/ 1 April 2016

Creatives in a collective effort to make themselves visible

Siyabona Wilson and Lungiswa Joe of the art and design collective uGrand Blaque.
Siyabona Wilson and Lungiswa Joe of the art and design collective uGrand Blaque.

‘The idea basically stemmed out of frustration – this frustration that we were not getting any access to platforms here,” says musician Andiswa Mkosi. “So we thought, why not create one for ourselves and others who are experiencing more or less the same?”

Mkosi and Obie Mavuso established the Cape Town-based Jam That Session, an arts company that “strives to create alternative spaces for artists and supporters to interact in”.

“In 2012, we decided, let’s do this. So, we invited musicians who we knew were good and would grace the platform perfectly,” says Mkosi. They include Zoë Modiga, Nakhane Touré, Naledi Raba and Ill Skillz.

Mavuso: “Access to these kinds of platforms is something most black artists don’t have here.”

It would seem as though Cape Town’s apparent lack of platforms for young black artists is creating a sense of urgency, with newly formed collectives such as the Black Filmmakers Film Festival, uGrand Blaque and iQhiya among those like Jam That Session determined to make their mark.

Just under a year old, the film festival, the brainchild of Seam Simbi Nkula is, according to its project manager, Didintle Ntsie, “growing substantially. Our last screening we had was the biggest yet.”

Although the series of monthly screenings – featuring films from filmmakers such as Tsholofelo Monare, Jim Chuchu, Douglas Ntimasiemi and Ndumiso Sibanda – has grown so popular that the company will soon be hosting its first screening in Port Elizabeth, getting to this point was not the easiest journey.

Ntsie: “The first one didn’t start off with a bang. People came, but I think it was more out of curiosity – like, ‘what is this thing?’?”

Tania Pehl, who co-ordinates the initiative’s communications, adds: “During the Q&A session [after the first screening], people were getting intense about this black thing and asking things like ‘aren’t we being counter-productive’ or ‘don’t we think we’re being limiting’. And the surprising thing is, these questions were coming from black guys. I think people felt a bit confused, like, ‘what is the aim?’?”

So, what is the aim?

Pehl: “It’s an opportunity for collaboration, being inspired and, also, to foster an element of solidarity.’’

Feeling both slighted and spurred on by the lack of opportunities the city affords black creatives was the motivation for Lungiswa Joe to establish the art and design collective, uGrand Blaque.

Joe: “A lot of black creatives have similar stumbling blocks and these are usually finances or spaces for production, so, I thought, what if we came together as a team and helped each other navigate – and try and overcome – these obstacles?”

Joe, who heads the clothing label, Try-Angels, adds: “Furniture designer Bonga Jwambi, graphic designer Ntsindiso Nqakaza and I were part of last year’s Emerging Creatives, which formed part of Design Indaba. I was thinking we have been given such a great platform, but what happens after this?

“Nobody really cares what happens to you after that. It’s really up to you to make the best use of the exposure to make it work for yourself. But if you don’t have the infrastructure or support, it is really difficult.”

And, although the city centre serves as home to both Jam That Session (held at The Nest Space on Longmarket Street) and the Black Filmmakers Film Festival (east of the city’s hip-but-not-too-hipster 75 Harrington Street), uGrand Blaque take their creativity to where they feel it is needed most: ekasi.

Joe: “We hold our events in Khayelitsha because, I believe, if you get support from your own people – having them as consumers of your products – you stand a much better chance competing’’.

Astute as this thinking may be, it did not come without its share of obstacles. With designer furniture placed, unpretentiously, on Khayelitsha’s streets and artwork pegged to washing lines, Joe laughs: “People were sceptical at first. We held our first event on a Sunday, at this place called Kefu’s Jazz Lounge. It’s a place where people usually go just to chill and hang with friends. All of a sudden, they’re seeing something different. But the scepticism turned into curiosity, because they started asking us questions about the products and engaging with us.”

Made up of Joe, Jwambi, Nqakaza, ceramicist Abongile Ntsane, Mwabi Jere who does the group’s public relations and Siyabona Wilson who does the all-important work of sourcing venues and securing community buy-in, the collective’s quarterly events are seeing more and more interest.

Joe: “What we have realised through doing this is that our people are hungry for art; they’re hungry for the beautiful things our young people are creating. People love buying art that is made by their own.”

The iQhiya collective: Making space for black female artists. (Charl Attan)

A desire to fulfil this hunger for art – in particular for art produced by black women – is what led to the formation of the iQhiya collective. The 11-member group, made up of undergraduates, postgraduates and alumni of the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art, started out “as an idea for an exhibition of black females because we felt marginalised within UCT as black female artists,” according to Bronwyn Katz.

“But while discussing the exhibition, we realised that we need something more, something bigger, something that was continuous. So we started discussing starting a network.”

Although the group will be staging their first eponymous exhibition at the AVA Gallery on April 7, art institutions (including commercial galleries and museums) do not escape their criticism.

Sethembile Msezane: “It is not only academic institutions but commercial galleries and museums that really have very little representation of black female artists.”

Citing the group’s award-winning members – including Katz, a Sasol New Signatures Merit Award winner and Simon Gerson Prize recipient; Sisipho Ngodwana, the 2014 Hayden Lubisi award winner; and Thandiwe Msebenzi, a 2014 Teirney Fellowship winner – Msezane adds: “We’re winning awards, we’re qualified, there is talent. So, the question remains: Why so little visibility?”

As part of their strategy of using the institutions from which they feel excluded as platforms from which to criticise them, the group created a performance piece, titled The Commute. The three-hour long performance piece saw the group huddled together in a taxi positioned in deliberate visual defiance on the lawn just outside the South African National Gallery, discussing the “exclusive” nature of art world institutions.

Asemahle Ntlonti: “We created the piece after the gallery approached us to create a piece in which we comment on the gallery, museum, studio structure. The piece was created to look at how institutions exclude us. That’s why we put the taxi there. Also, we’re commuters – using taxis every day – and in taxis you discuss a lot of things.”

Thuli Gamedze: “In Cape Town, the dominant art voice is that of the institution, which can be very rigid; very limited.”

Msezane: “Being located in Cape Town, there was a huge gap for the issues we are addressing. We are needed here. The politics we speak about needs to be discussed here.”

Buhlebezwe Siwani: “More black women need to be included in art history, so that art could be a true marker of our time. Black women are history’s side-chick; always at the bottom of the ladder.”

Katz: “Fundamentally, iQhiya is about self-empowerment and creating the spaces through which we can realise self-empowerment.”

Empowerment seems to be the common goal of these clawing-their-way-to-recognition, Mother City collectives.

Mavuso: “What we’re doing is not done to exclude anybody, but rather to empower our people and show them that, yeah, we can do this.”

Ntsie: “My hope for Black Filmmakers Film Festival is that it grows into a formidable platform that nurtures, enables, inspires and connects filmmakers. And offers people a different narrative to what exists currently.”

“An important aspect of what we do is the idea of ‘giving back’,” adds Pehl. “So, we have started collaborating with the SAE Institute on getting six of their students paired up with six directors, who will mentor them in making a film. These films will be screening some time in the second part of this year.”

Looking out for the next generation of young, black Cape Town-based creatives is also firmly on Joe’s mind.

Joe: “By focusing on black creative talent, we’re not trying to be exclusive,” she says. “This is really just about finding solutions to our problems ourselves. In that way, we get to hopefully build a strong foundation for the next generation. Because we don’t want them going through the same struggles; or having the same obstacles to negotiate.”