In 2016, the fashion brand EDUN approached South African photographer Chris Saunders for a shooting. Saunders, who has been documenting local street cultures for many years, recreated classic pantsula moves with the help of the performers Manthe and Tebogo Ribane.
Pantsula – a township subculture characterised by high energy dance competitions and a dress code inspired by American gangster style – has been practiced by black South African men since the 1950s to counteract discrimination and the limitations of life under state-sanctioned racism. Saunders’ photographs pay homage to the trend and to black resistance, also offering a timely commentary on South Africa’s ongoing negotiation of its identity, twenty years after the end of apartheid.
The Ribane siblings were an obvious choice for more than one reason. Not only is Manthe Saunders’ long-time muse, she too is fully committed to rethinking and re-imaging blackness in her practice. As a member of the conceptual performance collective, Dear Ribane, which she established in 2013 with her siblings Tebogo and Kokona, Manthe has been at the forefront of the South African art scene with dance, fashion, photography, and art direction works that experiment with futuristic visions of blackness. Dear Ribane have brought these explorations of futurity to their partnerships with global brands and media platforms, the likes of Dokter and Misses, Standard Bank, G-Star, Cosmopolitan, MTN, Nike, Woolworths, and Simon and Mary, performing at art fairs and music events that include Turbine Art Fair, Cannes Lions, Afropunk New York, and Johannesburg’s Red Bull Music Festival. In 2018, one of their works was nominated for Design Indaba’s “Most Beautiful Object in South Africa.” Their collaboration with renowned South African photographer and designer Trevor Stuurman further consolidated the collective’s iconic status and impact on current debates on race, affirmation, and equality, envisioning them as messengers from another dimension.
Their futuristic style lends visual and tactile expression to the manifesto of “shifting new realms,” where being black is always an in-the-making experience and, as such, fluid and metamorphic. Cue Dear Ribane performing for NIKE at the Nirox Sculpture Park in Krugersdorp, Johannesburg, in April 2018.
The performance is planned to be as strikingly visual as it is aural, conjuring a spectacle from the future, or maybe from an alternate present
The trio emerges with robot-like movements from inside a soft fluorescent envelope to the live accompaniment of a trumpet. Manthe sings and comes forward in staccato motion while her siblings complete the choreography a couple of steps behind her. All of the four performers wear black and white costumes and high-tech trainers, two of them have sleeveless winter vests secured to the waist in skirt-like fashion. Their faces are hidden by large black sun visors, with Tebogo carrying a fluorescent box-like prop on her head. The performance is planned to be as strikingly visual as it is aural, conjuring a spectacle from the future, or maybe from an alternate present, where people have different bodies and capacities.
The face visors may suggest that, in this other world, eyes are redundant and the visitors experience upgraded vision, while at the same time hiding the faces of the performers in a way that is hard to conceive for our selfie-obsessed culture. The big shapes and unusual styling of the outfits further reinforce the unfamiliar sensation of having made contact with aliens. As the performance goes on, the moves of the two in the background resemble more and more those of dancing mannequins. Their abrupt starts and interruptions give the illusion that they are remote- or motor-operated, mechanical, less than human. But then their seamlessly fluid rotations and flexions, performed in synch with the jazz improvisations, are those of alien bodies, super-human. Twisting Nike’s philosophy of bringing out one’s inner athlete by “just doing it”, the performance exposes the siblings’ inner alien and their goal of teleporting “new worlds.”
We are creating an Altered State of Mind.
This desire to subvert abstract notions of sameness and linear temporality underpins all of Dear Ribane’s works. In Humanoids Transcending Cosmic Frequency, the artists morph into android-alien beings, occupying and discovering a cosmic space of their creation for the benefit of humans. Otherworldliness is also the inspiration behind the trio’s costuming. Their transformative philosophy comes alive in an androgynous style that is heavily influenced by science fiction. In lookbooks, shootings, and public appearances, they wear transformatable clothes of their own design and futuristic sportswear with voluminous headgear in color-block combinations that often incorporate silver and gold. A concern with design and a passion for architecture informs this manipulation of appearance by way of carefully chosen stand-out elements, textures, and structures, especially the layering of materials – preferably leather, satin, velvet, and polyester. Visor-like glasses are the most symbolic item of the blurring of organic and inorganic dimensions purported by the siblings. These sartorial choices are a futurist statement that approaches the body as an unfamiliar space. Appearances are manipulated to defy representational standards and draw attention to the the body’s sleeping power. The effect of these efforts is an alien iconography that recombines the known and the unknown into ever-changing designs that invite us to expect ever more and different manifestations of blackness-in-the-making.
Dear Ribane’s oeuvre is a tribute to the generations that made it possible for them to express their creativity freely. The siblings include references to swenka and pantsula cultures in their performances, and draw from the creative philosophy of Sun Ra and American jazz, which they grew up listening to. Indeed, they credit Sun Ra as their main inspiration. However, they reject the label ‘afrofuturist’, in favour of a post-racial vision of the future. In a recent interview, they said, “We believe in Futuristic world but not a world with borders. When you put Afro in front of Futurism, then we start creating a limitation towards our audiences and the world beyond. Our work speaks to every racial human.” And, indeed, Dear Ribane’s international acclaim is a testament to the idea that racial affirmation and pride are the best engine to set in motion a global movement for the true equality and freedom of human beings, regardless of identity categories.
Matching a past-situated affirmation of tradition and a forward-looking vision, the Ribanes bring to life a narrative that they hope can have positive effects in the present, showing new generations a way to reclaim positive blackness as an individual creation.
An article by Enrica Picarelli
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