Kagiso Mnisi has a discussion with writer Lindokuhle Nkosi about how content emerging from the continent is currently being curated amid the swell of digital and the idea of reimagining stale narratives, as well as DIY cultures via technology.

Lindokuhle Nkosi a writer and curator from South Africa whose textual work often merges with installation and performance. She has curated exhibitions and projects at galleries and in the public space. While floating across different genres – journalistic, reflective, experimental – her work is consistently insightful, rich in textures, and engaged with realities.

Kagiso Mnisi : Having been part of Invisible Borders in the past year, what are some of the memorable interventions that you were part of involving the reimagination of a potential future, as both a curator and writer?

Lindokuhle Nkosi: …I’m fascinated with the thinking around reimagining a potential future. It seems though that the conversation has been hijacked and dominated by stakeholders who have nothing to benefit from re-imagining Africa, who are entrenched in the systems remaining the same because they are the main benefactors. And so the excitement around afro-futurism and African futures is put on these shiny pedestals that make it a grouping of ideas that can be commodified, in the same manner that Africa, and ideas of Africa, have been for centuries.  Imagining yourself in the future is not revolutionary, it’s survival. Is it really so bizarre to project an image of a future world in which black people, black culture, still exists?

How limited is our ability to reimagine the future, when we are not invested in producing our own language, politics and knowledge of the now, of the then. To imagine, reimagine, re-engineer a position and throw it light-years ahead into the future, we need to know, to intimately know, where we are now and the systems and pressures in place that make it so. And not just the system as in “the man”, but also the system that exists under that. The negotiations that happen around it, how we maneuver, how we slip through the cracks. How we exist, not just within the mainframe, but also, and perhaps more importantly, in the subterrain.

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Invisible Borders was the intervention. Physically being there, travelling sometimes, being transported sometimes. Moving; combating inertia, just that exposes the naked lies of  the Berlin conference. The project for me was about being unfaithful to imposed ideas of time, geography, space and identity. Moving by land, watching the scenes change from lush greens to harsh white-browns, watching languages disappear and re-appear, tongues and turbans wrap and unwrap themselves; motion through that. That’s the intervention. Unfaithfulness to the delineations, mapping something new; that’s the intervention.

Sadly though, it also exposed the ugly face of the game black artists play to “succeed.” Invisible Borders as an organization is not invested in that intervention. They would rather play to stereotypes and abuse African artists in order to keep pulling money from foreign funding bodies. The idea is stronger than the organization though, and slowly we’ll see the façade crumble around the organization. What I hope will remain is the idea, an idea on mobility that precedes Invisible Borders. The impulses that made Goddy Leye and co. climb into a van and travel from Dakar to Douala in 2006, and how small the world become in that moment. And how big ideas became in that moment.

Work by Lerato Maduna at the Sthomb' Esihle exhibition curated by Lindokuhle Nkosi and Khanyisile Mbongwa. "Sthomb' Esihle was a game we used to play when we were younger, the kind of games that rely only on the stretches of the imagination, and so I selected that title as a way of referencing how we can live and capture ourselves in the way we imagine ourselves."
Work by Lerato Maduna at the Sthomb’ Esihle exhibition curated by Lindokuhle Nkosi and Khanyisile Mbongwa. “Sthomb’ Esihle was a game we used to play when we were younger, the kind of games that rely only on the stretches of the imagination, and so I selected that title as a way of referencing how we can live and capture ourselves in the way we imagine ourselves.”

Kagiso Mnisi: The prevalent DIY culture, be it through film works produced in Lagos, Kampala or Jozi, is a nod to knowledge production systems that have existed for years within the continent, where innovation is perpetual despite circumstance of time. This we also see in social media narratives whereby young Africa is rendering mainstream taste makers and gatekeepers obsolete. What do you think of this prevalence as a way of creating memories for the futures?

Lindokuhle Nkosi: Central to future projection is technology. What it is, how we use it. How our current structures, like race, in themselves are technologies that were created to justify colonialism and slavery. So in interrogating the intersection of black culture and imagination, I’m looking at how we use technology as the language of that meeting point. I guess to some extent, that’s what we’re seeing on twitter, in Nollywood, in music. And it’s not a matter (to me) of how technology can function as a tool of democratization, as a manner of bypassing the gate-keepers, but rather how we are re-engineering the uses of that technology to suit our purposes.  Because then, if we’re talking access and gate-keepers, we have to honestly ask who actually owns and controls our technology?

Lindokuhle Nkosi and Khanyisile Mbongwa. Image: Fezile Jack
Lindokuhle Nkosi and Khanyisile Mbongwa. Image: Fezile Jack

And what about the other technologies? Is spirituality a technology? Are Sangomas the original Siri? I’m being playful here but I think what I’m trying to do is expand my own understanding not just of technology, but of my needs and desires and how technology can facilitate my achieving them.

Kagiso Mnisi: To follow on that, whilst we’re talking digital stuffz and tingz, the nature of the modern day brand is to galvanize efforts around celebrity. You would have a situation where brand x pays, say, a celebrated Highlife muso to relentlessly tweet in the run up to some award shindig. I’m basing this on the thought provoking piece you wrote titled ‘Black Artists Must Hitch Their Wagon To BEE’, which laid bare the politics of space and resources in Jozi. Do you think the modern day African artist has the potential to thrive without ‘resources’ dangled by brand so and so?

