Perfect Hlongwane asks about the state of the nation, and what meaning/s arise from a culture-centric perspective. Lefifi Tladi responds:
Perfect Hlongwane: I want to start off with something I know is close to your heart. With respect to Black Consciousness in the context of present-day South Africa, would you say that what we have witnessed is a death by natural causes, a murder, or a suicide via refusing to be adaptable?
Lefifi Tladi: Oho! (chuckles) No no no, seriously, you have to understand that what we have seen is a premature birth. You see, Black Consciousness is by its very nature a process, painstaking, and what has happened in our case is that we have a seed that was planted but the produce was starved of water. We were in the seed stage of what I would call black awareness, but, and this is for various historical reasons, we did not mature and grow into full consciousness. It’s really very simple for me… Any society that can choose to ideologically align with an organisation like the ANC, I mean c’mon let’s be serious here, that’s a society where the idea of Black Consciousness was never allowed to flower, to bloom. So yes, it took root, there was an awakening, an awareness, but not fully-developed consciousness. Look, I mean, for instance, no place where Black Consciousness had been watered and tended into full bloom would say, okay, now we have freedom, our people need houses, and never look into who is making the window hinges, the keyholes… You know what I mean? That’s not what a fully conscious people, taking charge of their own destiny, would do. There is a multitude of very basic examples of this kind of thing, of the creation of a hapless consumer majority. Black Consciousness? No, I don’t think so. Not yet.
Perfect Hlongwane: What is the role of the artist, of culture, in the kind of situation you have so practically described?
Lefifi Tladi: You see, the artist creates. Let the politicians negotiate, but what the artist does is to create. To birth things into existence. And so when you have the so-called artists not understanding what they are, who they are… It’s quite disastrous. I mean, culturally speaking, it’s quite absurd because now you wind up with artists who cannot elevate their perception and their praxis beyond the national super-narrative of rainbows and reconciliation and what-not. But of course, if you dig beneath the surface, if you look too closely at the widely-touted miracle birth of the ‘free’’ South African nation, you see the monster that has come out. And then you would hope that it is the artists who would say, “look, the emperor has no clothes”; who would say “it is the barest minimum for you to take your place in this land of your forebears, you are not lesser-than; bending over backwards is not all you are good for”.
And you will see that what has developed is these strange alliances between the artist, the state, the academy and so on. And that is actually the artist opting out of society…
Perfect Hlongwane: Can you give me an example of how our artistic philosophy and practice has become somewhat divorced from certain strands of Africanness, perhaps in capitulation to largely hegemonic notions of culture and the arts steeped in the Western tradition?
Lefifi Tladi: Well, you’ve seen it. You can’t miss it. And you’re still going to see it. It is brazen, for example, in this separation that is made between the artist and the philosopher. And what is amazing is that our societies always saw the artist as inseparable from the philosopher, you see? Our people have always known that the artist is someone who is involved in the act of knowledge creation. Now the philosopher… there can be no contemplation and elucidation of knowledge if the creators of a society’s knowledge have now boxed themselves into boxes of a foreign imposition, failing to understand that the artist-as-creator is in fact an eternal call to origin; to how we come to be and how we come to see. And these kinds of imported delusions are very significant, in how they define or impact on our artistic practice, because you can’t just keep swallowing what you are fed by your colonisation and abandoning your own cultural wisdoms and then hope to have any ring of authenticity. It can’t happen. And this thing of definitions that box the artist in are very foreign to us as a people, actually, you see? For me it’s very clear that, as a people, there is just no way that we can survive these long centuries of mis-conditioning without developing our critical senses; our ability to question. Audiences sometimes gasp when I say that the English poet William Blake’s much-quoted observation that “beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder” is bullshit. But it is, to me. Actually,
Beauty beholds the elevated sense.
As an artist, you can’t tell me, for instance, that what strikes you as strange, as unfamiliar, loses any of its beauty simply because the beholder is bewildered by it. In any case, coming to how the artist has always been seen in African societies, you know, like some kind of seer, it speaks to a certain elevated perception that our artists need to cultivate more. You have to go way back, and deep within, before you can go higher, you get what I mean?
Perfect Hlongwane: There’s a lot of talk going around about “decolonisation” … Anyone and everyone is busy claiming to be decolonising anything and everything and I wonder if you have any thoughts on this?
