/ 1 June 2008

Digital Mama: In retrospect

Perhaps the allure of video art lies in the fact that the act of engaging with it usually demands one’s total attention and — much like artist Thando Mama was pictured in his work We are Afraid — a certain level of submission.

Mama’s work, seemingly incoherent yet uncannily lyrical, uses the self as a tool to interrogate issues of power and representation from the vantage point of a black male.

Mama, who was introduced to the medium in 2000, won the 2003 MTN New Contemporaries Award and has since exhibited successfully across the globe — bagging the Prix de la Communauté Française de Belgique at the 2004 Dakar Biennale. In 2005, he was awarded a fellowship to the Sally and Don Lucas Artists Programmes at the Montalvo Arts Centre in Saratoga, California.

He continues to exhibit locally and internationally and is currently showing his video installations and drawings at Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG).

Video art exists by and large on the fringes of the art landscape and is perceived to have limited commercial options. What was the source of your initial fascination with it and what have been the drawbacks and advantages in sticking with the medium?

Yes, video art has limited commercial options. Who would buy video art? Who is buying video art here in South Africa? Anyway, it is pointless to look at art and video art for financial benefits in our economy.

I don’t really expect to sell my video installations and artworks like hot cakes. Others maybe. They have commercial galleries to back them. There are, of course, spin-offs from video art, like your traditional video still prints, digital photographs and litho prints, which some collectors are keen to buy.

Given the fact that it is relatively difficult to appreciate and access video art, especially in this country where many people may not be technologically savvy, how does it influence the aesthetic values you employ in your work and how you choose to speak to your audience?

South African society identifies with the moving image, in television, cinema and DVDs. However, that does not mean they will “get” video art. We still have a traditional art society, and the contribution by artists from the African continent is yet to be documented. If you respect your audience, you will know how to speak to it. You leave clues and elements that they will identify with, they will make connections with. You arrest them with visual poetry, textures of movement, allowing them to be actively engaged with your work. If you understand the value of aesthetics in video art, you will be able to captivate your audience.

Can you discuss your exhibition at the JAG in terms of what each of the three works relate and represent for you. It seems that you have incorporated some earlier work into the exhibition.

Mind-space (2004) is a state of mind, a psychological investigation of movement captured in a performative body, which is represented in the form of the body and face of the artist. It’s a constant negotiation between thought and expression.

1994 — Next Movement is the work I have spent more than 18 months on. The earlier versions and instalments were shown in New York City in 2004, and Hawaii in 2005.

In 2005 I had a solo show at the KZNSA Gallery in Durban, where I made 440 drawings. I ended up using about 221. This installation, together with the video, was exhibited in Las Palmas at the Canary Islands in 2006.

This is the first time the work, now in its final stage, is being shown to the South African audiences.

It is a commemoration of our tangible history, referencing the figures of the victims of apartheid, which we all are. The bodies are in constant motion, never to get up fully, in transit and fragile.

Can you expand on the socio-political discourses in contemporary African society and its diaspora that have influenced you in using your own body as a line of reference in interrogating issues?

A major influence I would say comes from African-related literature, film or cinema and music that addressed issues of blackness and Africa, be it racial, social or ideological theories on Africa.

African peoples have defined themselves, asserted their identities and self-determination, from WEB du Bois, Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe to Apphia Kwame, bell hooks and Stuart Hall.

Some have said your work is impenetrable.

We are always struggling to access conceptual works. I never was able to express myself in a narrative way. When I create work, I intend to be multilayered. Surely it can’t always be easy to read or be engaged with. I always try to push the limit. I think we all have to be active and sharp in our approach to video art. I don’t just document; I express myself creatively by painting with video.

Can you speak about some of the highlights for you creatively this year and what your plans for the rest of the year are?

Highlights include winning the battle with technology in my work. the revolution is … is a new work that I exhibited in part at the Cape07 earlier this year. There, I acknowledged the influences on video art. This work I am also proposing for the Bamako Biennale later this year.

Thando Mama’s exhibition Thando Mama Artist at the Project Room #6 is currently on at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. It closes on September 28