An Ongoing Anxiety In Art Circles About Anything Traditional Has Effectively Writien Credo Mutwa Out Of The Narrative Of South African Art. Ruth Kerkham Simbao Reconsiders The Import Of His Visionary Art And The Dialogue It Establishes With Afrofuturist Thought
In a 2003 Daily News article, Farook Khan referred to Credo Mutwa as, “The country’s foremost African traditionalist”.1 As a painter. sculptor. architect. playwright, historian, and sanusi (the highest level of traditional healer, spiritualist and advisor), Mutwa has been ostracised by some and disregarded by many as an eccen tric psychic or prophet of doom.2 While his 1971 book Indaba My Children was a bestseller, and his fight for legal recognition of tra ditional healers resulted in the Traditional Health Practitioners Bill, in the South African art world – where a new avant-garde has become rather mainstream – he continues to fall beyond the perimeters of acceptable art, or even art at all. Any mention of writing about Mutwa to fellow art historians causes raised eyebrows that suggest not only the thought, “rather you than me,” but also the question, “Credo Mutwa – is he really an artist?”
Framing Mutwa as a legitimate artist raises various questions about the current South African art scene, as well as current and historical writings about art. Mathole Motshekga’s suggestion that, “the few people who still command indigenous knowledge systems have not been brought into the mainstream of society, ..3 seems applicable in the context of South Africa’s art wor ld today.Besides a couple of lone voices that express an interest in indigenous knowl edge ·systems (IKS). amongst them lecturer Richard Baholo, there appears to be a deep-seated anxiety in art circles about anything “traditional”. This anxiety stems from a conflation of “indigenous knowledge” with an extremely limited notion of “tradition”, perpetu ating a somewhat deceiving dichotomy between “traditional”and “contemporary” art in South Africa. (Samson Mduzunga is one of the few artists who has successfully challenged this divide, although he has not done so without criticism.)
In 1994, when the South African art world was poised at the brink of incredible change, writing about traditionalists such as Mutwa was still framed by European philosophy that was used to enforce debili tating notions of essentialised Africans. In an article published in De Arte that year, entitled “The Spirit of Place”, lineke Meijer employs the work of Heidegger to write about Mutwa’s Lotlamoreng cul turalvillage in Bophuthatswana in relation to “authentic … existential wellbeing,” “unspecialised cultures,” and the “essence of the ontol ogy of Africa” .4 While there is little wonder that such an approach causes concern, there must surely be other ways of interpreting Mutwa’s work that don’t simply relegate his artistic production to the deathbed of tradition-as-we-once-knew-it.
Although not entirely unproblematic itself, one possibility is to read Mutwa in the light of Afrofuturism – a largely literary aesthetic initially utilised by Americans of African descent where blackness enhanced futures in an attempt to strategically overcome the historical oppression of slavery and the current oppression of Ame rican racism. In a specifically American context, one could argue that Afrofuturism still appeals to essentialised notions of Africa, such as the Afrocentric links that musician Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount) made to Egypt, Ra being the ancient Egyptian god of the sun. However, his cutting-edge use of space age imagery forces a reconsideration of the notion of African tradition that posits Africa as the hinterland of cultural and scientific progression. By referencing Africa’s ancient past, Sun Ra conceived of unimaginable futures (futures that transport the oppressed to other worlds), cleverly turning tradition into a futuristic tool. As such, Afrofuturism can be seen to assist in the dislodging of worn-out notions of “authenticity”5 and “tradition”6 from the rigid annals of art and culture, inventing itself as a subversive subculture that functions as an anti-essentialising strategy.
While Mutwa is paid some respect with regards to his knowledge of historical Afr ican culture, it is his visions and representations of the future that are either ignored or labelled as outlandish. It is as if knowl edge of an African past precludes him from having any interest in and knowledge of the future – particularly a future expressed as science fiction – a genre that that is often viewed as the white man’s frontier. Commenting on this in recent correspondence, Zambian artist and sci ence fiction author Milumbe Haimbe remarked: “Indeed, it is a rather rare occurrence to stumble upon a science fiction writer from Africa, let a lone a female science fiction writer! I find that as I talk about the follies of cloning, people raise their eyebrows as if to say that the white man’s
Afrofuturism Whose Afro?
