Location: Pretoria Art Museum, Tshwane, South Africa
Date: Tuesday 17 February 2015 at 09:00
Identity /Ideology Bamboozled
Mmutle. So would you say the idea of identity in terms of the content of the work started to take shape somewhere during this period, as you were exposed to the work of Spike Lee in comparison to the work of John Singleton?
Vusi. There was another artist, an English-Nigerian who used Elephant dung in his artworks. I forget his name. But like in identity, interrogating the idea of identity you know in the arts Spike Lee’s ‘Bamboozled’ sort of put at rest my anger towards the way blacks were excluded. You know that movie it made sense in a way that entertainment and such things were not something that was reserved for black people in a way. Entertainment wise it was mocking them. That was the entertainment industry and I just wanted to find a way for escaping or teaching [myself] or finding a way to express my anger through specifying that there is a difference between an artist and a black artist. They are two different things.
Mmutle. You mean the difference between a white artist…?
Vusi. No-no, the difference between an artist and a black artist. You know if you are black you are not an artist you are a ‘black artist’. So there is that thing…
[Mmutle. So you are not an artist pure – you are a black artist.]
Vusi. That’s what helped me to interrogate this thing. I have always saw myself as an artist…
Mmutle. And now this dichotomy of
Vusi. …of being label black artist and watching that movie ‘Bamboozled’. The story line going back to where white artists painted their faces black
Mmutle. So black artists, in fact black actors were not good enough to portray themselves.
Vusi. Yah in a way the so called black artists, as a black painter you are not good enough to be an artist to portray whatever you want. You have to be black to portray your surroundings in a way like your shacks, whatever, the taxi, you know such things – that’s what was expected.
Mmutle. And of course we have passed a long time ago through Township Art…
Vusi. Township Art
Mmutle. This is a different period now, different concerns
Vusi. different concerns. It made me explore this relationship of this black face. I remember the first paintings I did I think in 2005, 2006 I had this painting of a funny enough you’ve probably heard this before. Sophie – this black maid, black face, red lips, Sophie.
Mmutle. I’m glad you mentioned that, then it leads us to your Bittercomix exposure and experience and the Sophie character was she a character that you invented?
Visi. Yah she was a character that I invented, obviously as you know there is another artist that use the same name that type of character but took it to another height unlike my commentary. This maid, you know – big boobs, big red lips.
Mmutle. What does she represent in you iconography?
Vusi. She was representing that conversation of what was expected of black people [in the past], are we those sidelined servants washing dishes and hide, go somewhere afterwards? You know that simpleton, that we don’t know what is happening we are just there to be servants to be seen and not heard. Like in the art industry where you will see a painting there of some black artist but you will never hear of them or anything else…
Mmutle. There is no history behind them?
Vusi. There is no history behind them. So I wanted to use this character that is present in the white homes but in the background she skinners she knows what is happening besides being ignored except for her services.
Mmutle. It’s interesting that you mention this character because if you really look at the development of the socio-economic development of black people in this country. Our grandmothers worked as maids in white families and there was a time that it is was actually a status to work as a maid in white families. Today when we look back we know it was not actually a status.
Vusi. My grandmother worked as a maid, they were getting better pay, they were raising white children; some say better than their own kids…
Mmutle. Yes because they are not at home anyway to raise their own kids!
Vusi. I mean, Yah, I remember the stories that my mother [use to tell] me when she had to go and bail my grandmother out. Basically she wasn’t present I mean she was working in town and if she was late at times they’ll just be thrown into jail or something if found loitering around or something, stories like those, but ehh coming to Bittercomix now, it was after the conversation that I was having with myself after seeing the movie Bamboozled
Mmutle. And that awareness that black artists were not permitted to shine as artists
Vusi. …as artists…I ran accidentally into Bittercomix when they had a workshop at TUT, Anton Kannemeyer, sort of introduced me to the side of the comic world that I did not know much about and it was a very shocking experience where there was this black face, big lips
Mmutle. This was during the time of Aubrey Fourie by the way neh?
