/ 6 August 2021

An ‘aesthetic inheritance’: ugogo the [visual] griot

1985 Mmemamotaungchickenfarminformalsettlement
Mme MaMotaung at Chicken farm informal settlement in 1985. (Santu Mofokeng Foundation)

“Ngizok’ khombisa ugogo wakho” (which translates as “I will show you your grandmother”) is an expression that is sometimes used by non-elderly Black people to set a boundary. It is usually in a situation in which one has experienced contempt, which may be described as “ukujwayelwa kabi”, that one threatens to show another their grandmother. This metaphorical word of caution is typically interpreted as pejorative because, in the Black world, it is understood that the act of insulting one’s grandmother is akin to scorning one’s self. 

It is through proverbs such as “Indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili” that one gains a sense that ugogo as a senior member of society is not only a well of knowledge (as noted by the sociologist Babalwa Magoqwana), but that she is also a part of a community of predecessors who are located in a place of tutelage called “phambili”. 

What is important about the idea of ugogo as a figure who is situated phambili (before us or ahead of us) is that it disrupts the trope of elderly Blackwomen as senile, out-of-touch, purposeless and distinctly vile. [Magoqwana highlights that elderly Blackwomen are stereotypically seen as “invisible-unproductive bod(ies)”]. And right at the centre of this adage is the call for generations that come after ugogo to draw directly from her.

It is in light of this call that it becomes necessary to re-member ugogo as a [visual] griot whose role is central to archival practices in Black spaces such as ikasi. What this means is that ugogo is reimagined as umuntu whose visual rituals are imparted generationally. In this context, it is through the seemingly mundane trunk, kist, and room divider that ugogo becomes what the performer, storyteller, and orator Gcina Mhlophe refers to as a “history-tell[er]”. 

  What is vital about Mhlophe’s notion of history-telling is that there is a recognition of the significance of storytelling in the making of historical narratives. The act of framing ugogo as a history-teller is not new; the historian Nomathamsanqa Tisani has written extensively about the pivotal role that ogogo have played in inculcating “historical understanding” among multiple young Black generations in [South] Africa. 

In the article, Grandmothers’ Sessions as Foundations of Historical Understanding, Tisani notes that ogogo’s mobilisation of oral narratives is “a formally established method of nurturing and initiating the young to an historical understanding found in [African] societies”. 

This method of nurturing and initiation may be extended to include an “aesthetic inheritance handed down [by] grandmother[s] and generations of black ancestors” (as seen in the feminist scholar bell hooks’s chapter An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional in Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, vol. 1). It is for this reason that it becomes critical to focus on the aesthetic inheritance that is passed down by Black grandmothers who are located in South Africa; a [visual] legacy that numerous Black generations have been touched by. 

  In the poetry novella red cotton, the poet and healer vangile gantsho features the poem “grandmother’s drawer”, which characterises the inner workings of ugogo’s aesthetics. gantsho recites:

there is a brown antique cupboard in my grandmother’s house

once locked with blankets and secrets no one could steal

after she passed   only photographs remained

traces    and    gaps      in the cupboard drawer that no longer locked

my aunt on her graduation day     my youngest uncle turning five    or six

utata standing behind umama in their early twenties

two days before tata’s funeral        looking for blankets

mama found herself inside my grandmother’s drawer

trying not to cry          for a young woman in a photo 

who didn’t know then

that the man behind her        would leave

long before he died

  In her poem, gantsho not only locates herself in her grandmother’s house, but she places her mother right inside an antique drawer that belongs to ugogo. In this context, ugogo’s drawer is not just an object or a piece of furniture, but it is an archive where numerous knowledges (visual and otherwise) are captured. What gantsho does as well is to suggest that ugogo herself is an “institution of knowledge” (as seen in Magoqwana’s chapter  Repositioning uMakhulu as an Institution of Knowledge: Beyond ‘Biologism’ towards the body of Indigenous Knowledge in the book Whose History Counts: Decolonising African Pre-colonial Historiography). 

  Even though the idea of knowledge is wide ranging, there is often a prioritisation of the written over the visual. This is despite the reality of the critical historical role that images have played (and continue to play) in re-presenting the narratives of people, places, and things across umhlaba wonke. gantsho’s act of connecting Black grandmothers to the photographic is vital because, as the photographer Santu Mofokeng notes, photo albums found in Black spaces in South Africa are in themselves “cherished repositories of memories” (see the article The Trajectory of a Street Photographer in Nka: Journal of Contemporary Art).  In this regard, the Black photo album (to borrow from Mofokeng) found in spaces like ikasi is a “treasur[y] of family history [and] [a] visual cue […] for the telling of stories”. 

