Each image, a portrait of Herero tribe members of Namibia, reveals a material culture that harkens the region’s tumultuous past: residents wear Victorian era dresses and paramilitary costume as a direct result and documentation of its early 20th century German colonization. Namibia’s borders encompass the world’s oldest desert. Bleak lunar landscapes, diamond mines, German ghost towns, rolling sea fogs, nomadic tribes and a hostile coastline littered with shipwrecks and whale skeletons comprise the region’s striking and haunting natural features. Namibia’s geography has witnessed a turbulent and little documented history of human settlement, upheaval and war within a particularly brutal period of European colonization.
The spectator is confused. These aesthetical, disturbing photographs make him feel so ill at ease that he is tempted to look away, confronted with the repressed reality revealed by the artist who makes him question the body in society, the body as an “ object of socialization”
Ed: Struck by the remarkable colors and tones used to tell the story of these two social/cultural groups.
Another Africa and K.L.V. have collaborated on a series of diptychs that compare an intensely rich source of inspiration born in Africa with the realms of the worldwide arts and fashion. On view, the ingenuity of African masqueraders, gleaning mother nature’s closet to create visually arresting disguises. Juxtaposed with contemporary art and fashion images, the pairings highlight the qualities that connect, complement and contrast, but ultimately celebrate creative ingenuity.
Within the rather Spartan confines of the Walther Collection Project Space are to be found three worlds: Weimar-era Germany, photographed by August Sanders in his life-long project to record the ‘Face of Time’, late-colonial Mali, where Seydou Keïta operated a portable portrait studio in Bamako, and, of course, 21st century New York.
Ed: Pairing of bodies of work that are on the surface unrelated.
While doing a little digging at my parents’ home I stumbled across TOPIC, a mid-70s periodical published by the U.S. Information Agency for distribution in Africa. It was a general interest magazine on the technology, politics, business, arts, pop culture of the US. The magazines were sprinkled with articles on the “good works” the US was undertaking in Africa, Africans of note living and working in the US, as well as coverage of African arts/performance events in the US. There is also some plain old “USA, USA” flag waving (life in small town America, the economic/social progress of “the blacks”, American business culture, etc). Looking at TOPIC now, more than 30 years later, it is a great time capsule of American popular culture and print design of the mid-70s.
To wit: there is a piece on Design Works, one of 50 business created via the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation started by the late Sen. Bobby Kennedy to transform the Brooklyn, NYC neighborhood. It sourced financial resources to aid projects that rehabilitated housing, provided jobs as well as health, youth development, cultural and educational resources. Jackie Onassis provided the impetus for designing African-motif, American-designed fabrics, suggesting friends Doris and Leslie Tillett consult on a project in their own country (they had helped developing countries start their own design industries). Pull quotes from the article:
“The creative blending of traditional African art forms with with the American black experience has produced some of the most exciting fabrics available today.”
“At Design Works of Bedford-Stuyvesant, colorful silk-screen printed materials for home furnishings provide employment for three dozen residents of New York’s largest black community. Their African-inspired fabrics are sold through a decorator’s supply firm with showrooms throughout the United States, in Canada and Europe.”
South African photographer Frank Marshall’s images of cowboy-clad metaleros from Botswana collected into a body of work he calls “Visions of Renegades”. Snip from article on the otherwise ribald Vice web site:
“… many metalheads in Botswana are cowboys from the villages and farms, so they mix the cowboy image with a biker metal look. Many wear hunting knives and parts of dead animals. We drink from the hollowed-out cow horns.”
In order to present various dimensions of the work of African artists and artisans worldwide, The Global Africa Project is organized around several thematic ideas. These include: the phenomenon of intersecting cultures and cultural fusion; the branding and co-opting of cultural references; how art and design is promoted in the international market and the creative global scene; the use of local materials; and the impact of art-making on the economic and social condition of local communities.
Relatedly: Interview with Ivorian fashion designer Emeka Alams here.
WEBSITES: Another Africa: Unravelling a Hidden Continent. Founder Missla Libsekal’s beautiful site serves as a “contemporary vision of Africans, Africa and those related to the continent and its peoples in the areas of culture, art, fashion, architecture, design, music, photography and more ….”
Screenshot from home page of Another Africa web site.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Delphine Diallo: The Great Vision Franco-Senegalese graphic artist/photographer’s portfolio site. Still love “Magic Photo Studio” series after first seeing it in Clam magazine a while ago.
