When the Post-Its exhibition was staged at Constitution Hill in July, the media storm concentrated on Ayanda Mabulu’s painting of Atul Gupta and President Jacob Zuma engaged in a sexual act, in effect turning the group exhibition into a one-man show.
In spite of that erasure, Alphabet Zoo’s colourful aerosol stencils on portable plywood reflected on the fleetingness of black middle-class life by bringing the street art of culture jamming into the gallery.
They juxtaposed the white figures in largely black-consumed brands such as KFC, Joshua Doore, Bakers Biscuits and Grand-Pa headache powder with blackface equivalents. They also replaced parts of the images, for instance, the Bakers man’s wares, with a Bible and a pile of shit.
Viewed in the quiet preceding the media storm, the works had a teleporting effect, momentarily removing one from the severity of Constitution Hill into the consumerism of downtown Johannesburg below.
Isaac Zavale and Minenkulu Ngoyi’s work is steeped in the city; its tendency to alienate and homogenise, and the functional and survivalist creativity the city demands for its historical patterns to be subverted.
As Vuyiswa Xekatwane writes in a Between 10 and 5 post, which Zavale and Ngoyi have appropriated for their tumblr, the two artists embody the idea of creativity being “an attitude, a philosophy and a performance”.
For Zavale and Ngoyi, Alphabet Zoo functions as a collective and alter ego for the ideas they can’t execute as individuals. Both are prolific artists in their own right and a quick glance around their studio shows them to be versed in drawing, aerosol painting, stencilling, printmaking, photography and zinemaking.
“Our work transforms a bit. We normally work and collaborate with different artists,” says Zavale, with his trademark sprouty dreads and high-perched cap.
“We also work in different mediums of art, and enjoy doing publications and running printmaking and zinemaking workshops,” adds Ngoyi.
Workshops are a huge part of the Alphabet Zoo tradition. Reminiscing about their Jozi Street exhibition at the 2014 Goethe on Main, the show that hiked their visibility, Ngoyi remembers the twice-weekly workshops and zine nights more than anything.
“What makes a show good is actually seeing it come to life — besides the money part of it — because you know how you sweated to make it happen and people get to see what you were trying to say,” says Ngoyi.
As alumni of Artist Proof Studio, a printmaking centre in Newtown, Johannesburg, Ngoyi says their alma mater bestowed on them the technical mastery and the discipline of printing, which they transpose to various mediums.
“Printmaking comes really easy for us. That’s why its fun to do other things like murals and chalkboards and so on,” says Ngoyi. “Printmaking limits you but it disciplines you, like you can’t just paint and spray anyhow. You have to remain clean, and your hands have to stay clean.”
Their Assemblage headquarters, in a quiet corner of downtown Jo’burg, are more meticulously ordered than one would expect an artist’s studio to be. Its location possibly functions as the perfect vantage point from which to walk in any direction and observe Johannesburg’s blitzkrieg development and gentrification.
The studio itself is like an ode to the city. There is a photograph of a ghost building brought to life by Evilboy’s monochrome, doodle-style graffiti. A small, black-framed tribute to Noord taxi rank in bright-coloured geometric letters sits on a heavily stickered printer. And a tablet-sized, aerosol stencil of Cecil John Rhodes, with half his face covered in a red bandana like a Los Angeles gang member, brings #RhodesMustFall into the realm of the everyman.
With Alphabet Zoo’s undying love for the city and their confession that the rejuvenation of Braamfontein and gentrification of Maboneng served their art careers well, one might expect a duo of narcissistic hipsters. But beyond their distinctive aesthetic, Alphabet Zoo has, especially with its zines, carved a language that is visually striking, funny and yet serious.
Zavale and Ngoyi express less of a reverence for gentrified spaces than a shorthand for knowing what makes these “hovels” tick.
“When we came up, Newtown was dying,” says Zavale. “There were no more galleries in Newtown and when these new spaces came up we had a confidence to approach them and have our artwork in their spaces because we’d look at what they were carrying and be, like, ‘we could do that’.”
Their zines tackle, without the heaviness and haughtiness of current South African discourse, our drinking culture (or is that the crippling drought?), the dreaded white privilege and the shaming of taxi drivers.
Alphabet Zoo hosted a zine making workshop at this year’s M&G Literary Festival. Learn more about them on Alphabet Zoo’s Facebook page