For the first installment of our Conversation series, South African artists Khanyisile Mbongwa and Sikhumbuzo Makandula explore, through an informal conversation, the possibilities and struggles experienced by emerging black artists – whether they function from within or on the margins of ‘the establishment’. Khanyisile Mbongwa, formerly a student in the CCA’s Honours in Curatorship course, is a performative installation artist and curator based in Cape Town who uses poetry, movement and sculpture in her work. She is one of the founding members of Gugulective (read more here), and has exhibited and performed both locally and internationally. Sikhumbuzo Makandula is a visual artist who specialises in photography, video and performance. Makandula is currently studying at Rhodes university and living and working between Grahamstown and Johannesburg. Makandula was the 2011 Sasol New Signatures runner-up winner and has exhibited in South Africa, Switzerland and Zimbabwe.
Our recent skype conversation about how as black artists we are positioned within a gallery stable or practicing independently, made me recall how one of my mentors once mentioned the fickleness of the visual arts industry. More so as the so called ‘emerging artist’ where one is subjected to a lot of vilification given how I’m positioned in the centre yet at the cultural margins in South Africa. I’m living and working between Grahamstown and Johannesburg and I find both spaces and places complex as they have the power to suck and spit you out. Although, Johannesburg is my favourite of the two due to its urban jungle setting and commercial viability.
As I write to you I’m thinking of what Thembinkosi Goniwe stated – “the burden of racial representation is a consequence of the absence of black voices in the official discourse of contemporary visual art practice” in an article he wrote, From My Sketch Pad: Notes of a Black South African Artist. As a student and practicing artist I am both a threat to and threatened by institutionalized authority. Then this requires clearly comprehending both my agency and positionality in speaking back or questioning white privilege within an art institution and being subjected to white female patronizing tendencies of curators. I have not yet made sense of what the curator in Liste Art Fair was implying by referring to you as a hustler, given the nature of all art fairs which are driven by making sales from cultural products. To share my own experience during 2015 Infecting The City Festival my video art titled ilolo, which was screened at Company Gardens included a text describing me as a witchdoctor in training. These labels and narcissistic terms attached to black contemporary artists and say a lot about how we are passively treated and manipulated to further the agenda of those who want to speak on behalf of black cultural producers. The idea of an art establishment, be it an academic institution or commercial gallery space, is complex to navigate. This was even articulated by Nontobeko Ntombela in a Mail and Guardian article titled Where hypervisibility meets true transformation in the arts, questioning what the establishment understands and frames as giving value to art?
Yes, the question of posionality is complex – the systems in place are recycled to maintain structures and processes like museums that tell us little about ourselves. My frustration, I guess, hit me one afternoon at a fellow artist’s studio a good seven years after our initial meeting, when I heard him recite like a dead poet “as an emerging artist, I am still waiting for my recognition, many galleries are showing interest in my work but no one is signing me yet”. I died a little inside, because I thought – what if no one is coming? Will he still wait for his honorary robe that will cloak him Sir Artist aka Established Artist?
And yes, yes, yes, the unnamed curator at the Liste Art Fair was clearly refusing to acknowledge my position, of finding other ways to navigate my practice outside gallery systems and to represent myself (and other independent artists) at such a stable. The acknowledgment, I suppose, would at some level legitimize my journey and others like me – who negotiate the art space beyond the margins and centre’s of commercial gallery systems. It is therefore easier to call me a hustler than a curator or creative intellectual. Being in Basel during all the different Art Fairs shifted my thinking about art as a market. There seems to be an unspoken understanding or contract between gallerist and collector. Non-represented artists find it more difficult to access and navigate the market, the invisible borders which prohibit the penetration into the wider art market.
This then raised many other anxieties about the conditions of being black and an artist in South Africa (and in the world) – born was my pondering question: The Artist’s Quest for Financial Freedom. The truth of the matter is: not every artist will be represented by a gallery. When and If you realize this – what do you do?
Let’s face it, art is an expensive profession on all accounts: conceptually, emotionally, intellectually, financially and time-wise. Between trying to stay alive and create art, the artist’s quest for financial freedom is an ongoing struggle: rent, food, clothing, transport, communication, studio, and materials are the bare necessities but freedom is not yet reached. Historical privilege still dispossess the majority of black artists, we don’t have a historical wealth to fall on – or family members who can buy our studio or graduation work – most of us are lone soldiers marching the margins of our predetermined circumstantial failure and the price of breaking even in your practice requires relentless sacrifice. Is it worth it Skhumbuzo, to kill yourself over and over – so that you can live?
The words: Write about me and tell them I am dying… echo on the corners of my spine not because I romanticize death but because I have seen so many die under the guillotine of ART!
On dying over and over I’m reminded of the Dumile Feni documentary where at one point he states that the apartheid government in South Africa wanted him dead but he would not relent. Your question, is it worth it to kill oneself over and over? I reckon one has to re-invent him/herself when it comes to art all the time as it is necessary. ‘Waiting on God’, whoever that may be, as artists we have at least the power now to choose how we position ourselves. The only way out as black artists is to work collectively to realize the change we want to see and yes, the reality is that the gallery system is not for everyone. For one to be financially free one needs to synthesise and understand their position within the game and use the little resources and networks available to them. Independent spaces such as the Centre for Historical Reenactments in Johannesburg and DALA in Durban prove that it’s all possible. Urgency of currency can be blinding, negating the necessities of writing and telling our own stories. Imperative is how do we own and set mechanisms to keep our stories alive and how to value our own labour?
Yah nhe. .. the relevance of art to blackness, its currency to the liberation project, to the decolonizing agenda, to freedom and to being FREE. Nina Simone’s TO BE YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK echoes uncomfortability on the corners of my lips:
To be young, gifted and black,
Oh what a lovely precious dream
To be young, gifted and black,
Open your heart to what I mean
In the whole world you know
There are billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that’s a fact!
Young, gifted and black
We must begin to tell our young
There’s a world waiting for you
This is a quest that’s just begun
When you feel really low
Yeah, there’s a great truth you should know
When you’re young, gifted and black
Your soul’s intact
Young, gifted and black
How I long to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth
Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gifted and black
Is where it’s at
But what Ms. Simone forgot to warn us about in this song is what tata Dumile Feni shares – that in fact if you want to sit at the ‘TABLE’, be prepared to have an extra chair for your blackness or keep dying. So for now my brother, I think we are just scratching the surface of the Artists Quest for Financial Freedom.
Header image: Khanyisile Mbongwa talking at the CCA’s Public Art Now screening event at the beginning of the year.