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.”
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.
PHOTOGRAPHY: Greg Constantine: Slum Warriors: Kenya’s Nubians. Kibera’s 100,000 strong Nubian community has lived there for over 100 years on land give them as compensation for fighting in the Kings African Rifles. “Nubian” is not officially recognized as a Kenyan tribe, so unless they are “vetted” at age of 18 to get Kenyan ID cards they become essentially stateless.
PHOTOGRAPHY:: Zwelethu Mthethwa: Inner Visions. Studio Museum in (the sweet village of) Harlem brings together a number of Mthethwa’s large scale images. Go see.
Zwelethu Mthethwa: Inner Views brings together three series by South African photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa (b. 1960). “Interiors” and “Empty Beds” document the domestic lives of migrant workers around Johannesburg, South Africa, while “Common Ground” focuses on the shared experience of natural disasters in urban areas, featuring houses in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina and on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa, after wildfires.
See Also: Talk between Mthethwa and Okuwi Enwezor last year at Aperture gallery at the launch of Mthethwa’s monograph.
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: 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
Image of Peter Beard on the shores of Lake Turkana, 1965. From Guardian web site.
Controversial diarist, artist, photographer, writer, conservation activitist Peter Beard links my two worlds in New York City and Kenya. I always thought he was a Kenyan, a Kenya Cowboy to be sure but Kenyan none the less. Growing up, I remember his photography and the publicity it generated around wildlife conservation. The picture of him on the shores of Lake Rudolph (Lake Turkana to the kids) with half of his body in the mouth of a crocodile has always been part of my visual landscape.
In truth Peter Beard was born in these United States. He first developed an interest in Africa through visits to the Museum of Natural History in NYC. After graduating from Yale, he moved to Kenya working on game conservation, as documented in his book “The End of the Game“. The book featured the carcasses of mostly elephants that were dying in Tsavo from a combination of drought and overpopulation brought on by population pressures. Here in the US, Beard hung out with the art/social elite of NYC. Beard’s US base in Montauk (far east Long Island) was the place folks like Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Richard Avedon, and Jackie Kennedy spent time. He also counted luminaries like Mick and Bianca Jagger, as well as Francis Bacon among his circle of friends.
Excerpts from “Peter Beard: Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond”
Beard’s mixed media diaries and installations make use of a lot of the ephemera of Kenya’s past and present. From coins, to images of Presidents Kenyatta and Moi, from old photos of colonial Kenya to current images of the land, people and animals of Kenya, there is so much that that is part of my visual and cultural landscape. That his work was inspired by artists like Andy Warhol and Francis Bacon, and his fashion images were featured in Vogue and Vanity Fair, places him squarely in the art scene in the New York of the 60s and 70s.
What one cannot deny about the work of Beard is that he appreciates the raw beauty of Kenya and incorporates it in his art. He can see the beauty of a Turkana woman untouched by modernity and say that it is the same beauty as that of a Vogue model. That bold viewpoint, informed by his life-long love of nature and natural history, challenges the connotation of Africa as that “dark” and primitive place and links the notion of beauty in Westernized, modernized, removed-from-nature New York with that of Africa (and all nature in general).
Beard, after all, is the man who introduced the world to one Iman Abdulmajid, claiming he had discovered her while she was herding camels in the Northern Frontier District (North Eastern Province to the kids). Iman’s arrival on the beauty scene of the early 1970’s completely and irrevocably upended the notion of African beauty in the world of fashion, which is pretty revolutionary come to think of it.
Paradoxically, apart from the Maasai and Turkana who live in the wild (in nature), the rest of us modern Africans are “doomed” for our wanton reproduction and desire for progress. In the debate over the battle of man vs nature in the competition for resources, Beard falls firmly on the side of nature. This quote from the film “Peter Beard: Scrapbooks from Africa and Beyond” in the mid-90s seems to imply that diseases like AIDS are nature’s retribution for our profligacy:
“Coming to Kenya is coming to unspoiled, and unscrewed up by human beings (at least in the 50’s), … a frontier that extends right back in time to the Stone Age. Human beings are not going to stop, they don’t know when to stop. The only thing that can stop them are these diseases that everyone is spending all their money to fight. We are sucking the juices out of the earth to fight the diseases that nature wants us to have because we are too greedy and we have taken over too much.”
This is a position that is hard to abide considering that as post-colonial Africans we are free to screw up our environment (or not), without the moralizing of people whose ancestors destroyed their environment and big chunks of other peoples’ to boot. It is the romantic, outmoded “Out of Africa”-era fetishistic attraction to Africa the primordial and the repulsion at Africa the modern with its complex, intractable problems that makes it hard to have unalloyed admiration for Peter Beard’s art, as much as he has contributed ecologically, culturally and visually. However, I suspect that is the essence of the man, who while decrying the superficial nature of modernity, has no problem doing fashion shoots for magazines that embrace that same superficiality. The world is full of contradictions.
But tonite mi just wah dagga
I’m a straight forward kind of bredda
Mi know mi seh wi coulda just chill tonight
But when mi see your body
Girl mi cyah badda
Mi just wah dagga
And leff all a di talking fi tomorrow
Tonite I wanna make you my baby madda (wooooh)
Tonite mi just wah dagga
Censorship: Busy Signal – Beep (Indiscretions Riddim)
just through di beep(beep)
I and I cyaan speak
warn to freedom of speech
just through di beep(beep)
we nah express weself inna di song
and now di beep fulfill it
just through di beep(beep)
I and I cyaan talk
cyaan tell mi fans everything inna mi thoughts
dem only waan mi music play pon sidewalk
certain things dem nah bright cause
African Underground: Democracy in Dakar is a groundbreaking documentary film about hip-hop youth and politics in Dakar Senegal. The film follows rappers, DJs, journalists, professors and people on the street at the time before during and after the controversial 2007 presidential election in Senegal and examines hip-hop’s role on the political process. Originally shot as a seven part documentary mini-series released via the internet – the documentary bridges the gap between hip-hop activism, video journalism and documentary film and explores the role of youth and musical activism on the political process
WE OF THE SAYA (pronounced “sigh-yah”) is a feature-length cultural and social documentary about the marginalized Afro-Bolivian community, and their struggle to achieve recognition as a legitimate ethnic group in the new Bolivian constitution. In addition to enriching culture and music, this film will present the rise of an Afro-Bolivian civil rights movement. “We of the Saya” is an inspirational story about the Afro-Bolivian movement (and all Afro-Descendant movements in a broader sense), and their resistance to suffer more years of continuous marginalization.This is an inspirational story about self-determination and seizing the moment in order to improve a community’s way of life.
(In Spanish with subtitles)
Trailer for the film “Thomas Sankara, Upright Man”, now publicly available at California Newsreel
California Newsreel is making this collection of feature films available directly to consumers — for the first time in its history, the Library of African cinema will be widely available on DVD for $24.95 each.
The collection includes widely celebrated feature films such as Ousmane Sembene’s “Faat Kine” (2001), Djibril Diop Mambety’s “La Petite Vendeuse de Soleil”, also known as “the Little Girl Who Sold the Sun” (1999), Zézé Gamboa’s “The Hero” (2004), Newton Aduaka’s “Ezra” (2007), Moussa Sene Absa’s “Ça Twiste à Poponguine” (1993), Joseph Gai Ramaka’s “Karmen Gei” (2001) and Mohamed Camara’s “Dakan” (1997).