Saturday, September 18, 2010
Alice Walker - Coming to See You Since I was Five Years Old: An American Poet's Connection to the South African Soul
“Today, when I write about Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, Burma, or visit Gaza to see the devastation caused by the Israeli assault on a people under present-day Apartheid laws, it’s as if a tiny recording of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is lodged in my brain. And because it is there and never ceases – just as your desire to be free never stops – I know that whatever disaster I am witnessing will have an end. The people of Palestine, like the people of South Africa, have a right to their land; their resources; their freedom. I know from the world’s gradual embracing of the South African struggle that the same will be the fate of the Palestinians. And the ‘why’ of it is so simple: No lie will live forever. And when a lie is exposed – that Africans are merely savages; that Palestinians are merely terrorists; that women are basically servants of men or whores – there, in the bright glare of our collective awareness, it dies. The lie dies. And when lies die, people live.Excerpt from Coming To See You Since I Was Five Years Old – An American Poet’s Connection To The South African Soul , Alice Walker’s speech for this year’s Steve Biko Memorial Lecture held at the University of Cape Town.
If you happen to be at an event and wondering who the dapper young man photographing only the most fashion-forward folk in attendance is, chances are it would be Malibongwe Tylio, a veritable one-man style police and creator of the style blog, Skattie, What Are You Wearing? Armed with little more than a camera phone (“It’s actually a shitty little camera... I really need to get myself an iPhone,” he laughs) and a healthy helping of humour, Tyilo’s single-minded determination to, sartorially speaking, separate the savvy from the staid has seen to it that, in the few months since its inception, Skattie ... has gained a steady following of jaded fashionistas.
Though style blogs are a dime a dozen they tend to follow the more serious – albeit highly successful - formula of the ‘granddaddy of style blogs’, The Sartorialist (wwwthesartorialist.blogspot.com). Skattie..., as you might have guessed by its name, is however steeped in humour and irreverence. With entry titles ranging from ‘Somebody, Anybody, Make the Arts Fashionable Again’ (followed shortly by ‘It’s Safe to Come out – the Arts Are Fashionable Again’) and ‘Mi Kasie es Su Casa’ to – my personal favourite – ‘F**off, It’s Directional’, this ex-London International School of Fashion student is clearly enjoying having a bit of a laugh. And it is not only this approach that has garnered it hundreds of loyal well-heeled followers.
For singer and aspirant designer, Lindiwe Suttle (and, yes, Felicia’s daughter) - who risked life and couture-covered limb to secretly photograph the Yves Saint Laurent Retrospective at Paris’ Petit Palais for the blog - its appeal lies in the fact that “it showcases such a diverse group of South African fashionistas”. Indeed. Though most of the blog’s entries focus on Cape Town’s notoriously self-conscious shi-shi gallery-hopping set, Tyilo also turns his aesthetically astute eye to everything from Sunday get-togethers in Gughulethu to dinner parties with New York-based art historian, author, critic and curator, RoseLee Goldberg (“She loves the blog,” he says with pride) to wild nights out with retro-cool gay boys on the streets of Manhattan –with the odd hidden shopping gem thrown into the already schizophrenic mix.
Outré designer Jamakazi Thelejane is another loyal follower. “This isn’t being done by some Drum (magazine) stylist claiming to be an authority on fashion. Malibongwe mixes elements so that it is not just couture or high fashion. What is really great about it, though, is that the South African fashion scene is desperately in need of strong fashion voices – voices that aren’t afraid to show us that there is actually life beyond Stoned Cherrie and David Tlale ... this could easily be that voice.”
Tyilo shies away from this kind of praise when he acknowledges that “deciding what is stylish sometimes feels a bit egotistical”. He does however admit that his occupation as a buyer for a leading clothing retailer, which has him “make decisions on a daily as to what goes out there”, allows him to be cut-throat around what is an outfit and what is, well, out. “Also,” he adds, “I am surrounded by people who think in ‘looks’. They believe in it. For them, the look is life.”
Though initially intended to be a YouTube show looking a people for whom life clearly does not revolve around ‘the look’ (such as his hilarious entry on the garish fashion at the recent Fleur Du Cap Awards), the concept quickly morphed into something a bit more celebratory. “I really just want to celebrate and encourage the idea of personal style - to let people know that true personal style exists and get them excited about putting together a look and going out.”
Any sage words of wisdom for the sartorially challenged among us on how exactly to go about doing this? “It’s simple,” he says without missing a beat, “Celebrate yourself and enjoy your hotness.” Then, with his trademark mischievous smile, cautions: “But don’t be under any illusions either – there’s hot and there’s not.”
So, you recently returned from the Gay Games held in Cologne. You take any good photographs?
(Laughs) Yeah, yeah... I was one of like 10 African photographers which was pretty wow!
Will you be showing these photos?
Not just yet. I’m still thinking about it. I would like to possibly use it for fundraising for my soccer club.
Your soccer club?
Yes, in 2008 I started a football club called Thokozani Football Club in Durban.
Are they a good team?
