The Portfolio: On the beauty and importance of joyous Black gatherings

It’s the first week of November, a few days before the Mangrove stoep is set to resemble a scene from Kalakuta Republic’s enchanted Shrine for this year’s edition of Felanation (headlined by Femi Koya), the pan-African celebration of Fela Kuti founded by Sthembele “Black” Ngobeni, 12 years ago. 

I am at Ayanda Mabulu’s Space Mecca Studios trying to syphon extra funds for the event because of escalating costs. Mabulu is refining some lines on an almost completed art piece and replies in whispers to a young man; a visual arts student, I presume. The bespectacled young cat stands in front of one Mabulu’s completed works with his right palm clasping his left wrist behind his back, speaking about the role of art and the passion required to make socially engaging art. 

On hearing this, Mabulu abandons his brush and gives full attention to the cat. He embarks on one of his famed, expletive-laden soliloquies about ideology; what creating art takes from him and does to him spiritually, emotionally and physically. Compares it to shitting a grenade. He seeks to divorce the young fella of any romantic notions associated with making visual art. It is a job, albeit a well-paying one for him, that many rely on. He tries to get me to fakaza now and again, but I am not in the mood. I just want to take the money and run.

It has been a long year organising cultural events alongside co-founder, Shawn Danisa, for the online platform, Culture Review Magazine, which included the inaugural Kulture Blues Festival in partnership with the South African State Theatre in May. The festival featured Iphupho L’ka Biko, Thandi Ntuli and longtime collaborator Makhafula Vilakazi. 

It’s been a year that saw the publication of the platform’s first book, The Lives of Black Folk, a short documentary titled Rea Bereka, a collaboration with the Goethe-Institut’s Cav’ Platform. The documentary talks to artists about looking at their creations as work; labour to be produced for capitalist exploitation. The collaboration also had a written component, in which writers reflected on finding ways to navigate the system through their own personal journeys.

Planning for the live events has been haphazard because of the intermittent lockdowns. We had to find gaps and run with it whenever the cabinet decided to ease restrictions. This has made fundraising a nightmare, forcing us to rely on our community of artists, friends, family and, ultimately, our own pockets to stage them.

For the most part, this is the nature of Black cultural work. It is almost impossible to pull it off without the help of a community of artists who share the same vision and ideals, rooted in Black Consciousness and creating spaces for Black artistic expression.

At a conceptual level, the events, documentary and, indeed, the book, rely on writers Mbe Mbhele, Perfect Hlongwane, Sive Mqikela, Nondumiso Msimanga and Tshepiso Mabula ka Ndongeni, and photographers Andile Bhala and Thembinkosi Hlatshwayo for the words and images that make the ideas possible. Of equal, and pivotal, importance are the graphic designers, namely, Slovo Mamphaga, Mzwandile Buthelezi and Mkhokheli Dlamini, who illustrate  the vision. Filmmaker Sanele Makhubu is often tasked with archiving the events and making promos that whet the appetites of event-goers.

 In times of peril and self-doubt, when money is short, Danisa regularly quips, “Remember we are doing this for Blacks: let’s find a way to get it done,” to which I retort, “Blacks didn’t ask us for shit, but we move.” 

We often reflect on why we do what we do, and the answers vary with time. But for the most part, the joy is personal — seeing the artists on stage expressing themselves to a packed Black audience is immensely rewarding. Dignified.

Back at Space Mecca, Mabulu has decided to give me his ear. He inquires about the why, and I make a case about the beauty and importance of joyous Black gatherings that are underpinned by solidarity and community. I also tell him that it has been a long year and we equally want to drink and shake our nyash. He smiles, and says, “How much do you need?”

The second instalment of the Kulture Blues Festival will take place in March 2022

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