To Make a Home in a Liminal Space
By Sydelle Willow Smith
How can cultural producers (both as individuals and as part of institutions) become more responsive to an increasingly complex world beyond their walls, and play a stronger role in civic and social life?
I can only comment on the above question from my individual position. So I am going to start by giving you a bit of background history to explain how I got to where I am standing and the walls that have shaped me and those I have attempted to break. I feel that visual storytellers have a social responsibility to use their work to spark conversation in broader spheres of influence. Largely this view has been formed by spending the large part of the last 12 years working on documentary stories about people affected by socioeconomic circumstances that are unjust. I started photographing the world around me, influenced by coffee table books by Mirella Ricardi and Drum photographers of SophiaTown when I was around 16. I would go to punk rock shows in the suburban sprawl of northern Johannesburg and squeeze my body in between the drum kit and the bass guitarists and try get shots worthy of being published in local magazines. The history of image making in Africa has deep seated unequal power dynamics. Colonial administrations and reductive Anthropologists used cameras as tools to define the racial classifications of “civilised” and “uncivilised” creating the concept of the Other to be exploited. 100 years or so later my practice has been largely influenced by growing up privileged and white in middle class post apartheid South Africa — where many deep seated scars of social inequality across racial divide still remain, 25 years into the new democracy. Angered by the lack of change, carrying remnants of guilt forged by historical privilege, I am inspired to use visual mediums to comment on the nuanced ways in which people navigate the world around them, celebrating their individual agency, using their voice to forge their identities.
I believe that your environment shapes your vision. If your practice is based in the space of documenting people and their real lives, their everyday, the messiness and resilience of survival — I believe you have a duty to ensure that the material you create is used to advocate for social justice , to inform a broader public, to educate people about the nuance of life that lies beyond sensational headlines and reductive homogenous labels. For the last few years I have felt driven by a need to understand where people are coming from, and how their prejudices/positions have shaped their views of the world and have tried to forge my own individual voice and statements about the world I see around me. I do not feel it is enough to be a passive observer, or some kind of so-called witness as many documentarians have viewed themselves — I need to create some kind of physical engagement and action with the work which is why I am always looking for ways to publicly exhibit and create physical interventions.
Broadly speaking my work has focused on the ways individuals use memory, make ‘home’ and access forms of belonging on diverse journeys of economic migration. I need to get a picture in my mind of how people navigate their sense of place, their movements through physical space — the roots that ground them. Taking this approach I have learnt to reflect on my own prejudices, opinions and assumptions. Slowly I became interested in studying more about the social science research methods of engaging people, interviewing, fieldwork as I felt I did not know enough about the world around me to really visually comment on it. In 2011 in Blikkiesdorp I worked on my first visual interventionist project during my Visual Anthropology Honors student at UCT. I worked in Blikkiesdorp : “Tin Can Town” the direct translation from Afrikaans for a temporary relocation area (T.R.A) built by the government for a wide berth of people living on the margins of economic access to upward mobility. At that time I was very interested in participatory visual research with a focus on Applied Anthropology. The visual research reflected the ways that resident’s made and resisted forms of ‘home’, living in a fragmented ‘temporary’ ‘community’, on the outskirts of Cape Town.The research revealed the potential the camera has to provoke discussion, illicit data and bridge the divides between the researcher and the researched through a somewhat shared approach. I wanted the research process to allow for the divide between the researcher, and the researched to be bridged to a degree, through a process whereby the participants, already saturated by the exposure of site by media outlets and researchers, would shape the research themes and visual documents together with me. Furthermore, I wanted to apply the research in the form of a public exhibition in an attempt to merge the distance between academia and the lived reality of the people I worked with beyond the ivory tower. The film we produced is comprised of a series of interviews with people living in the site. There are also interviews with two city officials, interspersed with visual montages of the spaces and places I visited. I was frustrated as my course convenors did not view the visual materials as examinable, and only marked the written component. Fuelled by a desire to push past the rules of academic engagement I wanted to move towards a more nuanced artistic practice as I did not feel at home in a University environment.
There is a constant hypocrisy underplaying my approach to making work. I have never stayed in a “township” overnight. I leave in my own car before it gets dark, returning to my comfortable home in the city. As you leave the Cape Flats the shadow of Table Mountain looms in the distance. It is a symbol of divide, as the closer you live to it, generally the wealthier you are. I did not film at night, due to safety and lighting concerns. I spent most days wandering around with my camera in the field, filming, hanging out, interviewing and immersing myself from the perspective of my camera lens. I also used surveys and conducted interviews.I had wanted to engage with individual’s conceptions of their own representations, using my camera as a mechanism, whereby people could use their own voice to communicate their experience of where they lived and how they lived. The research process highlighted benefits of participatory visual research and applying anthropology publicly, but also, the limits and the politics one may encounter along the way. If the camera acted as a wall between the people and spaces I engaged with, it also acted as an access point. It allowed me into peoples’ houses with a purpose. It helped me to initiate conversation, and provoke debate through porous ‘barriers’, and allowed for various forms of communication to flow. At the end of the research process, the participants gave me positive feedback that showed they felt inspired by the creative process. The project had instilled a sense of self-confidence through their achievement of producing and revealing perceptions of their lived reality to a wider audience.
