Simnikiwe Buhlungu is a 23-year-old artist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Born in the wake of profound political and social change in contemporary South Africa, Buhlungu forms part of the artists who fall under the “Born-Free” Generation that, rather than constantly responding to arbitrary authority interference, speaks to the urgency of creating independent, self-supportive, and collective art structures.
Through her work, Buhlungu explores the structures of power embedded within the contemporary art world and socio-historic dynamics in relation to access to content and unwritten narratives. By questioning notions, knowledge, and cultural production, she looks for art forms that are also accessible outside of structures, such as art galleries and museums. Her work seeks to make way for other forms of knowledge in a society that still carries both eurocentric and colonial legacies, and to rethink the working model between institutions and future generations of artists. Buhlungu embodies the “Do It Yourself” ethos, not waiting for validation to take action, crying out that the time for handover has arrived.
In five points, the artist teaches us a “lesson” on #generational proactiveness in her own words, by offering entry points into answering the question : “Do newer generations of South African artists define themselves in relation to the scars left by Apartheid, or do they embrace freedom, choice, and opportunity?”
#1 There could be mermaids who sing gospel music and play electric guitar
Vitamin See [a video presenting a dialogue between two children, discussing the idea that 95 percent of the ocean is unexplored] encapsulates the way I have been thinking about the production of culture and knowledge. The title refers to the inability to see ourselves, as black people, in these mainstream narratives and the necessity to see ourselves reflected in ideas of knowledge production. I emphasise the plurality because there are multiple ways of producing new ideas. A lot of the time, the idea of producing knowledge and culture is presented through authoritative figures and something that’s always higher up; something that has a kind of credibility. But I wasn’t interested in perpetuating that. Rather, I was interested in seeking what happens when someone that you least expect to produce knowledge actually tells you the ‘truth’. The producers of knowledge in this case are actually children. They are the ones who are questioning, debunking those ideas, when they are typically seen as recipients of commands from power figures and structures.
That woman singing gospel music and playing electric guitar in the 40s and 50s actually goes unwritten in history, but she was a producer of knowledge as well. What you see in the video are thus things that actually happened, but that we don’t really recognise as foregrounded in our frame of reference of knowledge because it went unnoticed at the time. It’s a dedication to the people that we do not acknowledge as being part of knowledge.
#2 “The D-Word,” as in Decolonial options
While Vitamin See could be seen as a video about “decolonising,” I was literally thinking about knowledge production when making it. The “D-word” can be tricky because then you feel trapped into it. There must be something beyond that. It should rather be understood as a set of methodologies that can allow you to produce something, as opposed to something that makes you feel as if you have to debunk something (i.e. rejecting colonialist mindsets and “norms”). Then you feel you are stuck. And I don’t want to be stuck. I need to be moving forward, foregrounding things and producing new things. Producing new work in general is a form of “decolonising” too.
Looking at it as “decolonial options,” as elaborated and articulated by Argentinian semiotician and scholar, Walter Mignolo, allows you to approach it in multiple ways. It makes it easier to find another entry point into these questions that are found in multiple contexts. While talking about “decolonial options,” you can adapt them to the situation and start thinking about “decoloniality” – a means of eliminating the provincial tendency to pretend that Western European modes of thinking are, in fact, universal ones – rather than “decolonisation,” which has become a buzzword. While these are conversations that have been taking place for a long time, the context now requires a word to articulate what’s happening then people start to use it. These questions of “decolonisation” reappeared within the South African context of our generation, and, while it is no longer necessarily linked to a particular movement, it is becoming widely spread.
#3 What is typical of the Born-free Generation, is to get things going.
The Born-free Generation encapsulates that idea of a democratic South Africa with no discrimination, no Apartheid. The Born Free generation was meant to symbolise that unity, that we are all ready for a clear future. What it didn’t do is hold any socio-political scrutiny. Everything was literally swept under the carpet for the sake of unity. That’s why my generation is really speaking back right now, and you really start to see that disillusion, but you also start to understand that, at the time, the country needed that idea of unity and reconciliation because the it was on the brink; there was a fear of violence escalating to the degree of a civil war. But these ideas were not rethought, and now there is this rebellion. We are way more vocal and more proactive about things because we understand our history, we understand what happened. We are done. Alongside Keleketla! Library, our collective, we started Title in Transgression, our own printing and publishing fair that fits in specific black South African narratives within zines, publications, music, video. We knew there wasn’t necessarily going to be an outlet for things that came from our narratives that cater in our own epistemological framework, because all the other things that exist overlook or neglect us. Hence the need to create something that is completely self-constructed, self-funded.
#4 Thinking art worldly, and not only in an art world
Some visuals artists in South Africa are trying to show that you can make work which is of the same high-end quality, but that can exist in spaces other than art galleries – it might require some curatorial adaptation, but the language can move. We really need to broaden our horizons in terms of how our work exists and expand the vocabulary. Your work shouldn’t be depending on a museum/gallery to exist, because there is no guarantee that you are going to sell or get an artist’s fee. There is that feeling that institutions sometimes need you more than you need them. Nowadays, you can expose yourself on Instagram. Let’s be realistic about that model. There needs to be a healthy conversation about how funding and money works, to get out of these sorts of dependency structures. There are so many ways to not get stuck into conventional ways of showing artworks and get away from these socioeconomic structures.
#5 Black artists have Mondays to Sundays
It becomes increasingly difficult for black artists to have a practice without having to default on the fact that you are black and should therefore speak about your experience, when you can do so much more than that. We can also be willing to just chronicle our summer and chilling around. Being naive about life that I associate a lot with childhood.
Vitamin See is very much inspired by [the 1994 film] Crooklyn by Spike Lee. It tells the story of young, black kids, allowing them to live their damn lives without having to locate themselves in these very specific, sociohistorical or sociopolitical issues. Not that children are not dealing with racial issues, but children have Mondays to Sundays. And, as adults, we have the same shit to deal with, which is why it’s important to sustain your everyday experience without having to foreground it with the fact that you are black, or what your identity is, or feeling the urge to “decolonise” or fight the patriarchy. As [the South African academic and writer] Njabulo Ndebele articulated in his 1984 essay, Rediscovery of the Ordinary: Some New Writings in South Africa, it wasn’t always doom and gloom during Apartheid, people were not being slain all the time. Yes, it was happening, but we also had to find ways to be human beings and have these basic human experiences. My experience as a human being is not limited to these questions of race and gender, it goes way beyond that.
An interview by Serine Mekoun
Articles are published in their original language | Les articles sont publiés dans leur langue d’origine