Yes, they’re registered with the Absa Women’s League. They’re not a fly-by-night.
Why start a soccer club?
Well, because I come from that area and development is really poor. I wanted to give something back to that community.
At the artists’ talk [with Anton Kannemeyer and Glenn Ligon at the Michael Stevenson Gallery, held as part of the This Is Our Time group show], a member of the audience challenged you by saying that by showing in galleries you are not giving these communities access to your work. Do you get a lot of this kind of criticism?
I was actually glad that guy mentioned that, because so many people don’t say what they’re really thinking. I do a lot of outreach work, like the photo workshops – it’s just that hardly anyone knows about it because I don’t feel the need to be telling everyone. For a lot of people art is complicated and you really need to feel you have an understanding of it before you’d want to step into a gallery. I remember telling him that it was a great pity that there were no galleries in townships. But, then again, people are dealing with bread and butter issues and I can’t change people’s priorities for them. If, for example, you’re a 16-year-old girl in the townships and you have very little education, what are your priorities? Finding a job or going to visit a gallery? Also, with the subject matter of my work, how many people are really willing to come into a space and absorb that kind of information or allow themselves to be confronted by it? I feel I have mobilised people, especially lesbians, who would never ordinarily frequent galleries, to see shows – even if it is just the shows in which they or their friends are captured. I often had to pay for their transport myself – and I am not the government! (Laughs)
A young gallerist recently told me, and not in a disparaging way either, that your work was not art but rather activism.
Yes, my work is activism but the medium I work with – photography – makes it art. It really depends on the viewer, what they bring with them and how they choose to engage with it.
So the book Faces and Phases (Prestel) has just been released. You excited about it?
I am so excited. For me, it’s like passing Matric and seeing your name in the paper (laughs). It’s been four years since [the first monograph] Only Half the Picture.
Why the long wait?
Well, where do you get money from to produce books like this? It’s really hard. I am just so happy that Prestel [the publishers] came on board to help me realise this dream... of passing my matric (laughs). It’s very exciting. (Pause) Though for my family it’s not really that impressive.
Why not? They’re not proud of you being a respected photographer and getting to show your work all over the world?
Yes, they’re happy for me, but to them it’s not work. Work is nine to five; it’s benefits such as pension and medical aid. When I show in Brazil later this month [as part of the São Paulo Biennale] it will be a year since my mom passed away. If you tell my sisters “Zanele’s going to show in Brazil’, they’ll be like “where the fuck is Brazil?” You know what I’m saying? Once again, it’s just about people having different priorities. I don’t come from any posh space.
Speaking of Sao Paulo, you must be looking forward to having Faces and Phases shown there.
I’ll be showing next to big names such as Nan Goldin and David Goldblatt and it’s an inter-generational show which is tight! (Pause) Maybe it would be a dream come true for other photographers, but for me it’s ok.
(Laughs) Oh, “it’s ok” is it?
Well, yeah, without wanting to sound pompous. It’s cool, (laughs) but, really, life would go on without it... you know what I mean?
What would you say to those detractors who say there is very little longevity with your chosen subject matter? That there are only so many black lesbians one could photograph?
Well, it’s beyond just capturing the lives of lesbians for me. I am also shooting transsexuals and am hoping to challenge the way, even as lesbians, we perceive transsexual men, just as, as black people, we perceive difference in others. I am also working on a series called Massa and Mina(h) which draws on my mother’s life as a domestic worker and in which I draw parallels between this and my romantic relationship with a white women. While I was in Spain recently I also shoot a lot of landscapes because they’re so representative of us ... even when we’re not present.
What else have you been working on?
I’ve just finished a documentary, called Difficult Love, which should be screened sometime next year.
What’s it about?
It’s about my life as Zanele: the work I do, the women I’ve slept with, my family. So often as artists – especially queer artists - we function outside of our families. When we present ourselves to the world, very little about our family is ever said. I thought it was very important to include this aspect of myself in the film.
One of your strengths as a photographer, I find, is the way one feels an almost tangible sense of connection between you and the lesbian women you photograph (I won’t use the word ‘subjects’ because I know how much you hate that). But for me, when I look at your portraits of gay men, I feel a great disconnect between you and them. The intimacy isn’t there... just distance. Would you agree with this?
(Pause) No, I wouldn’t. The gay couples I shot I did not really have a chance to bond with personally. I would definitely not hesitate to shoot more of these portraits... I am not the only one capable of taking photographs like these... I sometimes wish someone could meet me halfway and start doing it too. Though I know it’s an expensive thing to be producing photographs. No, I wouldn’t say there was a distance there.
What I noticed about the portraits in Faces and Phases was that, aside from two or three, all the women you photograph stare directly into the camera. Was this deliberate on your part to create the sense of pride - or defiance even?
No, not at all. People do their own thing.... they’re just being themselves. I just try to keep it as natural as possible and let them do their thing.
The monograph, Faces and Phases, is available at Michael Stevenson Gallery (+27 (0)21 462 1500) or through Prestel. The São Paulo Biennale runs from 25 September to 12 December 2010.