The Brother Moves On: Mourning Nkush in a befittingly spectacular occupation

​“We’d like to state clearly that Nkululeko [Nkushburnslow] Mthembu is the founder of the band. He lied to everyone and convinced us that there was a band.” - Siyabonga Mthembu, TBMO. (TickyBox)

​“We’d like to state clearly that Nkululeko [Nkushburnslow] Mthembu is the founder of the band. He lied to everyone and convinced us that there was a band.” - Siyabonga Mthembu, TBMO. (TickyBox)

“This is exactly how we are transforming… how we are transforming issues of redress and the like. Art is learned, in this context.” – (Itai Hakim, “local organising committee,” Goodman Gallery 22, 09, 2016).

An off kilter attendee is coaxing members of a queue to a five-a-side football game at the gallery’s parking lot.  The “local organising committee” (members of the band dressed in suits), is waffling some brisk gibberish about boosting morale ahead of their bid for the 2010 Art (or was that football?) World Cup. We are being ushered into the gallery.
Miniature goal posts are being placed at the parking lot. We are revisiting “Philip” (the psychological sceptre upon which every fool’s strike-it-rich World Cup dream hung), while dealing with the sensory overload that is The Brother Moves On’s two-week takeover of the Goodman Gallery. 

    We, like bamboozled miners striking on fool’s gold, have arrived. “Finally, we are on a bill board,” says an inscription underneath the digitally manipulated, almost life-sized image of the band plastered onto a wall facing the entrance. It brings to mind Rosebank’s ad-wrapped construction sites and the commercial chokehold on your favourite rapper’s integrity.

On the other side of the gallery, inside the display windows where Jan Smuts Avenue meets Chester Street, the band’s legendary tights, an assortment of merchandise and a plastic and duct tape approximation of a cow’s bust (or is it Nkush’s on-stage ensemble) hang off the walls and a washing line – a “there goes the neighbourhood” gesture that is the stuff of suburban nightmares and neighbourhood watch Facebook groups.

There is a deliberate occupation aesthetic, a self-aware nod to spoofing on the austerity of “installation” and the respectability of the exhibition.

The gaudiness is everywhere on Hlabelela: It’s a New Mourning Nkush, which mixes installation, video, photography, merchandise and manipulated cover artwork to, in the main, critique South African society while analysing the black artist’s fate within the gallery space.

But there is a knowing fatalism and insouciance to the band’s approach to such heady matters that reduces pointed questions about representation to redundancy and irrelevance.

There are shacks aplenty or “poverty porn” as one attendant charged, including a toilet-sized one, inside which Rainbow Child, one of the band’s music videos is playing. The selfie option, by way of a digital camera malfunctions, so the video (driven by Nkush’s mimicry), about meeting “at the end of the rainbow so we can build again”, plays silently on loop.

In my estimation, The Brother (TBMO) has been in mourning or exploring death as a leitmotif ever since Nkush, the band’s dearly departed human Mothership, was stalking stages with black bin paper ensembles, candy-striped danger tape trailing behind him.  His antics, always outside the realm of music and squarely in the realm of spectacle, signalled to us that, at their best, black bands were more than just a bunch of men playing music together. They were our spirit guides through a dystopia, a conduit through which ideas about our higher selves manifested.

An adjacent room in which three flat screens broadcast offstage footage of the band’s self-funded European tour evokes former guitarist Raytheon Moorvan’s assessment of Nkush’s impact on the band. In Moorvan’s estimation, Nkush was a dude who “just lives and it manifests”. From the footage there is an open embrace of alienation and rootlessness and a rejection of implicit ceilings.

On opening night, the LOC are pitching merchandise; prints of Nolan Oswald Dennis’s intelligent mapping of A New Myth’s cover artwork. There are lyrically direct and sonically stripped down songs that suggest yet another bold tangent in the band’s direction, and there are playful interventions around the exoticisation of black art (Drumming and Fucking).

In a separate room, titled Alice in Mpondoland, guitarist Zwash performs songs to Nkush in a posture somewhere between self-deprecation and aloofness. The shack he and his back up singers occupy is in free fall, as if its suspended tin walls will ascend upwards rather than cave in. Elsewhere around the gallery, in an installation titled I’m On Lunch, there is evidence that TBMO fought a good fight and lost it. Suspended cow bones that look raw and an extra-terrestrial creature, perhaps the discarded bits of the animal, are bound up and present, perhaps, as the “rotting” beast. “We wanted to hang you but health and safety didn’t let us. So we boxed you and preserved you, decontextualised from your gods,” a gold inscription reads on the floor.

From the symbolism, there is a sense of self-awareness that the band is the gallery’s next cash cow, at least in the cultural currency stakes. From the outside looking in, the band’s Five Percenter mantra: Positive Energy Activates Constant Elevation, had proven itself as a quasi-magical invocation, that cloaked the band’s struggle for autonomy in legend.

To be subjective: the two-week occupation rather than the usual four-week show, and the extraneous hollers into the echo chamber that is the white cube, suggests a sense of capture, as opposed to consolidation, of the band’s larger-than-life vision. Having said this, bands are not static things and they not sustained by the fans’ romance and baggage.

Of the band’s relationship to the gallery, Mthembu offers little explanation: “This is not a, ‘we give you our cultural capital’. This is ‘are you credible enough to have this conversation?’. You know what you are. You know that we know that you are this. So how do we move in a space where we know that you are not going to fuck us over, where we are stuck later going: ‘ah, fuck we shouldn’t have even done this,’ which has happened with a lot of spaces… it fucks out at times.”

For all of TBMO’s ingenuity and conceptual fluidity, the fatigue that accompanies Hlabelela comes from realising what the jig actually is.

There is the slight complication of having been so headstrong that they have outgrown conventional funding options to such an extent that, as Mthembu puts it, they “were approached during a gulf [by the gallery].” Mthembu, a master of problematisation, says it is a conversation that took over three years to ink and “we understand the dynamics and the difficulty of it, and it’s not to even say that we have mastered it”.

Perhaps more than anything else, Hlabelela is an expression of purgatory, an acknowledgement of the futility of preaching to the converted and the structural constraints that prohibit the band’s “penetration of black spaces”. Our history is littered with progressive black artists that could not bridge the gap between the audiences they wanted to speak to and the corners they were corralled into. TBMO, thankfully, understands the urgency of correcting that.

In a sense, Hlabelela is a wait for “the end of the rainbow so we can build again”.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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