Vusi. Yah, and all these characters I mean it just made me so angry
[Mmutle. It is quite vulgar]
Vusi. …that I couldn’t believe it that there was a something like that I mean the free use of the K word. I remember there was a list in one of the comic books of all these words all these things that start with a Kaffer this Kaffer that and I was like blown away but I forced myself to see behind it as well. Why is that word making me angry? What does this anger serve and what’s the point of it? And obviously there were like the N word and why African Americans used that word
Mmutle. Even amongst themselves
Vusi. Amongst themselves and as a word of endearment of some sort, can I find a way to take power away from that word? And there wasn’t no other artist trying to do what I was trying to do with this word hence I came up with this ‘Kaffer Paradise’ comic where there is paradise everybody is a kaffer, white, black whatever, everybody in that comic book is basically a kaffer. And to sort of shift it away from if you are black and dark that word [only] applies to you. [My attempt was] to see how I could [dismantle] the word Kaffer into [a global] word, in this paradise everybody is that word and how is that going to change (chuckles) perception?
Mmutle. What was the premise of that book, the story line, what was the book about?
Vusi. Kaffer Paradise? The one I did with Eric Rantisi?
Vusi. It was basically…
Mmutle. By the way you co-wrote it with Eric?
Vusi. Yes I co-wrote it with Eric, basically it was the scenario where there was a gardener and again there is a maid and there was this political prisoner that has been set free like Mandela. This gardener sort of gets a lift from his bass listening to Sondergrense
Mmutle. The radio station
Vusi. Yah and stuff and they pick up this lady Queen Elizabeth Whatever. The black guy goes and sit at the back of the bakkie. Sort of a story with these big diamonds and stuff and sort of making reference of diamonds being stolen from Africa in a way.
Mmutle. It’s a very hierarchically layered story in terms of power
Vusi. …power in a way…
Mmutle. …power relations…
Vusi. …what is seen as normal, you see a bakkie there you see a black guy at the back and the white guy is driving the bakkie is sitting by himself at the front with an open seat. Such things that you don’t notice sometimes, I mean you see them as normal. I don’t know whether its brain washing or what. So I was just making fun to those type of scenarios that you never get to see or we see but we’re not, it does not click in our minds that there is something wrong with that picture you know. In that way I was playing around with that word in that ‘paradise’ with all these things happening we see them but we might not understand their implications. We see them as normal. Hence…
Mmutle. Kaffer Paradise
Vusi. for the upcoming exhibition I was thinking of the Kaffer Paradise – The great Grotesque but obviously the society would not be ready for that. But I am also thinking of the paradise that’s happening now I mean we say things without noticing like Kaffer Hare (Kaffer Hair)
Mmutle. Yes we’ve normalized this word
Vusi. We have normalized the word but not in a way of endearment but
Mmutle. …belittling each other
Vusi. …belittling each other. I mean when you go to the salon to get your dreadlocks twisted they be like hey wena o tswere kaffer hare it’s too hard you know such expressions describing the coarse quality of your virgin hair. I remember these cheap sheets, bed sheets they call them Kaffer sheets. You know, its sounds normally to describe the quality.
Mmutle. What is interesting when it comes to identity as in a person being called a Kaffer by a white person the word falls off from normalization
Vusi. …true, it falls off but at the same time it’s like accepted in a way, uhm
Mmutle. Would you say that?
Vusi. well I am saying that the way people, back then, obviously not now, workers when…there was a point where
[Mmutle. It was normalized]
Vusi. if a white person [called] you [with] that word it was fine, you did not take it too hard. Maybe as black people we never saw ourselves as that, maybe we never fully understood what it fully meant; whatever that word meant. Obviously it was a belittling, it was suppose to ’little you and stuff. But with time we caught on with the word henceforth Arthur Mafokate’s kwaito music track ‘Don’t call me Kaffer’ raised the word to the point of discussion.
