State of the art

At 60, artist and poet Lefifi Tladi is still as passionate now as he was when he was one of the faces of South Africa’s black cultural politics in the 1970s.

The short and sturdy man bounces and jokes as if time hasn’t touched him. But his silver hair, shaky hands and faded black beret give away his age.

Tladi was forced into exile after the June 16 1976 uprising. He settled in Botswana before moving to Sweden in 1979, where he studied fine art and art history. He now has homes in South Africa and Europe.

We meet in Mamelodi, Pretoria, where he tells me about Dashiki, a jazz band he co-founded in the early 1970s. Working within ‘the thrust of the Black Consciousness Movement” (BCM), they fused music and politically charged poetry into their performances.

They also organised black art exhibitions at some black universities and township schools, believing Dashiki ‘had a role to uplift the consciousness” of the people.

Some of the exhibitions in Soweto at the time included works by Fikile Magadlela, Thami Mnyele and others from the Soweto Arts Association, an organisation founded by BCM cadres.

Tladi remembers the weekend-long marathon debates they had in Ga-Rankuwa, where he lived at the time. Steve Biko and other BCM leaders regularly visited to discuss the ‘function of the arts in the freedom struggle”. He says Dashiki was ‘the spearhead” and that the arts were the ‘vehicle for change of consciousness”.

In the Seventies the BCM was politically very active. Older organisations—such as the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress—were banned and their leadership jailed or exiled.

Tladi says the youth’s frustration and anger with the political establishment was evident in the time leading to June 16 and that the march was about directing that anger—and the excitement of the time.

He says some of the newspaper photographs show that ‘those kids were excited and harmless”—and that the apartheid police responded with arrogance and unnecessary force.

As the evening approaches, Tladi becomes nostalgic and recites poetry. His recollections are full of idioms and proverbs. ‘You can lead a horse to the river, but you can’t force it to drink. We decided that if you teach it to know its thirst, it will go to the river and drink by itself.” He says the artists saw it as their role to ‘teach those kids their thirst”.

But times have changed and his youth is behind him. He says the difference between the youth of today and those of his day is that his generation had a clear ideology guiding it.

Perhaps the differences have something to do with the emerging economic classes and financial aspirations of many young artists. The thirst of today’s artists comes from another place.

They are not social rebels but, instead, are middle-class arts professionals whose work comes without a specific political commitment.

They’re worlds away from the youth of 1976.

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