Artists Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi and Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum on creative collaboration and friendship
Underpinning the Institute for Creative Arts’ 2019 iteration of their Great Texts/Big Questions series is the theme of ‘Imagining Futures’. This theme takes its inspiration from British-Ghanaian writer and theorist Kodwo Eshun’s essay Further Considerations on Afrofuturism. He writes: “It is clear that power now operates predictively as much as retrospectively.” The third lecture of the series which took place on March 7th, entitled ‘To consent not to be a single being’, embodied this. Artists Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi and Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum were in conversation about their friendship and in their creative collaboration. Having worked together over many years, they have forged a partnership connecting past and future in radical solidarity.
This was illustrated during the event by Nkosi and Sunstrum in their description of their ongoing collaboration over the years. Layers of friendship, professional partnership, and creative work were presented as a “sharing of strategies” to the audience. Their relationship started as a friendship, a mutual case of passionate “art-crushing”, as they shared a workplace in the legendary space of The Bag Factory in inner-city Johannesburg. They found in each other “a place to land” and moulded a unique friendship. Sunstrum described every friendship as a catalogue, a distinct culture developed between two people, one that is built through its idiosyncratic practices and its particular tongue. (An inside joke between Sunstrum and Nkosi: when being introduced to someone else by the other, they ask “are they a bunny?” Is this person kind, good?)
This collapsing of individuality that every friendship brings defies most expectations within the art world, in which the archetypal artist is a loner, never willing to share, probably if not most definitely arrogant. Instead, the beginning of Nkosi and Sunstrum’s professional partnership articulated the possibility of making the art world more friendly, more loving. Pooling their money together they began to share a tiny studio in which they set out to produce separate work. Reflecting on the early days of this additional dimension of their relationship, the artists recall with laughter that the first thing they decided to do in their new space was to have a photoshoot. They were photographed alongside each other – a far cry from the ubiquitous image of the solitary man in his studio. They were, boldly, “going parallel”. In 2013 they had their first collaborative show – as much a financial decision as an affirmation of their relationship. Titled ‘Before Being Asked by the Machine’ they showcased their own individual work housed in the same intimate gallery space. In this way, the work was meant to be read alone but also in conversation with the other work, a delicate gesture that emphasised their intention of holding their own as artists, together.
This professional partnership eventually led to joint creative work, most notably their project Disrupters: This is Disruptor X. The project arose during a residency in Bayreuth, Germany where they were invited as a team to make art that interacted with German questions regarding the archive, in particular, artefacts amassed over the course of brutal colonial conquest. Nkosi and Sunstrum decided they were not going to engage with the objects themselves. “We didn’t want to instrumentalise these objects even further, didn’t want to lend any authority to them further,” Sunstrum explains. Rather, they chose to interact with “the infrastructure of the archive instead” – manipulating and obstructing the physical tools of the archive and inserting them into their work as a means of destabilising the archive. Disrupters: This is Disruptor X was born, a survivor, a common ancestor, at the centre of the artists’ writing, or re-writing, of history. In a multimedia performance dubbed as an ‘anti-opera’, featuring replicas of items taken from the archive, they told the story of an imagined legend engaged in resistance, who, through a vision of her female ancestors, reaches her full, revolutionary potential.
This threading of past to present echoes the profound connection between Sunstrum and Nkosi. For Disrupters: This is Disruptor X, her foremothers become a life-line of wisdom and hope. Similarly, the same ethos is found in the life and work of the two artists. The artists’ relationship demonstrates the power of friendship, as an adamant refusal to obey the capitalist narrative of singular glory, as a “building of expectations for one another in a loving way”, as a witnessing that offers the space to scream “the system is crazy!” and a knowledge that you will be seen. The artists consider these tactics of survival in a relationship that works toward personal longevity – what Nkosi regarded as “becoming better at being alive”. The duo reminds us that some of the deepest love stories that exist are friendships. Friendship should not be seen as something supplementary, frivolous, or “bonus” to relationships that supposedly truly matter. Rather, solidarity with the past and solidarity moving forward into an imagined future should be seen as transformative, heralding the possibility of changing the modus operandi of the art world to one of care and cooperation.
Zahra Abba Omar