/ 18 June 2021

The Portfolio: The Black Ark keeps moving

Koketso Potsane Portrait Am 2
Black radical tradition: Koketso Potsane runs a mobile bookstore called Black Ark. Photo: Andy Mkosi

I remember coming across Ntone Edjabe’s writing in the mid-2000s in some publication as an undergrad student in Makhanda. There was something about the way in which he was pushing boundaries in terms of his content and the style of his writing. I don’t remember the name of that publication, but I was so excited about Edjabe’s work that I had to look him up.         

  At the time I was into dub poetry, especially by the likes of LKJ and Mutabaruka, reggae and Marcus Garvey’s teachings, so I think I was already primed for material that isn’t too mainstream. I soon discovered that Edjabe was the editor of Chimurenga magazine, a publication of arts, culture and politics, and I became obsessed with it. I was fascinated by how they didn’t care to follow mainstream or institutional methods of putting a publication together. 

  That is when I started distributing the publication on campus through events such as art exhibitions, live music performances and film screenings. I was basically operating an extension of the publication under the name Chimurenga Workshop. 

  That was really the beginning of Black Ark, long before it was ever named that. I just had this desire to push radical pan-African content because of its effect on me, but also on the people who were buying the books. A couple of years back, I decided to be fully independent and that’s when Black Ark was launched. I still gravitate towards reggae and, over the years, I became really interested in what Lee Scratch Perry managed to achieve as the founder of Black Ark Studios in Jamaica. 

I just love how he messes with sound and experiments with it. Even the way he looks seems mystical and there’s a certain kind of freedom he operates in that I’m drawn to. More than that, he has been able to export his sound across the globe and connect the Black world. 

So the way I choose publications to distribute under Black Ark is inspired by these influences. I like books that are experimental and, ultimately, embody a hunger for freedom. In fact, with all the material we push — whether it is journals, poetry books, children’s books, zines, posters, photo books, vinyls, tapes or CDs — this is the central theme.

  I know it probably sounds like I’m romanticising things, but the reality is that this is a tough space to operate in. I really love what I do, but I don’t always make enough money to get by and that isn’t easy. Sometimes I think if only I had a shop to operate from things would be easier. But this is Jo’burg: it’s hard to anchor yourself somewhere because rental costs are just crazy. Fortunately, I’m used to selling from a backpack or the back of my car. After all, this is an ark, so it just keeps moving.

Koketso Potsane is the founder of Black Ark. Follow him on Facebook, @Black Ark; Instagram, @black_ark_sa and Twitter @BlackArkSA