Everything we need for consciousness can be found in nature. Art and nature meet in the first abstract expression by human beings.Lefifi Tladi
As a teenager in the 1970s, together with my elder sister, I tried to run away from my home in the small Eastern Cape village, Stutterheim. We trudged into the little village centre which had a national road running through it and one other tarred road and waited at the garage for cars to come through, but that night none did – our attempt to hitchhike our way to freedom from an oppressive family atmosphere was foiled. Little did we know that our small home village was the site in 1968 of a formative meeting which laid the basis for Black consciousness, a movement searching for freedom too, but from an oppressive state structure.
Decades later meeting LefifI Tladi in Mabopane I was immediately struck by how difficult it must have been for him as a teenager to move around and do his political and cultural work in the Black Consciousness Movement as I had had this visceral experience of having my life’s plans constrained by lack of access to transport. I wondered how he moved from Mabopane which is so far from Pretoria and Mamelodi. Then heard that it was Bra Geoff, the legendary Geoff Mpakathi whose Toyota Cressida had provided them with movement. Yes, wheels represented an essential mobility for both of us as we sought to connect with worlds beyond us. Later in exile, Lefifi wrote extraordinary long illustrated epistles home reflecting on life and ideas – he is always seeking to connect and engage.
In the 1980s finally ‘free’ and living in Cape Town, I was making a documentary on South African Literature and, alerted by the poet and academic, Kelwyn Sole, who had written his thesis on the black consciousness poets and writers, I set out to find recordings of the poets in performance and also the band Dashiki that used to perform with them. I never found any recordings.
At the same time at the Jazz Den in Longmarket Street Cape Town we soaked up music on Sunday nights until the wee hours of Monday morning to release the tension in our bones and prepare for another week under the state of emergency. Unbeknownst to me the brilliant saxophonist Ezra Ngcukana, whom I frequently heard play at the Jazz Den, had played at the same concert in East London in 1972 as Dashiki, here they connected, seamlessly playing together onstage and became friends.
Time passed and I came to know the gentle, genius Ezra through making another documentary on music. He died tragically on a cold night in Cape Town’s cruel winter in 2010 and at his funeral Lefifi Tladi performed a poem in tribute called Pharaoh, Ezra’s nickname after Pharoah Sanders. Searching for more information on Ezrah’s story we (Filmmakers Dingan Thomas Kapa, Abdulcadir Ahmed and I) set out to find Lefifi in Mabopane where Lefifi held an arts salon in his family home. I missed the very first encounter because I had a broken wrist but soon, we were hooked up with Lefifi’s friend Jessica Rucell and set up to film him performing with legendary drummer, Louis Moholo-Moholo in Cape Town.
We did a dance of getting to know each other – we wanted an interview about Ezra but Lefifi had more to say to us than that… a friendship unfolded as well as a number of collaborative projects. We’ve made a small educational film about his ideas and work, presented some of his recent work in an online exhibition, used it to inspire two printmaking workshops and made a book which includes some pathbreaking essays by young people he has mentored. Along the way he has revealed that he has archives of Dashiki performances and slides of the work of fellow artists from the 60s and 70s – A veritable archive treasure!
Lefifi himself is an archive treasure. As Hampata Ba, the Malian Sage, said, whole libraries reside in the memories of African elders, but whilst every encounter with Lefifi is a teaching moment, he is no quiet contemplative library. He is filled with lightning energy.
As we got to know Lefifi we found we were tracing a path which he and his friends had already traced in the 1960s and 1970s before he left for exile, i.e. finding ways to share knowledge and skills about art and artists in forgotten corners of South Africa. I think this and ourA lot of this work on Mancoba and Tladi was done collectively with Abulcadir Ahmed Said who has been nicknamed The Silver Microphone by Lefifi Tladi due to his outspokenness. Tladi says Abdulcadir was born not with a silver spoon but with a silver microphone in his mouth. interpretations of the life, work and aesthetic of another artist and intellectual who lived in Europe for decades, Ernest Mancoba, convinced Lefifi that we were on a path he could relate to and his support of this path has been typically generous. He joined with me to motivate to the Department of Higher Education and Training that art as a subject deserved to be taught in the Community Education Colleges.
In South Africa, despite our extraordinary artistic heritage (both western and first system artSee my article Following Mancoba’s Trail in The Hidden Thread in South Africa’s Indigenous Visual Heritage forthcoming 2023 Art and Ubuntu Trust, which attempts to explain the need for new terms for art in our context – thus first system art is used to describe indigenous visual art is astoundingly rich), we specialize in trying to kill the goose that lays our golden artistic egg. The teaching of art in our education system is dire – only 5% of schools provide art as a school-leaving subject and this teaching is framed by the western paradigm, thereby neglecting the profound philosophy and indigenous techniques framing our first sources of artistic practice and inspiration.