Afrofuturism is a specifically North American movement that was started by Americans of African descent, hence the prefix Afro. Similarly, some Americans of African descent refer to themselves as African-Americans or Afre-Americans. However, when one starts to talk about Afrofuturism outside of the context of America, with its particular history of the Atlantic slave trade, one needs to questions what the prefix Afro suggests. As Zambian science fiction author Milumbe Haimbe argues, if we have Afrofuturism, then surely we should have Eurofuturism. A similar argument can be made with regards the term Afropolitan:the prefix Afro in Afropolitanism. coupled with the non-existence of a term Europolitanism, implies that cosmopolitanism is by definition, European.
Ntanzi, who restored Khayalendaba, has produced his own world is none of my concern; why don’t I talk about GMOs instead?” The few references that have been made to Mutwa’s cultural villages focus on the traditional architecture that he builds, such as Zulu beehive houses or Batswana dwellings, but gloss over his sculptura l forms of UFOs and alien-like creatures. In her article Meijer suggests that Mutwa’s architectural structures reflect a “‘belonging to place’ which is the major concern and incentive in the recreation of dwell ing complexes representative of different tribal cultures”. Besides derogatori ly labelling “tribal cultures” as being inherently linked to place (specifically “place” formed from the earth, providing “intense pleasure” to “traditional civilizations”), Meijer fails to consider how the representation of UFOs hints at a dislocation of place – an other worldliness and an out-of-placeness.
This out-of-placeness is key to a reading of Mutwa’s cultural villages, particularly a reading that considers how the apartheid govern ment was, at the same time, forcibly reconstructing a sense of place (or rather, lack thereof) for the majority of South Africans.
In 1974 Mutwa built the cultural village Khayalendaba (meaning the place or home of stories) in Jabulani, Soweto, and in the mid-1980s he built the Lotlamoreng cultural village in Bophuthatswana, at the request of President Lucas Mangope. While Meijer’s article on Lotlamoreng focuses on the Batswana settlement, the cultural village also con sisted of other dwellings associated with the Ndebele, Bakwena, Xhosa, Zulu and Shangaan. Although Khayalendaba was burnt down in the late 1970s, it has been rebuilt and preserved with the assistance of Musa Ntanzi, a fellow artist and long-term friend of Mutwa. Based on the original model, today it consists of a variety of architectural accomplishments historically produced by the Zulu, Ndebele,Venda, Sotho and Arabs .7 In the middle of the village is a clay altar w ith a goat’s head moulded onto the side, and in a personal conversat ion Ntanzi describes how, in the 1970s, people from all over South Afr ica would visit this site to communicate with their ancestors. “Today,” he says, “we would be singing Venda, tomorrow Zulu, other days Ndebele. Even in the 1970s [Mutwal had this interest in different people coming to learn about different cultures. That was the main aim of building this cultural village – not to attract tourists. ..”
This bringing together and intermingling of different cultural expressions went against the grain of the apartheid government’s ambition to systematically separate and divide South Africa’s people through the creation of so-called homelands, or Bantustans. Although the term Bantustan was first used in the late 1940s, it was in 1970 that the Black Homelands Citizenship Act was passed, forcing black South Africans to take on citizenships of their “homelands” even if they had never physically been to these sites, effectively trying to diminish the number of black people with citizenship in South Africa . The bringing together of various black South African cultural expressions in Soweto – just around the corner from Morris Isaacson School where the 1976 Soweto uprisings started – can be viewed as a radical artistic gesture, something not usually associated with South Africa’s “foremost traditionalist”. Further. Mutwa’s juxtaposition of a UFO with a Zulu house and a Venda shepherd’s murals that resemble the early paintings he worked on with Mutwa during the 1970s and early 1980s shelter suggests a far more astute understanding of the fluidity of African artistic styles than that afforded most 20th century historians of African art. As Sydney Kasfir reminds us in her well-known essay, ‘African Art and Authenticity’, precolonial Africa was presumed to have isolated. internally coherent societies, leading to false assump tions in the west about distinctive artistic styles based on William Fagg’s “tribality” and “unique tribal styles”.
