Crixeo: South African Artists
South African Artists You Need to Know
“Please, people of the world,” cried Wara Zintwana, “bring instruments to Africa. We don’t want arms and cheap clothes. We want instruments. Music instruments.” He holds up his guitar with pride. “This is my gun.”
His bandmate, a gifted guitarist named Ongx Mona, explains how he angered his churchgoing father by choosing a guitar over the Bible. He jokes with the white filmmaker of The Creators: South Africa Through the Eyes of Its Artists, “Do you know what your people did to I? They came with their Bible and said, ‘Kneel down, close your eyes and pray!’ We closed our eyes, we prayed, and when we opened our eyes, all of our land was stolen!”
After winning a recording deal with a local label, Ongx hoped he could escape a life in the slums, but the studio never released the album. Now he sings on trains and in shacks, hoping to get a lucky break. He says, “I never thought that I would be sleeping in a place where a dog sleeps.” But even in his shack, he continues to dream of a life on the other side of the ghettos, where people speak English and demonstrate their success with shiny cars and well-built houses.
And while it’s true that the white population of South Africa, which makes up a small minority, enjoys the same high living standards of many Western countries — and certainly the highest living standards in Africa — the Black communities are living in obscene poverty as a result of centuries marred by land and racial disputes. To this day, roughly a quarter of the population — mostly non-white, indigenous people — live on a mere $1.25 USD a day. And in such a tense atmosphere, torn apart by gang violence, income inequality and racism, it’s very difficult to find anyartists who are successfully producing original work.
Ongx and Wara blame the inferiority complex that has been ingrained in native South Africans since the days of the East India Trading Company, which brought Dutch and British explorers seeking to claim the land as their own. This situation escalated even further when, in the late 1800s, gold and diamonds were discovered to be plentiful in the region. As a result, the wealthy white minority fought to maintain control over these valuable natural resources, pushing the poor majority into the slums.
Then in 1948, South Africa experienced one of the worst acts of institutionalized racism in recent history: the infamous apartheid installed by The National Party, who called it “a policy of good neighborliness.” In actuality, it meant that all people were classified into three separate races, each with separate rights available to them. Art and music were censored, and gangs rose to power in the slums. Despite apartheid ending in the 1990s, the effects can be felt to this day, which is what initially attracted American filmmaker Laura Gamse.
Gamse was determined to discover if creativity could survive such harsh conditions and aggressive censorship, and so using her Fulbright Scholarship, she moved to Cape Town in the hopes of finding local artists willing to share their stories. However, after six months of searching, Gamse grew disheartened. Many South African artists she found were merely copying the works of their Western counterparts rather than creating something inherently unique to the culture of South Africa. And with the goal of spotlighting at least six South African artists, she used Ongx and Wara as a starting point.
She soon followed rumors of a young boy from the slums whose father had abandoned him when he was four, leaving behind only an opera CD. The boy had taught himself to sing in Italian from the three Pavarotti songs he had access to and was singing opera in the streets for cash. The locals said she would know him by the scar on his face, a token left behind by a near-fatal gang incident.
By the time Gamse had located Mthetho Mapoyi, he was an orphan with no family to speak of. His mother had succumbed to HIV/AIDS, and most of his siblings were dead. His grandmother had died while he slept on her lap with his head on her chest. After so much despair, not even Pavarotti’s music can elicit much joy in his voice. His life’s struggles seem to weigh down each and every note he sings, yet he pleads, “Let me just live with my voice. Try to see if my voice will be my mom, be my father, be my family, be my everything.”
Meanwhile, Blaq Pearl is a spoken word artist also trying to live off her voice. Her brother did the same. Known as Mr. Devious, Mario van Rooy dedicated his life to helping troubled youths escape gang violence, but despite his efforts, Rooy was murdered in the streets by the same people he was trying to help. Today, his sister continues his work by teaching creative writing in prisons and performing her poetry throughout Mitchell’s Plain — the most dangerous neighborhood in the world. Her brother’s killer lives just down the road.
Gamse also discovered Emile Jansen, who found his calling through the power of hip-hop, which he now teaches to local youths. By using South African artists’ music and dance, he encourages his students to push themselves to unearth who they really are, what they’re meant to do and how they can make their planet and country a better place.
Likewise, the musical duo Sweat.X, made up of Markus Wormstorm and Spoek Mathambo, aims to spread a similar message through house music with escapist undertones and historical whimsy. They represent a shifting mind-set in South Africa, in which freedom means getting to wake up every morning and do what you love.
But not all messages need to be transmitted via song or dance. Graffiti artist Faith47 and her son hold up a mirror to South African life through their drawings and images, reminding people what freedom, art and expression really mean. We find Faith47 hard at work despite all of the dangers, painting Lady Justice on a decrepit wall, reminding everyone of the promises made to them by the Freedom Charter: “There shall be work and security,” and “All shall be equal before the law.”
A passerby sees the art and is flooded with memories from when her mother was arrested for owning a copy of the Freedom Charter. You can see the fear in her eyes as she decides not to speak of such things. Even the thought of it is too much to bear.
These creators believe that art is the very medicine South Africa needs, and those profiled in Gamse’s documentary prove that creativity and a desire to make art can survive in the most dire of conditions, if only as a seedling in need of a place to grow. But a handful of South African artists cannot do it alone. In order for South Africa to grow in confidence with equality and freedom of expression, the rest of the populace must choose to sing along.