Appropriate

by Tsoku Maela (edited by Jessica Hunkin)

Appropriate (I)

Colonisation has played a huge role in the socio-economic and geo-political landscape of South Africa – as it has for any country to ever experience it.

Cape Town, aptly named ‘the colony’ by some of its residents, is a clear and horrifying example of the disparities in wealth distribution and the remnants of apartheid in post-colonial South Africa. While living conditions, education and job opportunities are limited for the person of colour – both due to the quality offered or affordability – many African creatives have found a way to tap into the monetising of their culture as seen through the European gaze.

One doesn’t need to wander too far to see this dynamic in play. A walk through the bustling V&A Waterfront or the serene Green Market Square in Cape Town paints a vivid portrait of abnormal normality. Tourists with their cellphones and video cameras out, capturing the ‘true essence’ of Africa – traditional dancers in loin cloth and animal skin thumping on their drums and on the ground. It’s all very entertaining. But, on the receiving end of that gaze are fathers, mothers, sons and daughters who use their craft to make a living. A craft that draws inspiration, in style and aesthetic, from their sacred traditions.

The day before the crew from CNN’s ‘African Voices’ came down to shoot their episode on my work I stood in full view of this and it was scratching that part of my mind again. You know, the part that usually frowns on Africans viewed as a form of entertainment. A young white boy asks his mother what the dancers are doing and she says, “That’s what they do here in Africa. It’s everywhere”. In her defence, today this looked pretty normal to me too. Had I grown so used to it that I’d become completely desensitised and compliant? Was I entertained for the same reasons the Europeans were? Are we all just clapping for the wrong reasons?

There’s a very thin line between appreciation and appropriation.

Let me take you back to the day I landed in Cape Town in January. My phone rings and on the other end of that line is an astute black woman, let’s call her Mahlako. Mahlako has some exciting news to share with me. “Hi Tsoku! You’ve been handpicked as part of a handful of creatives in Cape Town for a private meet with a media-marketing agency I work with. They’re from London!” she exclaims. “London?!” I yelled (see, I was walking past one of the roving plane engines at the time). Yes, London! You know – fish, chips, cup o’tea, bad food, worse weather, Mary fucking Poppins, London!

“Oh my God!” I remember saying, “I left my copy of ‘The Psychopath Test’ on my seat!” I asked Mahlako to text me the details and, with a click, hung up. But on my way back up to the cabin I couldn’t stop thinking what the conversation meant. And, was the stewardess smiling at me because she thought I was cute or because my fly was down? Whatever the reason, I really should’ve peed at home.

A few weeks later we – the handpicked – all gathered in a room, Illuminati style, introducing ourselves and explaining what we do with our African magic powers. Did you know that being a Socialite is a thing? Anyway, I was really happy to finally meet Mahlako, but Mahlako had masters and they were both white. The only white people in the room. Mahlako was just a face, she didn’t know anything else about the meeting. She stood and watched as they sold us a dream that involved us giving them our work for their upcoming website (which still has nothing on it today, by the way) that was supposedly attracting sponsors and could help us make money and gain representation overseas. I generally don’t trust people who travel so far with nothing but promises in their hand luggage, and as a professional on sussing out psychopathic behaviour, I left.

Back to the day of my shoot with CNN. I decided to create a series of images titled Appropriate I & II, which explore the monetising or ridiculing of the African aesthetic and culture through the European gaze. But as usual, it’s a two way street and I maintain an objective point of view. What may seem degrading to the average middle class African in South Africa could be food on the table or an art form for another.

This goes beyond street performers, media appropriation and the slander of African culture. It’s also about African artists who sell their stories for a penny – either to get recognised, stay relevant or break into the industry. White spaces are buying the culture and appropriating it in bulk. A stride through any recent art fair will wipe away any doubt. Most galleries are white owned, yet they claim to represent African stories. Scratching that part of my mind again. But at least the artist will be able to showcase their work to a larger audience and maybe make some money.

With a population of roughly 80% people of colour living in South Africa, the advertising industry is another marauding beast that has sunk its teeth into African culture for monetary gains, using us as faces to re-enact their fantasies time and time again. Often conceptualised and written by people who are nowhere near of colour (I’ve been to those brain-storming sessions. Cue Mr. Krabs meme). African culture, or the African aesthetic, is the new sex. Fetishised and romanticised everywhere but home. And it sells.

I keep wondering if there’s room for genuine collaboration, where one doesn’t feel used but is a part of something. On the other hand, perhaps it’s time for Africa to cut out the middleman and be self-sufficient. You have the product. You know how to cook it. Now how do you get it onto the streets? How do you own it?

Young creatives have ideas and go out of their way to bring them to life, but more often than not struggle to market them. How do you get the work out there? There isn’t a sure answer to that. Social media is a fantastic tool, but most of us learn the hard way that it quickly becomes oversaturated and large numbers don’t always equate to profit or actual engagement. Personally, I’ve never approached a publication or a space to showcase my work in stead the opposite, which has meant that the way the work is represented has been on my terms. This possibly could be down to the personal nature of the work and thesis. This brings me to my next point: Authenticity. Emulation may get people’s attention but it withers over a period of time as people start to see through the bullshit. Your voice and your work needs authenticity. Tell your story, but make sure it’s told the way you want it to be heard. That’s ownership.

So is it our fault that as Africans with access to online platforms, the world still thinks we’re waiting for them to save us? Or are they just ignorant? We’re not looking to be saved. We can each one teach one and share our resources to make sure that our continent and our narrative is represented the right way. Representation is important, and people’s lives depend on it. One can never put a price on that.