That first experience of combining visual Anthropology research methodologies, with film production and public engagement really felt empowering — mostly for me- as the young fledgling researcher wanting to be more artistic. It came with a huge array of political conflicts, ethical dilemmas and unequal power dynamics but it made me want to explore interventionist approaches to media production more substantially. In 2014 I completed a two year project in South Africa with similar themes, Soft Walls — with funding from the Market Photo Workshop — The Gisele Wulfsohn Mentorship. The project explored convivial relationships between local South Africans and foreign African nationals. In relation to the body of work, the title, suggests the walls people put up, the stereotypes, the prejudices, the things that divide us can be rendered soft, malleable, and can shift — like these multinational friends and families in the project I have been working with. They are showing there are big exceptions to the generalised perception that South Africa is only xenophobic. Not to ignore the realities of xenophobia but rather flip the coin for a moment, and provide an alternative narrative of hope and place making through an empathetic lens. Through my work I investigate a personal interest that stems from growing up in a divided country and the need to answer the questions: What does it mean to be “a foreigner” in South Africa? How is life lived in the everyday? Are theoretical and nationalist stereotypes reproduced within the walls of suburban sprawls? What does it really mean to be from somewhere else? How do we root our routes and make home for ourselves?
Based on the main reason to produce the work that came from wanting to respond to the xenophobic attacks in South Africa I exhibited in public. For 8 months the work, printed on aluminium board, was installed on the Sea Point Promenade in Cape Town and had foot traffic of over 1000 people a day viewing it. Seeing the work up in a public space was definitely one of the most rewarding experiences of the project — as the everyday public can engage with the work. Secondly, the public program of the AVA exhibition which was developed by curator Brenton Maart to try and make the gallery space more accessible to a wider audience, and use the art as a tool for dialogue and interactive engagement. For this, I organised that a piece called Centre be performed for the public at the gallery. Centre is an ongoing collaboration between the Scalabrini Centre and performance artist Rosa Postle-Waithe, and the work reconsiders everyday encounters between people in the city and the difference between thinking about the city as a concept and the real life experiences of it. Through a frustrated striving for complete and ideal introductions, the performers explore clichés around “good” first impressions. The performance becomes all the more poignant as the performers are refugees, thus addressing the stereotypes, biases and tensions that mar daily social interactions of many marginalised individuals. After they performed the piece, members of the Kaos Pilots School from Denmark facilitated a world cafe styled discussion around the themes the piece evoked. It was very exciting to see the way the work from Soft Walls could be used in a multi-layered and more participatory approach than merely having it consumed by a “passive” audience engaging with it on gallery walls.
While some artists choose not to go this route, I am not a conceptual artist that aims to show work in a white cube gallery space. I work with real life and want the work to reach public spaces for broad engagement — whether online or in physical environments. My lived experiences have led me to firmly believe we need to talk to one another and actively listen. Of course there is a wide range of work shown in white cube gallery spaces that provokes activism, and deeper engagement about complex social issues — such as the unflinching long term practice of Zanele Muholi. Galleries in many countries, including South Africa are not accessible to a broader public due to the historical legacies of Apartheid spatial planning and lack of funding for new spaces to be built in more inclusive areas. Beyond physical challenges there is also the world online and the algorithm
determined silos we increasingly find ourselves in. Many conversations about divide occur from within plastic enclaves, flipped through on social media, leading to more division and less understanding. Online, there are new disasters every day. So many loud voices, and sometimes it feels like no one is listening. Everyone has their own soap box in their own cyber park. Yet amidst the noise, you encounter people with the courage to imagine possibility with nuance in the grey spaces. The need to do all this work has been influenced by growing didactic silos, that dominate the media and online space, further entrenching dichotomies. I hope that by showcasing dynamic and nuanced stories, deeper insight into other peoples lives can potentially transport you into a more meaningful space of empathy that moves beyond the exclusive nature of the white cube gallery space, spilling out onto the street and the messiness of everyday life.
