathi’s photographs. Phakathi however, took the minimalism of colour in some of Koloane’s works and immersed her stark monochromatic landscapes into shapes of colour. Phakathiessentially took Koloane’s preoccupation with the city and brought it to her own preoccupation with land and Johannesburg as “the land of gold.” For Phakathi, land is linked to the body and to memory, ideas she has also taken from Don Materra’s Memory is the Weapon.

Phakathi’s process has resulted in photographs with irregular compositions achieved with the overlaying of multiple landscapes. In taking a part of one landscape and superimposing it over another, Phakathi is dealing with translocation and displacement, which comes from her research into the forced removals of black people from their landduring apartheid. Phakathi’s own family was forcefully removed from their land in the Free State and she is unpacking that translocation in her work. This notion of being uprooted also extends to Phakathi’s experience of being educated in multi-racial schools where she was made to feel as though she was out of place. Phakathi now questions the situatedness of her blackness and what it means to be black in spaces that don’t allow blackness freedom: “I want to explore comfort versus discomfort. As black people, we have to reflect on our lives constantly and we have to confront what we see, we cannot avoid this just as we cannot avoid being politicised in everything we do.” Her photographs are vast and confront the viewer with their size and minimalist use of colour.

Also inspired by inciting important conversations through art is Remofiloe Sebobe who now works with the MPW on a curatorial basis. As the curator of this project, Sebobe had the challenge of working with photographers at different levels in their careers, from photographers who are still students (Mahooe and Thabede) to more established photographers (Ngemntu and Phakathi) and trying to facilitate photographs that spoke to each other. For Sebobe it was essential that the photographs speak to the heritage theme of this project as she believes the work of a photographer is not their own but belongs to the viewer who interprets it.

Sebobe’s own photographs for the project are portraits of the five icons, each with thematic hand-rendered drawings. Sebobe’s aim was to expose the fact that art functions as a kind of currency because it can travel all over the world, adding value to different cultures. Sebobe’s portraits elevate the icons to being currencies. In the same way that the face of Nelson Mandela is on the South African currency today, Sebobeshows that the icons who have fought for the South African arts embody value and worth, that ourarts and culture should be treasured and protected.

The ACT Warrior Wall Heritage project is a vital contribution to the heritage conversation in South Africa. Each photographer’s integration of the work of the five icons into their own photography deals with heritage and resilience in a unique way. From the resilience and hope in Mahooe’s images, to the celebration of a new way of moving in Ngemntu’s pieces and the city of Johannesburg rendered in vibrant collage in Thabede’s work – the theme of re-imagining and forging new paths permeates all of the photographs. Phakathi’s work reminds us of heritage’s ties to land ownership and the resilience that is still required to engage in land discourse in South Africa and tying all the works together is Sebobe’s portraits of each icon, rendered as faces on a currency to highlight the value of South African heritage.

All the photographs attest to the strong guidance of the mentors in this project: Thato Mogotsi, Buyaphi Mdledle, Loyiso Oldjohn and Rolihlahla Mhlanga who assisted the photographers in exploring heritage in such a robust manner, with multiple entry points for the public to engage in this heritage conversation.

On Heritage Day, 24 September, the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) launched the exhibition at the Market Photo Workshop, Newtown and it ran until 8 October 2021. Please visit the ACT Warrior Wall and help encourage young talent while paying homage to South African icons. For further information visit the Trust’s website, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook. #ACTWarriorWall. The exhibition is supported by the European Delegation to South Africa.

.Siphumelele.Gumede is currently based in Johannesburg where she works as a writer and a practicing artist.

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