The dual approach to exceptionalism

Open to experiences: Sibs Shongwe-La Mer. (Supplied)

Open to experiences: Sibs Shongwe-La Mer. (Supplied)

Sibs Shongwe-La Mer (22) did not grow up in a particularly creative environment, but his artistic output has come to include photography, film and music. “I suppose the lack of anything critically engaging made me spend as much time as I could trying to escape,” he says of the boomed middle-class suburb in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs where he grew up.

“Everything seemed ultra-sterile and people all seemed to prefer it that way. I knew early on that I would have to find a way to combat that feeling.”

By the age of 18 Shongwe-La Mer was working full time in the local film and television industry. A year later he began his directorial career in short films and music videos, and in 2013 he independently produced a low-fi version of his film Territorial Pissings. He is now shooting a reworked version of this as a feature- length film, together with Urucu Media and producer Elias Ribeiro.

The original script foreshadowing Territorial Pissings was written when Shongwe-La Mer was 16, after the suicide of his then girlfriend. He knew of many teens from good homes who took their own lives and, in trying to figure out why, he began to contemplate the generation of born-free South Africans in suburbia.

“After the oppressive apartheid regime fell away in 1994, South Africa found itself unknowingly displaced in its identity in the world. Never again to be united with the more radical and underdeveloped Africa, but not seen in the photograph of the civilised West,” an excerpt from his director’s statement reads.

As it stands now, the narrative of Territorial Pissings explores the contemporary African identity and speaks to the heart of the universal human desire to feel understood.

Last year Shongwe-La Mer founded the Whitman Independent as a youth art retailer, film house, gallery and publisher. “Our colonial history, racial adversity and Eurocentricity alone create some super-interesting material that young artists are starting to tap into and explore,” he says, referring to a “new wave of African artists” who, he believes, are united by their progressive mentality when it comes to Africa, creativity and their own place in the world.

Making things has always had a fantastical quality for Shongwe-La Mer, who says that, when doing so: “You’re not here or there … and that has really helped me to stay alright with things.”

As a musician he has created and distributed music under the aliases Boylamere, //Beachfang, Youngtape, Bearskin and most recently Wolf Alabaster. In photography he has worked in the commercial and art spheres and, since 2012, he has exhibited locally and abroad.

For a recent body of work, Burial of my Sisters, still images are accompanied by sound and motion segments. Together the works examine the rituals surrounding African burials and the differences as well as the similarities between these ceremonies and Western funeral services. 

Regardless of the medium, Shongwe-La Mer’s work is about looking around, and when something strikes him as exceptional – be it joyful or painful – he aims to explore or replicate it. Instead of trying to normalise his life or condemn his curiosities, he endeavours to leave his life open to experiences.

“I think that’s a really important thing to aspire to as an artist. I know as much about Christmas at cheap strip clubs in Hillbrow as I do about falling for a girl in a boarding room in Paris. These dualities I cherish.”

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This article is adapted from an interview with the artist that appeared on the creative showcase site



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