Lefifi responds to this crisis by seamlessly integrating the two systems (western and first) in his art, running art lessons in his salon, developing curricula and inspiring many young artists. He taps deep into Malopo/ spirit and African heritage.
As Lerato Kuzwayo, contributor to our book on LefifiThompson BR editor, Ditoala di a Itlhathola, The oracles are self-deciphering Lefifi Tladi Poems paintings proverbs and collages ArtUbuntu Trust Cape Town 2023., says:
Confirming the dynamism and fluidity of cultures Lefifi Tladi reminds us that we have to think deeper about nature, the universe and our place in it as co-creators in the becoming of past, present and future time. He takes his lead from Malombo rituals. Malombo/Malopo is an abstract expressionist improvisation in the visual, literary and musical forms associated with Malombo rituals. These are not styles; these are solid forms of ritual thought. Through attempts to make them audible, visible and expressed in proverbs the artist seeks to speak in ritual tongues. To make what has become profane sacred. In the ways of a healer, the proverbs make diagnostic commentaries on various social conditions and can be paired with prescriptive solutions. In preparing collages the artist is enthralled in an elongated ritual of reassembling bits and pieces of a tree. The burnt bark that creates charcoal with the pulp turned to sheets of paper.
Above all it is Lefifi’s thoughtful, energetic, artistic practice that astounds and inspires. He is dynamic, prodigious and relentlessly contemporary whilst profoundly in conversation with first system heritage. Always available to talk with young people he is open to any approaches, moving seamlessly from a determined physical application, with dozens of works being produced before lunch time in an ever-renewing method, to discussions and even lectures and presentations made from his salon, now conducted via whats app and zoom (connection is still so important to him regardless of medium) from his Swedish home, whilst he is unable to travel back to South Africa.
This is the person I have gotten to know over the past decade, with each encounter and conversation deepening my awareness and consciousness and affirming paths I had begun exploring. It is quite simply a pleasure to be in dialogue with Lefifi Tladi for whom, art is life is art. His consciousness reverbs through images and words which knit past, present and future in harmony with life as it could be lived if it were lived in freedom.
Vusi Mchunu, a friend since Tladi’s youth, says:
Lefifi Tladi unapologetically premises his proverbs, his poems, his Jazz poems and songs, his drawings and his oil paintings on the philosophy of Black Consciousness. And all associated movements for Black Freedom: Pan Africanism, Afro-Centricism, Afro-Futurism. Since they dip into the treasure of old African languages, before the conquest of Apartheid, they bequeath the contemporary poet with words created in African sovereignty, unchained expressions from the independent African polity. Writing, chanting and reciting in the vernacular languages. Within their cultural context, history, cosmology and vision. A visitation to our linguistic ancestry. Black Consciousness co-founder, Steve Biko embraced this indigenous poetry and drums and chants by Lefifi Tladi’s Dashiki Poets, and took them to the Black Universities of Turfloop, University of Natal Medical School and Fort Hare. And the poets of the 1970s enhanced their poetry performance in indigenous languages, whose beauty, whose entertaining aspects were driven by proverbs, tongue-twisting wisdoms, hilarious rhymes and alliterations. Instead of the arts, as Lefifi Tladi, constantly criticizes, coming forth as “township art of lamentations”, they became a celebration of a re-discovered dignity, of humanity and visions of Freedom ibid .
Tladi affirms his philosophical standpoint:
I am …..more concerned with African consciousness than Black consciousness, black is just a colour but Africa means more to me, you and the world.
I would like to close with some pertinent words from the articulate young writers who curated proverbs (Lerato Kuzwayo), curated collages (Woody Oliphant), and produced essays (Lerato Kuzwayo, Woody Oliphant and Kgomotso Ramushu), for the book we put together: Ditoala di a Itlhathola. The oracles are self-deciphering, and then conclude with words of my own.
