Writing Art History Since 2002

First Title

GugulectIve, a group of young artIsts based in the cape town township of Gugulethu
aim to foster creative interactions and debate in their community. By Gabi Ngcobo.

Conceptualised by Gugulective. Themba Tsotsi seated on collection of books.

Customarily, when a baby is born, a ceremony for the child’s naming is performed. This may explain why names seem to carry an almost supernatural power to capture and define identities. Names and labels play an important role in the struggles of marginalised people to assert themselves. For Gugulective, a collective of artists based in the Cape Town township of Gugulethu, historical naming of places and people represent a starting point for most of their artistic activities.

I took a Sunday off to visit the collective in Gugulethu and meet Ta Mlamli who has given the group a “home” in his shebeen, an informal drinking establishment called Kwa Mlami. My taxi ride to Gugulethu — this Nguni word means ‘our pride’ — was shared with people heading home from the city. There were also others who were en route to Mzoli’s, another popular shisanyama place (a braai and drinking spot) that seems to have replaced the culture of visiting malls, markets and churches on weekends. Later on I will also discover a hip-hop Park Jam Session where a group of more that 100 young people from different communities gather outside the Gugulethu Indoor Sport Complex most Sundays. It is clear that Gugulethu (or any other township for that matter) is no longer the margin it is purported to be.

During the taxi ride I pondered the meaning of names given to places. As people alerted the driver of their drop-off stops, I observed that every single location begins with the abbreviation “NY” followed by a number: my stop was in NY1. From the Gugulective members — Unathi Sigenu, Themba Tsotsi, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Ziphozenkosi Dayile, Dathini Mzayiya, Loyiso Qanya, Lonwabo Kilani, Khanyisile ‘Minto’ Mbongwa and Ta Mlamli — I later learn that “NY” is acronym for “Native Yard”, an apartheid residual. This identity of a place is important to the collective members as they are presently researching the recent street name changes in the area, names that nobody utilises, at least not yet.

Gugulective questions the consultative process and the financial resources exhausted on this venture and have plans to produce a documentary of their findings and activities. For the collective it is startling to see NY1 replaced by Biko Drive when the same street is in an appalling condition. They ask: “Thirty years after his assassination, what then does the legendary late Black Consciousness leader Steve Bantu Biko stand for currently?”

The collective’s artistic activities have a strong focus on the environment. They are contemporary and edgy in nature but do not aspire to erase or forget the atrocities of the past. With Gugulective, the political past that shaped them awaits to be re-enacted. They trace their narrative back to the forced removals of the 1950s, which have led to, and continue to underline the poverty and human decay that overwhelms their environment. That for most people shebeens represent recreational spaces is of utmost importance. Their use of a shebeen to hold meetings and exhibitions is aimed at activating the space (and other similar spaces) by using it for creative and positive approaches. They are also mindful of the fact that most shebeens are situated close to schools, Kwa Mlami no exception. Ta Mlamli’s place is only open in the evenings and has an age restriction of 23. A sober minded family- and businessman, Ta Mlamli is passionate about youth and sees his support of the collective as something that comes logically and is essential. That the shebeen is activated intellectually also adds value to his space; it becomes much more than a drinking place — it is a site where ideas are formulated and made real utilising literature, art, music and poetry.

On entering Kwa Mlamli one is confronted by a piece of writing on a concrete wall. It is from Bell Hooks’ 1990 essay, ‘Postmodern Blackness’, and reads; “… racism is perpetuated when blackness is associated solely with concrete gut level experience conceived either as opposing or having no connection to abstract thinking…”

This introduction to the space becomes integral to the reading of the collective’s activities, particularly in view of a recent review of the group’s activities, which placed emphasis on something I feel was intended for members of a different audience but used in ways that may

In his Artheat review, Robert Sloon focuses on an installation by Unathi Sigenu, a display of empty drink bottles. “In the middle of this devastation was a tiny, perfect replica of a Johnny Walker billboard, rewording the ad to say “KEEP ON DRINKING / JOHNNY WALKER IS A BLACK MAN” … Further on was another more exaggerated version of the sign, evoking a rapidly advancing state of drunkenness. A simple enough strategy and probably not nearly ‘serious’ enough for most people, but this work had me rooted to the spot. For a moment a mental picture of the sheer scale of the alcohol trade overcame me…”

In this way Sigenu’s work was easily turned into an almost murderous weapon. That nuances can be irresponsibly taken out of their context is telling of the dangers of spectatorship. It becomes important, therefore, to consider the environment in which the work is seen and to be sensitive about who the work was intended for before ascribing it with any meaning.

It is also important to note that, by nature, artists’ collectives aim to be independent from mainstream dialogues and aspire to become a new and challenging voice by breaking set rules, thus upsetting dialogues and facilitating transformations. As a black collective based in a township, Gugulective faces the dangers of spectatorship but that does not take away the dangers of self- absorption, which may easily lead to self- destruction. Having said that, it is clear that these young lions are learning to speak with the intention that, in future, accounts of their hunt will not always glorify the hunters.

Gabi Ngcobo is a Cape Town-based artist, curator and writer.

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