Afrofuturism Can Be Seen To Assist In The Dislodging Of WornOut Notions Of “Authenticity” And “Tradition” From The Rigid Annals Of Art And Culture, Inventing Itself As A Subversive Subculture That Functions As An Anti-Essentialising Strategy
Rather than envisioned as cultural museums that recorded and preserved discrete cultural styles, Mutwa’s cultural villages were viewed as religious sites that in Ntanzi’s words, “kept the culture of the people exuberant” – that 1s, alive – something very different from static, conservative acts of preservation. This aliveness went hand in hand with necessary responses to apartheid’s enforced outof-placeness. Some of Mutwa’s manuscripts were even censured by the apartheid government, and as Ntanzi stresses, “… in the past, during the days of apartheid, you could not talk about your cultures; there were many things that were preventing you from talking about your inner self . So what we had to do. we had to pretend. Even your name, you were given a Christian name forcibly … You were carrying a Christian name that you did not know.”
It is this core sense of alienation that is so crucial to Afrofuturism; like the sense of out-of-placeness. It is turned into hopeful vision
It is this multiplicity of vision symbolically reiterated in sculptural form that represents Mutwa’s own spiritual eyes as a sanusi who has also been able to predict various events and situat ions. One of the most interesting sculptures at Khayalendaba is an installation of three figures that, according to Ntanzi, are the alien-like creatures that Mutwa saw when he was taking medicines in Zimbabwe. One figure is an alien-king with an enormous head that is swollen with – the promise that somewhere in this universe, at some time, there must exist a harmony and peace where one’s blackness is not othered – where it is simply not relevant at all. This visionary sense of looking into the future is coupled with a careful watchful ness in many of the artworks at Khayalendaba. At the centre of the village is a large metal sculpture that represents the female rain god, Nomkhubulwane, who “can see very far”. According to Ntanzi, Mutwa understood Nomkhubulwane to be a god who, in her wisdom, had eyes everywhere, and as such she 1s represented with an extra eye embedded in her chest. She also has extra breasts – one at her stomach and one on her leg, for she is able, as a rain god, to feed the whole world.
In another representation of Nomkhubulwane, Mutwa has placed an owl on her shoulder. While an owl is sometimes associated with evil forces, Ntanzi describes this creature as simply watching, looking with big eyes. The “thunder monster.” which is believed to have fallen out of the sky in order to stop human beings from fighting, now lies. half sunk into the ground. watching as well. Painted symbols on the walls also represent eyes – the eye of the father. and the eyes of the earth mother – and Mkhulu Mkhulu, the great one. is represented with multiple heads, for he sees with different eyes. Mutwa portrays him with the faces of different nations, for he can see the world through the eyes of a Chinese man, the eyes of a black man, the eyes of a white man, and even the eyes of various animals. Carved wooden figures that stand on rooftops and in front of entrances can also be interpreted as eyes that look out for danger and spiritual deception, protecting inhabitants from evil forces.
Sci-Fi: The White Man’s Future?
In his 2001 essay ‘Futurist Fiction & Fantasy: The Racial Establishment’, published in Callaloo, Gregory E. Rutledge, argues that there is systemic racism in the industry of futurist, fiction and fantasy writing, and most writers within this genre are white. Further, he suggests that while some black authors venture into subgenres of speculative fiction, fantasy, sword and-sorcerer fantasy and cyberpunk, they have not produced “a single hard-science fiction”.