Lefifi Tladi: (laughs)… But my brother, what decolonisation? Okay, just a simple example, our indigenous languages. Now, how can it be that they exist in pockets and enclaves? I mean, if you don’t believe me, then you tell me, what is the language of commerce? What is the language of the corporate boardrooms where the price for Black folk existing is decided upon? There’s no decolonisation here. You can’t say you are doing a thing, and then do it piecemeal, like you are afraid of upsetting the status quo, and then expect that it won’t be pointed out. So, you know, take someone like the Ndebele artist, Mam’ Esther Mahlangu. You know, I saw they were plying her with these honorary doctorates, decolonising, see… dressing her up in these ridiculous robes.
Lefifi Tladi: Yes, of course, recognition is important but at what cost? We need to be serious. You know, I saw a photo of some of these Africans, up on the stage, receiving academic honours for their work with so-called traditional art, but there they were dressed up in these absurd gowns of a tradition not their own… (chuckles) I mean, I found myself thinking, why don’t they put them in those pointed, upturned Ali Baba shoes as well because they already look like clowns, you dig? Decolonisation? I want to see more than just a label. It’s what you do, not what you say you’re doing.
Why can’t one institution take Esther Mahlangu and let her lead a department, you know… teach geometric art and pass this beautiful practice on to a younger generation, instead of coming in as an allegedly honoured visitor and then, there you go, the ceremony is over now and we have our visuals for the record, go home now because you don’t belong here… This is a university, you know…
Perfect Hlongwane: This reminds me of the story about the Stockholm Academy of Arts bestowing an arts degree on you and apparently you lit up the certificate and burnt it to ashes… Is it a true story? What informed that?
Lefifi Tladi: Look, so, we were there, for seven full years, learning more, mastering our own style, refining our own voice, and then at the end of it all these people at the institution were there to hand us our “qualifications” …
And I said no, hell no, this is not what I came here for, thank you for time and space but there’s no bunch of white people that will qualify me to do anything, especially not anything to do with my art, because that is sacrosanct, that is most essentially me. I said never, no one here can qualify me. I wasn’t having it. So I put their little degree certificate to flame (laughs)…
But one of my daughters, you know, she was quick, she had already taken a photo of the damn thing, and that’s the only surviving evidence, in a sense.
Perfect Hlongwane: You have been on record talking about the strange nomenclature of the new South Africa, which you have referred to as a country without a name, without an identity. Why do you keep bringing this up? Why is it important?
Lefifi Tladi: Well, you know, I’m always amazed by the tendency of our people to think that truth can exist in silos… As if you can tell the truth about one thing and then turn away from it in another. But it doesn’t work that way. Truth-telling is a habit, and from what one has observed, it’s not a habit that our miracle rainbow nation is cultivating. So, questions like these nudge us in the direction of developing the habit of telling the truth. Why should I lie? We are a country without a name. South Africa? That’s a geographic location. A five-year old kid can tell you that. And in a tragic kind of way it comes back to how the artists, who culturally are also the namers of things, have been demoted and relegated in our society. Think about it, we don’t even have a national anthem. It’s true, my brother, we don’t. Nkosi Sikelela is an anthem of the continent, and the creator, the artist who gave it to us conceived it in exactly that way. Furthermore, Sontonga’s prayer for the continent is muddled with lyrics from the war cry of the colonialists.
Lefifi Tladi: Do we have a flag? No! We do not, and anyone who tries to apply their mind to the matter will see that I’m right. We don’t have a flag, but we have artists and the benefit of a long, rich history and diverse culture. But we seem to always be settling for these stop-gap gestures. And the question is… WHY? So, I talk about these things sometimes because authenticity and originality are important not only to the artist, but also for a people who are taking charge of their own destiny, and then you wonder what the cut-and-paste jobs with our identity as a nation mean. Because they mean something, they mean lots of things, culturally as well as politically, and even though we don’t always want to spoon-feed people, they must think for themselves to say, hang on, what’s the meaning of this? It’s important. Miracles and magic in political arenas and so forth, okay that’s fine, but not when it involves turning away from the truth. From basic, really obvious truths in fact. Ja, of course I will keep talking about these kinds of things.
Perfect Hlongwane: Perhaps, in closing, I can ask a personal and perhaps even frivolous question… In terms of the recognition of your work as an artist, here in Mzantsi, does it ever bother you that maybe you are not as renowned as you ought to be, in the land of your birth? Because those of us who have followed your journey as an artist sometimes wonder, among ourselves, why it is that you are not more acclaimed than you are, here… Do you think it’s because you have been resident in Sweden all these years? Or is it a non-issue with you?
Lefifi Tladi: Well, you know, recognition is okay. That’s fine, but I must tell you that the only recognition I crave is… Give me a school! Let me run a school and see what I do with it, and then we’ll see if this old man is just talking or he’s about the doing. Just lemme run a school and let’s see.
Wednesday 19 July 2023
Midrand – Stockholm