…and the BP show is over. I head back to my hotel room via the Neighbourgoods market and chow something pearly pink and Vietnamese, before purchasing a ballooning skirt – Jozi street-style – for my daughter’s 19th birthday. Then it’s off to the Keys Art Mile to have a look-in at Smac – Simon Stone – and Whatiftheworld – the best dealership name ever where, once again, I ponder the biggest new name in SA art, Simphiwe Ndzube. Then it’s off to Everard Read – closed – then Circa – closed too – though undeterred my friend Natalie Payne, a lecturer in fashion and photography, finds a photo opportunity outside Circa before a reflective sheet of metal – let’s call it sculpture – and a life-sized bronze donkey. Rosinante, Don Quixote’s mule, springs to mind.
Now we all know – or should – that the Donald was famous for chasing after windmills. The man’s crazy we’re told, imagining a threat where there is none, weighing down his bony mule with his rusty armour, thrusting his lance at the world. But Quixote’s not crazy, he’s just very convinced, rather like the Alt Black movement charging about the Turbine Hall casting judgement on those more sceptical, less certain, prepared to think against the absolutism and essentialism that parades itself as Black Consciousness. Biko, I’m sure, is frothing in his grave at the thought of this appalling abuse of his vision. And I’m not talking about the gauche, ghastly, obscene and teary-eyed reboot, the ‘Who killed Biko tote bag!
Back in my hotel room, readying myself to write this final missive – please don’t call it a blog! – I step outside my sliding back door to thrust a burning cigarette in my mouth, but don’t. There’s a massive tortoise parked in front of me and I’m guessing that it’s big enough to have been born in 1605 when Cervantes published Don Quixote. The last time I had the pleasure of meeting such a stately elder was in 1994 when, in exchange for a free Wendy House at the back of a friend’s Yeoville property, I was expected to provide said tortoise with a lettuce a day.
Now it’s a letter a day! My last! And I’ve saved this final installment for fashion. Turn to the Left / Turn to the Right / Fashion! David Bowie’s lyric rings horribly true in this world shaped by extremes. Can one speak of Fashion uber alles? Is it immune to political principle? Is it removed from the churning maw of politics – and a raced politics at that?
The talk kick-started with Nicola Cooper – trend analyst – for whom the clothes we wear reflect the worlds we inhabit. Reminding us that 96% of the South African buying public is black she wonders why Retail has failed to answer this captive market. Instead of reflecting our multiplex of cultures, Retail traded in whiteman’s clothing for a whiteman’s world – a colonising mindset which the artist Simphiwe Ndzube has brilliantly turned on its head. Ndzube’s sculptures and assemblages reflect on Africa as a dump-site for the bales of second-hand ‘dead white men’s clothes’, ‘amavuku-vuku’ or ‘salaula’, ‘some of the nuances used by the locals to describe these second-hand clothes in places such as Ghana, Zambia and South Africa’.
Like Ndzube, Cooper is understandably concerned with the fetishisation of Western attire as the barometer of a globalised norm, shifting the focus to how we must change the ‘mindset of consumption’. ‘Fashion is not an item but a sign of the times’ – except of course that no one is any the wiser as to what exactly the sign of our times exactly is. Is the Alt Black on the rise? Do we have wriggle room to think inside the chaos?
Ours in ‘A continent in the know’ Cooper optimistically resumed. Could’ve fooled me, though, in a better mood – having met my familiar, the tortoise – I must say that I admire her optimism. Given that Cooper was heckled by the Alt Black at an earlier talk – confiding in me that she was feeling increasingly uncertain about her right to the position she held, the pale skin she inhabited – reaffirmed my growing disgust with the stupefying law of entitlement.
While Cooper was understandably concerned with cultural appropriation – Beyonce putting on blackface, Valentino using the Massai as a backdrop ad prop – to her credit she refused to judge these acts as ethical no-no’s. In her world the remix and mashup are inevitable. Clearly the crowd listening in didn’t think so, for they sat in pugnacious silence as Cooper concluded her talk, after which speaker after speaker was celebrated with shrill whistles, ululations, and an all-too-western handclap.
Maria McCloy – accessories and shoe designer – followed. Beginning with childhood photos of herself with her Basuto mother and white father (heritage unnamed, though one might assume from her name that her father was Scottish), McCloy proceeded along jingoistic lines to celebrate black crafts. ‘We Been Havin’ It!’ she declared to the audiences rousing approval. After chastising others for their inappropriate cultural appropriation, Esther Mahlangu, Laduma, and Khosi Nkosi came up trumps.
Heritage – that ploy which the ANC dangles like a rancid carrot – was the flavour to savour, Trevor Stuurman advocating value in its enshrining. Although to his credit Stuurman challenged the moral prurience of those who monitored his Instagram page for censoring images he’d taken of topless Himba women. ‘What kind of Africa am I supposed to post?’ he asked. Indeed.
Is there a correct Africa? And who decides which is the more apt? The plague of ideologues of course. But as Ben Okri sagely reminded us in his Steve Bantu Biko Memorial Lecture, we need to ‘pass it on’ that there are three Africa’s – the one we see everyday, the one ‘they’ talk about, and the one the emerges through the difficulties of our lives ‘like a quiet miracle’. Needless to say, there are a hell of a lot more than three perspectives, but Okri’s trinity deserves respect for grasping the refracted problem and idea of Africa.
Malcolm Che followed with a rousing call to open-mindedness and critical and aesthetic reflexivity after which the inimitable Chularp Suwannapha, a diminutive Thai domiciled in Jo’burg for the past 16 years, had us in tears and stiches of delight. A veteran designer of Menswear, Chularp has ripped the power-mongery and misogyny out of the South African male to create a softer, more gentle and more embracing creature whose beautiful being was paraded before us in clothing inspired by Asian-African textiles moulded into wistful origami birds.
Why Asian-African? Not because Chularp is from Thailand, but because what we think of as West African textile design originates from Coromandel and the Indian subcontinent, arriving in bales at East Africa’s port cities such as Kilwa where they were exchanged for elephant tusks haplessly deployed as picket-fencing. The north-westward migration of textiles followed. While raises the key question: Does it really matter where things and people come from? Isn’t the idea of home a decoy? Why all this existential angst re not belonging? Why the desperate bid to belong? Identity politics is the tragic symptom of this misbegotten longing for an origin.
‘Fashion is about making your own choice’, Chularp smartly declared. He was also smart enough to point out his relatively anomalous position – neither black nor coloured nor honorary white – the better to remind us to get over the banality of identity politics, affirmative or otherwise. But like Don Quixote and myself, Chularp is fighting what looks like a losing battle. You might turn to the left, you might turn to the right, but when you do please remember that you’re not only losing the invaluable middle ground, you’re losing a far greater prize – the ability to think-feel-live outside of that numbingly stupid binary in the first place.
Black Portraitures was a forked privilege to be a part of, at once terribly serious, terribly misguided, and yet inspiring all the same. Like fashion, though sadly lacking its whimsicality, it proved an eye-popping sign of the times. Not of course that it would have phased my ancient resident tortoise, or any other more sentient being for that matter, as they undertake their long-slow trot through time.