Black grandmothers have long conserved visual and archival histories.

Mofokeng also states that in kasi homes, there is a “ritual of looking”, which serves as a “kind of an induction into the family’s history”. Often, it is at the hands of ugogo that multiple Black generations are inducted into rituals of looking and everyday practices of archiving. The image of an elderly Blackwoman hunched over a padlocked trunk, kist, and room divider as a way to preserve the praxis of “ukuzilanda” through visuality and archiving is one that is familiar. [According to the academic, writer, and poet Athambile Masola, ukuzilanda includes “fetch[ing] oneself and connect[ing] oneself to the past in the present moment”]. 

And because Black grandmothers have long understood the fragility of archives, it is no surprise that they have long participated in acts of conservation, albeit “informally”. It is as a result of what the scholar and filmmaker Bhekizizwe Peterson calls a “stubborn memor[y]” (in the chapter The Archives and the Political Imaginary in the book Refiguring the Archive) that ogogo use multiple strategies to preserve archives for posterity. Their use of multi-sensory means to protect family archives and histories is a testament of their commitment to framing the Black home as a “site […] of resistance” (see hooks’ chapter In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life in the book Art on My Mind: Visual Politics). 

In this multi-sensory site of resistance that is created by Black grandmothers, one finds the scent of Mr Min on dark wood; the pungent smell of uzamlandela (mothballs) in the kist/trunk; the sharp fragrance of Windowlene on the room divider’s delicate glass; the textured finish of the Black photo album; and the sonic accompaniment that is ugogo’s narration through each image. 

Santu Mofokeng (1956-2020) Selection of slides from installationThe Black Photo Album/Look at Me: 1890-1950 /1997. Images courtesy Lunetta Bartz, MAKER, Johannesburg

  This nostalgic scene demonstrates how ogogo have been concerned with a practice the historian Nomalanga Mkhize calls “[uku]fukuza” (see Mkhize’s John Langalibalele Dube Memorial Lecture). Mkhize suggests that ukufukuza is a long tradition where there is a transference of knowledges through an impetus she calls an “umbilical sense”. What is important about her  invocation of the umbilical, is that the Nguni idea of “inkaba” not only refers to one’s navel, but, as the lexicographer Mpume Mbatha notes in Isichazamazwi SesiZulu, inkaba may also be interpreted to mean “indawo umuntu adabuka khona” (a place one hails from). 

Mbatha primarily links the notion of inkaba to a place, but it is equally important to acknowledge that this concept may also be understood to mean the people who one comes from. In this regard, ugogo becomes ikhaya (home), where one can be inducted into various histories (especially visual and archival histories). This phenomenon is beautifully captured by the artist, Kwesta, who is known for his continuous acknowledgment of the centrality of his grandmother in the making of his art practice.

  In the music video Spirit (directed by Tebogo Malope and filmed by Tom Revington), which features the rapper Wale, Kwesta attests to how the aesthetic inheritance of elderly Blackwomen, like his grandmother who lives in Katlehong, continues to find relevance in Black generations in contemporary South Africa. Kwesta not only pays homage to where he was raised, but he also does the work of also locating himself in his grandmother’s house. Similar to gantsho’s character of the mother who is inside ugogo’s drawer, Kwesta is inside a space whose aesthetics have been shaped by ugogo. The room divider that houses porcelain dogs, brass vases, and framed photographs; the iconised sepia photographic portrait of the Black mother and child (whose names are undocumented); the voile curtains; the plastic-covered amagomma gomma sofas; and the centre piece, a dark wood coffee table covered by a doily, are part of an ubiquitous aesthetic that embodies how elderly Blackwomen have pushed back against a world that was created to dehumanise them. As Kwesta recites, “Uzong’thola ekasi lami ke ke ke (ke ke ke ke)”, his grandmother’s living room comes to stand in for the idea of ikasi. 

In a way, Kwesta’s chant “ungaphel’umoya san’”, is  a reflection of how ogogo have used the supposedly banal room divider, kist and trunk to hold on to their being; umoya ongapheli. And Kwesta’s visual and sonic reference to the icon Brenda Nokuzola Fassie’s 1994 song Kuyoze Kuyovalwa is a reminder that Black grandmothers have always recognised their ability to self-determine. Similar to Fassie (who also offers an aesthetic inheritance that many continue to draw on), their mantra is “kuyoze kuyovalwa, thina siyaphila la”.