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.”
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.
Per the South African Journal of Photography Ernest Cole, South Africa’s first black photojournalist was born as Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole. He started out his photography career as a studio assistant to a Chinese photographer; it took off when he asked Jurgen Schadeberg for a job at Drum magazine. It was while taking a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography that the staff there encouraged/helped him to start taking pictures of life under apartheid in South Africa. By tricking the government to reclassify him as a colored (enabled by the name change to “Cole”) he was able to get access to places other blacks would not have had. As a colored he was also able to sneak his images out of South Africa, that were made into the book “House of Bondage”. He never returned to South Africa, dying in exile and isolation in New York in 1990 a week after Nelson Mandela’s release.
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.
“The BLK JKS homecoming slideshow” audio slide show from the Mail & Guardian site.
Music:BLK JKS are back in the States to tour in support of the debut album “After Robots” out now. Rolling Stone has called them “Africa’s best new band” and artists to watch in 2009. Here is a sampler track from their new album:
Photographers I Like: Speaking of BLK JKS, you’ve probably seen a tall gentleman on/back stage at their shows taking pics of the performances. Said gentleman would be Kwesi Abbensetts, an art photographer who beautifully captures the creative vibe of Brooklyn. He posts his work on the photoblog “Spaceship George“.
Photography, more:Mike Schreiber, Oroma Speaking of photographers, here as some cool images of Oroma Elewa the editor and creative force of nature behind the magazine/site pop’africana (which site I have been criminally silent about). Mike Schreiber is another Brooklyn-based photographer with great work, check out his esays on M.I.A. as well as other music portraits he has shot on his site.
Promise of Africa Collective at New York Fashion Week
FASHION: Speaking of fashion, herewith highlights from the Arise: Promise of Africa Collective Spring/Summer 2010 show at the recently completed New York Fashion Week. It featured togs by David Tlale, Eric Raisine, Tiffany Amber and Jewel by Lisa.
Samuel Fosso’s image series “African Spirits”. Screen shot from Foam magazine site
The current issue of Foam Magazine includes a portfolio of Samuel Fosso’s current work, “African Spirits“, wherein the chameleonic portraitist takes on the form of a variety of African despots and African-American icons (the image of Malcolm X looks like the original). Peeped a copy of the magazine at the newsstand; the images are printed in gorgeous black and white, although at $30 a pop, looking is all I can afford to do in these times.
Herewith, a randomly ordered year end list of stuff of note from 2008 here at casa forota.
1. MUSIC: Post everything music: BLK JKS, Esau Mwamwaya, Santogold, Vampire Weekend, Radioclit, Diplo, et al found new ways to mash up musical, cultural, epochal influences to create music influenced by everywhere, but of nowhere. Brilliant soundtracks for our rootless time.
2. PHOTOGRAPHY: Most Favorite Image: “Blue Print, Rio” at Sartorialist. Not sure why but I kept coming back to this image.
3. PHOTOGRAPHY: Second Most Favorite Image: “Kwaito in the streets of Alexandra” by Krisanne Johnson from FADER 52. Another image I cannot get enough of.
4. POLITICS: Obama vs Palin. A vote for the open, interconnected, inclusive future vs the insular, backward looking, divisive past. Choice was pretty clear.
5. MAGAZINES: Vogue Italia: A Black Issue. Proved it is still an issue to be black in the beauty business if one needs an issue for black people. Intriguing step forward, though.
6. BOOKS: Chemise by Malick Sidibe. Hipsters, on perusing Sidibe’s images: “Oh look, African hipsters from long ago!”
7. RACE: Black but not Black: Rising Black American middle class, emergence of “Afropolitans” or second generation African immigrants, growing awareness among Afro-latinos is rendering the label “Black” and its connotations pretty obsolete. See also: The End of the Black American Narrative by Charles Johnson.
FADER 58: Andrew Dosunmu: Off the Wall. Dosunmu and stylist Mobolaji Dawoudu head out to Malaysia during Ramadhan to shoot a fashion spread. Dosunmu is one of my greatest inspirations photography-wise, but sometimes he makes me want to put my camera down instead of pick it up … his images/concepts are so good.