Skeem’ Saka by Sipho Gongxeka
A reflection by Associate Professor Adam Haupt (University of Cape Town)
Does art reflect or construct reality? What happens to this question when art is bound up with commercial imperatives in the context of corporate globalisation? Sipho Gongxeka’s Skeem’ Saka allows us to reflect upon these questions, whilst also taking in the play between the artists and his subjects – his friends, i-skeem’ saka.
Gongxeka’s work captures aspects of life in i-kasi, but, more than anything else, his work speaks to the politics of representation in film, media music and the fine world. Influenced by cinematic representations of South African township life in films – such as Tsotsi, Jerusalema, Mapantsula and Hijack Stories, and TV series, like Yizo Yizo – Gongxeka creates room for us to consider whether the image of the young black male as thug, tsotsi, over determines competing representations of black masculinity. Have black township youth been typecast, so to speak?
The image of the aggressive, sexualised black male body becomes a metonym that forestalls the possibility of anything but heteronormative values to be foregrounded. For the artist, these values and aesthetics come through via popular culture as presented in South African films about black gangsters. But films, such as Tsotsi, Jerusalema, and Hijack Stories, and TV series, such as Yizo Yizo, also use hip-hop and/or kwaito to authenticate their narratives about protagonists in townships. Hence, Sipho Gongxeka’s images do not just seem to reference characters like Panic in Mapantsula, but also rapper Zola as seen in Yizo Yizo and Tsotsi.
These representations of gangsters do not take shape in a vacuum. Research by Lesley Marx and David Coplan as well as the journalists of the Drum era suggest that South African gangsters have long been influenced by Hollywood representations of gangsters. Likewise, contemporary representations in contemporary film, TV and music also draw on Hollywood’s framing of black subjects. The reach of US cultural imperialism is hard to dismiss in this context. Research by the author in his book Static suggests that Zola’s music and image is influenced by the late gangsta rapper, Tupac. More than just a musician rapping about ‘thug life’ in i-kasi, you might say that Zola himself has been typecast, having played the thug in Yizo Yizo, Drum and Tsotsi. Is Zola exercising agency as an artist, or is he merely acting out a script that was conceptualised in Hollywood – the very same film industry that has been criticised for racist practises like blackface minstrelsy and marginalising actors and directors of colour? How do we read this in relation to the fact that the US film industry dominates film production and distribution networks, globally? Likewise, four holding companies from the Global North dominate close to eighty per cent of global market share in the music industry. How do we read this in relation to the fact that the version of hip-hop that has found global audiences is not feminist, or Black Consciousness inspired hip-hop, but misogynist and racist gangsta rap that has been criticised by scholars, like bell hooks, as well as artists, like Saul Williams, Sarah Jones and Lupé Fiasco alike for its materialism, misogyny and minstrelsy? Mainstream popular culture still appears to present problematic stereotypes of black men: they are either benign and respectable, heterosexual, middle class men – such as Bill Cosby’s Dr Huxtable in The Cosby Show (the house nigger) – or they are violent, misogynist, heterosexual and materialist thugs, such as 50 Cent (the field nigger). In the same vein, black women are either respectable women whose (hetero)sexualities are policed, or they are Jezebel figures who are to blame to for men’s sexual indiscretions – either way, the patriarchal power of heterosexual men is affirmed through exercising power over the black female body and psyche.
Wittingly or unwittingly, Gongxeka’s subjects play with these ideas. For example, the male characters’ power seems to come from the ways in which their bodies are dressed (or exposed) to signify their virility – particularly when they are presented in relation to the abject bodies of the female characters in bedroom scenes. Recognition of the figure of the thug in the work relies on the audience’s familiarity not just with actual figures in real life, but more on the audience’s ability to recognise the race, class and gender tropes that are invoked in their minds. Call these tropes activation tags, if you will. Because these representational elements of young black men already circulate in news and entertainment media, we recognise them and accept themas true or, at least, as having some basis in truth, because these media are already so saturated by these tropes.
This is how the lines between fact and fiction begin to blur. This is where we begin to believe that perhaps art does construct reality. In a media-saturated world where colonial conceptions of racialised and gendered identities endure, where cultural production is dominated by film and media monopolies from the Global North (which are historically key beneficiaries of colonialism), it is hard not to believe that mainstream commercial popular culture is not complicit in generating hegemonic notions of black masculinity and femininity. Gongxeka’s play with these mediated identities allows us to consider the extent to which the lines between reality and representation blur and, more importantly, how conservative conceptions of race and gender persist. And, yet, despite this, the agency being exercised by both the artist and his subjects, his i-skeem’ saka, points to possibilities for exploring identities beyond the confines of mainstream visual and aural media.
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