Refugee: In above puff piece, former refugee Iman makes a great point about what women displaced by the Congo conflict need. No, not charity but help to end the war (as funded by conflict minerals from that region), so that they can re-build their communities. Not sure if the whole fair-trade cellphones concept will take off, though.
The swenkas are a small group of Zulu working men which formed in South Africa following the abolishment of Apartheid.
These well-dressed men are proud and considered to serve as an inspiration to others. On Saturday nights, these men leave their work clothes behind and don highly fashionable quality suits to impress a judge, who is a randomly picked. Traditionally, the prize for the most stylish suit is cash, but on special occasions such as Christmas, the winner may receive a goat or a cow. This traditional fashion show still happens today, but it is unclear as to precisely when it was instigated. The men follow certain set values of Swanking, such as physical cleanliness, sobriety and above all self-respect.
It is not clear what the precise roots of the swenka culture are. There is the acapella Iscathamiya music, where the performers, inspired by African-American ragtime/jazz fashions took a sense of formality and elegance. Also like migrants everywhere else the workers needed to buy swanky outfits for their return home to show those they had left behind that they had made it in the big city, regardless of what the daily reality was (is) of life in the mines, the construction sites, and white homes where they worked. Regular competition seems to have raised it all into an art form and a subculture.
The three video clips below highlight the various threads that make up Swenka.
Mini-feature on the Zulu ISICATHAMIYA choir competitions in Johannesburg
“artsworld” feature on Iscathamiya choral and Swenka fashion competitions in Johannesburg
Trailer for 2004 documentary “The Swenkas” by Danish director Jeppe Ronde. Synopsis here
See also: Vice magazine: Swanky Swenkas Snip from article from Adolphus Mbuyisa on swenking:
I am one of the organizers of the Joburg swenkas. I don’t know how many suits I own, maybe 20 or 30. If I see a suit I like, I simply must have it. I also have lots of shoes, ties, and shirts. It is important for everything to match if you want to win a competition.
I live in a room in Soweto. My family is very supportive of me and my clothes. They don’t mind that I spend so much money on suits—they are proud of me and they like it when I look smart.
Screen shot from designer Paul Smith’s web site
Speaking of Swankiness, See Also: Underscoring the power of the imagination in subcultures like the Swenkas and sapeurs, fashion designer Paul Smith has a new fashion line for spring/summer 2010 called “Mainline” influenced by Congo Brazzaville’s sapeurs:
See Also: Through all this I can’t help but think of Hugh Masekela’s song “Coal Train” (aka “Stimela”) about a train carrying men from the hinterlands of southern Africa (all of Africa these days?) who uproot themselves from their homes, lands and loves in the pursuit of dreams of wealth and comfort. The dreams that crash into the reality of migrant life and that are rekindled in Swenka fashion and Iscathamiya music/performance.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Dimanche a Bamako by Aitken Jolly One of the legacies of Malick Sidibe’s work getting accepted by the elite art/culture crowd methinks is that it has encouraged fashion/editorial image makers to explore using African models, fabrics, etc. beyond the “safari, wild animals, raw nature” concepts that have previously dominated interpretations of Africa. This is a good thing.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Book Review: Malick Sidibe vs Dash Snow. On the occasion of the recent release of Malick Sidibe‘s latest book, art photography critique site Conscientious juxtaposes two things that should not go together. Jörg M. Colberg posits that art should transport/transform; it is the unalloyed joy and humanity in Sidibe’s images that are core of the images appeal. Conversely, Dash Snow’s VICE magazine-style party polaroids of the tortured/alienated artist NYC do not. Providence allowing, one day I will own this Malick Sidibe print.
PHOTOGRAPHY:Carnaval: Surreal Selves. In 1987 famed Brazilian documentary photographer Rogerio Reis took portraits of “counter-carnaval” participants on the back streets of Rio de Janeiro. What he found were people who for one day were trying to escape the social/cultural strictures they lived under the rest of the year. It makes me think of the lyrics of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “A Felicidade”.
A felicidade do pobre parece
A grande ilusão do carnaval
A gente trabalha o ano inteiro
Por um momento de sonho
Pra fazer a fantasia
De rei ou de pirata ou jardineira
Pra tudo se acabar na quarta feira
The happiness of a poor man is like
The grand illusion of Carnaval
People work the whole year long
For one moment’s dream
To play the part of
A king or a pirate or a gardener
And all of that is ended on [Ash] Wednesday