The artist stressed that his …Collage[s] in parallel with the proverbs, derived their meaning and relevance through the passing of time, the labour of process and reframing the past. They reflect personal and universal truths to the viewer and the maker due to deconstructing, repositioning, juxtaposing, revealing, hiding, tearing, ultimately weaving old ideas into new ones. The result is a simultaneous contemporary and ancestral glimpse into one’s current consciousness. The sheer volume of work spoke to me of a desire to make visible the vastness of memory, to make it tangible and relevant to the present lest we forget or need a compass ibid .Woody Oliphant
Lefifi Tladi’s writing is a monument to the beauty of language. His dika le diema are not simply idioms, they are an amalgam of poems, ideas, and riddles. His prose stitches simple words into compound ideas, it is rhythmic, and melodic. He builds worlds with text. A word artiste, he stitches words into lavish pictures. Using ‘sound power’, Tladi uncovers the depth and scope of words. His writing paints soundscapes, sounds shape ideas like the measured blending of hues in his visual art.Kgomotso Ramushu
“Go loga leano.” In seSotho is an expression that can literally mean to “weave an idea”, it implies that in African thought processes ideas are a combination of various strands of thought that can be woven into a single thread, or a mat with a message, as in the ancient practice where maidens would spend time weaving love mats to suitors to profess their love. At a distance the mat might seem like a two-dimensional form. If one were to touch and feel the mat they would sense messages of a third dimension, as a blind person could read braille. In seSotho we speak of the senses as “go utlwa” a sensory perception of the skin and the ear as well as the ethereal sense of feelings and emotions. One imagines that a skilled weaver could communicate with the blind through the textures of woven mats and beadings. To delve deeper into this etymological river of thought, we also know this to be the root of the word denoting understanding, “Go utlwisisa/kutlwisiso”. Implying that one senses the core, or the depth of the message being conveyed, or one truly feels it, and through common understanding we can reach consensus “kutlwano” ibid .Lerato Kuzwayo
The ethereal and mathematical co-exist in Lefifi Tladi’s art. This world is represented in pattern and poetry. Hlago, nature, is at the heart of this artistry. Nature provides Tladi with geometric reference, style, and technique. Nature is at the heart of the rituals which he learnt from his forebears. This abundance inspired his words; “Hlago ke boitsanape” – Nature is expert. This reverence is also seen in Tladi’s etchings and paintings, borrowing from the practices tsa go gapa boloko building and decorating homes with a mixture of cow dung, clay and straw. Tladi’s images reference the artful mundane, at times suggesting sweeping motions of women cleaning yards in the mornings, cutting patterns into the earth with straw brooms. Each day brings a distinct pattern, each hand etches unique strokes into soil. Lefifi Tladi’s forebears welcomed visitors to the homestead with art. Hlago, nature is the original canvas. The source of all art, Lefifi teaches us. “Mehlala ya dikhudu e ya tswa kgotsa e labile lewatle.”– The patterns on tortoises come out or head for the sea. With this proverb, Lefifi Tladi draws our attention to nature’s geometry, displayed on a tortoise shell. The inimitable shapes, effortless art like the curving of waves. Fractal yet whole, nebulous yet purposeful. The music of language is celebrated in Lefifi Tladi’s dika le diema. Cycles of reading alter meaning. The reader is encouraged to revisit this poesy, to find new images and hear new rhythms each time they ponder Tladi’s depictions of his world. Dika le diema, interlace tongues and stitch words ibid .Kgomotso Ramushu
Lefifi Tladi’s work gives us the task of wrestling with its challenging meanings in search of a heightened consciousness. The words respond to the call of the art and vice versa and provoke us to navigate the essential features of the artist’s visual and verbal expressions, the multiple layers of meaning, surface and deep, and the many shifting viewpoints which allow the viewer/reader to participate in meaning-making by joining the dialogue between images and words and language, and back to images again.
It is telling that Lerato Kuzwayo, in writing about Lefifi Tladi’s art, refers to his words and Kgomotso Ramushu, writing about his words, refers to his art – implying they can’t be separated. This leads us to the core sensory challenge of Lefifi Tladi’s work and the core message of these readings: that African art is holistic, integrated across mediums, with multiple layers of meaning. It is dynamically responsive to indigenous knowledge sources and rituals, and it is participatory, ultimately evoking a spiritual place of Botho. In deep harmony with nature.
|A lot of this work on Mancoba and Tladi was done collectively with Abulcadir Ahmed Said who has been nicknamed The Silver Microphone by Lefifi Tladi due to his outspokenness. Tladi says Abdulcadir was born not with a silver spoon but with a silver microphone in his mouth.
|See my article Following Mancoba’s Trail in The Hidden Thread in South Africa’s Indigenous Visual Heritage forthcoming 2023 Art and Ubuntu Trust, which attempts to explain the need for new terms for art in our context – thus first system art is used to describe indigenous visual art
|Thompson BR editor, Ditoala di a Itlhathola, The oracles are self-deciphering Lefifi Tladi Poems paintings proverbs and collages ArtUbuntu Trust Cape Town 2023.