In the early 1990s SA artist Beezy Bailey created an alter ego, Joyce Ntobe, in response to what he believed was the "inverted racism" of local art institutions ahead of the country’s pending democracy. Bailey believed these institutions were being overtly politically correct by choosing works based on skin colour rather than merit.
To prove his point he submitted three linocuts under the guise of Ntobe to the prestigious Triennale art competition. The works were quickly snapped up by the National Art Gallery, despite it having rejected work by Bailey under his own name.
What’s interesting is that when creating the Ntobe works Bailey played directly into the clichéd expectations of a privileged white viewership, producing compositionally sound but simplistic linocuts depicting scenes from Ntobe’s supposed home life and her occupation as a domestic worker. Later works were more sophisticated oil paintings of shanties and township homes in flattering light. When Bailey revealed that he was behind the pieces it created a huge brouhaha in the media.
Fast forward to 2016. Though the discourse around race and meaning has matured, it can still be argued that, given the lack of support given by government to local contemporary art, the onus to provide it falls on our privatised, commercial art spaces. These are stuck in a chasm, as is the international community, of viewing "blackness" through a particular, exoticised lens.
It’s with this in mind that the Goodman Gallery deserves kudos for opening itself up to an exhibition by band/performance artists The Brother Moves On, entitled Hlabelela: It’s a New Mourning Nkush.
It serves to parody this lens, the gallery system and even the band itself. The exhibition is dedicated to the late founding member of the band, Nkululeko "Nkush" Mthembu, and works on the premise that there is little to no space within the arts to understand "the spiritual aspect of his death and the mourning process that followed" for the band’s members within a contemporary African framework.
Nkululeko’s brother, lead vocalist and performance artist Siyabonga Mthembu, says: "The multitude of South Africans have a homegrown conservatism.
"As a bunch of anglicised black kids we realised the spirituality of this blackness was so pivotal to white people, the dirtiness, the ugliness ... " but also the magic. "Magic is something we still create in SA. You can’t battle the magic, but that magic isn’t relatable to Western commercialism."
Mthembu says the gallery kept asking whether the performances were in relation to sangomas. "We have these moments of euphoria [as a collective] where we relate to each other on a higher frequency... but it’s not ‘shamanic’, nothing is that simple in SA."
According to the press release: "The exhibition is one which questions each member’s personal history, cultural background and beliefs as a means of unsettling the idea of a homogenised black experience and its acceptance by white art institutions and discourse. The performances, installations and videos exhibited serve not only as explorations of the complex identity of black youthful opposition but also a way in which traditions can exist with the established traditions of art institutions and discourse."
The exhibition begins as a kind of a "township tour", with members of The Brother Moves On guiding viewers through gold-painted shanties and offering them the opportunity to take a selfie in the outhouse toilet. It then moves through various rooms, each exploring different aspects of a particular lens. One scene, for example, entitled Drumming and Fucking, features drummer Simphiwe Tshabalala, sitting behind his kit, making slurping and sucking sounds into the microphone (rock musician/black man as sex god? Or sex-crazed misogynist?) and ends with a Q&A with storyteller and lead vocalist Mthembu, aka Mr Gold, taking questions from the audience.
I was expecting the wild, ritualised performance I had previously witnessed from The Brother Moves On, so the introspective, mildly mocking, nature of Hlabelela: It’s a New Mourning Nkush came as a surprise and left me amused but unsettled.
Of course, on rumination I realised it was obvious that my unease was exactly because my own lens had been shifted, shaken and stirred — something that’s never much fun.
"As South Africans we are all racist, ageist misogynists. We’re holding a mirror up to what it means to be ‘woke’ in SA. We’re constantly working on our own racism and our own misogyny, and we’re working a lot around cultural sensitivity parodying as play," says Mthembu.
It’s exactly this sensitivity and knee-jerk defensiveness that needs to be broken down and interrogated if we as South Africans are ever to have honest discourse across racial and social divides — but in all that seriousness, there is also light.
"We also laugh," says Mthembu. "We laugh in the sorrow — there’s a lot that could be grim, but we laugh in the grimness."