Recently, I was commissioned by the British Council to interview two poets from South Africa. What was interesting was learning two very different approaches the service of spoken word or poetry in performance can offer the artist and the people who encounter this rich literary form. Mongiwekhaya is a subdued, potent spirit. His quietly considered answers focus on his thoughts about arts and community engagement producing work that is esoteric in its political and social commentary. Thabiso aka Afruakan’s enegry is spark driven to build networks for repurposing and trading the craft for an arts infrastructure to support artists to continue their chosen vocation. Both were very spirited and inspiring skype conversations that ran well over the 30 minutes time we’d put into each of our diaries.
“I was raised by my Grandmother from birth. I spoke with her words and her tongue and walked the streets of Witbank Township. But one day my parents returned from their travels overseas, collected me and took me up into a silver bird, and we, my sisters and I, were laid on a new earth. No one spoke my grandmother’s tongue. The child that spoke with any and everyone, found himself a ghost in a new place. He told himself little stories to remember himself. But eventually he told himself new stories. In English. And was reborn as someone new.” – Mongiwekhaya
Playwright, filmmaker and Royal Court writer Mongi Mthobeni (pen name, Mongiwekhaya) is a hardwired storyteller and the above quote wasthe story he told at the opening question of his interview with Poet and Writer Zena Edwards, when did he know he had chosen his life and career in the performing arts. His natural gift manifests itself today through directing and visual storytelling and his short film project, “Speed of Dark”, reveals a mentoring quality to his creative process when he engages with young artists too.
“Speed of Dark’ is adapted from a dance piece called “Open Happiness”, embracing the wonder South Africans felt about the construction of South Africa’s Underground train – The ‘Gautrain’. I started by introducing the young movement artists to the prolific works of Tom Waits, rich with storytelling. Then introduced them to the theatrical form of the French Buffoon and clowning, the ritualistic shamanic performance of repetition to compound the feeling of awe South African’s felt in a time of economic transition.”
Mongiwekhaya down plays his leadership qualities, yet recognising the essential value of the arts in remote and under-resourced communities such as Barrydale in the the Western Cape Province of South Africa. In a unique collaboration with Handspring Puppet theatre, he manifested a project called “Karoo See”, which transported the local residents to a mythical watery world with a colourful parade, life sized puppets, a local youth bands and mentoring.
“This project allowed the children and the young adults to just ‘be’, to play. That playing process encourages creativity, to take chances, and part of that chance-taking is to take a chance at being a leader. My role was to be the motivator assigning specific roles and powers to youth mentees, to trust them and make them accountable with each other encouraging them to become leaders.”
On further discussion with Mthobeni, it is clear that the ethic behind his practice is to heal, to embolden whilst capturing and commenting on both the undercurrent of political and social reparation in South Africa through the arts.
“Art in South Africa must be freed. [Art] must escape the tyranny of economic elitism. People are freeing themselves, and there are some spaces but few and far between. The young need more support, resources and room for the natural creative process of ‘failure to improve’ and depending on what race or economic background you may find that space hard to come by and your struggle to the stage monumental.”
Despite this, however, he believes the arts are alive in South Africa and crucial in “the battle against negative images.” Mongiwekhaya knows the exact role he is to play in this battle and how he wishes his craft to serve the people and humanity in general.
“I am not an arts administrator or a political champion as such. I only know the realities of staging. It is the story, the performers and the audience that matter to me. A limited view perhaps, but we have only one life I can give to this business, so I must spend my time wisely.
“I heard about The Connect ZA exchange through a friend, applied and was amazingly accepted. I applied with a play called “Brave”. It’s about Ben, a young man, who ends up in the custody of a brutal cop named Buthelezi. Its about the youth born post Apartheid clashing with the adults who still carry the trauma and scars of South Africa’s struggle for democracy. Its an African Noir with rays of a sunrise. As it was based on personal experience, it was cathartic to write.
Being resident at the Royal Court was a rare opportunity especially to just spend time with other young writers focused on the craft of writing and to experience what type support can be offered to a new play. I’m more known as a physical theatre performer and I felt enormously out of my depth. Who’s gonna take a physical Theatre clown seriously?! So one of the most important benefits was the international creative affirmation. Exchange projects like Connect ZA are important because collaboration takes you out of yourself and into the shared experience
It was enlightening and an honour to meet and work with Leo Butler and Winsome Pinnock. I even took a picture with Benedict Cumberbatch (it was terribly grainy and dark, no one will believe its him…!)
“Future plans are to continue working with a young puppet company called Ukwanda, which means ‘to emerge’ in Xhosa. The Karoo Project spans several years. The goal there is to mentor the young leaders there to run the event themselves, and inspire them to be the generators of the new South Africa.
As for myself post Connect ZA at the Royal Court, I’ve finished a new play and I’m in post-production on my new short film, ‘Metatron Cube’. After spending two years in community arts, its also time to put myself out there.”
We look forward to it.
Mongiwekhaya connect Website
Thabiso Mohare Interview by Zena Edwards
At the heart of a burgeoning Johannesburg spoken word scene is 33 year old Thabiso Mohare, aka Afruakan. He is dynamic, is a tenacious entrepreneurial creative strategist with an expansive vision for the literary arts in SA. He’s not afraid to think big. And he is also a straight up poet. As a poet, I proudly claim him as clan.
I had a skype call with him on a Monday afternoon that overran a whole hour more than the planned 20 minutes and I was inspired by the breadth and intricacies of his big picture thinking. Here is just a snippet.
ZE: Tell me your journey into poetry and your involvement in the spoken word scene in South Africa.