Lindokuhle Nkosi: What you’re describing here, we call (at Chimurenga) Soft Power Desire Machines. The brands, in hitching themselves to artists, gain street cred but also dilute the poignancy of the artist. The title of that piece in the M&G is very misleading. Of course, the editor’s decision was to make the article click-baitey. It’s not at all what the article proposes.

I don’t know how to answer how we thrive. I oscillate between depressing, dark pessimism and an almost myopic optimism. I think the answer is somewhere in between.

The answer is space. Wiggle-room where artists can negotiate where they get their money from and what they do with it. Space to negotiate their own terms and not just on their own terms, I guess that’s what I’m trying to say. That perhaps there is no financial alternative, that the alternative is the ability to navigate. To actually navigate, and not just play the game or concede to it. There’s beautiful line in Stanley Crouche’s “A Noble Sound” as used by Wynton Marsallis in “Premature Autopsies.” I quote: “But we must understand that the money lenders of the marketplace have never ever known the difference between an office or an auction block.” So that gets me thinking, how do you negotiate the auction block? I think the answer is that you don’t, you don’t get off it, or climb over it or walk around it. You destroy the auction block. I just don’t know if we’re brave enough to do that, to actually imagine ourselves not as freed slaves but as people who were never conquered. I don’t know what that looks like, but I think that’s why I write about us, for that picture to become clearer to me and the people that I love.

Still from a video shot by Nhlanhla Masondo on location in Phillipi, Cape Town
Still from a video shot by Nhlanhla Masondo on location in Phillipi, Cape Town
"This is an image from an intervention I did called "Unbearable Lightness". For a while now, I've been fascinated by the meeting points of the body as a public/private space and public space as an archive, as a place of history and memory. In this intervention/installation, we were looking at the female body and how it occupies or is occupied by public space. We selected an alleyway (as a signifier of the type of space that is generally deemed unsafe to women) and pink-washed it. Feathers, pink, glitter. We wanted it to camp and exuberant, because the attacks on black womanhood are extreme, they demand an extreme response."
“This is an image from an intervention I did called “Unbearable Lightness”. For a while now, I’ve been fascinated by the meeting points of the body as a public/private space and public space as an archive, as a place of history and memory. In this intervention/installation, we were looking at the female body and how it occupies or is occupied by public space. We selected an alleyway (as a signifier of the type of space that is generally deemed unsafe to women) and pink-washed it. Feathers, pink, glitter. We wanted it to camp and exuberant, because the attacks on black womanhood are extreme, they demand an extreme response.”
"From a video installation and performance piece "Rotten Treasures" featuring Khanyisile Mbongwa. The piece was about the Marikana Massacre, highlighting the violent black deaths are not an event, but rather a constant. That as these miners were digging for gold, they were also digging their own graves. They were dying long before they were shot."
“From a video installation and performance piece “Rotten Treasures” featuring Khanyisile Mbongwa. The piece was about the Marikana Massacre, highlighting the violent black deaths are not an event, but rather a constant. That as these miners were digging for gold, they were also digging their own graves. They were dying long before they were shot.”
"These are my words on the walls of the Prince Claus Gallery in Amsterdam. It was a collaboration between Breeze Yoko, Angus Mackinnnon and I. The words are written in reverse to act as mirror. The reader must insert themselves actively into the words, but also into the act of reading. I think here I was writing about my insecurities within the writerly identity, or rather, I was rejecting the identity. But I was also rejecting Europe as a concept, me as a concept, me in Europe as a black writer"
“These are my words on the walls of the Prince Claus Gallery in Amsterdam. It was a collaboration between Breeze Yoko, Angus Mackinnnon and I. The words are written in reverse to act as mirror. The reader must insert themselves actively into the words, but also into the act of reading. I think here I was writing about my insecurities within the writerly identity, or rather, I was rejecting the identity. But I was also rejecting Europe as a concept, me as a concept, me in Europe as a black writer”

Kagiso Mnisi: Again on online brand culture, there has been certain established product paddling entities which have yet to acknowledge South Africa’s racist historical past by ‘curating’ insensitive content. This also extends to a certain revered cartoonist who has thrown some questionable jabs at black people. You’ve been quite vocal about this on social media, what do you make of racial combats on these platforms? What does it signify of the times?

Lindokuhle Nkosi: I don’t know that it says anything of the current zeitgeist. In fact I will argue that it doesn’t, that this is a conversation that is centuries old. That white people like Zapiro are comfortable in their racism and that black people are tired of it. It’s just that now we can hear the protests, that the online platforms have made them more audible, but they’ve also amplified the voices of the racists. So what we’re getting now is a lot of noise. Noise is a distraction, man. It’s so easy to get caught up in the online rage production machine. I log onto twitter to find out what I’m supposed to be mad about today. But racism is not an event, it’s not a cartoon Zapiro drew, or Conrad Koch’s hand up a black puppet’s ass, or another murder by the hands of the police. Racism is a structure, it’s a system. How crazy is that? Racism is a way of living, that’s the problem. That’s where we need to direct our words and energies. What interests me about Zapiro and Chester Missing/Conrad Koch is this self-cannibalism. How they are always painting themselves into corners, taking huge bites out of their credibility, and then crying about how they’re being attacked.

Personally, I’m trying to talk less about white people and their forms of madness. I want to love black, and part of loving black is speaking back. It’s about the courage of imagination, and vulnerability and criticality. I’m trying to learn to speak back at blackness without speaking to whiteness. Whiteness is no longer the centre, in fact, it’s whole invention was to trick us into thinking that it was. We know this now, and our language must reflect that. We need to catch-up to where we already are.