We asked photographer Andile Buka to shoot his idea of Future Johannesburg. The result is not the afro-futurist vision you may expect. ‘The future’ doesn’t exist in isolation. In South Africa moving forward takes hearing from the past. They’re intertwined storylines, one exists because of the other, simultaneous and complicated.
In Buka’s vision, the future will be determined by the young creative people who through their work are currently shaping it. On black and white film, he shoots magazine editor Phendu Kuta, fashion/art collective The Sartists, and performance art duo FAKA in self-styled looks. Each uses style in a unique way to carve a niche for themselves in the story of their city.
Writer Afrika Bogatsu responds to Buka’s photographs in words, drawing from her personal experience.
Through this dialogue between images and text we get an insight into Johannesburg’s history and a glimpse at its bright future:
Americana post-Great Depression 1930s and 1940s fashion has always been a constant in South African townships: from Kofifi (Sophiatown) days in the fifties to its revival in the late seventies and early eighties. Now we see The Sartists, in 2016, paying homage to Americana workwear styles of the past and making them relevant and relatable today.
It’s not just the style/clothes that Kabelo Kungwane and Wanda Lephoto take inspiration from but the attitude too: an attitude that encourages hard work today, so you can reward yourself and build for tomorrow. This is an attitude that many young people living in Johannesburg know all too well. We work really hard, trying to make a living and sense (cents?) out of life and we reward ourselves on the weekend by spending a little more than we can afford. Only for us to do it again and again the following week/month. With the difficult economic times South Africa is facing, it almost seems like a depression is on its way, many of us spend our days (and nights) trying to make the most of what little we have. But it’s young people like Wanda and Kabelo who inspire and give hope that we gon’ be alright, things are going to get better. If they don’t we’ll still look good regardless.
My maternal grandmother would dress up to the nines, pearls, silk gloves and all, and ride the bus from Diepkloof, Soweto to the city – Joubert Park, just one of the places her madam and her husband would frequent while my grandmother cleaned their home and took care of their children for them.
When she returned home, her feet sore and swollen, my grandfather would question her about her whereabouts and why on earth would she get so dolled up just to go and sit on a park bench. Her answer would be to shrug and sulk the rest of the evening. I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I’d like to think that she went to the city to remind herself that she too was beautiful and sophisticated. Her monthly visits to the city were a statement that she was just as graceful as her madam, perhaps even more so.
I see a similar statement in these photographs of Phendu Kuta, as she sits next to a bronze statue of a white woman at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Phendu sits looking just as statuesque, fully dressed in her statement coat, if not more, than the naked figure behind her. There’s a beautiful yet subtle contrast between Phendu and the statue behind her, and the femininity they both communicate.
As a black woman, who also happens to be a feminist, I love seeing other women challenge the idea that black women, especially feminists, are angry, unsophisticated, ‘man-hating bitches’. (Even if we were, whose business is it?) Here, we have Phendu sitting serenely, seemingly unbothered by what the world thinks or expects from her. It’s almost as if she’s saying, “I’m okay, I’m fine, I know I’m beautiful, I don’t need your validation, now kindly please voetsek and let me be.” She embraces her femininity on her own terms, choosing a pair of comfortable sneakers instead of heels to tread this treacherous city and make her mark.
It’s common knowledge that Johannesburg has a rich mining history, but many of us don’t know the queer (gender non-conforming/creative) identities that exist in that gilded history.
In the mine hostels, where masculinity was defined by your age, your position held and time spent in the mines, older miners (Ndunas) would “marry” younger men who were new to the mines. These younger men (“mine wives”) would be relegated to the feminine role and perform the feminine gender duties – cooking, cleaning, ironing, which would be played by wives left in the villages back home. These gender roles would be performed in a safe space without judgement or labelling. It was accepted and understood. The roles were never permanent, only played within the confines of the hostels, allowing the younger men to return home and assume a “normal” masculine identity. As FAKA, Desire Marea (Buyani Duma) and Fela Gucci (Thato Ramaisa) use the flamboyant style of black masculinities in hyper masculine contexts, like the mines, as inspiration for an unapologetic, non-conforming and fearless expression of their identity as black queer individuals who happen to be artists and activists. Activists who use art to challenge norms around sexuality and gender (as well as race) and promote representation for black queer people (especially in the townships, who need/deserve to see their lives represented).
Words: Afrika Bogatsu