“I live in a country that is hyper sensitive about race, gender and everything in between so it’s not something I can simply ignore to sing about bubblegum and ice-cream,” says Umlilo, a Cape Town based genre-bending performing artist.
Performing artist duo Faka, and Umlilo are young artists whose creative missions tell the story of the experience of the queer black body struggling to navigate through the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, class, and other markers of social difference.
Faka’s Wait Lorraine: Wemmer-Pan-Africanism introduction to Siyakaka Feminism includes torn stockings, plastic fibre hairpieces, and other gender-bending garb worn to question township sartorial norms. The performance seeks to re-imagine feminism and displaced masculinities using lo-fi township aesthetics as the backdrop.
Aluta, Umlilo’s most recent project, is a personal exploration of how the black body interacts with pop culture. The EP tackles issues such as death in the bling era, traditions and cultural rituals in contemporary times, and unrequited love. The songs aren’t only political, but use the body as a canvas. This is done with the hopes of moving South African youth culture forward, dressed in gender-nonconforming drag.
Both Faka and Umlilo find inspiration from other young South African artists. These range from Zanele Muholi, Boom Shaka, Athi Patra-Ruga, and Gavin Krastin. These artists have used their art to capture the zeitgeist of youth culture in the 1990s and 2000s. Their awareness of intersectional politics is evident in their art, and their beliefs as artists.
The recent debates centred around identity politics in South Africa have lead to many individuals evaluating their lived experiences. Artists alike are beginning to be recognised for the dialogues ignited through their art-activism. The idea of art-activism is a hybrid which seeks to create art that conscientises and represents minority groups by collaborating on telling stories of the lived experience.
Questions regarding identity are unavoidable. Not only in art, but in personal and private spaces as well. As black queer individuals, Faka is always confronting these issues in their daily lives. Their art is an extension of their personal experience, and it is impossible to remove the politics of their art from the experiences of the self.
The same can be said for Umlilo, who affirms that they are “not one of those artists who can separate themselves from politics of the body, nation and humanity”.
For Faka, the influence of activism in art is necessary, as it is able to empower and create awareness. “We don’t, however, believe that activism should be treated as a rigid aesthetic with a single vocabulary because that undermines all the other complex ways it can be expressed through art,” Faka says.
Umlilo shares the same sentiments; expressing that art without activism is pointless and empty. In a time when young South Africans are challenging systems and institutions, art-activism can be used to achieve full visibility and representation for all individuals living under the false rainbow.
The concern of representation is one that both Umlilo and Faka intend to confront. The regulation and policing of the black body, even in post-Apartheid South Africa, informs their current and future bodies of work. Through the use of performing art-activism, the artists wish to inspire young South Africans to find their voices and tell their own stories.
Words and graphics by Tshiamo Tiger Maremela