Mmutle. The track itself is from the ’90s and it’s a track wherein [our country is going through] a transition so maybe we can conclude with the words that the word Kaffer post ’94 the potency of what it meant became clearer because the word was looked at from another point of view as a disempowerment tag. That is if it is put on you you’re disempowered.
Mmutle. In other words the word Kaffer, depending who uses the word we cannot help it but question the power that they have over us.
Vusi. True, but do we allow it though? Or do we challenge our self of what that word means to us? The challenge of that word spoken by a white person still inspires violence.
Mmutle. Would you say it’s an ambivalent word?
Vusi. Yes I can say that but for me it does not hold power as a person and as an artist as a South African it does not affect me. But it’s something that needs to be dismantled. Dismantle the power that that word has because it still has a hold on us in a way. We can’t just get over it in a way that…
Mmutle. To normalize it
Vusi. to see ourselves, to see myself as what they think we are, white people who use that word
Mmutle. We still have to go above that word
Vusi. Yah and the fact is that there is no going above that word or whatever You can’t change someone else’s perception of your skin colour, the tone of your skin colour whatever all that. You can’t change someone’s mind. You have to accept who you are as a person, as a black person as an African. I don’t know if I am making sense but I am just saying these types of words, these remarks they keep evolving…
Mmutle. Moving closer towards the closure of our interview, I want you to focus a little bit on your work. We can conclude with the type of work we can expect for the upcoming exhibition. Do you consider yourself as a resistant artist having spoken so passionately about the word Kaffer?
Vusi. I don’t only use the word Kaffer only to communicate. The commentary of my artworks I use images I select the black face the red lips I do use these characters in my paintings as sort of a reminder of these image that does not need to have a title of some sort. It’s a perceived image that the west, the Europeans have of black people or of what we as black people have as an image of our selves. Sort of talking about inferiority complex that is so deeply entrecnhed in black people’s souls to a certain degree. Like the deeply entrenched expression lekgowa laka (My white person [literary means – my master]) when one addresses a successful black person. So there is still those types of things that are…
Mmutle. That are subversive?
Vusi. Yah you know. We see those people as superior in a way
Mmutle. A situation where a black person is likened to a white man. Mlungu – lekgowa laka
Vusi. [in that instance] the person sort of escapes that image of a black face, red lips or he still gets that image but now with a tie or something. like that guy in the office, the token. They are just put at the forefront to front the situation, to sign papers and stuff. With that I still would bring up those questions with this exhibition, Paradise, I mean what’s happening now democracy, verbalizing, tracing back what I see as a problem, as a topic of interest we’ve spoken about. What’s happening with the liberator? As black people we’ve liberated our selves but adopting techniques to control and put down our own people because now you are that mlungu (the master). You are in power and your own people are irritating and you call them names, cockroaches, which is equivalent to Kaffer basically it’s just that you are using another word for that. I mean when the speaker of parliament refers to members of other political parties as cockroaches, those types of things. Referring to people as rats and stuff. So it’s those type of things that are happening, obviously they have their roots in our past but I don’t think we are at the point where we realize the roots of such things. So I’m in a journey of still deciphering all these hidden social attachments of us, what we put on our selves… this is what I am grappling with in the studio.
Mmutle. It will be interesting to see what kind of work will be on exhibition in the light of what we have talked about, …Well, Vusi, thanks for taking us through your work, your artistic concerns and…
Vusi. I hope it makes sense all this jibberish
Mmutle. Yah well, …always when one delves into the mind of the artist it is much better because the artist is able to speak with conviction. And also to put at the center of conversation what they find fascinating and interesting and hopefully when we go through uhm your thoughts and when we look at your work your work make sense. Yah I just want to thank you, thanks for coming to see me. Thank you.
Vusi. Thanks Mr. Mmutle, but Yah I just hope the conversation carries on with the work. Because it is a process putting, making one piece obviously as an artist you understand (chuckles)
Mmutle. (chuckles) of course.
End of Interview
© Mmutle Arthur Kgokong 2015