TM: I started as a rapper but fell in love with poetry around 2000. I worked what circuit there was at the time as a writer/ performer building credibility. In 2007, I got interested in the production side of the industry and I started a PR agency with Qhakaza Mbali Mthembu, called ‘Word N Sound’, exploring communications for creative writers.
For 3 years we hosted events, mainly music ones, programming and curating. But we saw an obvious gap in the literary market. So in 2011 we took the plunge to put on the first Word N Sound Poetry Festival 1) to close the gap and 2) to create an international youth poetry fest in Jo’Burg. After, we studied other poetry movements happening abroad which inspired us to raise the game of spoken word in SA and to develop a brand with continental and global appeal and integrity.
ZE: Did you find there was a tension between being an artist and a producer?
TM: Yes. You sleep less and you have to put in the paper work. However, being an artist/writer/organiser/curator, you understand the challenges of the industry and you take that experience and knowledge into the work, whether it’s organising a festival or book launch, communications curating, making literature project, you take the knowledge there to build a better industry that treats artists well.
ZE: From videos I’ve watched online you are hailed as a street poet. What does that mean in the context of being from South Africa?
TM: It’s been misunderstood. Its a safe term for those who don’t know what to do with a poet that’s not an academic poet. Let’s say it’s being a slam poet or work that might have more elements of performance.
ZE: We have a similar tension here in the UK: ‘page’ poets v ‘performance’ poets.
TM: In South Africa, across the continent, we had Orature before literature, storytelling before coded language. In SA we had other forms of performative poetry, praise poetry for example. The traditional academicized routes push a global standard that marginalises anything outside of it.
Spoken word is so important because it cuts across the generations, speaking to the parent and the child at the same time, creating platforms for dialogue between them, where popular culture fails causing separation by degrading women or having no real substance. Young writers are now reclaiming and really owning the definition of a poet.
ZE: Tell me a little more about Word N Sound as a visionary organisation.
TM: It’s a creating a different scene with multi-genre presentations, mixing music, theatre, dance. It’s thrown away the slam rules to see how far poetry go. The subject matter is diverse and contemporary looking at big issues like race, gender, politics, power, social economics. Poets are talking about being a young person in SA, being a global citizen.
Spoken Word is the one medium that allows young people to be honest, to reflect themselves and their world when the commercial world is selling dreams and aspirations. Spoken Word is conscietizing young people further and they’re wise to economics and social conditions and want to be part of the bigger world.
I’d also say it’s a better connected scene now too. We’ve contacts in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy. I’m talking with a producer in China. So we know what our peers are doing around the world and feeding into each other.
Spoken Word is one of the most exportable art forms we have and every single industry needs copy, text to define and promote itself. We intend to launch an artists based advertising agency in 2017 with two divisions: 1) turning poets in to copy writers for advertising, 2) optimising poets other creative skills as art directors, illustrators, as graphic designers, as multimedia content producers, digital media strategists, using all these skills in-house. So we’re insourcing by working with designers, lawyers, marketers, producers and technical team, stage-mangers, all of whom are still poets. We are learning how to support ourselves through owning the business and industry of it, so that 10,15 years from now we are bigger stake holders rather than those creatives who just produce work and sell it. This is having an effect on the art that is being produced and how they are contributing to the economy by formalising and adding other skills to literature
Word N Sound also has the ambition to set up school of writing and performance where experienced artists (with qualifications) can share their skills. It’ll be more practical. New writers need something tangible, someone who is a more a mentor than a teacher.
ZE: How did you become a part of Connect ZA project? What role did/do you play in the project?
I was the Arts Projects Manager focused on literature music and theatre for Connect ZA but originally, I was working with the British Council to help reposition its brand. I was involved in getting the funding and creating a credible program 2 year project. So whilst working with the British Council on its theatre strand, we created the project “New Plays from South Africa”.
The process of Connect ZA involved mentoring 24 young playwrights -12 from Zimbabwe and 12 from SA managing. It was manifest with the plan of 2 phases in SA and 6 readings at the Royal Court in London. Those 6 plays were curated with Elyse Dodgson via an open call to playwrights who had some experience, who had new work completed or work in progress. The applicants had to show talent with a story to tell and who might be able to create a career with an endorsement from the Royal Court. And these artists had to commit to the 2 year programme
I performed as part of a side programme also, as Louise Stephens – Assistant Literary Manager at Royal Court – felt it was relevant to closing the play readings because two of the playwrights who were spoken word artists. As a performer, it was an eye opening experience. It was sold out. The audience was receptive to my risk-taking and sometimes brutally honest as possible poetry.
ZE: Why are international exchanges like Connect ZA important?
TM: Because its aim is to connect arts organisations and artists between the UK and SA. Connect ZA had multiple focuses – music, theatre architecture, design creative economies. To survive as an artists in the SA market, you have to be in the private sector and in education. By all means, there are things to be learned from the education sector, however, getting yourself known internationally is really important.
ZE: Any final words? What fresh for you?
TM: Jo’Burg is exciting. It’s a hub of new and experimental work that pushes boundaries, had a diverse range voices and is competitive in an arts sense. There are artists who are hungry that want to make a mark, who want to go abroad and that drive is feeding into their work ethic, into work they’re producing and the quality of experimentation. I believe it’s inspiring the rest of the country. It’s building a network by connecting with other provinces and they are taking their cue from Jo’Burg.
Well, the future certainly looks bright for spoken word in South Africa as long as its assets and culture are harnessed and championed by multi-faceted and hard working artists such as Thabiso Afruakan Mohare. Watch this space!