/ 18 April 2020

Artists must strive to reimagine ways of portraying and inhabiting ikasi

Drain Our Dignity
"Drain our dignity".Masixole Feni’s images of Khayelitsha capture the way people have been able to exist and have meaningful lives under oppressive conditions.

Ikasi has been used in a very universal, lazy and unimaginative way by most contemporary artists. They have used it in such a way that makes it almost impossible for us to think of the township as capable of existing and recreating itself outside of the boundaries of its formation. They are always reiterating the cold truth that the township is nothing short of a concentration camp, where blacks are stacked so that they are closer to work. Those with no work smoke, rape and are stabbed on weekends. 

Of course, we understand the history under which the township came to exist; the unspeakable conditions that made the streets of Ndofaya. We are well aware of the echoing cries of hunger that continue to resound the narrow streets of Gomora. The deployment of the military in Khayelitsha will never cease to remind us of the township as always already a corpse that rots from within. We are well aware that the township is a death-bound place where everything that tries to find life there is already dead in advance. 

But the township, in its many variations, demands that we see it as much more than that. It is more than just a place that we must constantly dream of escaping. And, I must say this immediately, the township has also demonstrated throughout its existence that it is not just a place where “dreams go to die”. 

The idea of ukuphuma elokishini as peddled by the likes of Simphiwe Dana and reiterated by The Muffinz does not begin to assist us in finding alternative ways of seeing, being and thinking about the township. It actually traps us into an endless pursuit of something that is unattainable. Leave the township and go where? The entire South Africa is an extension of white dominion. These “I am not going back to the township” tropes deny us a much richer reading of the township with all its doubles. 

Sadly, this myopic idea that we ought to strive and hope to escape the township has become the motif of most artists’ work. And when artists do not insist on always overrepresenting the horrid conditions of the township, they sink it in honey, turning it into some kind of fetish. So we end up having work that is boringly concentrated on the township as just geography or space; work that is yoked around materiality. 

We rarely have an account of township as, perhaps, the spirit. Unathi Slasha in his novel, Jah Hills, although aware of the township as an invitation of sorrow, is also aware of the many planes of the place. He knows that the township is not devoid of the spirit; the metaphysical is constantly riding material and vice-versa. 

Take Makhafula Vilakazi, for instance, who paints such vivid landscapes of the township experience with his poetry you can almost touch them. But his landscapes have the same texture: a black man bleeding after a robbery, an HIV-positive woman who wants to spread the disease because she was raped, a downtrodden uncle whose life amounts to nothing. 

What seems to be consistent in Vilakazi’s poetry is a reminder that the township and its people “share the same position as cockroaches in the food chain”. He is always seated on one side of the canvas and refuses to change his angle. Maybe deliberately so, but if that is the case, even the unmatched delivery of the poet cannot help the poem if a stale fact is repeated without variation. So, beyond the relatable content that he presents, does his work do enough to stretch our imagination? 

I think the artist must do something more than “just reflect the times”.  He must refract them, turn them upside down and even dare to destroy the times. Contemporary South African artists have been failing to do this. They rob us of the nuanced account of the township life. How, I repeat the question, do they write, sing, create so simply about a place and people that are so complex and so layered? 

“Township in Khayelitsha”. Artists like Willie Bester have shown us how manifold the township is.

Niq Mhlongo, who has somehow become the most popular author of township stories, fails to creatively give us the unwritten about in almost anthropological and Yizo-Yizo-like accounts of the township. Even his satire fails to save him from the plain fact that he is giving us the obvious. In After Tears, the characters are too plain and predictable. In his latest work there is no improvement. His short stories, titled Soweto Under the Apricot Tree, could easily be turned into a well-written travel brochure. 

Perhaps my reading is a bit misguided but there is something distasteful and dangerous about denying the township its infinite self and portraying it only as linear and one dimensional. Of course, those narratives of the township about crime, drug use, and disease sell. They get the books off the shelves, paintings off the gallery wall and they make for easy invitations to interviews. 

But what does this do to those that are being represented in these kinds of works? Here David Marriott assists: there is, of course, a universal way that the township is spoken about, but what should never escape us is that the universal with its elements of truth is enriched by particulars. Thus, it is important to engage with all singular experiences that intersect, that are parallel and that move in opposite directions. Only then can we say we have spoken about the township. 

Note: There are cultural workers who have not fallen into these petty seductions. Many of them are those who do their work outside the pressures of academic palatability. There are artists who have, in many ways, reopened us to how manifold the township is. In both the presentation and the detail in their work,  there seems to be an appreciation of the potentialities that that township holds outside the normative account of doom and suffering. 

Kabelo Kungwane of The Sartists tries to awaken our memory and perhaps our consciousness to the fact that the township is not: just drunken old man staggering to nowhere, or Nthabiseng with a run in her pantyhose blowing bubblegum, or three pimple-faced boys standing at the corner in their school uniform, cigarette between the fingers. Something much deeper is happening and that needs to be articulated. His work, in a way, even reminds us that the history of the townships is not just: hippo and white police man with a rifle, or old women choking from teargas. No. There was soccer, or boxing or theatre. I mean, people still fell in love during the toyi-toyi.

Take this scenario for example: Umkhozi pushes her trolley down Tsatsinyane into Sishuba Street under the scorching sun, screaming, “Umshanyelooo, Umshanyelo Bakhoziii”. Her screams syncopate; she is eloquent. Her words echo almost as if she is a poet in an auditorium. She is definitely a poet. Avocados and mangoes weigh down her head as she enters house to house. Small conversation, then she sells the fruit. 

She does this because she has been uprooted, separated from where her umbilical cord is buried. Her Limpopo has to follow her to Johannesburg. She loses her Tsonga, trips between Setswana and Zulu creating a totally new language. Still, she does this because she must feed her family. She does this because she can. She does this.  

How then do we as artists create work that does not rob the layeredness of Umkhozi? How do we speak about Joe from the peach house who drinks to a pulp, but has also taught six boys from the township the flute and the trumpet. How do we speak about Busisiwe Primary as a school on Thursday, a place where Lebo the lesbian might be raped on Friday and also a church on Sunday? How do we not become oblivious of the structure that created the townships — a structure that continues to create the township — yet still be able to illuminate the ways in which the township has been able to find ways of existing beyond what is scripted by structure. 

Here I am not asking for the romanticisation of the township, but I also refuse to accept that there is nothing beautiful in the ways that people have been able to exist (and have somewhat meaningful lives) in a place that was meant to be their cemetery. I think it is important that artists portray this grey area; this black area that is often ignored especially by those who see their work as activist or committed art. An overemphasis on the gruesomeness of the township has potential to inhibit a possibility of reimagining ways of living and thinking about the township, the ghetto as an idea — the margins as a habitable space.

Mbe Mbhele is a writer and member of the art collective Black Thought Symposium.