This is why my husband/business partner Rowan Pybus and I started the non profit company Sunshine Cinema. Through our Sunbox Ambassador Network — that works with youth activists to host their own screenings on mini solar cinema kits (The Sunbox) we have held pop up mobile film screenings and hosted discussions in shipping containers, classrooms, churches, parking lots and community halls across Southern Africa of new African films such as I am Not a Witch, Inxeba: The Wound, Uprize, Winnie Mandela Documentary, Whispering Truth to Power, Strike a Rock, and Thank you for the Rain. There is a great lack of art spaces in South Africa, in lower income areas in particular. With hardly any independent cinemas most African films never get screened besides at exclusive and expensive film festivals in urban areas. This model focuses on celebrating African cinema in a country where the majority of local content does not get shown to local audiences — besides travelling to international film festivals and a few expensive cinemas before going to a streaming platform. Data and Internet access in South Africa are extremely expensive and inaccessible for the vast majority of the population. Media consumption patterns focus on local satellite television programs based on American narratives, using the free Facebook mode , twitter and pirated DVDs of international blockbuster films and Nollywood titles. We aim to provide an alternative distribution platform for African cinema to be seen by more diverse audiences to promote the industry and local stories, and we use the screenings as platforms for engagement to spark conversation about social justice issues ranging from LGBTQI rights, gender equality, land rights, and conservation. By creating these physical spaces using cinema , we aim to empower local audiences with access to new information provided by networks of grassroots activists — creating spaces for physical interaction, and conversation.
The last twelve months have been our most successful to date. 2018 started with a series of screenings funded by the Dutch organisation, Movies That Matter that supports human rights film festivals. We were able to host six large scale screenings at the beautifully designed community art centre Gugasthebe in Langa of a variety of incredible African films. Each screening was well attended (150 -250 people) with a diversity of audience members and the discussions led by experts like Mandela Rhodes Director Judy Sikuza , District Six Musuem curator Mandy Sanger and writer Sindiwe Magona were very powerful. 2018 also saw the launch of our regional Sunbox Ambassadorship program. In July 2018 we received a grant from Prince Claus, under their Next Generation Fund. Combined with generous support from The Bertha Foundation we developed our most ambitious project to date — The Ignite Your Rights project. We drove our solar mobile cinema from Cape Town to the Copperbelt in Zambia. In each of the five selected locations we launched the programme with a large scale screening of a selected new African film, and a training workshop for the Ambassadors and community activist organisations from the region. Since launching the Ambassadorship in these regions the Ambassadors have collectively hosted over 120 free screenings, reaching over 5000 direct audience members. Each week they organise a venue (community hall, pub, church, school) where they set up their mini solar cinema in a box and screen a contemporary local film. After the film they host a QnA with the audience about the key themes of the film and how they relate to the lived experiences of that community. Based on the key discussion points they then connect the audience with relevant social justice initiatives and helplines in the region to ensure people get resources out of the experience to affect positive social change.
A personally formative moment at a screening was when we screened John Trengove’s film Inxeba:The Wound to an audience of predominately Xhosa speaking urban youth in Langa township in Cape Town in September 2017. The film was deemed controversial and rated restrictively, at one stage classified as porn . The story focuses on a young male circumcision initiate into manhood who discovers that his male caregiver at the cultural Xhosa initiation camp is having a sexual relationship with one of the other caregivers. Xhosa circumcision practices are extremely sacred and secretive and it is taboo to represent them for a broader audience, and homosexual practices are discriminated against by more traditionalist views. At the screening we invited a queer traditional healer, a local circumcision surgeon, a traditional leader, and an LGBTQI activist to participate in a post screening discussions. Fearing that the evening would descend into a tense slinging match we made sure extra security was present at the screening. Yet no audience members left during the film, and stayed for the discussion — actively participating — airing diverse and very different views.
Young men took the mic and told the audience that the film reflected their experiences “going to the mountain”, while others were extremely offended that a white South African gay man was the director of the film about such a sacred ritual. People need to talk to one another face to face, across perceived lines of difference — so that integrative spaces of new kinds of community can be formed. Art — a fractured a mirror reflecting diverse lenses of the lived realities of society — needs to reach audiences. It can be used as a tool to think about a topic in a new way, from a more nuanced and subjective perspective. Creative thinking promotes going outside the comfort zone, outside the box, beyond the borders and the walls we have all formed that define us. Shake things up. Question the status quo. Its not about finding steadfast answers, its about having transformative conversations.
*Making Space essays were commissioned and written in 2019
About : Sydelle Willow Smith
Sydelle Willow Smith is a photographer/video director working across Africa focusing on memory, migration and identity. Her studies included courses at The Market Photo Workshop, an Honours Degree in Visual Anthropology at The University of Cape Town, and a Masters of Social Science in African Studies from The University of Oxford. Exhibiting globally, Smith was the first recipient of the Gisele Wulfsohn Mentorship for work on migration, and was a winner of the Africa Center Residency Award focusing on African migration to Spain. One of the most exciting features of her work is the extent to which it is accessible to public audiences experimenting with modes of public participation. It is within the context of public participation that she shines, and where she has drawn together her interests in media, anthropology, and socio-political interventions. Smith co-founded the solar powered mobile cinema initiative, Sunshine Cinema, in 2013.